Source: Two entries in late 1940 in William Shirer's Berlin diary.
Comment: Written or prepared for publication in early 1941 it must represent one of the earliest descriptions of "Mercy Killings" in the Allied public sphere. Quite accurate in identification of 3 of the 6 major locations, but not accurate at all in his description of the genesis of the scheme.
Berlin, September 21 1940
X came up to my room in the Adlon to-day, and after we had disconnected my telephone and made sure that no one as listening through the crack of the door to the next room he told me a weird story. He says the Gestapo is now systematically bumping off the mentally deficient people of the Reich. The Nazis call them "mercy deaths". He relates that Pastor Bodelschwingh, who runs a large hospital for various kinds of feeble-mined children at Bethel was ordered to be arrested a few days ago because he refused to deliver up some of his more serious mental cases to the secret police. Shortly after this, his hospital is bombed. By the "British". Must look into this story.
Berlin, November 25 1940
I have at last got to the bottom of these "mercy killings". It's an evil tale.
The Gestapo, with the knowledge and approval of the German government, is systematically putting to death the mentally deficient population of the Reich. How many have been executed probably only Himmler and a handful of Nazi chieftains know. A conservative and trustworthy German tells me he estimates the number at a hundred thousand. I think that figure is too high. But certain it is that the figure runs into the thousands and is going up every day.
The origin of this peculiar Nazi practice goes back to last summer after the fall of France, when certain radical Nazis put the idea up to Hitler. At first it was planned to have the Fuehrer issue a decree of law authorizing the putting to death of certain persons found mentally deficient. But it was decided that this might be misunderstood if it leaked out and be personally embarrassing to Hitler. In the end Hitler simply wrote a letter to the secret-police administration and the health authorities authorizing the Gnadenstoss (coup de grace) in certain instances where persons were proved to be suffering from incurable mental or nervous diseases. Philipp Bouhler, state secretary in the Chancellery, is said to have acted as intermediary between Hitler and the Nazi extremists in working out this solution.
At this point Bethel, already mentioned in these notes creeps into the story. Dr. Friedrich von Bodelschwingh is a Protestant pastor, beloved by Catholics and Protestants alike in western Germany. At Bethel,as I have noted down previously, is his asylum for mentally deficient children. Germans tell me it is a model institution of its kind, known all over the civilized world. Late last summer, it seems, Pastor von Bodelschwingh was asked to deliver up certain of his worst cases to the authorities. Apparently he got wind of what was in store for them. He refused. The authorities insisted. Pastor von Bodelschwingh hurried to Berlin to protest. He got in touch with a famous Berlin surgeon, a personal friend of Hitler's. The surgeon, refusing to believe the story, rushed to the Chacellery. The Fuehrer said nothing could be done. The two men then went to Franz Guertner, Minister of Justice. Guertner seemed more troubled at the fact that the killings were being carried out without benefit of a written law than that they were being carried out. However, he did agree to complain to Hitler about the matter.
Pastor von Bodelschwingh returned to Bethel. The local Gauleiter ordered him to turn over some of his inmates. Again he refused. Berlin then ordered his arrest. This time the Gauleiter protested. The pastor was the most popular man in his province. To arrest him in the middle of war would stir up a whole world of unnecessary trouble. He himself declined to arrest the man. Let the Gestapo take the responsibility; he wouldn't. This was just before the night of September 18. The bombing of the Bethel asylum followed. Now I understand why a few people wondered as to who dropped the bombs.
Of late some of my spies in the provinces have called my attention to some rather peculiar death notices in the provincial newspapers. (In Germany the custom among all classes is to insert a small paid advertisement in the newspapers when a death occurs, giving the date and cause of death, age of the deceased, and time and place of burial.) But these notices have a strange ring to them, and the place of death is always given as one of three spots: 1) Grafeneck, a lonely castle situated near Muenzingen, sixty miles south-east of Stuttgart; 2) Hartheim, near Linz on the Danube; 3) the Sonnenstein Public Medical and Nursing Institute at Pirna, near Dresden.
Now, these are the very three places named to me by Germans as the chief headquarters for the "mercy killings".
I am also informed that the relatives of the unfortunate victims, when they get the ashes back - they are never given the bodies - receive a stern warning from the secret police not to demand explanations and not to "spread false rumours". These provincial death notices therefore take on more meaning than they might otherwise. I will note down here some typical ones, changing the names, dates, and places, for obvious reasons.
Leipziger Neuste Nachrichten, October 26: "JOHANN DIETRICH, FRONT SOLDIER 1914-1918, HOLDER OF SEVERAL WAR DECORATIONS, BORN JUNE 1 1881, DECEASED SEPTEMBER 23, 1940. AFTER WEEKS OF UNCERTAINTY, I RECEIVED THE UNBELIEVABLE NEWS OF HIS SUDDEN DEATH AND CREMATION AT GRAFENECK IN WUERTTEMBERG."
From the same paper in October: "AFTER WEEKS OF UNCERTAINTY, THE INTERMENT OF MY BELOVED SON, HANS, WHO DIED SUDDENLY ON SEPTEMBER 17 AT PIRNA, WILL TAKE PLACE ON OCTOBER 10."
Again: "WE HAVE RECEIVED THE UNBELIEVABLE NEWS THAT MY MOST BELOVED SON, THE ENGINEER RUDOLF MUELLER, DIED SUDDENLY AND UNEXPECTEDLY NEAR LINZ-ON-THE-DANUBE. THE CREMATION TOOK PLACE THERE."
Another: "AFTER THE CREMATION HAD TAKEN PLACE WE RECEIVED FROndM GRAFENECK THE SAD NEWS OF THE SUDDEN DEATH OF OUR BELOVED SON AND BROTHER, OSKAR RIED, INTERMENT OF THE URN WILL TAKE PLACE PRIVATELY AT X CEMETERY UPON ITS RECEIPT."
And: "AFTER WEEKS OF ANXIOUS UNCERTAINTY WE RECEIVED THE SHOCKING NEWS ON SEPTEMBER 18 THAT OUR BELOVED MARIANNE DIED OF GRIPPE ON SEPTEMBER 15 AT PIRNA. THE CREMATION TOOK PLACE THERE. NOW THAT THE URN HAS BEEN RECEIVED, THE BURIAL WILL TAKE PLACE PRIVATELY ON HOME SOIL."
The last notice is signed October 5, indicating that the authorities delayed three weeks in delivering the ashes. Twenty four such advertisements, I'm informed, appeared in the Leipzig papers the first fortnight of last month.
I am struck in the second from the last of these notices by the expression: "After the cremation had taken place, we received the sad news of the sudden death....." Struck too by the expression used in the first two: "after weeks of uncertainty" came "sudden death"; and by the use of the words: "inbelievable news".
No wonder that to Germans used to reading between the lines of their heavily censored newspapers, these notices have sounded highly suspicious. Does sudden death come naturally after "weeks of uncertainty"? And why are the bodies cremated first and the relatives told of the deaths later? Why are they cremated at all? Why aren't the bodies shipped home, as is usually done?
A few days ago I saw the form letter which the families of the victims receive. It reads:
"We regret to inform you that your ---------, who was recently transferred to our institution by ministerial order, unexpectedly died on ---------- of ---------. All our medical efforts were unfortunately without avail.
"In view of the nature of his serious, incurable ailment, his death, which saved him from a lifelong institutional sojourn, is to be regard merely as a release.
"Because of the danger of contagion existing here, we were forced by order of the police to have the deceased cremated at once."
This is hardly a reassuring letter, even for the most gullible of Germans, and some of them, upon its receipt, have journeyed down to the lonely castle at Grafeneck, it seems, to make a few inquiries. They have found the castle guarded by black-coated SS men who denied them entrance. Newly painted signs on all roads and paths leading into the desolate gorunds warned : "Seuchengefar!" ("Keep away! Danger of Pestilence!") Frightened peasants near by have told them how the SS suddenly took over and threw a cordon around the estate. They told of seeing trucks thundering into the castle grounds - but only at night. Grafeneck, they said, had never been used as a hospital before.
Other relatives, I'm told, have demanded details from the establishment at Hartheim, near Linz. They have been told to desist, and that if they talk severe punishment will be meted out. Some of them obviously have taken their courage in their hands to publish these death notices, no doubt hoping to attract public attention to the murderous business. The Gestapo, I hear, has now forbidden publication of such notices, just as Hitler, after the heavy naval losses in Norway, forbade the relatives of drowned sailors to publish notices.
X, a German, told me yesterday that relatives are rushing to get their kin out of private asylums and out of the clutches of the authorities. He says the Gestapo is doing to death persons who are merely suffering temporary derangement or just plain nervous breakdown.
What is still unclear to me is the motive for these murders. Germans themselves advance three:
1. That they are being carried out to save food.
2. That they are done for the purpose of experimenting with new poison gases and death rays.
3. That they are simply the result of the extreme Nazis deciding to carry out their eugenic and sociological ideas.
The first motive is obviously absurd, since the death of 100,000 persons will not save much food for a nation of 80,000,000. Besides, there is no acute food shortage in Germany. The second motive is possible, though I doubt it. Poison gases may have been used in putting these unfortunates out of the way, but if so, the experimentation was only incidental. Many Germans I have talked to think that some new gas which disfigures the body has been used, and that this is the reason why the remains of the victims have been cremated. But I can get no real evidence of this.
The third motive seems most likely to me. For years a group of radical Nazi sociologists who were instrumental in putting through the Reich's sterilization laws have pressed for a national policy of eliminating the mentally unfit. They say they have disciples among many sociologists in other lands, and perhaps they have. Paragraph two of the form letter sent the relatives plainly bears the stamp of this sociological thinking: "In view of the nature of his serious incurable ailment, his death, which saved him from a lifelong institutional sojourn, is to be regarded merely as a release."
Some suggest a fourth motive. They say the Nazis calculate that for every three or four institutional cases, there must be one healthy German to look after them. This takes several thousand good Germans away from more profitable employment. If the insane are killed off, it is further argued by the Nazis, there will be plenty of hospital space for the war wounded should the war be prolonged and large casualties occur.
It's a Nazi, messy buiness.
 On December 6, 1940, the Vatican condemned the "mercy killings." Responding to the question whether it is illicit for authorities to order the killing of those who, although they have committed no crime worthy of death, nevertheless are considered no longer useful to society or the state because of physical or mental deficiencies, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office held that "such killings are contrary to both natural and divine law." It is doubtful if the mass of German Catholics, even if they learned of this statement from Rome, which is improbable, understood what it referred to. Only a minority in Germany know of the "mercy deaths"
Text 2: The Montreal Beacon: Sept 26 1941
Mentally Deficient Systematically Put to Death in Germany
[Direct quote from above text]
Those Bombs on Bethel
Shirer also suggests that the famous case of the bombing of the Bethel Asylum may have been a reprisal on the part of the German authorities against Pastor von Bodelschwingh, head of the asylum, who is stated to have refused to hand over patients to the authorities for "mercy killing."
In its issue of May 2 the Catholic Herald reported a sermon by the pastor, which was very far indeed from giving the impression that he himself had the slightest suspicion of any such origin of the bombs.