Book reviews

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Chosen Ones (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Nazis and euthanasia zealots: same tactics, horrors, and struggle of life over death.

Every civil rights activist (i.e. right to lifer) should read Sem-Sandberg’s novelization of Friedrich Zawrel’s life in The Chosen Ones.  American pro-lifers, especially, will find that those who support medical killing (assisted suicide and euthanasia) in this twenty-first century are using the same tactics as the Nazis did in Austria in the 1940s.

A plot summary for this 559-page novel is relatively easy.  Adrian Ziegler, the fictional avatar of Zawrel, suffers in the Spiegelgrund facility in Vienna which was originally established for the care of disabled or severely-ill children.  When the Nazis conquered Austria, the purposes of the institution became decidedly eugenic; the children and youths sent there were euthanized since they did not meet the Nazi ideal of a eugenically perfect race.

However, reading this novel should not be merely a view into history, as though it is just a way to pass time during the Christmas break between academic terms.  The novel’s ideas are as relevant for those civil right activists who fight against medical killing today (in the forms of assisted suicide and euthanasia) as those who fought against Nazi eugenics in the 1940s.

Contemporary readers will be able to connect many Nazi ideas about race perfection with those who advocate assisted suicide and euthanasia for those whose lives are deemed less than perfect.  The children who came to Spiegelgrund were simply in dire medical or psychological straits.  Instead of treating their diseases, the Nazi system “treated” them by killing the patients themselves.  Does anybody not see how false this logic is?

Similarly, the euphemisms for the killing of the children resound in the speeches of today’s twenty-first century medical killers.  Everybody knows that dehumanization is an essential part of killing human beings.  Thus, Grandma in a nursing home is not Grandma, but a “vegetable”.  (How the beloved grandmother can suddenly become a zucchini is beyond me.)  Similarly, the children who were chosen to be killed at the Spiegelgrund facility are murdered “like you’d be killing rats” (292; italics in original not only to show these words as dialogue, but also to emphasize how dehumanizing they are).

People outside the institution knew what was going on inside.  Spiegelgrund was where “children get the injections” (290; italics in original)—not “injections” as in ordinary shots to cure them of their diseases, but coded language for the post-war correct identification that the children were “killed by lethal injection” (481).  This use of a euphemism to distort reality occurs several pages later when a child marked to “receive treatment” is rephrased in correct language to mean that “the child should be killed” (496).

Readers feel Adrian’s pain throughout the novel, not only the pain of physical suffering under the eugenicist Nazi doctors, but also the emotional pain of being falsely accused of immoral activity.  Adrian is accused of perpetrating homosexual acts on other children and even soliciting staff when he himself is the victim at the hands of a despotic pedophile (254-8).

It should be no surprise that one of the Nazi eugenicists, Dr. Jekelius, becomes an abortionist after the Soviet liberation of Austria from the Nazis.  Alluding to this other aspect of medical killing certainly makes the narrative consistent.  After all, if someone like Jekelius could murder children by euthanizing them, he can easily murder them while they are still in the womb.  When the body parts of the children murdered at Spiegelgrund (preserved for future medical research by one of the eugenicist doctors) are discovered years later, the scene reminds one of the infamous abortionist Gosnell, who kept body parts of the babies he aborted in his Philadelphia clinic (536-8).  Nazi doctors and eugenicists yesterday…assisted suicide and euthanasia supporters and abortionists today: nothing has changed, except for the passage of years.

It is interesting that none of the characters supporting and implementing the Nazi medical killing, like their twenty-first century counterparts, professes a religious belief.  The closest that one comes to a character who is familiar with religious language is Anna Katschenka, a nurse at the institution.  When “she prays, something she hasn’t done for a long time, to the God she is convinced has long since turned his back on mankind” (295), the intelligent reader recognizes her theological ignorance at once.  It is not God who has abandoned humanity, but humanity which has abandoned Him.

The novel could be just another incredibly sad reading experience were it not for a fact that Nazi eugenicist doctors and today’s medical killers (those severely educated people who think they know how we ordinary folk should live our lives—or die if they think we don’t meet their standards) fail to understand.  Adrian Ziegler’s life was worth living, and he succeeded years beyond the Spiegelgrund horrors, even though he was the son of a gypsy father and a mother whose employment and mode of living were useless to the Nazi war machine.  That Adrian Ziegler is just a fictionalized version of the much more successful Friedrich Zawrel—who lived to 2015, seventy years beyond the Nazi atrocities—is a further testament to the enduring respect for human life that today’s pro-life activism promotes.

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