As far as dark tourist destinations are concerned, there’s few more harrowing than Hartheim Castle. During WWII it was a Euthanasia Centre, a secret Nazi killing facility, and part of the Aktion T4 program.
Here, German citizens tagged as mentally or physically unfit were killed using poison gas.
The program began as a form of involuntary euthanasia. A section of the law that allowed for the painless killing of incurably ill patients.
However, once in power, the Third Reich stretched the concept to include Jews, homosexuals, Communists, and other “undesirables”.
Records show that the Nazi administrators calculated how much money could be saved by killing those in society deemed unfit to contribute. In death, these people would no longer be a burden on state resources.
Concentration camp inmates unable to work were also executed within the castle walls.
As a precursor to the arrival of the “Final Solution”, many of the head doctors at Hartheim honed their trade at the castle, before perfecting their efficiency for mass killing inside the death camps.
History of Hartheim Castle
The present Hartheim castle in the municipality of Alkoven, near Linz, Austria, was built at the end of the 16th century. However, the remains of a previous construction on the site date from as early as the ninth century.
By the end of the 18th century, (1793) Princes of Starhemberg resided in Hartheim. It remained in the family line for over 100 years before being donated to the Landes wohltätigkeitsverein in Oberösterreich, in 1898.
From then, until the Nazis took over, it was a home for the physically and mentally handicapped.
Nazi killing Facility
Confiscated by the Nazis towards the end of 1939 the castle was quickly converted into an Action T4 euthanasia center, complete with a gas chamber and two crematoria.
The systematic murder of mentally ill patients took place immediately. The initial subjects were the original hospital residents.
Soon more and more undesirables were being shipped in.
Staff quarters were located on the upper floors, executions took place within the gas chamber on the ground floor.
Located next to the main courtyard, the chamber was disguised as a shower room. Upon arrival at the facility, victims were rounded up and escorted inside. With a capacity of 150 persons, it was an efficient method of disposal.
Victims entered the castle via a wooden annex on the western side. This was done so that current prisoners awaiting their fate did not see the arrival of them.
During the first month of operation in May 1940, 633 patients were gassed. The speed of the killing would rise exponentially as time went on, however.
To keep up with the demand for new arrivals, four large grey buses run by the Gekrat organization were used to ship the victims to the castle. The source of humans came from the local community and nearby concentration camps.
After each gassing, the chamber was opened up and staff would extract gold teeth from the corpses. The bodies were then loaded into the two large crematoria.
If any bones were evident in the ashes following cremation a bone mill was used to pulverize them into dust.
Once a week a lorry left the castle and dumped the ashes in the river Donau.
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Crimes not Unnoticed
Despite the Nazi’s efforts to keep events inside Hartheim a secret, the population close to the castle was aware that something sinister was taking place.
Smoke billowed from the castle within hours of a new busload of arrivals.
On days the breeze carried the acrid smog above the town of Hartheim, the stench of burnt flesh and hair filled the air, causing local residents to be physically sick.
And then there was the undeniable fact that busloads of people were arriving at the castle with very few ever leaving.
Rumors persisted. When pressed about the situation at Hartheim, the authorities stated that the burning was caused by contaminated oil.
Before long threats were issued against anyone speaking out. The Nazis were starting their journey along a path that would eventually lead to the wider death of some 6 million jews.
Number of Victims
The number of deaths at Hartheim has become a mere footnote when compared to the overall death toll that followed as a result of Nazi genocide attempts.
However, the numbers are still significant by any measure of the inhumane.
It is difficult to ascertain definitive figures as the staff at Hattheim destroyed almost all records after the site was abandoned.
That being said, by August 1941 it is believed the death toll could have been as high as 18,000.
A concerted push to deliver victims to the castle during the Sonderbehandlung 14f13 operation may have added a further 12,000 murders to the toll.
What is known is that Hartheim was the worst of the six T4 centers in terms of killing rates, with at least 30,000 souls ushered through the entrance, never to be seen again.
The last gassing at Hartheim took place on 11 December 1944. Soon after, inmates of the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp were brought in to dismantle and remove the gassing installations and crematoria.
Investigations after the war
Investigations into the former gassing facility at Hartheim took place in the immediate aftermath of WWII.
American investigating officer Charles Dameron discovered damning evidence after breaking into a steel safe.
Inside was a 39-page document with information on the Nazi euthanasia program, intended for internal purposes only.
It contained monthly statistics of the gassing of patients (labeled “disinfection”) taking place in the six T4 euthanasia facilities.
Also inside were calculations on the cost-saving implications of large scale disinfection. By murdering 70,273 people with a life expectancy of 10 years or less, the Reich could save food in the value of 141,775,573.80 Reichsmarks.
Hartheim Castle as a Memorial
After the war, US occupation authorities gave the castle back to the original owners and it became a facility to house refugees.
By 1960, a small memorial was built at the site, with plaques inside the courtyard.
Curiously, it wasn’t until the 1990s that a memorial befitting the level of atrocity that took place at Hartheim was commissioned. The government agreed to finance a dedicated exhibition and memorial center.
These were first opened to the public in 2003. Named, “Lern- und Gedenkort” (learning and remembrance), Hartheim is now an appropriate place of commemoration while providing information surrounding this dark chapter of German history.
Where is Hartheim Castle?
- Address: Schloßstraße 1, 4072 Alkoven, Austria
- Phone: +43 7274 6536546
Visiting Hartheim Castle Today
Entering the castle takes you through the courtyard where you will find memorial plaques commemorating victims of the Mauthausen and Dachau concentration camps.
Beyond this is a meditation room before you reach the main rooms that housed the gas chamber installation.
This area is obviously the main part of the exhibition. However, it makes sense to leave this for last. Entering the former chamber after learning about the history provided by the rest of the exhibition is recommended.
The expected order of viewing encourages you to enter the castle on the left side of the courtyard.
Inside here you will find a memorial installation located on the spot the arrival shed used to stand. Beyond this, you enter the first exhibition room.
In this part of the castle (consisting of three rooms), Hartheim’s role in the Nazi T4 program is the point of focus. It covers the backgrounds of the perpetrators, and homage is made to the known victims.
Photos and text make up the bulk of the exhibition with a few artifacts on display that were used while the castle was a killing facility, (asbestos gloves from the crematorium for example).
Personal effects belonging to some of the victims were found recently in the gardens and these are also on display.
Some information is displayed via audio/visual means. There is also an interactive computer station with copies of documents about the victims.
A lot of this is in German making it difficult for tourists to garner all the info put forward. There is enough in English to get the overall point, however.
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The former gas chamber
The rooms where the mass killings took place are extremely chilling, in the mere knowledge of what went on.
An elevated walkway leads you through these rooms which helps highlight the fact the floors are from the original chamber. Thousands of corpses once laid there.
The first “admission room” is where victims were made to undress and were photographed for the Nazi files. The second room is the main gas chamber.
Here is a simple glass display, bearing all the names of the known victims. In small, dense text thousands of names are listed. It is a harrowing indication as to the extent of the killing.
The exhibition also takes you through the rooms that housed the morgue and crematorium, (all equipment has long since been removed).
Empty, except for a single red candle and a bouquet of flowers, it is impossible not to be moved.
Wert des Lebens / Value of Life
On the first floor of the castle (in the former staff quarters) is another exhibition entitled Wert des Lebens.
This covers subjects such as eugenics in the early 20th century, modern ethical issues concerning biosciences and genetics, and changing attitudes towards and treatment of disabled people.
At the time of writing, however, there are no English translations in this area of the castle.
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I have an insatiable wanderlust for the extraordinary. Born with an adventurous spirit, I have spent over the past decade exploring the far reaches of our planet, seeking out the strange and mysterious.