The Discovery Channel recently aired "Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich," a documentary on some films found in archives after German reunification. The Nazis had a public relations problem: they wanted to exterminate weaker members of society, but Lutheran Germany had a history of compassion toward the old, the infirm, and the mentally ill. In order to change public perception, the Nazis hired some of Germany's best filmmakers.

I watched the Nazi films with chilled fascination. Certain qualities-the narrator's "objective scientist" voice, the soothing, classical soundtrack, the follow-the-dot reasoning-reminded me of a fifth-grade science film. A hunter strides through the Black Forest. "Nature runs by fixed laws," says the narrator. "The fox catches the weak rabbit, and the hunter shoots the weak deer."

Any realities that challenged the film's message-Don't hunters go after strong deer with big racks?-were glossed over. This was Nazi propaganda, not pure science. Next the film showed patients at Hadamar, a facility for the mentally disturbed. Klieg lights aimed at unnatural angles made the patients look ominous, their faces angular and deeply shadowed, their eyes wild.

Shift to a bureaucrat displaying budget graphs. It takes 100,000 Deutschmarks to keep one of these defectives alive, he explains-money badly needed by the Fatherland. We should follow the example of nature and allow the weak to die.

Another film, The Accused, presented the same message in a drama. For the starring role, the director shrewdly cast the actor who read the Nativity story over German radio each Christmas. The film shows him and his beautiful wife playing in a string trio. Inexplicably, the wife starts hitting wrong notes on the piano. She stares at her hands, shakes her head, and runs from the room.

The wife learns she has contracted multiple sclerosis. She sinks into depression. Finally, the husband and wife together decide there is no need to prolong a miserable life. They carry out her assisted suicide.

The Accused ends in a court scene, with the actor giving an impassioned defense of the higher law he obeyed, the law of nature. Germany released this film in 1939, as lawmakers were debating euthanasia.

In an extraordinary coincidence, "Selling Murder" aired on TV the week after an episode of the news program 20/20, in which a camera crew followed a Dutch family through the stages of their choice for physician-assisted suicide, now widely practiced in the Netherlands.

The man-this time a real patient, not an actor-had ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. A degenerative nerve disease, ALS causes paralysis of the limbs and then the muscles that allow speaking and, finally, breathing. Until the very end, the Dutchman could still communicate. His wife understood most of the grunts and squeaks that came from his damaged vocal cords. Failing that, he could point to letters on a board and spell out words.

Discreetly positioned behind the patient's bed, the 20/20 cameras filmed the last few seconds of his life. A doctor injected a toxic solution; the man's breathing slowed, and then stopped. His wife held his hand. She kept looking at the doctor, as if seeking reassurance. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" the doctor said. He meant it as a statement, a comment on the pain-free ending, but it came out more as a question, a haunting question.

If I had seen only the 20/20 episode and not watched the Discovery Channel the next week, the scene might have passed quickly from my mind. We can hardly control what goes on around the world. The Dutch also distribute free narcotics; the Chinese mandate abortion for "defective" fetuses. I hear these things, I shake my head, and I retreat to worry about issues closer to home.

The Nazi propaganda films, though, drove the issue home for me. In a world that denies God, and that has no coherent view of what constitutes a human life, should it surprise us that human beings are again claiming for themselves the right to control death?

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said the Dutch doctor on 20/20. That is also the strident message of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and many others today. Death is natural, a desirable state for the infirm, the defective, the weak. A few weeks after these documentaries, a regional newsletter of Mensa, the organization for people with high IQs, published an article proposing the elimination of undesirables, including the retarded and the homeless.

Selling Murder" ended with a surprising twist. Despite their slick films and other attempts to sway public opinion, the Nazis failed to exterminate the physically and mentally disabled. Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals they murdered virtually without protest; the disabled, they had to let live.

Why? The change in Nazi policy traces back to one brave woman, a Christian nurse who worked at Hadamar. When the facility was converted into a gas chamber, she could not keep silent. She documented the facts and reported them to her bishop, who released them to the public. The resulting outcry from the church forced the Nazis to back down. Perhaps her courage can serve as a prophetic model for Christians today.


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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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