Nazi doctor linked to deaths of 772 children goes on trial

Heinrich Gross, a distinguished Austrian psychiatrist, is a frail old man who killed hundreds of children in his care and experimented with their brains for years afterwards. Today he will appear in a Vienna courtroom, belatedly charged with some of those crimes.

Dr Gross, 84, is unlikely to be convicted. Like so many of his forgetful compatriots, the scholar and forensic expert says he can no longer remember what he did during the Second World War. And as the Justice Ministry is now run by one of Jörg Haider's cronies, the court need not fear undue political pressure to get to the truth.

This will probably be the last Nazi trial in Austria, yet it will be a watershed. For, while lawyers may quibble about Dr Gross's role in the murder of 772 children, Austria has already been found guilty of turning a blind eye to his crimes.

The basic facts are beyond dispute. Dr Gross joined the Hitler Youth in 1932 and then the SA, forerunner of the SS. He supported the Nazi "euthanasia" programme calling forthe extermination of people deemed sub-standard.

A children's wing at Vienna's psychiatric clinic was dedicated to this. Dr Gross was one of the leading doctors. He examined patients, some no more than 10 days old, took photographs and categorised them.The documents were sent toBerlin and returned with some names marked with a plus sign. They were to be "treated". The treatment consisted of sleeping pills infood. Sometimes an injection would speed things up. The death certificates, 238 signed by Dr Gross, usually declared pneumonia as the cause.

None of this is new. Dr Gross was put on trial and sentenced to two years in prison exactly 50 years ago. But there were irregularities in the evidence and the verdict was overturned. Dr Gross might have been tried again, but in 1953 he joined the Socialist Party and suddenly no one was interested in punishing him. Nor were there objections to his dissecting the brains of the euthanasia victims he preserved in formaldehyde.

In 1981 he sued a group of anti-fascist doctors for libel and lost. Still, prosecutors argued he could no longer be prosecuted for manslaughter. Another two decades had to pass before the word "murder" appeared on the charge sheet. Key witnesses have come forward, and an important document incriminating Dr Gross has surfaced in Germany. Suddenly the doctor has, like Augusto Pinochet, been gripped by the early stages of dementia. His chances of recovery appear slim.

Comments