Austria announced plans to exhume graves containing the remains of 220 suspected victims of Nazi Germany's infamous euthanasia programme yesterday after building workers unearthed a mass of human bones in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital.
The discovery of what are thought to be some of the last hidden graves containing the remains of the tens of thousands of mentally and physically disabled people murdered by the Nazis, was made by workers digging up a yard in the grounds of a hospital in Hall, in the Austrian Tyrol, on Monday.
Officials were shocked by the discovery. Tyrol's governor, Günther Platter, said he was "deeply shaken" and pledged to set up a commission of experts to investigate. "There can be no cover-up. This dark chapter in our history must now be thoroughly examined," he said.
Tilak, the state-owned construction firm whose workers stumbled across the remains, said an initial examination of the graves by experts had established that they contained the remains of people buried between 1942 and 1945. "There are suspicions that the dead were at least partially victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme," the company said in a statement.
The hidden graveyard was discovered close to the psychiatric department of the hospital in Hall, where no recent digging work had been undertaken. All construction work was halted yesterday to allow the investigation to be carried out. "We owe this to the victims and their relatives," Mr Platter said. He said the exhumation of the remains would start in March to give the frozen ground time to thaw.
Historians said the graves were located in a former hospital cemetery that had been abandoned after the Second World War.
It had been previously assumed that Schloss Hartheim – a psychiatric clinic near Linz where 30,000 patients were murdered – was the only hospital in Austria to practise euthanasia.
Nazi Germany launched its euthanasia project in 1939 in an attempt to rid the so-called Master Race of those deemed "unworthy of life". An estimated 275,000 men, women and children with mental or physical disabilities were systematically murdered under the programme. Several euthanasia practitioners went on to run Nazi death camps.
The project had its headquarters in Berlin's Charitable Foundation for Cure and Institutional Care and was run by Philipp Bouhler, the head of Adolf Hitler's private Chancellery, and Dr Karl Brandt, the Nazi leader's personal physician.
Doctors, midwives and nurses throughout the Third Reich were compelled to inform the authorities of all newborn children displaying the symptoms of severe disabilities or hereditary diseases. Thousands of handicapped adults and children were held in psychiatric clinics, where they were murdered by staff, who either starved their charges to death or injected them with poison. Relatives then received letters of condolence, faked death certificates and urns containing the victims' ashes.