Germans debate the right to die: Adrian Bridge in Augsburg on the growing controversy over euthanasia

WHEN Wilhelm Schmitz decided he wanted to die, his main concern was that it should be over as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

A manic depressive for several years, he prepared the ground thoroughly, first by becoming a member of the Deutsche Gesselschaft fur Humanes Sterben (German Society for Humane Dying) and then by reading up on its 40 different suggestions for how best to commit suicide.

The one he selected was 'Combined method 2: sleeping tablets and bath water' and, in late March, on a day he knew his wife would be out, he finally put the plan into action.

Having read the society's brochure, Dignified and Responsible Dying, Mr Schmitz was confident that within 20 minutes of taking the tablets he would gently slide into unconsciousness and then into death. He decided to record the whole experience on video. So it was that thousands of Germans watching a news programme this month saw Mr Schmitz suffer horribly as he writhed and retched in the final minutes before drowning in his bath.

The society, and particularly its president, Hans Henning Atrott, are alleged to have provided misleading information about methods of dying, to have distributed literature to people who were mentally unbalanced and to have sold cyanide capsules and other lethal medication to willing victims at exorbitant prices.

'We have a lot of opponents,' Mr Atrott admitted in the business-like surroundings of the DGHS headquarters in Augsburg. 'The church condemns us on moral grounds and we are persecuted by fanatics. But we have a lot of supporters too. And we provide a very worthwhile service.'

Since its formation in November 1980, the society has witnessed a spectacular rise in membership, which stands at just over 60,000. In addition to its Augsburg base, it has opened regional offices in Berlin, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Stuttgart and it boasts a full-time staff of 22 with more than 100 voluntary helpers.

Mr Atrott is confident, moreover, that the society will continue to expand as more and more people exercise what he believes should be their inalienable right to determine exactly when - and how - they die.

'Our members are on the whole well-educated people who know exactly what they are doing when they come to us,' he insisted.

'They are people who have strived for a high quality of life and all they want is to have a similarly high quality death.'

Mr Atrott's conversion to the cause resulted from experiences in the 1970s working with helicopter rescue teams whose aim was to save the lives of people involved in severe road accidents.

'A lot of the people we saved were subsequently so badly maimed that they openly told us they would have preferred it if they had been left to die,' he said.

Despite unease in Germany over the whole concept of euthanasia (the word is not even used here), the society's membership, after a slow start, rocketed in the mid-1980s after a number of highly publicised suicide cases involving people either incurably ill or almost totally crippled following horrific accidents.

The actress Inge Meysel - referred to as the Mother of the Nation - and a surgeon, Professor Julius Hackethal, were just two of the prominent people who lent support to the DGHS and Mr Atrott, who overnight became something of a media star. Opinion polls showed that 70 per cent of the population agreed with the society's methods and philosophy.

But then questions began to be asked. Professor Hackethal, who had actually joined Mr Atrott in helping a cancer sufferer kill herself with cyanide in 1984, accused him two years later of charging people wanting to commit suicide hundreds of pounds for lethal doses of cyanide, which can be manufactured relatively easily at a minimal cost.

Swallowing cyanide is a particularly nasty way to die, involving suffocation and intense burning pains in the stomach that usually last some 15 minutes.

Although Professor Hackethal lost the court case, concern over Mr Atrott's methods grew and several founding members of the DGHS left the society.

Despite criminal investigations since, the German justice authorities have not pressed charges against Mr Atrott. Committing suicide is not a crime in Germany, nor is assisting someone to do it. However, helping people who are mentally unstable to kill themselves is an offence, as is selling cyanide.

A new investigation has been launched by the Munster state prosecutor's office into the suicide death of Klaus-Peter Rudorf, a notary, in July last year. Mr Rudorf, who mistakenly believed he had Aids and who was undergoing psychiatric treatment at the time, died after swallowing a cyanide capsule.

A former employee has claimed that Mr Atrott was involved in numerous illegal cyanide deals stretching over several years.

Her claims, like others concerning his methods, are dismissed with contempt by Mr Atrott, who alleges that all those prepared to give evidence against him are police spies who infiltrated his organisation. He denies, too, knowingly distributing the society's literature to mentally ill people, arguing that all would-be members have to sign a declaration of sanity before they are allowed to join.

Whatever the outcome of the Rudorf case, Mr Atrott argues that many mentally ill people are actually capable of taking a rational decision to end their lives - and that they should have the right to do so.

(Photograph omitted)

Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments