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A Past Still Present: Opening Symposium

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A Past Still Present Series

‘Does the Nazi persecution and murder of people with disability in the mid-twentieth century continue to echo in the present day?’

The Nazi killing of around 300,000 people with disability or chronic illness was rooted in a longer history of eugenic ideas. Today, there is debate about whether, or to what extent, these ideas were dismissed after the end of World War II or alternatively still influence attitudes to people with disability, including in the form of a covert (and sometimes overt) reluctance to recognise the human rights of people with disability.

Opening symposium: Scientific racism and the Krankenmorde history

Join us at UNSW and online to hear from Dr Darren O’Brien about the roots of scientific racism and from Associate Professor Michael Robertson (University of Sydney) about the history of the Krankenmorde, followed by a panel discussion featuring other speakers from the series.

Measured, segregated, annihilated. Scientific racism, eugenics and the essence of de homine perfecto from Paul Broca to Karl Brandt, William Lanne to Suse Feuerstein. The scientific endeavours of European and American academics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became a central component in the development of global theories of human worthiness and unworthiness. Under National Socialism especially, theory was replaced with practice in the extreme. With the sanction of a totalitarian regime, German scientists, lawyers, doctors and nurses ultimately determined the fate - existence or non-existence - of predefined groups of millions of people. This paper explores this history.

Dr Darren O’Brien is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland; Adjunct Lecturer, The University of Sydney Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery; Chair of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Director of the Australian Stumbling Stones project and Director, Respiratory and Sleep Sciences, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. He has been teaching, researching and writing in the field of Holocaust and comparative genocide studies for thirty years.

Beyond Godwin’s law - the importance of the krankenmorde for contemporary bioethics. The persecution and attempted elimination of Germans with illness and disabilities was, ultimately, an extreme manifestation of ableism emerging from early 20th Century eugenic and racial discourses. In this presentation, I will attempt to move beyond simplistic pre-theoretical commitments to not repeat “what the Nazis did” (Godwin’s law) and approach present day bioethical quandaries through a more sophisticated understanding of the legacy of the krankenmorde. Applying the theoretical structure of Foucauldian biopolitics/biopower, I will seek to frame current discourses of reproductive rights, disability rights and assisted dying as a means of identifying present day continuities in bioethics with the Nazi project.

Associate Professor Michael Robertson is a Clinical Associate Professor of Mental Health Ethics at Sydney Health Ethics and a visiting Professorial Fellow at the Sydney Jewish Museum. He is an Approved Medical Specialist for the NSW Worker's Compensation Commission. His clinical work is in Occupational Psychiatry and Civil Forensic Psychiatry. He had worked previously in acute adult and community psychiatry for 20 years and had been a previous Head of Department of Psychiatry at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He has previously coordinated a clinical service for survivors of psychological trauma.

Live Event & Venue

The John Niland Scientia Building is located at UNSW Sydney's Kensington Campus (G19 on map).

This event will be livestreamed.

Visitor Safety Information

The health and safety of our patrons is our top priority, and this event will abide by the Public Health Order prevailing at the time. Please follow our conditions of entry, and check back here for updated information prior to the event.

  • Do not attend the event if you feel unwell, have recently experienced any cold or flu-like symptoms or are awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.
  • Face masks are recommended.


Wheelchair Accessible

The John Niland Scientia Building is located at UNSW Sydney's Kensington Campus (G19 on map). The closest accessible drop off point to the Scientia Building is the east entrance (F22 on map). Vehicles need to arrive via Gate 11 on Botany Street. The closest accessible parking is available in the Botany Street Parking Station (H23 on map).

Assisted Listening

Assisted listening like hearing loop can be provided upon request.

Auslan & Captioning

Auslan interpretation and captioning will be provided.

Parking & Public Transport

UNSW is easily accessible via public transport. Call the Transport Infoline on 131 500 or visit

Paid casual and visitor parking is offered via the CellOPark App and ‘pay by plate meters’. For more information head here.

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