August 18, 1991 --- Soviet hard-liners launch coup against Gorbachev
On this day in 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is placed under house arrest during a coup by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.
Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system. Combining perestroika(“restructuring”) of the economy–including a greater emphasis on free-market policies–and glasnost (“openness”) in diplomacy, he greatly improved Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States.
Meanwhile, though, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics, including conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials who thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power. On the other side were even more radical reformers–particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia–who complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.
The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.
Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a “new reign of terror.” The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.
August 18, 1941 --- Hitler suspends euthanasia program
On this day in 1941, Adolf Hitler orders that the systematic murder of the mentally ill and handicapped be brought to an end because of protests within Germany.
In 1939, Dr. Viktor Brack, head of Hitler’s Euthanasia Department, oversaw the creation of the T.4 program, which began as the systematic killing of children deemed “mentally defective.” Children were transported from all over Germany to a Special Psychiatric Youth Department and killed.
Later, certain criteria were established for non-Jewish children. They had to be “certified” mentally ill, schizophrenic, or incapable of working for one reason or another. Jewish children already in mental hospitals, whatever the reason or whatever the prognosis, were automatically to be subject to the program. The victims were either injected with lethal substances or were led to “showers” where the children sat as gas flooded the room through water pipes. The program was then expanded to adults.
It wasn’t long before protests began mounting within Germany, especially by doctors and clergy. Some had the courage to write Hitler directly and describe the T.4 program as “barbaric”; others circulated their opinions more discreetly. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the man who would direct the systematic extermination of European Jewry, had only one regret: that the SS had not been put in charge of the whole affair. “We know how to deal with it correctly, without causing useless uproar among the people.”
Finally, in 1941, Bishop Count Clemens von Galen denounced the euthanasia program from his pulpit. Hitler did not need such publicity. He ordered the program suspended, at least in Germany. But 50,000 people had already fallen victim to it.
And that’s your day in History. In case you didn’t know, at least, now you know.