Pioneering the Paralympics: From persecution to progression

Four decades before it was destroyed by the Holocaust before its buildings were burnt to the ground and replaced with acres of barbed wire, the city of Chorzów, Poland was home to an unassuming man who would soon inspire social acceptance and celebration of the disabled for ages to come.

It was in the small town of Königshütte that Ludwig Guttmann first dabbled in the field of medicine. At the age of 18, Guttmann was volunteering in a local hospital for coal miners when he came across a patient who fascinated him. The patient was a coal miner with a broken back who was only expected to live for 3 months. Guttmann remarks in his memoirs that “it was the picture of that young man which remained indelibly fixed in my memory,” inspiring him to pursue neurology and earn a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Freiburg. Guttmann accelerated through the ranks of his local hospital and by 1933 was renowned as Germany’s top neurosurgeon.

However, with Adolf Hitler securing the position of Chancellor of Germany and the escalating Nazi influence driving the German people to xenophobic brutality, Guttmann and his publicly Jewish family were in serious danger. In April-June 1933, Germany’s inhabitants witnessed some of the most exhaustive antisemitic legislation due to Hitler’s totalitarian process of Gleichschaltung (Nazification). The systematic targeting of people based on their religion, ethnicity, political ideologies, sexual orientation, and health was escalating and danger was inevitable.

Chief among Guttmann’s concerns was the ban on all Jewish and female doctors in the workplace. Replaced by the National Socialist German Medical Association (NSDÄB), Guttmann was forced to resign from his position and subsequently became the director of a Jewish hospital in Breslau.

On the night of 9 November 1938, Kristallnacht, a pogrom sanctioned by the Nazi’s paramilitary, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Jews and the transfer of an additional 30,000 to concentration camps. Throwing away all self-preservation, Guttmann knew it was time to act and save whoever he could by telling his staff to admit anyone and everyone to his hospital. Guttmann was fully aware of the life-threatening consequences his actions but he accepted his ultimate fate, writing in his memoirs that he prepared himself for detainment by “donn[ing] boots and a coat before setting off to the hospital the next morning.” 

Indeed, Guttmann was correct in assuming his actions wouldn’t go unnoticed. As recalled by his daughter, Eva Loeffler, the “Gestapo came to see my father, wanting to know why so many admissions had happened overnight.” Guttmann obligingly answered their questions, taking the officers on a tour of the hospital wing “from bed to bed” all the while “justifying each man’s medical condition.” Of the 64 patients admitted during Kristallnacht, only four were deported to labour camps. Guttmann willfully tied the noose around his neck to protect his people from persecution.

This was just the beginning of the rise of the Third Reich, and Guttmann’s entire family was depending on him. If he continued to operate under Nazi dictatorship, their arrest and possible deportation would be inevitable. Yet, along with being arrested, deported, and barred from unionised medical practice, Jews were no longer considered German citizens. Therefore, Guttmann’s passport and those of his family had been destroyed. They were stranded, and war was imminent. 

Miraculously, however, in December 1938, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich’s new Foreign Minister, instructed Guttmann to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, in an effort to align Germany with Portugal during the war. Guttmann obliged and was permitted a two-day stay in England on his return. However, once he was provided with a visa, Guttman contacted the Council for At-Risk Academics and fled with his family to Oxford, England where they took asylum. 

Gradually, along with many other displaced Jews, England was transformed from an urgent sanctum from Nazi persecution to a new home. 

Yet, the Guttmann story doesn’t end here. In fact, for many, it only begins on British soil. Now that Ludwig Guttmann had the advantage of being an equal member of society, he fully embraced every opportunity. After witnessing the deplorable treatment of disabled soldiers and paraplegics, who had an overall mortality rate of 80 per cent in the First World War and an average of 3 months to live after injury, Guttmann set his mind to innovating a philosophy of rehabilitation through physiotherapy. 

Guttmann proposed his sports-based rehabilitation plan to the Medical Research Council of England and was quickly commissioned as the director at the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. 

In an interview with The Independent in 2012, his daughter Eva once again reflected on her father’s fight for the acceptance of sports therapy, saying, “patients thought he was dreadful, nurses thought his ideas were dreadful, and other doctors thought he was mad. He had to fight for everything – but because he succeeded, you see the change in everybody.” 

On 28 July 1948, on the same day as the London Summer Olympics, Guttmann organised the world’s first games for disabled persons, in the courtyard of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Eva remembers helping out by “pulling the arrows out of the archery butts and picking up the ball during table tennis matches.”

These games, founded to help patients regain physical skills and confidence, slowly grew to include international competitors by 1952. Later on, the International Olympic Committee recognised Guttmann with the Sir Thomas Fearnley Cup. This paved the way for the first official Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960 and the creation of the British Sports Association for the Disabled. Guttmann was finally recognised for his work in the medical field when he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and Associate Officer of the Venerable Order of Saint John. He was also awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Guttmann’s efforts in the fields of physiotherapy and paraplegic rehabilitation were incredibly progressive and they pushed for acceptance of disabled persons just a few years after they would have been targeted and executed. He consciously sought to end the eugenics movement, not only by restoring the confidence of disabled persons traumatized by the Second World War through sport but by celebrating their disabilities as strengths on an international scale.

22 November – 22 December marks Disability History Month. This is a time to reflect on how much progress has been made to represent people with disabilities and how this cause can be promoted today. Ludwig Guttmann’s defiant altruism is only one of the countless inspiring, yet overlooked stories that need to be heard, not just this month, but forever. 

 

Image: Australian Paralympic Commitee via Wikimedia Commons

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