Physikalische Medizin, Rehabilitationsmedizin, Kurortmedizin 2015; 25 - IS27
DOI: 10.1055/s-0035-1554839

“Smash the Crutches” – Images of Disability and the Physiognomic Temptation of Education

O Musenberg 1
  • 1Humboldt University Berlin, Berlin, DE

The German pedagoge Hans Würtz (1875 – 1958) became in 1911 the education director at the “Berlin-Brandenburgische Krüppel-Heil- und Erziehungsanstalt” (“Berlin-Brandenburg Home for Cripples”) in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The institution expanded, moved to Berlin-Dahlem and became under the name Oskar-Helene-Heim (Oskar-Helene-Home) a “model institution” in Germany and Europe providing medical care and education for “crippled” children and adults (Osten 2004). Next to his duties concerning the institution's education department Würtz became a collector extraordinaire. He amassed material with the same passion (if not finance and scale) as Augustus Pitt Rivers and Henry Wellcome. He was, unlike Wellcome or Rivers, unfortunate to be a collector at the same time as the Nazi rise to power in Berlin, to which he and his collection ultimately became a victim, leading to the loss and break up of one of the largest archives of its type. The collection comprises lithographic prints, engravings, drawings and paintings portraying individuals with disabilities, novels featuring disabled protagonists, e.g. Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and pieces of sculpture (bronze, ivory, china, wood).

Socrates, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich the Great, Vasco da Gama, Leonardo da Vinci. What have these philosophers, politicians, poets, writers, discoverers, artists in common? They are all on the list of the “crippled and mutilated”, which can be found in a book entitled “Smash the Crutches” by Hans Würtz (1875 – 1958). Published in 1932, this book reads partly like a Who's Who in European history of arts and humanities; at the same time, it is an inventory of the vast collection of images and sculptures of “cripples” assembled by Würtz. He based his explorations on new categories for various forms of deviations from the norm: “Below-and above-average height” (Wuchskrüppel), “disproportion” (Misswuchskrüppel), “disfigurement” (Andeutungskrüppel) and “ugliness” (Hässlichkeitskrüppel). These different types were connected with specific psychological dispositions (“Soul of the Cripple”) and led to a physiognomic concept of special education (see Fuchs 2001 and Musenberg 2002). The today slightly strange categories Würtz distilled mainly from literary and biographical narratives: “My collection tries to open the door a bit wider to the realm of cripples. It should mainly serve as an impulse for recruiting employees. History teachers, literary and religion historians, art researchers, philosophers, psychologists, educators, poets, playwrights and novelists can, each with their own contribution, attempt to solve the immensely important questions related to cripples in joint investigation” (Würtz 1932, 73). Würtz hoped for an interdisciplinary “solution of questions related to cripples” and tried to reveal, to a certain extent, the “truth about cripples”, while contemporary cultural and scientific statements refer to, for instance, Michel Foucault and deal with the pluralisation of truth, critical historisation and the deconstruction of notions of disability.

Today the collection of Hans Würtz can be seen as an instrument to uncover different and unexpected narratives on disability: Würtz made disability a current artistic, cultural and scientific topic and his work represents a very early example of an interdisciplinary approach, no matter how different from contemporary Cultural and Disability Studies. A current international cooperation project (UK, Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic) aims to digitally reinstate the collection (currently spread across three locations), and shed light on the history and historical context of Würtz' collection, and to explain its role in (and challenges to) the construction of identity, norms and values related to disability.


[1] Fuchs, Petra (2001): 'Körperbehinderte' zwischen Selbstaufgabe und Emanzipation. Selbsthilfe-Integration-Aussonderung. Berlin.

[2] Musenberg, Oliver (2002): Der Körperbehindertenpädagoge Hans Würtz (1875 – 1958). Hamburg.

[3] Musenberg, Oliver (2013): "Das Material ist völlig unbefangen gesammelt". Der Pädagoge Hans Würtz und seine "Krüppelbilder- und plastikensammlung". In: Musenberg, O. (Hrsg.): Kultur-Geschichte-Behinderung. Oberhausen, 183 – 205.

[4] Osten, Philipp (2004): Die Modellanstalt. Über den Aufbau einer „modernen Krüppelfürsorge“. Frankfurt am Main.

[5] Würtz, Hans (1932): Zerbrecht die Krücken. Krüppel-Probleme der Menschheit. Schicksalstiefkinder aller Zeiten und Völker in Wort und Bild. Leipzig.