The Nazi doctors: medical killing and the psychology of genocide.

The Nazi doctors: medical killing and the psychology of genocide. – book reviews

E. Fuller Torrey

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

Participation in mass murder need not require emotions as extreme or demonic as would seem appropriate for such a malignant project,’ says Robert Jay Lifton in his introduction to The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, $19.95). Five hundred pages and six million deaths later the reader can grasp the full import of that assertion and its terrifying ramifications. In the end we are left, with Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, crying “at some image, at some vision. . . . A cry that was no more than a breath– The horror! The horror!’

Lifton has put together a classic that will be pondered and masticated for years to come. It will be required reading for students interested in the history of the Holocaust, the psychology of genocide and the ethics of medicine. It may well be Lifton’s most important book, outstripping his previous highly regarded works on brainwashing, Hiroshima, Vietnam and nuclear war. He interviewed 28 Nazi physicians who participated in the planning and systematic killing, and 80 survivors of Auschwitz who bore witness. Research on the book continued over 10 years. One approaches such a book with high expectations, and here they are fully satisfied.

The heart of the book is an analysis of the role played by physicians, and especially psychiatrists, in the Nazi scheme. A 1920 book cowritten by a psychiatrist–The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life–provided the initial rationalizations for killing at least 5,000 deformed and sickly children beginning in 1938. That was followed by the killing of approximately 100,000 adults with diseases such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, syphilis, encephalitis and Huntington’s disease by carbon monoxide poisoning. Six killing centers were established at psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes, and physicians were in charge of all phases of the program. “Doctors,’ claims Lifton, “had one of the highest ratios of [Nazi] Party members of any profession’– 45 percent, or twice the rate of teachers.

By early 1941 “experienced psychiatrists’ from the adult killing program had been sent to burgeoning concentration camps “assured that their work in selecting out “asocial’ elements had scientific importance.’

The doctors wore white coats as they made their selections for the gas chambers. Soon it became apparent that just to be Jewish was equivalent to being diseased. As one Nazi doctor explained it: “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And out of respect to human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. “The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.’

The role of physicians was central to the “Final Solution,’ and nowhere was this more apparent than at Auschwitz, aptly referred to as the “anus mundi.’ Doctors participated in the selection of individuals for the gas chambers as they disembarked from the trains, and later while in the camps they planned and supervised the gas chambers, calmed groups waiting to enter the gas chambers for “delousing’ so as to camouflage what was about to happen, occasionally killed individuals directly by phenol injections, declared individuals dead and falsified death certificates. As seen by one camp survivor: “Auschwitz was like a medical operation’ and “the killing program was led by doctors from beginning to end.’

The cast of characters assembled by Lifton is terrifying not because of their evilness but rather because of their lack of it. There is, of course, Josef Mengele, who once killed twins just to settle an argument about diagnosis; Wladislaw Dering, who made a tobacco pouch out of a scrotum he had removed from a Jewish prisoner; and Irmfried Eberl, a psychiatrist who was appointed chief commandant and overall director of Treblinka and wore his white coat when walking around the camp. But these men are the exceptions.

Much more common were physicians motivated by altruism, who believed that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.’ There is Karl Brandt, for example, who idolized Albert Schweitzer and Adolf Hitler. Prevented from joining Schweitzer in Africa because Lambarene was in French territory, Brandt instead became Hitler’s personal physician and initiated the program to kill sick children. Following his trial at Nuremberg in 1948 Brandt said: “I have always fought in good conscience for my personal convictions and done so uprightly, frankly, and openly.’

Lifton’s attempts to explain the role of doctors and the psychology of genocide are less satisfactory. To expect him to do so, however, may be asking the impossible; as one physician he interviewed said to him: “The professor would like to understand what is not understandable.’ He invokes the psychological construct of “doubling’ to explain how physicians can be both healers and killers simultaneously. “Doubling’ is “the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self,’ and Lifton claims that professionals such as physicians “have a special capacity for doubling.’ He also falls back occasionally upon psychoanalytic principles, but the result is an hors d’oeuvre when one hungers for a full meal. For instance: Hermann Pfannmuller was “an extreme example of the depressed person who overcomes his own anxiety and death imagery by harming others.’

More important is Lifton’s thesis that Germans are especially susceptible to “doubling’ because of their propensity toward the authoritarian personality, their literature and their history. Such an idea is reassuring but not convincing. Perhaps the uniqueness of the Holocaust in our minds is in the fact that it was carried out by people to whom many Americans are genetically related (i.e., “people like us’). Or that it utilized modern corporate technology, so that on a “good’ day 20,000 Jews could be killed in 24 hours at Auschwitz.

But what about the genocide that has occurred since World War II in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Lebanon, Paraguay, Argentina, Haiti? Ugandans killed a half million of their own, Cambodians two million–in both cases, far more killings proportionally than the Holocaust. Ethnic, religious, economic and political differences continue to provide rationalizations for mankind’s murderous impulses. The most profound horror of The Nazi Doctors, then, is that the veneer of civilization is so thin and fragile. It is incumbent on us to understand the forces that scrape the veneer away, to understand the Karl Brandts, and even the Josef Mengeles, of whom it was said “in ordinary times he could have been a slightly sadistic German professor.’

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group