Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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involvement of physicians was viewed as the most shameful of all Nazi behavior.

When we think of the crimes of Nazi doctors, what come to mind are their cruel and sometimes fatal human experiments. Those experiments, in their precise and absolute violation of the Hippocratic oath, mock and subvert the very idea of the ethical physician, of the physician dedicated to the well-being of patients. I shall examine those human experiments from the standpoint of the regime’s medical and political ideology.

Yet when we turn to the Nazi doctor’s role in Auschwitz, it was not the experiments that were most significant. Rather it was his participation in the killing process — indeed his supervision of Auschwitz mass murder from beginning to end. This aspect of Nazi medical behavior has escaped full recognition — even though we are familiar with photographs of Nazi doctors standing at the ramp and performing their notorious “selections” of arriving Jews, determining which were to go directly to the gas chamber and which were to live, at least temporarily, and work in the camp. Yet this medicalized killing had a logic that was not only deeply significant for Nazi theory and behavior but holds for other expressions of genocide as well.

In this book I will examine both the broad Nazi “biomedical vision” as a central psychohistorical principle of the regime, and the psychological behavior of individual Nazi doctors. We need to look at both dimensions if we are to understand more about how Nazi doctors — and Nazis in general — came to do what they did.

The very extremity of Auschwitz and related Nazi murder renders it close to unreality. A distinguished European physician, who had struggled with Nazi brutality for forty years — first as an inmate of Auschwitz and other camps and then as an authority on medical consequences of that incarceration — said to me very quietly at the end of a long interview, “You know, I still can't really believe that it happened — that a group of people would round up all of the Jews in Europe and send them to a special place to kill them.” He was saying that the Auschwitz “other world” is beyond belief. The wonder is that there is not an even greater tendency than actually exists to accept the directly false contention that Nazi mass murder did not take place.

Also at issue for us here is the relationship of Nazi doctors to the human species. Another Auschwitz survivor who knew something about them asked me, “Were they beasts when they did what they did? Or were they human beings?” He was not surprised by my answer: they were and are men, which is my justification for studying them; and their behavior — Auschwitz itself — was a product of specifically human ingenuity and cruelty.

I went on to tell this survivor of the ordinariness of most Nazi doctors I had interviewed. Neither brilliant nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive, they were by no means the demonic figures — sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill — people have often thought them
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

Robert J. Lifton
ISBN 0-465-09094
© 1986
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