Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #2

6/ 8/09

This is the second in my series of posts with journal entries I wrote last fall, on the dates indicated, concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors:  Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, note on p.152, concerning the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, followed the very next day by the “protective custody” emergency degree under the provisions of which on March 20, only three weeks later, Himmler created the KZ-lager [concentration camp] at Dachau, the first of them all:  “Although there is some historical debate whether the Nazis arranged it [the fire] as a provocation, they clearly used it as an occasion to round up political opponents and begin consolidation of their dictatorship.”

Only just now, while reading that, did the clear and exact parallel between this episode of the Nazis and the Reichstag fire [on the one hand] and the episode of the Bush administration ([as also] McCain’s view of the event as a great “opportunity”) and 9/11 [on the other]!

The parallels continue beyond that, too.  Thus, what he writes in the text as such on this page and the next (152-153) certainly accords all too well with what happened after 9/11:

Under Theodor Eicke–first as commandant of Dachau after mid-1934, and as inspector of concentration camps and SS brigadier general in charge of the Death’s Head Units–quixotic brutality was replaced by a policy of impersonal, systematic terror. . . . [T]hose policies under Eicke grew into what Rudolf Höss, who trained at Dachau for his post as commandant of Auschwitz, later called a “cult of severity” and a “Dachau spirit” according to which all inmates were enemies of the state; and camp guards were to be trained in cruelty and to dispense it with pitilessness (or “hardness”), detachment, and incorruptibility. In fact, [however,] corruption was endemic to such a system.

Shades–and more than shades–of Guantanamo Bay!


P. 200:  In Auschwitz, “the selections were so onerous, so associated with extraordinary evil, that Nazi doctors [who performed them] called forth every possible mechanism to avoid taking in psychologically what they were doing–every form of psychic numbing and derealization.”  This helped foster a subsequent difficulty at any clear, coherent, systematic recollection of what had occurred.  “This difficulty of recall suggests that Nazi doctors never quite felt–that is, emotionally experienced–their original act in performing the selections.”

So the phenomenon of repression and dissociation is common  both to victims and perpetrators (and is reciprocally interrelated with the washing out of the difference between the two).  Both are traumatized.


P. 213:  Especially from some  remarks by “prisoner doctors” he interviewed, Lifton arrives at the conclusion that those “remarks by prisoner doctors suggest that the collective process of medicalized killing was, psychologically and technically, self-preservation [e.g., by making continued killing necessary to “justify” the killing already done]; and that Nazi doctors found a way to engage in the process with sufficient detachment to minimize psychological discomfort and responsibility, then and over time.” 

In effect, the very horror and psychologically unprocessable shock of what they were doing/had done helped, by traumatizing them [the perpetrators themselves]into what Lifton calls a “doubling” of self (“Auschwitz self” and often quite decent private or family self)–and by dissociating them from the very event they were helping enact–ended up enabling them to perpetrate that very horror.

This is a truly chilling analysis–and that makes it all too “understandable” just “how people could do such things.”


P. 222:

Dr. Henri Q. [prisoner-doctor survivor] stressed the importance of humor, telling of a middle-aged French-Jewish dentist who kept “making jokes, laughing, and telling us stories”:  “I told myself he was completely crazy”  He would say such things as “Dear Marquis, at five o’clock we are to have tea together,” making Q. wonder whether the dentist “did not realize what was going on here.”  But, in retrospect, he helped the prisoner doctors “by telling his stories”–that is, by creating a consistent debunking alternative, however unreal, to  the terrible actuality.

But which truly is “real”?  And might not this approach to the situation be just as much “resistance” as was the uprising at Auschwitz?

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