Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #1


Last fall, while reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s three works on the “deconstruction of Christianity”–Corpus, Noli me tangere, and Dis-Enclosure, which have been the topics of my three immediately preceding posts–I was also reading psychaitrist Robert J. Lifton’s important study The Nazi Doctors:  Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York:  Basic Books, 1986; with new introduction by the author, 2000).  Today is the first of a series–one of my most lengthy series–of posts on Lifton.  The entries below from my philosophical journal were first written on the dates indicated.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 3 (opening of the book’s introduction):

I gained an important perspective on Auschwitz from an Israeli dentist who had spent three years in that camp.  We were completing a long interview. . . . He looked about the comfortable  room in his house with its beautiful view of  Haifa, sighed deeply, and said, “This world is not this world” [which Lifton takes as the title of this introductory chapter].  What I think he meant was that, after Auschwitz, the ordinary rythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or  pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence.  Underneath those rythms and appearances lay darkness and menace. . . . [We resist this truth:] For to permit one’s imagination to enter into the Nazi killing machine–to begin to experience that killing machine–is to alter one’s relationship to the entire human project.  One does not want to learn about such things.

That again raises the crucial question I tried to raise in this journal a month or so ago, in conjunction with reading Jean Améry.  That is this question:

What is the truth of Auschwitz?

Not:  “What is the truth about Auschwitz.”  Rather:  What “truth of human existence,” as Lifton calls it, flashes forth at and as “Auschwitz”?

As I also noted when writing about Améry:  Is the truth that Améry sees the same as this Jewish survivor dentist in Haifa [as Lifton reads his words]–“darkness and menace”?  Or is it the truth of resistance, as Améry himself also suggests at places.

Alternatively worded, from Lifton:  Precisely what “alteration” in “one’s relationship to the entire human project” does encounter with Auschwitz call forth and call for?


Lifton is close to [Zygmunt] Bauman, whose book [Modernity and the Holocaust, which has been the subject of some of my earlier posts] appeared three years later [than Lifton’s on the Nazi doctors].  For one thing, Bauman would agree with this, from p. 14 in Lifton:

In Nazi mass murder, we can say that a barrier was removed, a boundary crossed:  that boundary between violent imagery and periodic killing of victims (as of Jews in pogroms) on the one hand, and systematic genocide in Auschwitz and elsewhere on the other.  My argument in this study is that the medicalization of killing–the  imagery of killing in the name of healing–was crucial to that terrible step.  At the heart of the Nazi enterprise, then, is the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lifton, on the early stages of the Nazi “euthanasia” program, when children were subjected to “medical killing,” as Lifton correctly names it, p. 55:

Th[e] structure served to diffuse individual responsibility.  In the entire sequence–from the reporting of cases by midwives or doctors, to the supervision of such reporting by institutional heads, to expert opinions rendered by central consultants, to coordination of the  market forms by Health Ministry officials, to the appearance of the child at the Reich Committee institution for killing–there was at no point a sense of personal responsibility for, or even involvement in, the murder of another human being.  Each participant could feel like no more than a small cog in a vast, officially santioned, medical machine.

As I’ve long maintained, here lies the whole key and secret to contemporary organization/statehood/sovereignty/government/ administration.  The telephone company again!  Why, as I wrote [the chair of my department] a few days ago, the worst conceivable form of government/administration is one by committee.

In contrast, there is AA, [for example,] in which [the principle of] responsibility for the “whole” is brought home to each and every individual member at every step, everywhere.