Anne Hawn Smith's Reviews > The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton
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Dec 26, 12

bookshelves: medical, non-fiction
Read from February 13 to May 12, 2010, read count: 1

This book is so hard to read...not from the writing, but the events and the people who perpetrated them. I am finding that I can only read a few pages at a time. The book is extremely well researched with footnotes and an extensive bibliography. A great deal of it comes from actual interviews.

The extent of Nazi crimes is far more unimaginable that I could have ever thought and nothing is worse than doctors, who are trained to heal, turning into killers. The book deals with the SS doctors, German doctors, prison/inmate doctors and prison/inmate/Jewish doctors. I is also filled with the elaborate lengths the Nazis went to to cover up what they were doing to the world and to themselves.

As I continue to read this book, I am amazed at the amount of source material Lifton has used. The foundation of the book is interviews with the doctors, a few SS doctors, but mainly prisoners who were doctors. I am on the chapter on Mengele and it is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read. I have read numerous books on Hitler and the concentration camps, but was left unsatisfied. No author could answer the question, "Why?" Why did seemingly normal people do such atrocious things?

The chapter on Mengele explains how he was able to compartmentalize his mind and do seemingly contradictory things. He would work hard to save a Gypsy from typhoid and then send him to the gas chamber later that week. In understanding the mind of Mengele, I finally began to understand some of these incredible events effected ordinary people. Make no mistake, Mengele was not a normal person. He had to have had a sadistic streak already, but, as the author says, he was “the right person at the right time and at the right place.” He saw himself as “healing” the German race and beyond that, healing mankind through genetic selection. He was an ideologue, as were the leaders of the party. They saw themselves as purging the race of man of the undesirables, which would lead to the “thousand year reich.” He was a demigod in Auschwitz and acted accordingly, but at times, he would be seen as honorable and courageous.

This is the book that I have always been looking for.
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12/13/2009 page 75
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message 1: by Valerie (last edited Oct 19, 2010 10:06AM) (new) - added it

Valerie I've seen Lifton in person. He was doing a book tour for his book Who Owns Death? His background is the behavior of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. He used the term 'destroying the world in order to save it'; a phrase he modified some from Vietnam veterans he interviewed, who would tell him 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.'

One of the problems of focusing on extraordinary people like Mengele and Eichmann is that they are, by definition, not the problem. There was a man who called himself a 'decent murderer' at a seminar on evil who argued that he had to decapitate 14-year- olds with phosphorous grenades (though he knew they would have been lynched if they refused to shoot at him), because '...if there had been a thousand villages like Le Chambon (-sur Lyon, where 5000 unarmed people saved the lives of 5000 refugees), Hitler would never have been stopped'. I agree. Hitler wouldn't have needed to be stopped, because he'd never have gotten started in the FIRST place. Hitler himself only killed about four people (his niece's death is still unsolved). If people had consistently refused to do his bidding, the War might still have happened--but the people who were murdered outright would not have been anything like as many.

I believe it's in Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell that a conversation between Gertrude Stein and a group of American soldiers is reported. The Americans were praising the German people for being obedient, and she rebuked them. She said that everybody in the village in the mountains of France knew where she was hiding and who she was, but nobody turned her in. She argued (in one of her last public addresses) that DISobedience is what we have to inculcate if we're to prevent a repetition.

One of the more interesting versions of this 'destroying the world in order to save it' ethos is in Ursula K LeGuin's book The Lathe of Heaven. The oneirologist (dream specialist) Haber is trying to at least rewrite the world in ways he thinks will improve it--but he has no core (people consistently describe him as like an onion--peel away one layer, and you find another). If you'd like to read a book in which the song "I Get By with A Little Help from My Friends" saves the world, I can recommend LeGuin's book.


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