The Nazi Doctors, the long-awaited book by Robert Lifton, a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is an extraordinary volume that sheds new light on the role of the Nazi doctors in Hitler's Germany. It describes their transformation from healers to killers.
The author regards most of the doctors he interviewed as being average, neither brilliant nor stupid. How then can we understand the involvement of physicians in the Nazi killing machine?
The subversion of the ethical physician and the violation of the Hippocratic oath contrast with the outstanding contribution of German medicine in the past. To understand this contradiction, Lifton examines the prewar Nazification of the German medical profession.
The physician was to become a "cultivator of the genes," "caretaker of the race," "biological soldier" and "genetics doctor"—all with the goal of keeping the Aryan blood clean and free of "dangerous genes." The Nazi biomedical concept advocated "extermination of useless life" through a secret organized program that was misleadingly termed "euthanasia."
It is ironic that the only authentic healers in the death camp were the prisoner doctors, who were put in charge of the medical blocks. Out of boredom and for psychological reasons, the Nazi physicians visited these islands of medical humanity where they joined the prisoner doctors in actual medical work or research. These activities were like "hobbies" where the "medicalized killers" could escape into illusion.
Lifton has produced the first exhaustive and scholarly study on the role and psychological makeup of the Auschwitz doctors in Hitler's Final Solution, although it is not known whether the 29 doctors he interviewed were typical of those who worked elsewhere in the Third Reich. The chapter on Mengele is the most thorough writing I've seen to explore what is known about this fanatic Aryan and superficial scientist. To many Auschwitz survivors, Mengele was a demonic personality. Nevertheless, Lifton concludes from his analysis that Mengele was not a demon but a visionary ideologue—a physician who became a murderer.
Lifton's investigation of the death camp doctors led him to suggest that the Nazi medical profession played a pivotal role in the Holocaust. I do not share the author's enthusiasm for this view. As much as one abhors the callous part played by Nazi physicians in the extermination camps, it is unrealistic to believe that there would have been no Holocaust without the participation of the doctors.
Moral and sensitive people will be angered and shocked by this powerful volume. He is an adroit interviewer who managed to extract some frank admissions from the Nazi doctors, in spite of the fact that he had to occasionally reveal his own Jewish identity. Although Lifton brings much insight to the subject, there is too much psychological jargon in some sections of the book.
The Nazi Doctors speaks to today's scientific community. Fraud and other current issues must be resolved. It is essential that we do a better job than the Nazi doctors did of maintaining ethical principles.