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Genocide: Trying to understand what is not understandable

January 24, 2010 Leave a comment

What are the psychological conditions conducive to evil?  That was the goal for Robert Jay Lifton as he wrote The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide which I should finish reading later tonight. Lifton found there are no easy answers as one physician survivor stated,

“The professor would like to understand what is not understandable.  We ourselves who were there, and who have always asked ourselves the question and will ask it until the end of our lives, we will never understand it , because it cannot be understood.”

Lifton’s book focuses on a particular part of the “final solution,” one of the many terms the Nazis used to describe their attempted genocide of the Jews.  He writes about the role the German  medical profession played in the selection, technology and disposal of the millions killed during WW II.  For most of his 500+ pages, he focuses on the events in Auschwitz, a place in which at the height of their “efficiency,” 24,000 people in one twenty-four hour period were killed and then burned or otherwise disposed.  For the Nazis, the Jews were a “life unworthy of life” or a disease that must be eradicated and so they attempted to justify their attempt to “heal” the nation. As Lifton says, “Genocide is a response to collective fear of pollution and defilement” (481).  “The perpetrator of genocide kills to cure himself as well as his people” (487).

This is a long and tough read and I bought it because one of my profs had mentioned it a number of years ago as a book worth reading.   Lifton comes to a similar conclusion as does Roy F. Baumeister, in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty who wrote about the myth of pure evil (see my post on this).   “No individual self is inherently evil, murderous, genocidal.  Yet under certain conditions virtually any self is capable of becoming all of these” 497).

On a related note, my wife sent me a link to an article about why our response to hundreds of thousands of people dying is not significantly greater than our response to one person dying or in the article’s case, the life of one dog.  I had never heard the story of Hokget, the dog stranded on an abandoned freighter. Worth a read!

But the real point is why don’t we care more? According to research cited in the article, our brains don’t have the capacity for dealing with the death of so many.  In fact, Shankar Vedantam concludes, “We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.”  Maybe this provides some explanation why we cannot get our minds around the 6 million+ Jews that were killed during WW II.  But, that does not make the facts any less true.  If you are in any doubt, check out The Nazi Doctors.

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