on July 19, 2003
This book is based on direct interviews with a number of Nazi Doctors, but rarely quotes from them. It covers a wide range of issues, but delves deeply into few of them.
It purports to be a pyschological insight into why the Nazi doctors did what they did, and how the psychological mechanisms worked that allowed them to operate. Though Lifton is a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, I didn't find his explanations particularly insightful. He repeats a few key ideas often, without going into how these mechanisms work. Instead, he fills the book with detail of what they did.
On balance, it added little to my understanding of the subject. The detail of what the Nazi Doctors did is readily available elsewhere.
I was hoping to find first hand accounts, of which very little was included, and psychological insights. Perhaps it would have been more useful if he had covered fewer people and situations in more depth, with more analysis.
He actually spoke to these people, but the book mostly reads as drily as any history book.
on June 8, 2003
When I read The Origins of Nazi Genocide, which came out in 1995, the author referred to this original book concerning the physicians and scientists who had exploited the 'situation' in Germany to their own ends. I had also come across references to this book in many, many professional papers...yet, made the stupid decision that I didn't need to read it. I finally decided I had to read this when my advisor in science education recommended it because he was using it in teaching bioethics to science teachers.
Though Friedlander's book is excellent, and was my introduction to The Medical Holocaust (especially as concerned the disabled) Lifton's book goes much further and deals with the physician/scientists within the concentration camps as well as in the psychiatric institutions which became involved in the killing machinery of the Nazis. Lifton's book explores the rationalizations made by these men to take advantage of a situation to experiment on those who could not give informed consent. Though Lifton tends to make a few speculations concerning motives from his interviews with physicians who were not prosecuted or were absolved of their involvement in these camps...his speculations are on target (mostly) and he backs up his statements with the words of these doctors from letters and interviews with those people who had the most to do with them: the prisoner physicians forced to work in these environments not only to save their own lives, but the lives of so many others.
Of course, more information is in this book concerning the atrocities. Sometimes, I had to put the book down and leave it for a while because the information is so horrendous. It is so beyond belief that so many physicians could rationalize the experimentation, using a statement I've grown to recognize in legal documents and even in newspapers in the U.S. ('for the good of society'). I just cringe now when I see this or sentences like this. Science should never replace the rights of the individuals. And scientists are never objective...they have the same prejudices and biases that society has and it permeates their work...to the point of biasing the information they find.
My only complaint about Lifton's book is occasional repetition or dwelling on certain topics/agendas. Sometimes, it seemed as if I had just reread the same pages, but Lifton was trying to make a point in most of these cases, or make a case for what he was saying...
The need to teach ethics in all fields of endeavors, including medicine and research science is all the more important today. If we don't, the work of Lifton and FRiedlander to remind the world of the horrors of The MEdical Holocaust will have been in vain. The slippery slope is growing with advanced technology, genomics, cloning, and stem cell use, without the accompanying legal protections. The Nuremberg Code, etched into the history of mankind in 1947, seems to have been forgotten.
To remind your students of the need for morals and ethics within all fields, this book is a necessary addition for required reading. I will certainly make it required for those I work with....
University of Pittsburgh
on May 12, 2003
This was a all around informative book. I enjoyed reading it and it changed my perspective of the Nazis. It just proves my theory that this is what happens when you take yourself to seriously. It just amazes me that these were doctor and yet they still never used common sense.
As the narrative goes, it is well written and thought out. He interviewed numerous doctor and survivors and amassed a large enough fact to construct a clear recount of the concentration camps. At most though this is a history book and most defitinely not a psychology book. Yes the author makes evaluations and tries to explain but it is very poor. He'll state an event and then throw in his two sense about what was going on. Everything is objective till he expresses his opinion and then it becomes boring. He is jewish but that doesn't mean that he couldn't of written an objective account. He simple doesn't try. He acts like he is compeled to speak his mind, almost ruining the entire chapter you had just read.
I give him a five as a historian but a two in his opinions.
on February 27, 2003
I heard many stories about the Nazi Doctors in the war but I had always wondered why they were the way they were and how could they live with themselves. Well this book gave a pretty good explanation on how these Doctors were. I found each of the Doctors facinating and peculiar in their own manner.
I was surprised that the Doctors did all the selecting and treated the people as cattle. They thought they were being the least cruel in this manner because the people suffered less. I also learned that typhus was one of the biggest diseases at the time. It was interesting to find out that only 15% of the people even had a chance to survive and the rest went straight to the gas chambers. Some of the Doctors were vicious while others were able to get away with not being cruel and inhuman.
I have to admit I thought Mengele was quite a character in the way that he treated people. He thought he was so superior and the story of the eyes that people had that were different colors that he set out to other colleges in Germany, well that was pretty twisted.
Also the part about him asking the kids if they wanted a ride in his car and he would drive them to the gas chambers was pretty psycho.
Overall this was a well written book but it was also very graphic so you should take care when you decide to read this one.
on September 26, 2002
This book is a must for anyone interested in the direct psycho-social and material circumstances of the Final Solution--an enterprise that most people have found awesomely cruel. Like Arendt's _Eichmann in Jerusalem,_ _The Nazi Doctors_ attempts to demystify the motives of Holocaust perpetrators--in this case SS doctors and medical workers--and ends up contributing greatly to a modern, enlightened, psychological understanding of "evil." The formalization of Lifton's extensive research is probably what will continue to bring new readers to _The Nazi Doctors_. Despite the importance and persuasiveness of his overall thesis (that "medicalized killing" played an essential and often overlooked role in the Holocaust), Lifton's psychological theorizing about the etiology of individual doctors' behavior is usually either obvious or, if not obvious, simple. Of course there is no harm in stating simple ideas or facts, especially if they are new or have been overlooked. There is no harm, either, in stating the obvious: of course there are those to whom it isn't yet obvious. But this book states and restates basic psychological theories, and then summarizes its statements and restatements. For example, Lifton points to, among other things, a sort of psychological "doubling" phenomenon that took place in the personalities of Auschwitz doctors--most of whom began life as relatively normal people. This doubling allowed them to separate the non-murderous versions of themselves--the family men, the husbands, the fathers--from the men who felt compelled by circumstance or duty or some deviant inner need to conduct selections, murders, cruel pseudoscientific experiments, etc., on innocent people. While certainly true, it's a simple idea and could have been stated in far fewer pages and invoked far less often without thwarting the author's ends. It is Lifton's application of the idea, rather than the idea itself, which is original. The fact that he goes on for so long explaining such things makes the book seem bloated. This is a terrible injustice to his research. An added weakness for ostentatiously academic formulations makes Lifton seem at times almost unsure of the book's importance. I suppose the thing among career academics is to make a name with novel ideas. Though Lifton clearly succeeds in accomplishing a lot more than that, one can't help but feel subjected to a secondary effort to satisfy a tenure board. (The book was written in the mid-eighties, as straightforwardness was first being widely discouraged by the mainstream academy.) The real core of the book, for these reasons, is the unself-conscious, highly instructive, and direct middle section documenting the careers of Nazi doctors, among them Mengele and Wirths. Even the prose style in this section seems strikingly fluent in comparison with the rest of the book.
on February 17, 2002
Any serious study of the Third Reich leads inevitably to the Holocaust. My interest started well over 40 years ago when I lived in Germany and discussed the wartime years with individual Germans freely. I asked myself, "How could these intelligent and decent people have been taken in by Hitler?" And when one considers the Holocaust the question becomes, "How could they have done that?" While Lifton's study considers only medical professionals, I think his explanations, "doubling" (division of the self into two wholes so that one acts as the entire whole), "numbing" (getting so used to horror you don't notice it anymore), and "genocidal bureaucracy" (normalizing murder), can be made to apply to everyone involved with the Nazi concentration camp system. This becomes apparent if you have read Gitta Sereny's examination of Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, or the memoirs Rudolh Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz (superbly edited by Steven Paskuly). But everyone everywhere uses these psychological devices on occasion and for good reason. Police officers, for instance, are taught that they must compartmentalize themselves into a "street self" and a "private self," so the private self, the self that is revolted by criminal behaviors, does not assert itself on the streets and cause an officer to take the law into his own hands. Lifton does not seem to realize this when he tries to draw comparisons between Nazi genocidal murderers and the experiences of Vietnam combat veterans and the arms race. I think having figured out why A-B-C & D went wrong, he thinks he can apply that formula to everyone else in the alphabet. This applies to many psychologists who spend their lives trying to quantify human beings. Well, in combat you kill to survive. The other guy, after all, is trying to kill you. And the arms race was undertaken because of the very real threat the Soviet Union presented to the freedom-loving peoples of the world. When it came to murder and concentration camps, the Stalinists were second only to the Nazis. I lived through all of Vietnam and the Cold War and I say, thank God for strong men armed. But despite Lifton's left-liberal biases, I gave this book the five stars it so richly deserves. First, Lifton deserves credit for having the courage and endurance to write this book and second, his explanations work, within the context of his subject here, and he is correct that given the proper circumstances, people can be led to condone murder.
on May 4, 2001
This book is a perfect analysis of what turns "ordinary human beings" into psycho-pathological killers: bureaucracy. I read this book primarily to find the bridge between the medical experimentation that took place in Nazi Germany, and the medical experimentation that is taking place today, under our very noses. Yes indeed,*The Beast Awakens* is a good book to precede or follow this one in order to get the message that I almost think Lifton *wants* us to get: "Genocide is a potential act of any nation." Those who do not learn from history, as they say, are condemned to repeat it.
It is not bureaucracy alone that is at fault in Nazi Germany, Lifton contends. Careerism, autocracy, authority, the seeking for glory in medical history at the expense of human guinea pigs, and the unwillingness to ask the important questions hold us all accountable for our behavior when we are asked to compromise our most cherished values, those which make us human, when we are called to choose the path of evil.
When we are asked to drop a bomb, or shoot the "enemy," or plant a mine; when we are asked to maintain a subsistance wage structure that contributes to the oppression of those who are considered "less worthy," (life unworthy of life), when we are ordered to withhold the truth from the citizens of our country because our "government" thinks we couldn't "handle" it, and when we do as we are told because it's "just the way it is," we must accept responsibility for those choices, for choices they are.
"In light of the recent record of professionals engaged in mass killing," says the author, "can this be the century of doubling?" Doubling, says Lifton, is the psychological ability to separate your "human" self from your "shadow" self so that you can do what you have to do and remain able to connect with your family and live your life. How close is that to maintaining a "professional" facade that allows a doctor to perform surgery by cutting into another human being's body while maintaining an "objectivity" that makes that possible (in the possitive sense), or a major corporation executive to pollute the nearby water that causes cancer in infants while still being able to face his children as they graduate from expensive Ivy League colleges? "That wasn't me," the thinking goes, "It's just my job. It's just what I had to do to make a living."
"We thus find ourselves," says Lifton, "returning to the recognition that most of what Nazi doctors did would be within the potential capability -- at least under certain conditions -- of most doctors and of most people." We have to look at this. We have to know it. To not look, to not know, is to have it happen again, all over again, and to not even see it coming.
"If there is any truth to the psychological and moral judgments we make about the specific and unique characteristics of Nazi mass murder, we are bound to derive from them principles that apply more widely -- principles that speak to the extraordinary threat and potential for self-annihilation that now haunt mankind."
Lifton focuses a lot on the psychological concept of "doubling" as it applies to the Nazis ability to do what had to be done in the "Auschwitz" context of life as the Nazis lived it. "The Auschwitz self could then become an absolute creature of context, and there is no better way to abnegate moral responsibility of any kind." Dissociation is another word for it. It's nothing knew. And it's not an excuse. It may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse.
Killing to heal is another interesting concept that Lifton explores, and one that factors even more ironically into current controversies: "We had to destroy the village to save it," for example. The AIDS dissident point of view is another item that may easily be seen through the lens of Lifton's book, though he never does refer to it. Even more interesting is the comparison to war: "War is the only accepted institution...in which there is a parallel healing-killing paradox. One has to kill the enemy in order to preserve -- to "heal" -- one's people, one's military unit, oneself.
We have got to get beyond that kind of thinking if we are going to survive to inherit this beautiful Earth we barely deserve anymore. Lifton knows it, and he knows why. So do I. If you read his book (and the others I've reviewed), you will know why too.
In discussing Eduard Wirths' brother Helmut, who had advised his brother to stay at Auschwitz in order to do whatever good he could there, Lifton says that had he(Helmut)been older and wiser, Helmut states he would have been able to take "an unconditional stance against these events," for he had come to the conviction that "the only thing to do in a situation like that is to say, "No, I won't do it."
Wiser words were never spoken. We don't need to be cogs in the wheel of destruction. Break free. In the 60s, we used to say, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" In fits and starts, that mantra has played out in small ways over time. It can come into its own today. Don't accept the slippery slope of small compromises. When you read this book, you will know that there is no way out once you start compromising what you stand for, and the human race, every one of us, will pay the price in the long run. When we stand up for dignity, freedom and justice, we all benefit. And remember...the whole world's watching.
on July 26, 2000
In this reviewer's opinion, Lifton's book is the definitive work on the subject of Nazi doctors; in this book, he has pulled together more details and information about his subjects on a scale that has yet to be surpassed. From the origins of the Nazi "bio-medical vision" (his term) to "euthanasia," to the full-blown scale of the Final Solution, a clear-cut transition into mass murder and genocide is presented in light of a tremendous number of lives and times of Nazi perpetrators, whose betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath is shocking.
Lifton's original research is in itself a work of tremendous value; he personally interviewed many former Nazi doctors, survivors that bore direct witness to their crimes, as well as the Jewish and non-Jewish doctors that became collaborators with their Nazi superiors. So many accounts of their lives and deeds abound within the pages of this book...their experiences speak for themselves to add to the growing portrait of the medical profession in light of Nazism.
In this reviewer's opinion, Part III, which deals with the doctors in Auschwitz, is the most integral part of the book, with Chapter 16 being one of the most prominent chapters, as its subject, Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor that never ended up living and being caught for his insurmountable cruelty, is given a human face that cuts through all the years of myth, legend, and hype surrounding his career and medical experiments.
There is one weak part of the book, evident in its sub-heading: "Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide." While it is incumbent that readers will judge for themselves the validity and integrity of psychoanalysis in history, this reviewer finds this an appropriate element suitable for another book. Psychoanalysis and history, in essence, should not be combined, as they themselves are two totally different areas not meant to be combined with the risk of considerable distortion and misunderstanding. Part IV of this book can be coined the Psycho-historical aspect of this work, as Freudian methods abound.
Its psychoanalytical bearing notwithstanding, this book is absolutely riveting, tremendously exhaustive and interesting, and original. It is crucial to the understanding of the Nazi doctors that were trained (and sworn) to be healers, and who became killers and traitors of the most basic of human moral codes. Absolutely crucial to any understanding of Holocaust perpetrators and the driving force behind the genocide.
on May 10, 2000
This book explores the question of how doctors, who are sworn to do no harm, became the integral organizers and managers of the Nazi death camps. Through exhaustive interviews with these doctors, people who knew them, and camp survivors, Lifton arrives at more than just individual psychological profiles of these professional killers. He presents us rather with a dense, psychosocial exploration of the dynamics of state-organized terror, along with enough history to describe the milieu in which these dynamics evolved. (Many people will be surprised to discover that the eugenics movement, which fueled the Nazi terror, had a large following in the United States during the 1930's.) The book reads like a novel in parts (especially the chapter on Josef Megele). However, I found the introduction one of the most interesting sections; in it Lifton describes the process he went through to gather and analyze his data. This included interviewing ex-Nazi doctors, who suspected or knew outright that Lifton himself is Jewish. Lifton's descriptions of the little verbal dances he and these doctors did around the German/Jewish conflict are fascinating.....For obvious reasons this book is not an "easy read," despite the quality of the writing. It will literally give you bad dreams. However, those dreams will spring from the collective human experience which we all share. For that reason this book is important to read.
on June 7, 2002
Written by a Jewish psychologist, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in Nazi Germany. Lifton explains the psychology behind the Nazi directives - how Hitler was able to convince a nation that it was Ok to exterminate millions of people with the stamp of approval by medical doctors. Of course, these doctors have their own stories - some performed horrible experiments on their concentration camp test subjects, some were Jewish doctors trying to minimize the pain of these experiments. The pages are filled with facts, personal stories, psychological commentary, and an insightful overview of the implementation of the Final Solution. This book clearly shows how this tragedy occurred and how truly close we are to having it occur again. It is not an easy read because it will make you think and make you feel...and hopefully, make you change.