Doctors are healers. We take this fact for granted, trusting in those who take an oath to protect the sick. But as Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors shows, that trust has a dark side.
Lifton’s book details how the traditional physician’s vision of healing individuals was applied to the Nazi biological vision of “healing” the Aryan race.
In this new vision, the Jews, along with many others, were the cancer that needed to be destroyed for the health of the German body. Doctors, therefore, were the ideal candidates to head the regime’s early “euthanasia” program, to make selections in Auschwitz and turn the gas valve. In the name of healing, healers became killers.
At 504 pages, The Nazi Doctors is an intense read. Beyond presenting many disturbing statistics, the book draws from 121 interviews Lifton conducted with Nazi doctors, Nazi officials and imprisoned Auschwitz doctors who worked on medical blocks in concentration camps.
This approach lends a sense of humanity to Lifton’s work, even if that humanity becomes capable of horrifying acts.
That horror is the crux of the book: that ordinary men, who were eager for the acceptance of a group of peers, advancement in society and the advancement of science, were able to rationalize murder as a medical act.
These men were not stereotypically mad scientists, yet they were the ones who devised and performed numerous cruel experiments on Jewish prisoners. They were the ones who threw themselves proudly into the work of “euthanizing” mentally deficient children and adults.
They were the ones who decided who would live and who would die on a particular day in Auschwitz, and who set the meager diet that sentenced all to death.
Lifton’s basic psychological approach is an apt and haunting look into the mindset of the Nazi doctors even though it sometimes gets bogged down when psychologically categorizing Nazi rationalizations.
While those interested in the Holocaust, medical ethics or psychology will find the book especially interesting, The Nazi Doctors is a worthwhile but emotionally challenging read that everyone can take something away from.