The Nazi Doctors

Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. A Review
Published: 1987-01-01

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Robert Jay Lifton, New York: Basic Books Inc., 1986. xiii+561 pages. $19.95

The Nazi Doctors is divided into three main parts entitled "Life Unworthy of Life" (pp. 22-144; Chapters 1-6), "Auschwitz: The Racial Cure" (pp. 148-414; Chapter 7-18) and "The Psychology of Genocide" (pp. 417-500; Chapters 19-21). The first chapter, "Sterilization and the Nazi Biomedical Vision," is perhaps the most important and accurate in the book. It is largely derived from articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association published during 1933-1936 and points out, as we have pointed out in previous Bulletins, that Germany was a latecomer in this field, long after many states of the United States had enacted eugenic sterilization laws. Later chapters in this part develop the assertion that the euthanasia program involving hopelessly insane persons promulgated after the beginning of the war, when food and hospital space became urgently needed, was a prelude to mass murder of Jews. The euthenasia program was suspended after protests against it, most notably the sermon of the Bishop of Muenster on 3 August, 1941 (p. 93), which Lifton summarizes.

The Second Part concentrates on the alleged activities at Auschwitz of the medical personnel there, especially Josef Mengele, as well as the interned physicians. This part is largely based on interviews with persons who served at Auschwitz but who are usually only identified by pseudonyms. The chapter on a certain Ernst B. (303-336) contains a number of details which contrast sharply with the general image of Auschwitz which Lifton presents. "B," for example, characterized Jose Mengele as "the most decent colleague" he had met in Auschwitz.

The Third Part contains reflections on psychological phenomena and the development of hostility toward Jews ("anti-Semitism"). The psychological phenomenon which Lifton stresses is termed 'doubling" (pp. 418-464), about which more below. In Lifton's discussion of the development of the hostility toward Jews he remains essentially oblivious to European historical realities of the 1914-1945 period, during which hostility toward Jews in central and eastern Europe was greatly intensified by hyperinflations and the association of Communism with its largely Jewish leaders. Lifton, e.g., makes no mention of Bela Kun and his brutal Communist government in Hungary in 1919. Lifton cannot circumvent the fact that there is no proof that Hitler ever ordered the extermination of Jews (p. 480).

Dependent on "Holocaust" Literature

Before the reader starts to wade- and "wade" seems to be an appropriate verb - through this massive volume, he would do well to leaf through the extensive source notes on pages 507-561 in order to note how Lifton is strongly dependent of the flood of "Holocaust" literature of the "Exterminationist" school. Indeed, Lifton is by no means the first author to delve into the role of physicians in German relocation camps during the Second World War. Lifton cites such titles as The Death Doctors (p. 510), Doctors of Death (p. 515), Aerzte in Auschwitz (a book published in the Soviet Zone of Germany; p. 521) and Les Medicins allemandes et le nationalsocialisme (p. 518).

What, then, is Lifton's claim to originality, what has he added of his own to the huge mass of "Holocaust" literature? According to the rear flap of the jacket, Lifton is "Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at John Jay College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York" and is the author of various books. His previous books are on a range of topics, including veterans of the war in Vietnam. Mao Tse-tung and his "cultural revolution" and the survivors of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Lifton is highly dependent on such well-known literature as Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews and is not above referring with respect to such fictional works as The Boys from Brazil and Rolf Hochhuth's Der Stellvertreter (1963), which Lifton seems to have known in an English translation of the drama. Onto the mass of "Holocaust" literature which Lifton uses as his sources, he superimposes psychological explanations (which reek strongly of Sigmund Freud) for the behavior or alleged behavior of physicians in German relocation camps, with an almost exclusive focus on Auschwitz. Lifton's longest chapter (pp. 337-383) is on a psychological analysis of Josef Mengele, whose grave was discovered in Brazil before Lifton completed his book. Lifton states that his work on The Nazi Doctors "began and ended with Josef Mengele." The essence of Lifton's psychological observations is contained in the chapters "Doubling: The Faustian Bargain" (pp. 418-429) and "The Auschwitz Self: Psychological Themes in Doubling" (pp. 430-465). The technical term "doubling" refers to a splitting of personality which enables a person to distance himself from his usual moral perceptions and behavior. Lifton refers to the famous lines 1112-1113 in Goethe's Faust, which he gives in an English translation:

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust
Die eine will sich von der anderen trennen.

There is virtually no evidence that Lifton made use of the growing body of revisionist writings on the Extermination Thesis. That lack of concern with the critical material is the basis of some of the greatest weaknesses of his book. Lifton does make some passing references (pp. 513 and 518) to Christopher R. Browning's Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (1985), which was reviewed in Bulletin No. 9. Browning might have some faint claims to being a revisionist critic of the Extermination Thesis by virtue of the fact that he makes some concessions to the "Functionalist" school, which contends that the "Holocaust" evolved from the local conditions and actual circumstances of the war, in contrast to the "Intentionalist" school, which contends that there was a central intention and plan to kill off all of the Jews of Europe. Lifton belongs to the latter school. I looked in vain for mention of the famous "six-million" figure in Lifton's book. Perhaps revisionists have offered such plausible reasons for the rejection of this figure that even the likes of authors such as Lifton are now hesitant to use it. It is also possible that revisionists forced Lifton to admit (p. 131) the publication of T. Kaufman's infamous Germany Must Perish as early as 1941, a book which advocated the genocide of the whole German nation by sterilization.

This brings up the second source of basic weakness in Lifton's book, the small amount of attention paid to the fact that Germany was engaged in a desperate defensive struggle as a result of clear threats and acts of genocide against Germans in various forms, in addition to such threats as are found in Kaufman's book, published, by the way, before the Wannsee Conference, which many Zionists claim to have been the starting point of specific planning for the extermination of all the Jews in Europe, a false claim (see Bulletin 20). Such threats and acts against Germany were the Bromberg massacres in 1939, the massive bombings of the German civilian population, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender (January, 1943), the Allied naval blockade of Europe which caused a scarcity of food that threatened the lives of all nations of Europe, including the Jews, the Nemmersdorf massacre in October, 1944, Ilya Ehrenberg's exhortations to genocide and above all the genocidal Morgenthau Plan, which was well known to the Germans. We now know also that anthrax bombs were being manufactured in Indiana for the annihilation of the German population by this horrible disease (see Bulletin 10). Greater awareness of the realities of wartime Europe would have clarified the attitudes of the physicians whom Lifton seeks to understand on a rather speculative, quasi-Freudian basis.

Twenty Thousand Jews Gassed Daily

A third source of weaknesses in The Nazi Doctors is Lifton's dependence on and naive acceptance of some of the most doubtful sources, such as Rudolf Höss's Commandant of Auschwitz and the Gerstein papers, both of which have long been discredited by a number of revisionist authors. As an example of the naive use Lifton makes of sources, consider the following passages:

Hilberg has pointed out that the four Birkenau crematoria could burn a maximum of about 4,400 bodies a day. But in May and June, Hungarian Jews alone were being gassed at nearly 10,000 a day, so that the added trenches were required for burning bodies. When those trenches had to be dug, the four Jewish Sonderkommando units contained a force of between fifteen hundred to two thousand men, and by August, 1944, over twenty thousand corpses were burned on certain days. (p. 171)

"Every ten minutes four corpses were thrown in." (p. 170; quoted from the Friedman Archive in Haifa)

As Auschwitz achieved its peak function of killing more than twenty thousand Jews in one twenty-four-hour period, with their bodies burned either in crematoria or open pits, "the capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited." (p. 493)

Indeed, Lifton must think that his readers' gullibility is unlimited! It scarcely requires fifth-grade arithmetic to calculate that 20,000 Jews a day would amount to 7,300,000 a year, which is well beyond the wildest of Zionist claims for Jewish mortality during the whole war. Since a crematory unit could only reduce about 12 bodies to ashes in a day (assuming two hours for each body and uninterrupted operation) nearly 200 units would have had to be employed. As is apparent from the actual ruins of Auschwitz, only a tiny fraction of that number of crematory units could have existed. But then, too, there is the nonsense about burning in "open pits." If Lifton would have consulted any number of revisionist authors, he would have learned that the high level of the underground water table in the Auschwitz area would have precluded burning in pits. If large numbers of bodies were to have been burned, they would undoubtedly have been burned above the ground on stacks of timbers in order to permit a maximal supply of oxygen, which, of course, would not have been available in pits. In fact, bodies were burned on huge stacks of timbers to dispose of them after the huge bombing raids on Dresden in February, 1945. The three passages quoted above undermine the credibility of Lifton's methods and conclusions. Was Lifton unaware of the revisionist works that clearly refute such passages or did he feel incapable of coming to grips with them or was he too dishonest or so lacking in objectivity that he failed to consult revisionist writings which would have prevented his falling into such absurdities? Lifton depended heavily on authors, e.g., Dawidowicz, who alleged technical and statistical impossibilities in order to justify the six-million figure. Now it seems that this figure is being quietly abandoned by the more sophisticated advocates of the Extermination Thesis, including Lifton himself. Now there is a tendency to substitute the rather vague "millions" without the "six".

Lifton should have heeded the admonishment by the Jewish historian, Gitta Sereny, in the New Statesman of 2 November, 1979 about the exaggeration, careless misunderstanding or even invention of "Holocaust" events, which had done "terrible disservice."

Lifton's book can be criticized not only for what it contains but also for what it does not contain. Lifton spent quite a few years (p. XI) in the preparation of this book, including interviews with scores and scores of persons (p. 7), travel in various countries and the status of a Fellow in the Max-Planck-Gesellscaft in Munich (p. 501), a support which is out of the question for revisionist historians. Lifton, however, does not mention evidence against the Extermination Thesis which should have been well known to a person who worked in this field for years and years. Examples are Himmler's order of 28 December, 1942, to reduce the death rates in the concentration camps "at any price," the survival of large numbers of Jews in Europe who were too young or too old to be capable of work, the fact that in the territory of the German Federal republic there were for some time after the war about as many Jews as there were in 1939 (see Bulletin 9), the many Allied photographs of Auschwitz taken in 1944 and the fact that as late as April, 1943 there were still so many Jews in the Warsaw ghetto that they fought German forces for weeks. (For further examples see Bulletins 14-15 and their reprints in The Christian News of 6 July 1987, the GANPAC Brief of November 1987 and the Liberty Bell of December, 1987.)

Some of Lifton's most frequently cited sources are those by Filip Müller, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, Rudolf Vrba, Rudolf Höss and Raul Hilberg. Revisionist historians have seriously eroded the credibility of these authors or have even exposed them as simply fraudulent. For a brief summary, see the valuable article by David McCalden in the January, 1988 issue of the Liberty Bell. Much more detailed exposures can be found in the works of Butz, Wilhelm Stäglich and others. Lifton cites Hermann Rauschning, whose Gespräche mit Hitler, has been exposed as a fraud by the Swiss historian Wolfgang Haenel. Lifton frequently cites the writings of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz. In Der Auschwitz Mythos Stäglich devotes some 40 pages to exposing the fraudulent nature of Höss' writings.

On page 466 Lifton drags in the old nonsense about the attempted genocide of the Poles. In spite of the very nasty treatment of the German minority in Poland during 1919-1939, Polish officers were given good treatment after their capture by the Germans, quite in contrast to those who fell into Soviet hands, who were massacred at Katyn and other localities. Lifton, of course does not mention Katyn. (On these points, see Alfred Schickel's valuable little book, Vergessene Zeitgeschichte, where a careful analysis of Polish prewar and postwar census data is made. Reviewed in Bulletin 18.)

Lifton makes the flat statement that "eugenics has no scientific basis" (p. 24). This astonishing statement simply flies in the face of thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of years of pragmatic human experience and practice, especially in breeding domestic animals, a remarkable accomplishment we see in the marvelous variety of economically valuable horses, dogs and cattle. Eugenics is also supported by modern science, especially since Galton's Hereditary Genius (1869). However, what can we expect from a Jew, whose forebears have frequently been dealers in agricultural products (grain and livestock, especially) but who were seldom engaged in agricultural production?

We who have largely rejected the usual versions of the "Holocaust" material have examined the works of the advocates of the Extermination Thesis. However, the latter have almost completely disregarded revisionist works and have typically slunk away from open debate. Lifton is a man with the sort of outstanding verbal abilities so frequently encountered in members of his race developed over scores of generations of living in the Diaspora. Lifton's The Nazi Doctors has the potential of attaining the status of such "classics" of the Extermination Thesis as those by Hilberg, Reitlinger and Dawidowicz. It is imperative that Lifton's errors, distortions and false perspectives be analyzed far more extensively than I have done in these four pages. I hope, however, that I have been able to point to some of the main aspects of this important task.


Committee for the Reexamination of the History of the Second World War (Bulletin 21)

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Author(s) Charles E. Weber
Title The Nazi Doctors, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. A Review
Sources CRHSWW Bulletin #21
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Dates published: 1987-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 1995, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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