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The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton

Since Donald Trump began his campaign for president, people have been drawing parallels between his growing support and Hitler's rise to power. I am definitely not ready to say that Trump is the new Hitler (for some of the reasons articulated here and here), but there is no denying that some of his campaign rhetoric (blaming job availability and crime on immigrants) and proposals (requiring a Muslim registry) feel disturbingly reminiscent of darker times. Since it is always prudent to learn from our historical failures, I have been revisiting some World War II era readings and documentaries that strive to understand how an entire nation can slowly but steadily abandon morality and rational thought to do unconscionable things. One of the more excellent of my recent readings is the book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton.

The Nazi Doctors is an investigation into the origins and atrocities of the killings committed and enabled by Nazi doctors. It is an impeccably researched piece, written not just to present historical facts, but to probe the evolution of extremist thoughts and understand how they ultimately manifested in genocide. Lifton analyzes the underlying psychology of a group of medical doctors committing the ultimate betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath, revealing the important role that they played in the execution of millions. Because the subject matter is disturbing, this is not an easy read. But it is an extremely well-written piece of research that is well worth the emotional burden.

For me to paraphrase this dense 500 page book in a few short sentences would be an injustice, so I will not attempt to do that. Instead I will say this: these doctors did not wake up one day and say, "We should stop doing medicine to help people, and instead we will begin our careers as murderers." While their actions are unforgivable, this book illuminates how extremists and objectors alike came to their tragic decisions in the name of perceived righteousness or the anticipation of impossible alternatives. This book is an insightful work, and an important reminder to take seriously the fringe and radical views with which we disagree, and to strive to understand and reason with those who hold them.

Years ago, I was originally drawn to this book while perusing a used book store because of my own interest in science and ethics. I often get frustrated with the fact that scientists can be a complacent bunch when it comes to politics and societal happenings. We often have our (strong) opinions, but rarely do we step out of the lab to actually do something about them. Medical doctors, being highly trained in science but having the additional duty of providing healing, are expected to operate on tenets of altruism, impartiality, rigor, and compassion. Science and medicine are noble professions, and yet their practitioners do not always operate with the utmost integrity. How is this? Why is this? These are huge questions beyond the scope of Lifton's book, but his focus on the psychology of Nazi doctors begins to shed light on these troubling paradoxes.

Had they stood on ethical principles and acted out the Hippocratic Oath, could the Nazi doctors have stopped World War II's horrifying genocide? Perhaps. Or perhaps they could only have slowed it, but wouldn't that have at least been something? Doctors can make a big difference, and indeed these doctors did; tragically, it was a difference in the wrong direction.

So back to 2016. Climate change, the use of animals in research, the use of vaccines to control disease, the development of weapons of mass destruction; these are enormous issues that we as a scientific community must take ownership of, because we are the ones that actually understand the science. But we need to do more than just spew our specific studies into the wind - they will die there. They will live and die within the walls of the scientific community, and the world will be none the wiser. Instead, we need to translate our knowledge for journalists, policy makers, and the public, becoming active science communicators. We need to participate in a discussion that takes into consideration the real-world needs of different members of our society, thinking about costs and relative benefits, and approaching issues openly and without fear. It is our responsibility to do this. If we do not, history will look back on us with the same disgust, contempt, and confusion as we now remember the doctors in Lifton's book. But we have the power to change our course of action. So let's do it.

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