Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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 “This World Is Not This World”  
illusion. Here I recall the cautionary words of a French-speaking, Eastern European survivor physician: “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.”

More than being merely humbling, this passage suggests an important principle: that certain events elude our full understanding, and we do best to acknowledge that a partial grasp, a direction of understanding, is the best to be expected of any approach. It is an eloquent rejection of psychological reductionism: the collapsing of complex events into single, all-embracing explanations, in ways that sweep away rather than illuminate the interlocking structures and motivations behind those events. In that kind of reductionism, one can sacrifice psychological accuracy no less than moral sensitivity.

Another pitfall, even in the absence of reductionism, has to do with “understanding” as a replacement for moral judgment: with the principle contained in the frequently invoked French aphorism Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. But here I would say that if such full understanding were to include a grasp of moral as well as psychological issues, the second part of the aphorism “forgiving all” — would not follow. The danger has to be recognized, and it can be overcome only by one’s remaining aware of the moral context of psychological work.

Partly to address some of these moral questions in connection with social and historical experience, the early psychoanalyst Otto Rank called his last major work Beyond Psychology (1941).² Rank had long been preoccupied with ethical principles he believed Freud and others had excluded from psychological work, largely because psychology itself was entrapped in its own scientific ideology. By implication, that kind of scientific-psychological ideology could reduce Auschwitz, or its SS medical practitioners, to a particular mechanism or set of mechanisms. The question of evil would then not be raised. In that sense we may say that, to address moral issues one need not remain entirely beyond psychology, but must constantly look at matters that most psychology has ignored. Even then we do well to acknowledge, as Rank did, that psychology can explain just so much. Concerning Auschwitz and Nazi genocide, there is a great deal about which we will remain in ignorance, but we must learn what we can.

Of considerable importance here is one's psychological model or paradigm. My own departs from the classic Freudian model of instinct and defense and stresses life continuity, or the symbolization of life and death. ³ The paradigm includes both an immediate and an ultimate dimension The immediate dimension — our direct psychological involvement — includes struggles with connection and separation, integrity and disintegration, movement and stasis. Separation, disintegration, and stasis are death equivalents, images that relate to concerns about death; while the experiences of connection, integrity, and movement are associated with a sense of vitality and with symbolizations of life; The
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

Robert J. Lifton
ISBN 0-465-09094
© 1986
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