Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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The Auschwitz Institution  
especially if the rooms were kept dry and gastight and closely packed with people, and provided they were fitted with as large a number of intake vents as possible.”34

Mass killing of Jews began either in late 1941 or early 1942. The Auschwitz administration had procured Zyklon-B indirectly from the manufacturer, DEGESCH, an acronym for German Corporation for Pest Control. DEGESCH, largely controlled by I. G. Farben, distributed the gas through two other firms — in Auschwitz’s territory, through TESTA.35 In 1942, its distribution within the SS became centrally regulated by the SS Hygienic Institute in Berlin under Dr. Joachim Mrugowsky. Given its extensive prior use against rodent and insect spreaders of disease, we might say that Zyklon-B was always considered a form of medical equipment. Yet it was placed under stricter medical supervision only as the prime chemical of extermination, and was even stored in the Auschwitz pharmacy for a period of time.*

Another change took place as well. In the past, Zyklon-B had by law been combined with a small amount of an irritant gas designed to warn of the presence of the dangerous substance when premises had not been sufficiently ventilated after fumigation. Sometime in 1943, the gas began to be distributed to Auschwitz without the irritant, and bore the warning: “Attention! No irritant!” Removing the irritant clearly expedited the killing process, but that step itself presented a greater danger for those handling this lethal gas. Special training had always been required for that purpose. The group handling the gas had originally been drawn from personnel associated with the manufacturer, but the responsibility was transferred to a special group of “disinfectors” from among the SS medical corpsmen These Desinfektoren became a noncommissioned élite, and part of the duty of the doctor on the Auschwitz ramp was to take necessary measures to protect them from exposure to Zyklon-B and to be prepared to treat them should such exposure occur. We can say, then, that Zyklon-B became a dangerous “killing medicine,” to be handled only by medical personnel.36
* One doctor I interviewed, who held a senior advisory position within Nazi civilian and military structures, told me of serving as chairman of a high-level committee on allocating scarce medical equipment to civilian and medical groups, including the SS. After the war, he claimed to be horrified and chagrined to learn what the SS had used Zyklon-B for. The story tends to confirm the medical status of the gas. Concerning the doctor’s claim of ignorance, I would say that he had demonstrated in a variety of ways an extreme capacity for invoking the psychological defenses of denial and numbing, of the will not to know. In his case, those defense mechanisms would have to have been extreme — one suspects that in at least part of his mind, he knew — given the increasingly large amounts of gas the SS required for Auschwitz for example, for fumigation, camps got delivery about every six months; Auschwitz got one every six weeks.

† The manufacturer opposed the removal of the irritant because its patent had been on this irritant addition, rather than on the gas itself. Involved in this change was Kurt Gerstein, then chief disinfection officer in the SS, who worked under Mrugowsky in Berlin. Gerstein had an engineering background as well as a certain amount of medical training. Few figures have been as confusing to historians and biographers, given his intense SS involvement at  the center of mass murder, along with his fanatical SS demeanor; yet also his Protestant evangelical anti-Nazi connections and desperate efforts (including a dangerous conversation with a Swedish diplomat) to inform the outside world about the Final Solution. Gerstein later claimed — and was believed by one biographer — that he had proposed that the irritant be discontinued on the grounds that, without it, death was more humane, and that by rendering the gas undetectable, he could find a pretext for destroying consignments with the claim of dangerous leakage. Most observers — notably Rolf Hochhuth in his 1964 play The Deputy — have emphasized Gerstein’s extraordinary acts of resistance; others, such as Hilberg, are primarily impressed with his role in the mass murder process. There is a sense in which both groups are correct: I believe Gerstein to have been the most extreme example of the doubling process encountered in this study.37
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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