Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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Selections on the Ramp  
[se…] lect was adamantly defended by Wirths. Indeed, he himself insisted upon setting an example: not only did he himself select, when he as chief would not have had to, but he put off other obligations that might have prevented him from carrying out ramp duty for which he was scheduled.11 His attitude was close to that of Höss, the camp commandant, who felt compelled to be present at times during not only selections but the entire sequence of killing: “I had to show them all that I did not merely issue the orders and make the regulations but was also prepared myself to be present at whatever task I had assigned to my subordinates.” Significantly, he claimed that doctors had this expectation of him as well, that he felt it necessary  “to look through the peephole of the gas chambers and watch the process of death itself, because the doctors wanted me to see it.”12

The SS doctor Ernst B. thought that having a physician conduct selections “made it perfect” — by which he meant, “If somebody from some other place comes and says we don’t have enough people or we have too many, . . . then it can be claimed that the doctors have done it [the selections] — that it has been done with precise medical judgment.” That “perfection” involved the appearance of appropriate medical activity — Auschwitz’s “as if” situation — and that policy of doctors’ doing selections was (according to Höss) largely laid down by the chief SS doctor, Reichsarzt SS Ernst Robert Grawitz.13

Wirths was understood to have had additional reasons for insisting upon the medical control of selections, reasons having to do with constant friction between his office and the commandant or military command in general. As Ernst B. put it: “As far as the head doctor was concerned, everything that the military was doing was foolish and wrong, and if he gave away his responsibility to them — in this case, the selections — then his influence on the military was reduced. He had to support his power any way he could, and avoid relinquishing his hold on various levels.” Dr. B. was implying that Wirths considered himself, as a physician, more humane but was at the same time involved in a classical bureaucratic struggle. And for the same reason, Dr. B. believed that the chief doctor preferred that he, rather than his medical subordinates, should retain control over selections in order to maintain his general influence: “In every bureaucracy everyone tries to enlarge his ‘writing table’, [Schreibtisch].”

In holding to the principle of medical efficiency for the entire operation, Wirths oversaw the selections process, including its personal arrangements, and thereby maintained the efficiency of Auschwitz killing. (I shall examine his behavior and his conflicts in chapter 18.)

Performing selections was constantly compared to being in combat. The message from Himmler, from the camp commandant, and from the medical hierarchy was that this difficult assignment had to be understood as wartime duty. Selections were often compared more directly to medical triage in war. Thus Dr. B. could quote his friend Mengele as having  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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