Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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policy (set by Berlin) of doctors performing selections had been, as in the case of many such policies, largely ignored in Auschwitz. Wirths could demonstrate his bureaucratic correctness in insisting that Auschwitz adhere to established policy. Moreover, as Dr. B. emphasized, control over selections was an important source of power in the camp, and Wirths consolidated his own power by having physicians conduct them. In accepting both motivations, one must also say that Wirths’s advocacy was a way of insisting that killing be medicalized. This advocacy parallels the slogan mentioned in connection with direct medical killing, or “euthanasia”: “Let the syringe remain in the hand of the physician.”

Wirths also insisted upon taking his own personal turn in doing selections, rather than merely delegating them to physician subordinates. The attitude was one Langbein “respected to a certain degree,” in that Wirths refused to shirk what was generally considered an onerous task.24 Here Wirths’s attitude, as the “humane doctor” combating primitives, was in effect: “Let the syringe be in my hand. If anyone kills, let it be me as well.” Once more conscience gave way to conscientiousness, and saving lives became associated with killing.

More than just asserting medical control of selections, Wirths became their organizing authority, their “responsible person.” It was he who discussed with SS leaders whether camp needs dictated higher or lower percentages of transports selected for the gas chamber; or whether more people should be selected for death from within the camp in order to diminish overcrowding and the danger of epidemics. And it was he who was responsible for policies during selections (again probably on the basis of discussions with camp leaders as well as with other doctors), such as whether or at what point mothers and children should be separated from one another, etc.

Thus, when large numbers of Hungarian Jews began arriving in Auschwitz, it was Wirths who exerted pressures on the SS doctors from the Hygienic Institute to select, even though that was not part of their camp assignment. He also (with Mengele) pressured a reluctant Franz Lucas (see pages 194-95) to select and brought him to the ramp so that he could participate in his first large selection, which Wirths himself conducted. Not only did he angrily rebuke Lucas for subsequent efforts at avoidance, but he threatened the dentist Dr. Willi Frank, who also showed some recalcitrance, with the principles of “Führer order,” of equivalence to front-line duty, and of refusal as desertion. And on another occasion, Wirths berated a subordinate for reluctance to remove fillings from corpses “during the fifth year of war!”25*

While lacking Mengele’s flair and posturing, Wirths was himself a commanding figure at selections. Tall and “Aryan-looking,” he was described
* Even Wirths’s once taking the reverse attitude and saying — of a noncommissioned officer who objected to participating in selections— “At last a person with character!” is another example of his extraordinary capacity to manage inner contradiction in Auschwitz.   
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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