Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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The Auschwitz Self: Psychological Themes 
as Auschwitz. Numbing was fostered not only by this knowledge and culpability but by the admired principle of "the new spirit of German coldness.”41 Moreover, early Nazi achievements furthered that hardness; and it is often the case that success breeds numbing.

In discussing patterns of diminished feeling, Ernst B. told me that it was the “key” to understanding what happened in Auschwitz. In also pointing out that “one could react like a normal human being in Auschwitz only for the first few hours,” he was talking about how anyone entering the place was almost immediately enveloped in a blanket of numbing. And there was similar significance to the prisoner doctor Magda V.’s rhetorical question: “I mean, how can you understand the horror of it all?” 
Transition to Group Numbing 
There has to be a transition from feeling to not feeling — a transition that, in Auschwitz, could be rapid and radical. It began with a built-in barrier toward psychologically experiencing the camp’s main activity: killing Jews. The great majority of Jews were murdered upon arrival, without having been admitted to the camp and achieving the all-important status of having a number tattooed on one's arm, which in Auschwitz meant life, however precarious. Numbing toward victims was built in because, in Auschwitz terms, those victims never existed. The large selections brought about that massive non-existence; and the selections themselves became psychologically dissociated from other activities, relegated to a mental area that “didn't count” — that is, both derealized and disavowed. In that sense, there was a kernel of truth to Dr. B.’s claim that selections were psychologically less significant to Nazi doctors than the problems of hunger they encountered from moment to moment.

But only a kernel, since Nazi doctors knew that selections meant killing, and had to do the psychological work of calling forth a numbed Auschwitz self in order to perform them. While Nazi doctors varied in their original will, or willingness, to perform selections, they tended to have to overcome some “block” (as Dr. B. put it) or “scruple” (as Nazi literature has it). With the actual performance of one’s first and perhaps second selections, one had, in effect, made a pledge to stay numbed, which meant to live within the restricted feelings of the Auschwitz self.

For this transition, the heavy drinking I have referred to has great significance on several levels. It provided, at the very beginning, an altered state of consciousness within which one “tried on” the threatening Auschwitz realities (the melodramatic, even romanticized declarations of doubts and half opposition described by Dr. B.). In this altered state, conflicts and objections need not have been viewed as serious resistance, need not have been dangerous. One could then explore doubts without making them real: one could derealize both the doubts and the rest of one’s new Auschwitz life. At the same time, alcohol was central to a pattern of male bonding through which new doctors were socialized into  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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