|THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GENOCIDE
|own death anxiety. The polarity took on grotesque
dimensions in Auschwitz, as Nazi doctors called forth feelings of omnipotence
and related sadism on the one hand, and of impotence and sometimes masochism on
the other, in order to quiet this death anxiety.
It is difficult for
most of us to imagine what it means psychologically to experience the degree of
power over the lives and deaths of others held by the Auschwitz self. A
prisoner doctor tried to make a similar point in speaking of Nazi doctors as
holding a [form of] power superior to that of the Roman emperors.
While the omnipotence was supposed to be limited by policies from above
weak prisoners were to be killed and stronger ones preserved in
actuality the mood or whim of the SS doctor could determine the prisoners
fate. That omnipotence was extended to unlimited manipulative use of the bodies
of prisoners, especially Jews, in connection with medical experiments: again a
cruel caricature of ordinary patterns touching on omnipotence that can be
present in authentic medical researchers.
The omnipotence was given
still another dimension by the general degradation of prisoners and by their
desperate efforts in camp selections to create the appearance of strength:
struggling to march or run vigorously when actually close to death from
starvation, stuffing their clothes in order to look more robust, or finding
something with which to color their cheeks or lips and hide their extreme
pallor. Moreover, both omnipotence and degradation become themselves routine,
so that the Auschwitz self came to require them for its function.
| Yet these all-powerful figures seemed fearful. They
were terribly afraid of death [as Tadeusz S. observed]. The greatest murderers
were the greatest cowards. And they appeared petrified (as Marianne F put
it) of possible infection and went to extremes to avoid potentially contagious
inmates.* There is no doubt that the omnipotent stance of the Auschwitz self
clearly served the psychological function of warding off its own death anxiety.
Having renounced the commitment to healing which can protect one from some of
that anxiety, one had constant need for omnipotence.
I have noted
repeatedly how omnipotence merged with sadism Mengeles special kind of
smile while performing selections undoubtedly included pleasure in others
suffering. But the suffering inflicted with a constant threat of death can be
understood as a maximal expression of
* The sick people to be
avoided were mostly Jews of course precisely the agents of alleged
contamination of the entire Nordic race. The Nazis combined these levels of
contamination in their slogan Jews, lice, typhus! The avoidance of
Jewish patients by a Nazi doctor was both a self-fulfilling prophecy (the Nazis
forcing Jews into situations where they developed typhus so that they really
became infectious and dangerous) and a newly vivid metaphor which could further
cement the Nazi doctors constellation of omnipotence and impulse to