Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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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.  
Death Control  
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 Mengele’s 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 doctor’s constellation of omnipotence and impulse to victimize Jews.   
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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