Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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The Auschwitz Self: Psychological Themes  
domination and control over another human being. From the standpoint of a life-death paradigm, sadism is an aspect of omnipotence, an effort to eradicate one’s own vulnerability and susceptibility to pain and death.

There is a similar combination in SS doctors' toying with inmates' feelings; and, in manipulative shows of kindness followed by extreme cruelty and apparent joy, in sending people to their death. Indeed, the Auschwitz self took shape within an omnipotent-sadistic structure and expectation, so much so that avoiding that stance required some form of inner resistance.

It is likely that impulses toward omnipotence in doctors attracted them to the SS and to the concentration-camp system. Here, too, SS doctors varied and formed a kind of continuum according to the degree of those impulses. But the environmental structuring was crucial. That is why it could be said that Mengele, surely at the extreme end of the omnipotence-sadism continuum, would have become under other conditions a relatively ordinary German physician-professor. It can even be argued that a doctor whose omnipotent-sadistic impulses were too great would have had difficulty functioning in Auschwitz because those impulses could have been at odds with the numbing required, and their expression could have interrupted the smooth technology of killing. (Mengele, we recall, was able to harmonize these and other personal tendencies with the requirements of the environment.)

Yet the Auschwitz self became involved in a process of perpetual reinforcement: it responded to encouragement for strong feelings of omnipotence and expressed them as required in relatively structured Auschwitz form; that expression in turn created actual or, potential anxiety having to do with death and killing, which then required additional feelings of omnipotence-sadism in order to ward off that anxiety. Hence the apparent increase noted by some prisoner doctors, over time, in the Auschwitz self's expression of omnipotence and sadism.

Auschwitz was the hub of the vast Nazi store of omnipotence and sadism, which included an enormous attraction to death and its borders. For doctors there were the added components of omnipotent tendencies in medicine in general but most especially the vision of National Socialism as “nothing but applied biology” (see pages 129-31). That vision also incorporated the mystical Nazi version of the collective “will,” which in much of German philosophy has been viewed as an absolute metaphysical principle and “the agent of a law of nature and of history.” 47 Thus believing Nazis saw themselves as “children of the gods,” 48 empowered to destroy and kill on behalf of their higher calling, as men who claimed “spurious attributes of divinity.” 49 All Nazis staked some claim to this transcendent state, but doctors could buttress their omnipotence with those bizarre and compelling claims made in the name of biology, evolution, and healing. The Auschwitz self could feel itself to be tapping the power source of nature itself in becoming the engine of the Nazi movement, or nature’s engine.  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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