Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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Nature’s Engine

That metaphor of “nature's engine” suggests the relationship of omnipotence to the apparently, opposite feeling of powerlessness or impotence, of being no more than a tiny cog in someone else's machine. The Auschwitz self could swing from the one emotion to the other, both. turning out to be part of the same psychological constellation. The very forces that provided its sense of power over others could cause it to feel itself overwhelmed, threatened, virtually extinguished. For another principle suggested by the observation that “one could react like a normal human being in Auschwitz for only the first few hours” is the extraordinary power of that environment over any self that entered it.

Moreover, the Auschwitz self quickly sought that stance of powerlessness (as Dr. B. cited some doctors: “I'm not here because I want to be. …I can't change the fact that prisoners come here. I can just try to make the best of it") as a way of renouncing responsibility for what was unsaid: that “prisoners come here” to be murdered. This emotional and moral surrender to the environment had great psychological advantages. The Auschwitz self could feel: “I am not responsible for selections. I am not responsible for phenol injections. I am a victim of the environment no less than the inmates.” More than mere retrospective rationalization, this stance of nonresponsibility was still another means of avoiding feelings of guilt at the time. The Auschwitz self permitted the murderous environment to sweep over and into it. It accepted that environment’s givens: “Mass murder is the norm, so it is commendable to select and thereby save a few people, or to experiment on prisoners and maim or kill a few here and there since they are in any case destined for death.” The Auschwitz self could then become an absolute creature of context, and there is no better way to abnegate moral responsibility of any kind. One can expend considerable psychic energy in seeking and achieving the status of the helpless pawn.

But the more accurate image may be that of environmental tool. A tool does not initiate action but plays an important technical role in it by enhancing the skill and efficiency of the wielder. Here, of course, the wielder was the Nazi leadership — ultimately, the Führer himself. But from the standpoint of the Nazi biomedical vision, the Auschwitz self was a tool also of the evolutionary process, of a biological imperative. In this way the biologization of Auschwitz — of Nazi Germany in general — contributed to a doctor’s self-abnegation and powerlessness no less than to his omnipotence. .

The Auschwitz self could also experience the pleasures of obedience. For just as omnipotence becomes readily associated with sadism, so can powerlessness or impotence be associated with masochism. The fear experienced by the Auschwitz self had to do not only with specific superiors but with threats of being somehow dislodged from its balance of omnipotent power and impotent helplessness. It required that balance  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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