Dr Robert Jay Lifton THE NAZI DOCTORS:
                        Medical Killing and the
                            Psychology of Genocide ©
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The Auschwitz Self: Psychological Themes  
of opportunity to create one’s own version of meaning. The substructure of chaos and nihilism made it an environment in which, as several former inmates put it, “everything was possible.” One could find meaning in extravagant killing (as did Mengele), in more moderate killing (as did most SS doctors), or in saving lives while living in harmony with the killing (as did B.). We know also, that meaning structures could become strained for the Auschwitz self: conflicts over selections on the part of Delmotte and Ernst B. are cases in point. But Auschwitz demonstrated itself to be sufficiently malleable to reassert meaning for both: for B. via avoiding selections (while helping prisoners); and for Delmotte via performing them. For Wirths, Auschwitz provided the opportunity for a moral crusade with improvements for virtually everyone, certainly for the killers. Rohde’s impulsive firing of a pistol just after performing selections (and drinking a bit) was also a breakdown of meaning; but here, too, Auschwitz was sufficiently flexible to permit him his expressionist protest as a way of enabling him to continue to select without interruption. Doubts about meaning are inevitable within institutions and movements, religious and secular. They are in fact necessary ingredients in that they reveal areas of difficulty and inspire methods of function that depend upon less than total ideological conviction.

For the Auschwitz self, doubt could be inundated by the call of the biological vision as well as the need for elements of ethos and ideology, however fragmentary, that enabled one to survive psychically in that land of death.

In other words the Auschwitz self was highly motivated toward what Mircea Eliade has called “transformation of chaos into cosmos,” toward those actions that “organized chaos by giving it forms and norms.”68 In Auschwitz, “cosmos” meant viable ethos, and men desperately sought meaning structures that harmonized self with ethos. Yet one could say of the Auschwitz self developed by doctors what Susanne Langer said about the Inca and sacrificial killing: “Their ethos always had a peculiar frangibility, extremes of royal pomp mingling with equally great extremes of wildness and backwardness … most evident in the contrast between … their bureaucracies and concepts of order and authority, and the very low level of their religious [or, in the case of the Nazis, ideological] thinking.”69

The Auschwitz Nazi ethos was rendered “frangible” by its very murderous extremity, yet, as we have observed, was buttressed by the many-sided elements of meaning that could work within that fragility. Again, we find (as does Loren Eiseley in an epigraph to this chapter) that man can make meaning of anything.70  
Medical Killing and the
Psychology of Genocide

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