What I was feeling was still a lot of comfort that people had who were part of an evil structure and didn’t deserve that comfort. I felt in meeting most of these doctors in such comfortable settings that there was something wrong in the world
The questions were asked very incrementally, step-by-step. It wasn’t my goal to ask a shocking question to start with: “How many people did you kill?”
Killing of children …
One doctor I interviewed in Vienna was involved in the killing of children. I was struck by his remark, saying that, with these babies and little children, to whom they simply gave increasing does of sedatives until they became tired, comatose and died. He said it didn’t seem so much a killing as a ‘putting to sleep’. And that was his psychological defense or means of doing what he did.
Ordinary doctors joined in mass murder …
Very ordinary doctors who were neither fierce ideologues nor were they impressive moral characters, somewhere in between, ordinary people, ordinary Nazis, who had embraced the movement could, despite their anxiety or ambivalence could have their confidence overcome sufficiently to join in mass murder.
The real lesson of Auschwitz …
Most of these doctors had some anti-Semitism, there’s no doubt about it, but the adaptation to killing was at the heart of what they did. And that’s more subtle and in many ways even more dangerous, because if it were simply a matter of having to be a extreme ideologue, that would be more unusual and one could take steps to isolate such groups or whatever, but if a whole society, including the professionals in general and the doctors in particular can be socialized to killing, that’s much harder to combat. And it makes genocide relatively easier to carry out. That’s the real lesson of Auschwitz, a lesson carried particularly by these Nazi doctors
Psychiatrists having a role in the military …
I have been interested even recently in, for instance in psychiatrists having a role in the military, any military, that is conflicted and irresolvable because the function of the military is to kill, the function of physicians is to heal, but when you are enlisted by the military you are part of its bureaucracy and you join in some way in the killing function. That’s true of psychiatrists who are under pressure not to allow people to leave the combat zone, because that diminishes the power of command, or diminishes the military strength.
High technology of killing …
High technology of any kind, and I’ve mentioned this in all of my work in terms of weaponry and especially nuclear weapons, but high technology of any kind can distance one for what happens at the other end of the technology. The gas chambers are not high technology by present standards but they were a high technology of killing by the standards of that time, in terms of the efficiency of killing. Moreover, the gas chambers became routinized in their use. So that the doctor could be distanced from his killing, from his killing function, almost from the beginning. ... He knew people were being gassed and he sometimes looked in and saw them, but he was still distanced to a considerable degree by underlings doing most of the dirty work and by the technology of gassing, which is much more distancing than the technology of shooting people face to face.
Humane self and Auschwitz self
There are many levels to the explanation. What I call ‘doubling’ is the mechanism. For Wirths (Auschwitz Chief SS doctor) and others, doubling enabled them to do what they did. It’s really an aspect of the self that can adapt all too readily to evil because there’s another aspect of the self that sees itself as humane. It’s the humane self that in a way permits the evil self or Auschwitz self to function.
No absolute barrier between good and evil …
One has to realize that there’s no absolute barrier between good and evil. There’s no absolute polarization between the wonderfully good and the horribly evil, and that people who see themselves as trying to do good can inadvertently enter into evil. And again however inadvertently one becomes responsible and that means any of us, might under certain situations, find ourselves very close to or within a service to evil.
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