Mar 14, 2014
The Examination of Evil
Posted on Aug 4, 2011
By Tom Artin
Lifton selects the stories of half a dozen Nazi doctors to represent the range of collaboration with the regime and personal extenuation this group of subjects presented to him. “Ernst B.” is the first case Lifton details, the Nazi doctor from whom he says he learned most about Auschwitz, an emotionally and morally complex man who at once had gone out of his way to save Jewish lives in the camp, yet was an outspoken admirer and friend of Josef Mengele, whom he described as “the most decent colleague I met there.” Over the course of their 30 hours of interviews, Lifton’s “feelings ran a full gamut from admiration to rage and everything in between.” He coins the term “socialization to evil” to characterize Ernst B.’s ability to accommodate himself to the horrors of Auschwitz.
Another case is that of Dr. Johann G.—before the war a prominent and highly regarded physician. In collaboration with the Nazis, he had participated in typhus experiments on prisoners, actions for which he offered Lifton (as well as the war crimes court that convicted and sentenced him to prison) elaborate rationalizations. Toward the end of his interviews, he implored Lifton to use his influence to “restore his professional standing and rehabilitate [him] in the eyes of the world.” When Lifton refused, Dr. G. suddenly wept uncontrollably for half a minute. This was not a conversion, however. “He wept because it was now clear that he would die without ever having cleared his name.” What he was mourning, according to Lifton’s judgment, was “loss of conviction in his own mind concerning his claim to honorable behavior in relation to the Nazi medical system. … ”
Lifton’s reaction to these tears—not of remorse, but self-pity—is instructive, as he navigates between objectivity and involvement: “I did not reassure him in any way, nor did I make any comment or interpretation. I simply remained silent until the tears stopped. … By then I was intent on viewing the episode in terms of its significance for my research. I was relieved to see him able to function again and very aware that something important—and perhaps appropriate—had happened between us.”
In the chapter “Historical Encounters,” Lifton recounts his interviews with five cases falling somewhat outside the general framework of his study of Nazi doctors, bookended by interviews with the celebrated ethologist Konrad Lorenz and with “Hitler’s architect,” Albert Speer. It proves to be one of the most interesting chapters in the book.
It comes as a shock to learn that Lorenz, that affable author of engaging tales of animal behavior, was—Lifton says unequivocally—a Nazi doctor. He quotes a statement Lorenz had written in 1940 on “racial hygiene,” calling for “a more severe elimination of morally inferior human beings than is the case today.”
The sketch of Speer at the far end of the chapter presents us with almost the inverse: We are familiar with Speer as a notorious Nazi, intimate with Hitler, and possibly his successor; we are surprised by his apparent remorse, and even stunned by his proposal that Lifton become his psychotherapist. Collaboration in Hitler’s grandiose architectural schemes offered Speer the fantasy of becoming “someone who is surviving his own life.” Power and architecture became for him the path to immortality. Together with Hitler, he would transform the world.
Lifton presses Speer on how much he knew about the destruction of the Jews. Though he admits to having shared the “standard” and “legalized” anti-Semitism of the era, in which “one felt at home,” Speer insists he was unaware of the specifics of extermination. Lifton expresses skepticism about Speer’s claim that, though he organized construction materials for Auschwitz, he knew nothing of its function as a killing factory, but rather surprisingly gives Speer the benefit of the doubt. Though Speer sensed that terrible things were happening to Jews, he stopped short of knowing the specifics, because, “I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see it.”
“One had two choices with Speer,” writes Lifton. “Either one could believe that he was consciously lying all along, or one could see him as involved in a sustained inner struggle around the psychology of knowing and not knowing. I favored the latter view. I thought he was ‘living a lie’ but that he had not experienced it as a lie. Because of his extreme psychic numbing, he had ceased to feel almost anything of the abuse and suffering of Jews. … His wish to focus exclusively on his emotional bondage to Hitler—and with my help find a ‘cure’ for it—was an effort to psychologize his Nazi behavior in a way that avoided ethical truths.”
Lifton’s summation of his experience with Speer is nicely emblematic of his lifelong scholarly MO: “Our interviews had revealed extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil—and … to learn about all this I had no choice but to sit in that room with him and his führer.”
If anything is missing from Lifton’s sketch of his scholarly method evolved over the decades, it is his relationship to the figure he refers to at one point as “the master,” and to whom he acknowledges a fundamental though unspecified debt: Sigmund Freud. At numerous points, he invokes the critique that Freudian categories are intellectually rigid, and that psychoanalytic practice adheres to narrow principles that ignore its patients’ broader humanity. In “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” Lifton goes so far as to draw parallels “between psychoanalytic training and the thought reform process.”
And yet he also concedes, “I was profoundly affected by the Freudian revolution. … I considered it one of the great revolutions of modern thought.” During his two years of psychiatric residency, “My best teachers by far were psychoanalysts, and I learned a lot from them about what we called ‘dynamic psychiatry,’ which emphasized such basic psychoanalytic principles as unconscious motivation and the importance of childhood development.”
But we are given no sense of what this essential debt to Freud actually is. Put another way, what is the positive side of Lifton’s ambivalence? Absent is a candid view of his relationship to the body of thought admittedly so foundational to his enterprise. Though Lifton nods at “unconscious motivation,” the unconscious scarcely appears in the memoir, and is not shown to have played much of a role in his synthesizing assessments. And if Freudian categories have tended (or been driven) toward reification, Lifton’s own terminology—totalism, psychic numbing, the protean self, nuclearism, animating guilt, doubling and the like—is no less vulnerable to degenerating into cant.
In his penultimate book, “Superpower Syndrome,” “a psychohistorical look at the United States as an aberrant force that endanger[s] everyone,” Lifton has addressed the ways in which his major themes—totalism, thought reform, nuclearism, atrocity-producing war-making, and the perversion of medical science in service to political power—are applicable to U.S. global militarism. America’s apocalyptic impulses, he argues, do not differ in kind (though to be sure in degree) from those of the extremists who smashed the World Trade Center. His comparison has been shocking to some. “It was a radical argument. … While many Americans had soured on the Bush administration, it was quite another thing to attribute to our country a consistent pattern of violent extremism carried out in the name of a democratic mission, of a ‘war on terror.’ But I wished to hold nothing back.”
Tom Artin is the author of “Earth Talk: Independent Voices on the Environment,” “The Allegory of Adventure” and “The Wagner Complex.”
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