Early in the excellent new documentary “Robert Lifton: Nazi Doctors,” co-director Wolfgang Richter expresses his concern to Dr. Lifton about the sheer immensity of the Holocaust as a topic for study. Lifton, who is the very soul of calm and equanimity throughout the film, replies quietly: “One can only do so much ... One has to fail to comprehend the entire event. It’s elusive, but one can capture or illuminate some portion of it.”
What is remarkable about Lifton’s achievement in his 1986 book “Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” is precisely how much of the big picture he is able to convey through his focus on an apparently small segment of the Nazi murder machine, the physicians who were involved in Auschwitz and the other death camps, many of whom he interviewed. The reason for the breadth of Lifton’s accomplishment is, he will tell you, because those doctors were “at the center of Nazi practice . . . theoretically and in practice.”
Speaking by telephone last week from his home in Wellfleet, Mass., Lifton, a psychiatrist, made a compelling case for that judgment.
“The Nazi ideologues — and the doctors weren’t ideologues — believe that they were essentially a biological movement,” the renowned psychiatrist, author and activist explained. “One Nazi doctor whom I interviewed said, ‘I joined the Nazi party the day after I heard a speech by Rudolph Hess in which he declared National Socialism was nothing but applied biology.’ The [Nazis] saw themselves as ridding the world of bad genes, especially the Jews, because they represented ‘a culture-destroying’ race, renewing the health of the Aryan race as a culture-creating race impaired by the infection of [presence of] the Jews. ... They conceived of the doctors as activist-biologists, at the center theoretically, in programs [that evolved] from coercive sterilization to euthanasia to the death camps.”
Lifton points to the “selections” at Auschwitz as the pivotal moment in the process.
“The key matter was how [the Nazis] put the doctors in charge of the selections at Auschwitz,” he said. “A lot of the selections were done by assistants; you didn’t really need much medical knowledge; anybody could tell if someone was too old or too young, as opposed to healthy adults. But doctors were put there to create the illusion of legitimating it ideologically. The doctors were put in charge of the killing process itself, not only in the selections, but in terms of carrying the actual gas to the gas chambers. It was inserted by assistants or the SS, but the doctors were in charge of declaring people dead afterwards, so they were in overall charge of the process.”
And these were the doctors that Lifton interviewed in their homes, in German, four decades after their crimes. When they spoke to him, were they seeking absolution from a Jewish colleague?
“They were looking for a kind of absolution,” he said. “But they manifested no direct guilt. There’s a tragic paradox at work here: the people who do the killing feel less of a sense of guilt than those they victimized. No Nazi doctor ever said to me, ‘I feel remorseful.’ What they did say was, ‘I’m happy now to be delivering children,’ an indirect expression of relief that now they weren’t killing them. But it’s still fending off guilt,” a distinctly different proposition from admitting it.
The study of Nazi doctors was hardly Lifton’s first exposure to people’s behavior in extremis. In fact, as a pioneer of psycho-historical research, Lifton has made something of a specialty of studying people surviving in the midst of death and horror, having written studies of survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, veterans who witnessed or participated in atrocities in Vietnam, and members of Aum Shinrikyo, the death cult that unleashed nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Are all of us capable of barbaric acts, of mass murder?
“I’ve learned in this work never to be absolute and to avoid loose generalization,” Lifton demurred. “From my work I learned how extensive is the potential for being socialized to evil. It takes the exceptional person to struggle against it in a situation where it’s pressed upon him or her. … It still matters that we have experiences in our families that sensitize us to human suffering, as does the kind of principles we evolve. Idea systems and forms of government are crucial to the ethics of human behavior. It’s an idea system that created Auschwitz. A key finding is that almost all the Nazi doctors were very ordinary people. They had a partial Nazi belief and some anti-Semitism, but they hadn’t killed anybody before they came to Auschwitz. Ideologies matter a great deal.”
Looking at Lifton’s Wellfleet home with its view of the sea and verdant surroundings, it is hard to imagine that such a world even exists somewhere else on this planet. That juxtaposition of the picturesque with the appalling is one of the key strategies in the structuring of the film. Not surprisingly, Lifton caught on immediately to what Richter and co-director Hannes Karnick intended.
“They liked the contrast between the dreadful things [we discussed] and the exquisite landscape,” Lifton recalled. “They wanted to film where things ‘happen’ for me, and the place where things happened for me is in my study. So it was a natural place for me to converse with them.”
The warmth and familiarity of the surroundings also had an impact on the tone of the film, as Lifton had hoped.
“I appreciated its informality,” he said. “We were talking naturally about unnatural events. [The film] talks in conversational fashion about the most extreme and unimaginable events. It’s a new extension for me of my work. I haven’t as much extended the whole thing conversationally to a public audience as I have in this film.”
Hopefully, the film will find an audience as thoughtful and probing as Lifton himself. n
“Robert Lifton: The Nazi Doctors,” directed by Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.), Oct. 6-12. Richter and Dr. Lifton will be present at the 8:10 screening on Oct. 6 and Lifton will be at the 8:10 screening the following day as well. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.