August 5, 2003


Death as Deliverance: Euthanatic Thinking in Germany ca. 1890-1933 (J. Daryl Charles, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity)
While it is commonly assumed that the moral atrocities associated with the Holocaust were the exclusive domain of Adolf Hitler and his loyal henchmen Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer, this was only the final act, as it were, of a narrative whose beginnings are traceable to the turn of the century. Indeed it would appear, as authors as diverse as Alexander Mitscherlich, Robert Jay Lifton, Michael Burleigh, and Wesley Smith have documented, that the path to medical evil was prepared "long before Nazism was even a cloud on the German horizon." One of the tragic legacies of social Darwinism, rooted in the presupposition of biological determinism, is that it assisted in giving justification--frequently couched in the language of "compassion"--to the elimination of lebensunwertes Leben, life that is unworthy of living, or, in the language of Darwinists, life that is simply unfit.

In addition to the ascendancy of biological determinism, an important step in legitimizing the killing of the weak, the infirm, the terminally ill, and the incompetent was the shift in ethos among medical doctors and psychiatrists several decades prior to WWII. Historian Robert Proctor has argued persuasively that the Nazi experiment was rooted in pre-1933 thinking about the essence of personhood, racial hygienics and survival economics and that physicians were instrumental both in pioneering research and in carrying out this program. In fact, Proctor is adamant that scientists and physicians were pioneers and not pawns in this process. By 1933, however, when political power was consolidated by National Socialists, resistance within the medical community was too late. Proctor notes, for example, that most of the fifteen-odd journals devoted to racial hygienics were established long before the rise of National Socialism.

Few accounts of this period are more thoroughly researched than Michael Burleigh's Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany ca. 1900-1945. Particularly important is Burleigh's discussion of psychiatric reform and medical utilitarianism during the Weimar period. During the years of WWI, it is estimated that over 140,000 people died in German psychiatric asylums . This would suggest that about 30% of the entire pre-war asylum population died as a result of hunger, disease or neglect. Following the war, evidence indicates that a shift in the moral climate had begun. In the Spring of 1920, the chairman of the German Psychiatric Association, Karl Bonhoeffer, testified before Association members at the GPA annual meeting that "we have witnessed a change in the concept of humanity"; moreover, in emphasizing the right of the healthy to stay alive, which is an inevitable result of periods of necessity, there is also a danger of going too far: a danger that the self-sacrificing subordination of the strong to the needs of the helpless and ill, which lies at the heart of any true concern for the sick, will give ground to the demand of the healthy to live.

According to Burleigh, Bonhoeffer went on in the 1930s to offer courses that trained those who in time would be authorized with implementing sterilization policies introduced by the National Socialists.

Already in the 1890s, the traditional view of medicine that physicians are not to harm but to cure was being questioned in some corners by a "right-to-die" ethos. Voluntary euthanasia was supported by a concept of negative human worth -- i.e., the combined notion that suffering negates human worth and the incurably ill and mentally defective place an enormous burden on families and surrounding communities. It is at this time that the expression "life unworthy of being lived" seems to have emerged and was the subject of heated debate by the time WWI had ended.

One notable "early" proponent of involuntary euthanasia was influential biologist and Darwinian social theorist Ernst Haeckel. In 1899 Haeckel published The Riddle of the Universe, which became one of the most widely read science books of the era. One of several influential voices contending for the utility of euthanasia, Haeckel combined the notion of euthanasia as an act of mercy with economic concerns that considerable money might thereby be saved.

Further justification for euthanasia in the pre-WWI era was provided by people such as social theorist Adolf Jost and Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. According to Ostwald, "in all circumstances suffering represents a restriction upon, and diminution of, the individual and capacity to perform in society of the person suffering." In his 1895 book Das Recht auf den Tod ("The Right to Death"), Jost set forth the argument--an argument almost forty years in advance of Nazi prescriptions--that the "right" to kill existed in the context of the higher rights possessed by the state, since all individuals belong to the social organism of the state. Furthermore, this was couched in terms of "compassion" and "relief" from one's suffering. Finally, the right to kill compassionately was predicated on biology, in accordance with the spirit of the age: the state must ensure that the social organism remains fit and healthy.

In 1933, with the accession of the National Socialists to power, two developments that had reached their critical mass were promptly codified into law. One was the long-discussed sterilization program, which had been debated but had not achieved majority support. The second was authorized euthanasia. The proposal, issued by the German Ministry of Justice, was reported on the front page of The New York Times and stated:

"It shall be made possible for physicians to end the tortures of incurable patients, upon request, in the interests of true humanity." Moreover, the Ministry ensured, "no life still valuable to the state will be wantonly destroyed."

From there on in it's easy. The State having displaced society, religion, and morality, all that's left of one's humanity is the value science places on it. And science, as we're told, is just a rational process, -INTERVIEW: with Robert Jay Lifton (Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley )
Q: In this work on the Nazi doctors your focus on historical processes and psychological processes come together as you account for the way the medical profession participated in the extermination of the Jews at the Auschwitz camp. Let's talk a little about the psycho-historical principle of the Nazi regime and how it combined with the psychological processes within the doctors which you call "doubling."

A: One reason that I embarked on a study of Nazi doctors was that in this personal journey, I had the feeling increasingly that I did want to do a Holocaust study and that increasingly I wanted it to be of perpetrators, which I thought was more needed. I was involved with ideas about survivors but a lot of work had been done on them and very little on the psychology of perpetrators.

Q: So you moved from survivors to perpetrators.

A: That's right, in studying Nazi doctors. And when somebody, in fact, who had been my editor part of the time for my study of Hiroshima survivors called me up and said he had some interesting materials on a trial of doctors, it involved mainly doctors in Frankfurt, and wanted to show them to me, I really jumped at that opportunity to make that the beginning of a study of Nazi doctors, because they were revealed to me to have been very important in the killing process. And the way that I came to see it as I studied it more was that the Nazis, especially Hitler and his inner circle, really viewed their whole movement as mainly biological. One Nazi doctor whom I interviewed put it in words like this: "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." And the applied biology for the Nazis was finding some way to heal or cure the Nordic race. The idea was, partly in Hitler's writings, the Nordic race was the only creative race, that could create culture. The other races could sustain it but not create it. And the Jewish "race" was a culture-destroying race. But the Jewish race had infected the Nordic race and something had to be done to get rid of that infection. So this is, in a sense, a biological kind of process and I called it in my work, a "biomedical vision" at the heart of Nazism. And that was a major reason why they focused so centrally on the doctors as a group, which Hitler emphasized very early on: doctors were especially important to the whole Nazi project. And it turned out to be that way, as I found in my work.

Q: And so this Nazi ideology lifted up the doctors but internally. Tell us a little about this process of "doubling" and how healers became killers at the Auschwitz camp.

A: One dimension was the large psycho-historical dimension we just talked about, that biomedical vision. But the other dimension was what you are raising now, the nitty-gritty way in which a doctor who is trained to heal instead becomes part of the killing mechanism. A lot of things made it happen, and there's a process that can be called "socialization to evil." Nazi doctors joined the party seeking the promise of revitalization that Hitler offered. That's joining the medical profession, which is a group of its own, and then the military, and then being sent to a camp -- all those were groups they became part of and were socialized to. The socialization to evil, I discovered, is all too easy to accomplish. These doctors had not killed anybody until they got to Auschwitz, so they weren't extraordinary killers to start with. They were ordinary people who in that way were socialized to evil.

It could be the epitaph of the Third Reich: Nothing but applied biology.

-ESSAY: The Nazi Doctors: We are in the process of redefining what it is that has inherent worth in our culture from human beings just simply because they are humans that have worth, to states of existence having worth. (Gregory Koukl, Stand to Reason)
-ESSAY: Ernst Haeckel and the Biogenetic Law
-ESSAY: "Paranoid Visions": Germ Theory, Ernst Haeckel, and the Biopolitics of Warfare" (Adam Dodd) Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2003 9:09 PM
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