Magazine article Tikkun

The Genocidal Mentality

Magazine article Tikkun

The Genocidal Mentality

Article excerpt

Vol. 5, No. 3. 1990.

(original editor's note: Robert Lifton's important work exploring the psychological mechanisms that allowed us to accommodate ourselves to the possibility of nuclear war led him to a similar investigation of the role that experts played in the Nazi machine. His book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing & the Psychology of Genocide explores some of these issues. The following piece, based on a talk, . . . raises an important perspective on how to think about the transformations in consciousness necessary to build a post-Cold-War world.)

In this kind of work one must struggle to combine mind and heart. Somewhere in the intellectual history of the West there developed the wrongheaded idea that mind and heart are antagonists, that scholarship must be divested of emotion, that spiritual journeys must avoid intellectual concerns. In my view, quite the opposite is true. Who has ever heard of an outstanding piece of scholarship that was not infused with moral passion? Or of a powerful spiritual quest that did not include intellectual clarity? . . .

One friend, an Auschwitz survivor deeply concerned about the work, asked, in reference to the Nazi doctors doing what they did, "Were they beasts or human beings?" And when I answered that they were human beings and that was the problem, his reply was an interesting one: "But it is demonic that they were not demonic." What he meant was that it would be easier for us, psychologically and morally, if Nazi doctors had the mark of Cain on their foreheads, or if they were clearly insane, or belonged to some category that separated them absolutely from the rest of us. But actually they were very ordinary men who were corruptible and could be socialized to evil. . . .

What can we learn from Nazi doctors? Let me mention three principles that have enormous importance for our present world.

The first has to do with the power of a genocidal ideology. In the Nazi case, that genocidal ideology included killing in the name of healing and a pseudo-biological or "biomedical" worldview. . . .

A second major lesson from Nazi doctors has to do with the direct involvement of professionals, most of them ordinary professionals. . . . One must not speak of de-professionalization in Nazi Germany, but rather of the professions becoming reconstituted so that medicine could become killing in the name of healing, law could become legitimation of that killing, and theology its spiritual justification. . . .

A third lesson to be learned from Nazi doctors has to do with states that make possible genocidal projects. Here I would emphasize what can be called a dissociative field, which can include patterns I have described as psychic numbing and as doubling. . . . The people involved in this dissociative field are in no way abnormal in a clinical psychiatric sense. Indeed, the mentally ill do relatively little harm to a society. It is the normal people who are dangerous, as they take on patterns of numbing and doubling that enable them to sever connections between knowledge and feeling in pursuing potentially genocidal projects. . . .

We must clearly recognize the historical uniqueness of the attempt to round up every Jew from anywhere in the world for mass murder, and of the further impulse toward the mass murder of other peoples and the creation of what has been called a "genocidal universe. …

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