Published April 1, 1998
Healing by Killing by Nitzam Aviram, an Israeli director, is a documentary which pretty persuasively establishes the case that it was the Nazi practice of euthanasia for victims of handicap, mental retardation and so forth which led to the holocaust. “Without the psychiatric death industry,” as one of Aviram’s interviewees puts it, “Auschwitz and Treblinka would never have developed.” This film interviews survivors of the therapeutic death camps as well as some remarkably well-preserved doctors from the era who can now plausibly claim that they were not involved in real atrocity. As Robert Jay Lifton, another one of Aviram’s interviewees, puts it, those involved in the early euthanasia program were kept at a distance from what they were doing, no one person being in a position to see the whole process which issued in a death.
And then of course there is the saving euphemism. The inmates were delivered to the “hospitals” and “asylums” in postal vans, and outside notices were put up warning off trespassers on the grounds that “chemical experiments” were going on inside. A chill runs up the spine as one of the now aged former workers at the “Euthanasia Institute” speaks dispassionately about “the annihilation facilities.” As in the later death camps, the inmates were led into what they thought were showers to be gassed. A problem which didn’t come up when the death factories of Auschwitz and Treblinka were functioning, however, was that in the earlier killing camps, the staff had to fabricate a cause of death for the benefit of the inmates’ families.
At the time, as Lifton says, uneasy “doctors” and other staff members could tell themselves that “At least I’m doing something for science.” In psychiatric circles, when the euthanasia program was made known “there was very, very little protest—unfortunately. It was by and large accepted.” The involvement of doctors in running these institutions, and later Treblinka and Sobibor as well as gruesome medical “experiments” at Auschwitz, must give pause to anyone inclined to too high an opinion of the medical profession or to the pretensions of “science.” Hans Munch, a former Auschwitz doctor who asked to be transferred says that Himmler “sponsored all kinds of research facilities.” The scientific community (as we would say) “sung his praises then” though they condemned him later.
It is perhaps not too much to say that “It was the doctors who paved the way for the holocaust. . .It was medical ideology which led to Hitler and the Nazis,” since there is no reason to suppose that medical ideology is any more benign than the other ideologies which have killed so many in our century. But there is a particularly worrying aspect to any ideology that finds it so easy to stake a claim to “scientific” respectability. It is well to remember that, as Lifton recalls, “We [doctors] are descended from Shamans” and other primitive practitioners of sorcery and magic, so that people are in awe of our “magical powers to kill or heal.” That is why, he says, the Hippocratic oath is full of warnings against doing harm— “as if they knew doctors could be dangerous.”