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The Nazi Doctors and Modern Torture Methods, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 860

Essay

In his book The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton describes the progression from sterilization to euthanasia in the German concentration camp, Auschwitz, while describing the admiration that Germans held for the United States’ efforts to forced sterilization on “undesirables” in the population. For Germans….  in the 1920s, establishing widespread compulsory sterilization became a sacred mission (Lifton.) This paper will discuss the path from sterilization to euthanasia in German concentration camps, defining the role of doctors in participating in genocide.  In addition, a comparison will be made between those practices and modern-day torture methods, discussing the differences between individual immorality and state-sanctioned immorality.

Hitler was clear about the necessity for sterilization for the purpose of “assembling and preserving the most valuable stocks of basic racial elements [and] … slowly and surely raising them to a dominant position” (Lifton.) Hitler’s regime made sterilization a priority, introducing an early sterilization law by declaring that Germany was being threatened racially and that severe measures were essential to prevent “death of the people”.  Basically, the Hitler regime adapted a goal approach to address “life unworthy of life,” who needed to be surgically sterilized, including people with mental illness, epilepsy, hereditary blindness and deafness, physical deformities and alcoholism.  This identified population was taken mostly from people who were institutionalized, but the plan was to identify greater numbers of people who would also need to be sterilized.

Ultimately, Nazis were able to recruit a wide array of German doctors, particularly psychiatrists, to help them operationalize the concept of the idea of “life unworthy of life” in order to sanction the murder of both children and adults.  Physicians argued that such a policy of killing was actually compassionate and complementary to the concept of medical ethics, such as when doctors were obligated to destroy life by, for example, terminating a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.  These doctors argue that they were providing a service to both individuals with maladies as well as to society by eliminating such members who would cost tremendous economic burdens for society, particularly those who are young, mentally ill, and physically healthy who would require a lifetime of institutional care.  German physicians who were believers in euthanasia expressed 100% certainty of the necessity of correct selection as well as the absolute certainty that there could be no improvement in the condition of people with mental deficiencies (Lifton.) Hence, doctors at Auschwitz were able to rationalize the need to kill concentration camp victims because they were racially substandard and therefore detrimental to the propagation of the German Society.

Three decades later, the Milgram experiment demonstrated that ordinary people were willing to inflict pain on perfect strangers if told to do so by authority figures, in the fashion that German citizens went along with the identifying, ghettoizing and ultimately murdering their fellow citizens because “they were only following orders.” For decades later, the experiment was repeated in the United States and once again, the sobering reality was that regular people were willing to administer a great deal of pain to innocent strangers as long as an authority figure instructed them to do so (Cohen.) The reality is that 45 years after the Holocaust, Americans were still willing to commit evil acts out of blind obedience.  In the experiment, individual immorality became the issue, as opposed to state-sanctioned immorality that characterized the Holocaust.

In another disturbing example of the lack of lessons learned from Germany in 1945, the complicity of doctors in the practice of torture was demonstrated by the release of a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2007.  Initially, the report was kept secret, likely due to the anticipation of “blowback” at the revelation that the United States had engaged in torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison (Medically Assisted Torture.) The report documented that various prisoners had been waterboarded, forced to stand for days without break, locked in small boxes, beaten and kicked, slammed into walls, experienced sleep deprivation as well as food, kept naked for weeks, and immersed in cold water.  As in Germany, medical personnel have been involved in these practices, serving as consultants who monitored the prisoners’ vital signs during the torture.  Chillingly, although the doctors did not direct the torture prisoners they enabled it and stood by, allowing it to happen without protest.  This was a state-sanctioned immorality, because it was ordered/approved/directed the United States government.

With the election of President Barack Obama, the United States had an opportunity to demonstrate that it practices its own ideals, including the illegality of torture and the prosecution of those who engage in it.  The fact that one from the previous administration was held accountable for ordering, sanctioning, and approving torture represents a terrible precedent.  Essentially, this means that the executive branch of our government is exempt from following the rule of law; the hypocrisy of this cannot be ignored.

Works Cited:

Cohen, Adam. “Four Decades after Milgram, We’re Still Willing two Inflict Pain.” The New Your Times (2008): A 24.

Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins, 1986.

“Medically Assisted Torture.” The New York Times (2009): A 26.

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