The philosophy of Nazi Doctors and why it is still relevant today.
“The herd man…makes himself out to be the only permissible kind of man and glorifies the qualities through which he is tame, peaceable and useful to the herd as the real human virtues….”
In his excellent and oft overlooked book on the psychology of the herd-like and enthusiastic compliance of Germany’s doctors and scientists to Hitler’s agenda, Nazi Doctors, Jay Lifton explains how tainted science and the reduction of people to abstraction can propel doctors to become killers. It’s worth a read in that it’s both chilling and relevant to events of today. Before the Holocaust took on its gruesome shape, but when its seeds had already been planted, the preponderance of German doctors embraced Nazi ideology, became willing party members, and helped Hitler to legitimate and execute his racial program. How was this possible? German doctors were progressive and the best educated in the world; as Alan Roth and I will show in our upcoming book, A Fork in the Road in Baltimore, Americans modeled our medical education system on German medical thinking at the time. How did these progressive science-oriented doctors become Hitler’s willing henchmen?
It’s easy for people to manipulate science so that it justifies certain acts. We’ve seen it throughout history. As I showed in a prior blog, John Calhoun, the justifiably maligned spokesman for white supremacy and slavery, clearly had his day’s “science” on his side of the slavery argument, while the abolitionist case was antithetical to established scientific truths. Such too was the case with Nazi doctors, who borrowed much of their scientific dogma from established American scientific creeds embraced across the bastions of medical and academic circles under the name Eugenics. Doctors in Germany and America clung to science, but never questioned it. They cited it as justification for their acts, but never wondered if it was accurate or even dangerous. Science became what they were told it was supposed to be. In that way, doctors followed someone else’s script, called it science, and never let any doubt hamper their resolve. Like doctors today, science to them was an unassailable truth.
But is science always truthful, and if not, are doctors responsible for their misdeeds if they adhere unquestioningly to what they are told is scientifically valid?
As Agamben states about those who distinguish our own pristine views from those of the Nazi’s: “I would remind them that Eichmann never failed to reiterate — apparently in good faith — that he did what he did according to his conscience, in order to obey what he believed were the precepts of Kantian morals. A norm which affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is as false and contradictory as that which, in order to protect freedom, imposes the renunciation of freedom.” Once science justifies marginalizing some lives to save the life of the nation, once it takes on a life of its own that is not questioned, then it becomes very dangerous. It is still science, it is still declared to be a proven truth, but it is a tool to justify misdeeds. Germany’s doctors adhered to the most revered and established tenants of science when they joined with Hitler to carry out his agenda. To them, they were using the best of science to help the German people, all under the protection of the law.
Only when we understand their actions this way can we hope to learn from their errant ways. Doctors, it seems, are often on the wrong side of history, often the perpetrators of history’s greatest tragedies, all in the name of science. They are, to cite Nietzsche’s quote, herd-creatures who follow what they are told if someone tells them they’re supposed to, if someone tells them it is scientifically valid. They don’t want to buck the herd, don’t want to ask too many questions and be troublesome. So, with science as their backbone, a science they are told is true but which they never investigate on their own, they comply. Part of their brain may wonder if it’s right to inflict harm on some people as a necessary and scientifically valid prerequisite for saving others, but most of their brain says: it must be so, all the other doctors are doing it too, and they say it’s what we’re supposed to do. In that way, little has changed.
Lifton begins his tale in Germany during the early Nazi years, when the medical philosophy of sterilizing the handicapped began in earnest. This program was almost entirely based on a scientifically and legally sanctified American eugenic medical credo: the only way to save the population of a nation was to expunge its bad genes through sterilization, anti-misogyny laws, and immigration restrictions. In fact, in America, law (validated by the Supreme Court due to the overwhelming scientific proof of its necessity) enabled sterilization of the handicapped, and in many states the brutal act (by today’s standards) was carried out under both legal and scientific protection; it was considered both benign and lifesaving. A good look at the credo of sterilization, endorsed fully by America’s medical community at the time, is in the book Imbeciles. As Agamben would say, science gave doctors the tools to justify taking away some life to preserve the life of others and of the nation.
In Nazi Germany, doctors and the public enthusiastically embraced the euthanasia movement that both sterilized and eliminated mentally and physically undesirable people. This occurred at the direction of the Nazi state under the watchful eyes of progressive German doctors; tens of thousands of people were stripped of their lives and their ability to procreate, all under the auspices of proven science. Few doctors in Germany batted an eye. Few doctors in America batted an eye.
It was a short step from the sterilization/euthanasia program to the Nuremberg laws that denied citizenship and rights to Germany’s Jews. Again, these laws were couched in scientific language; the Nazi’s at the time were not intent on killing Jews, rather just marginalizing them and excluding them from society, making them—as Agamben would say—bare life, life biologically alive but deprived of all rights and privileges. And again, these laws were predicated on American law at the time that had done the same thing to many of its citizens including African Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, Jews, Italians, and the handicapped, all with the explicit blessing from our nation’s medical community.
James Whitman in his book Hitler’s American Model makes it very clear that the last two Nuremberg laws, those that deprived Jews of their rights, were based on American juridical precedents. Eugenic science in our nation was the justification for laws that restricted the immigration of certain genetically inferior groups, prevented marriage between blacks and whites, limited citizenship for certain lesser groups, and allowed sterilization of the handicapped. Such laws, endorsed by America’s medical community and sanctified by our nation’s liberal Supreme Court justices as scientifically valid, became the blueprint for the Nazi agenda.
Again, Germany’s doctors who supported Hitler were not vicious killers on the fringes of society but were part of the scientific mainstream and believed that their acts were scientifically and humanistically necessary. Whitman even shows how some Jews supported the Nazi’s and their agenda, only later retreating from its boomeranging assault on them. The Nazi propaganda network—their version of CNN—touted the American example, the scientific justification, and the overwhelming support of the nation’s doctors in carrying out these campaigns. Clearly, that the medical community stood behind what the Nazi’s carried out helped to legitimate it to the entire German nation.
And this is the crucial part of the story. Much of Lifton’s book gets into the minds of the Nazi doctors who helped to run the death camps. Moving from sterilization to restrictions of rights to death camps was all done seamlessly under the veil of science, and again the nation’s doctors played a vital role in justifying and executing the final solution. Such doctors were not evil. Many were progressive and scientifically oriented. Most understood the perfidy of what they were doing, and many had to drink heavily to numb their minds. Others worked with Jewish doctors in the camps to save as many lives as possible. But the underlying assumptions that led them to that point—the idea that science could be used to justify the removal of human beings from society—never left them.
Clearly, the doctors who supported early Nazi efforts of sterilization of “the unworthy” and restrictions placed on Jews could not have imagined or endorsed Hitler’s Final Solution. But their early embrace of eugenic science that they did not question, their willingness to accept that some lives were expendable to save others, their limited knowledge of what they touted to be scientifically valid all laid the bricks for the Holocaust and the German people’s willingness to accept it.
Which brings us to today. It would be both inappropriate and erroneous to label America’s doctors as anything resembling the Nazi’s. But we have to state that with some caution. The seeds of the Final Solution were benign appearing. The doctors who planted them were caring, scientific, smart professionals who simply were doing what they were told was right and who the German people trusted to tell them the truth. The most egregious crimes they committed were: not asking enough questions, not considering who these policies could harm or somehow justifying that harm, and accepting as scientific truth what the authorities told them.
Those qualities, sadly, are exactly what today’s doctors are guilty of, a trend that started well before COVID hit our shores. As Alan Roth and I will show, and as I’ve discussed in prior blogs, our entire medical liturgy is predicated on fallacious assumptions fed to doctors by drug companies and other players in the medical industrial complex, and then spit back by doctors to the populace as unassailable fact. Doctors have been dousing the public with mythical tests and cures, with snake-oils and patent medicines, for decades; as our health care budget exploded from a $600 billion to $4 trillion, we are living shorter, sicker lives, all because people are following the scientifically valid prescriptions of our doctors. Doctors rarely dig into the gospel they preach; they rely on information spoon fed to them, and they simply dole it out. It’s profitable for them to ask no questions, and they’ve convinced society that they know best.
When COVID hit our shores, our doctors had a responsibility to make sure that we protected the vulnerable and did not harm others less vulnerable. That we understood the science behind everything we did, both the risks and the benefits, and that we weren't bullied down a path that was scientifically irresponsible and dangerous. That we protected the public from false cures and dangerous policies, that we spoke the truth, that we challenged everything the government and pundits told us that we had to do. But that is not what happened.
As Sweden’s heath minister said early in the crisis: “It was as if the world had gone mad, and everything we had discussed was forgotten. The cases became too many and the political pressure got too strong . . . In the same way that all drugs have side effects, measures against a pandemic also have negative effects. At an authority like ours, which works with a broad spectrum of public health issues, it is natural to take these aspects into account.”
Sweden’s measured policy of protecting the vulnerable and not harming everyone else—a policy that people like Scott Atlas, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta tried so hard to gain traction in this country—led to the fewest excess deaths in the world while kids went to school and society remained open. But our doctors universally assailed that policy, and even do today. They cling to the Fauci/Birx dogma of stopping all COVID cases no matter what the cost, not worrying about the deaths and misery caused by the quarantine, relying on cheap tricks like masks and school closures, vaccinating kids (who are not vulnerable) with an experimental vaccine, and most onerous of all not protecting the elderly. Their myopic and blind endorsement of a policy that is medically negligent, scientifically invalid, and frankly dangerous and ineffective has led to massive deaths from both COVID and the cure.
Have our doctors, in their blind acceptance of pseudo-science and their refusal to stare its failure in the eyes, planted seeds of preventable devastation in this nation? Are they responsible for the COVID deaths that could have been averted in the elderly, the ruined lives of those they locked up unnecessarily, the damage to our children and to the working poor, the censorship and loss of freedoms of any who sought to question the Fauci/Birx gospel, the unprecedented coercion of executive power over Americans under the guise of scientific necessity? Why did they fail to protect Americans from a false creed wrapped in an easily discernable pseudo-science, and instead decide to spread that creed without understanding it or its deleterious consequences? Did they, like the misled doctors of yore, willingly sacrifice the lives of some to in a false belief that such sacrifices were necessary to save the lives of others?
If so, how then are they any different than the Nazi doctors, whose early foray into eugenic science justified their own endorsement of the seeds of a mass destruction? Nazi doctors weren't evil or unscientific, they were just not willing to challenge the herd and so became accomplices to a great crime. How are our doctors any different?
These are questions we must ask, as uncomfortable as they are. For if indeed our doctors are compliant with a dogma that they preach and follow with unfettered conviction but which they don’t fully understand, if they endorse policies that harm people in preventable ways and don’t protect those who need our help, if their science allows them to engage in rituals and beliefs antithetical to science and harmful to society, then how do we forgive them? And shouldn’t we look them in the eyes and ask: what in your training and your practice allowed you to be so naively acquiescent of something you pushed so hard on the American people and yet which you did not understand? Should this not prompt us to reevaluate and redesign the entire medical educational system?
Or should we simply let our doctors off the hook, accept that they tied and maybe even were heroes, and thus we will let them go back to business as usual? Should we allow our doctors to return to their herd, where they have inflicted so much damage on society in a naïve belief that they were following science and working for the public good?
Scott Atlas’s harrowing account of his tenure in the COVID task force, trying so hard to nudge our nation down a road of humanity and science, of protecting the vulnerable and not harming others, of showing facts to doctors and other Americans so they can best understand and confront the COVID crisis, made me cry. His story was my story, was so many of our stories. We tried so hard to fight against an entrenched medical and scientific community that dominated the airwaves and fed our politicians and public with deceptive myths and lies, only to see the herd stamp on us and tell us we were at fault. He writes:
“Is the herd mentality so powerful, is fear such a dominant emotion, that all critical thinking and values disappear?... Elite research universities, public health agencies, and top scientific journals quickly fell in line with herd thinking about the pandemic. Instead of open and free discourse to see the scientific truths underlying urgently needed solutions, we have seen silencing, censoring, and slandering of scientists whose interpretations differed from the desired narratives.”
Our doctors, by not questioning the myths and rituals pushed on Americans as being singularly necessary solutions, by shutting their eyes to the facts and the implications that what they were endorsing was not slowing the virus in the vulnerable and was harming others, by not seeking other solutions or listening to other opinions, have been part of a crime that cannot be pushed aside under the premise that doctors were trying their best. Says Atlas about Fauci, Birx, and the COVID taskforce whose gospel became the gospel of America’s doctors:
“In the end, the most egregious failure of the Task Force was its complete and utter disregard for the harmful impact of its recommended policies. This was outright immoral, an inexplicable betrayal of their most fundamental duty. I have no doubt it will go down as one of the greatest public health failures in history.” This is a failure that sits on the laps of America’s medical community, the one group of people who could have used their training and critical thinking skills to right the ship and save lives instead of being—like their predecessors—mindless herd creatures who willingly carried out horrific deeds under the thin veneer of the twisted creed of false science and warped humanism.
In this way, they are no different that German’s doctors in the 1930’s. This we can never forget.