Film Reviews

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: NAZI DOCTORS

By • Dec 23rd, 2010 •

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Who is Robert Lifton and why listen to him? Many drawn to this review do not have any idea of the man and his body of work. Others will remember a small part of his contribution (for all those I have included a bibliography of his work). What is important and underlies his concerns is his part in the development of psychohistory with Erik Erikson and his preoccupation with the kind of profound complex issues that others in the field of psychiatry have avoided. From thought control (brain washing), through the decision to use the Atomic bomb, the massacre at My Lai and the Nazi Doctors, Lifton has brought a sympathetic inquiry to both the victims and the perpetrators. Importantly, the reader is required to become part of that history through his writing, and make up their minds about these important issues.

VIEWING AND REVIEWING THIS DOCUMENTARY at the Film Forum in NYC, by award winning German directors Wolfgang Richter and Hannes Karnick, was a conflictual experience. Richter and Karnick previously worked on politically sensitive themes such as portrais of the trade unionist Willi Bleicher (he saved the child of Buchenwald) and Pastor Martin Niemoeller (the man who defied Hitler). I am sympathetic to their problems making this intimate film, and admiring of its subjective intent. For many, R. J Lifton is a true American hero, a man of dignity, wisdom and deep moral convictions. He continuously placed himself in interview situations that were deeply emotional and conflictual, touching on the pain and problems of post World War America. Only Segev’s interviews with former Nazi camp commanders has this powerful portraiture. Lifton created ground breaking work in interviewing the Nazi Doctors when a psychiatrist at Yale in the 1970. From this 7 year consuming and emotionally difficult work he wrote a preliminary book, recently revised that advanced three major points. 1) The conflict in the medical community of Germany was a conflict between healing and killing. 2) The borrowed idea of doubling from Rank, as a psychic survival mechanism that allowed the doctors to continue to function and to kill when trained to heal. And 3), atrocity inducing situation – a social, psychological and political event that evokes murderous behaviors in groups. While he intellectually hung some of his early ideas on the social adaptation to killing, this was not an original idea with him but emerged following the events in the Second European war. The acceptance of armies and killing groups, or more precisely groups dedicated to warfare and killing, is a very old idea, but what Lifton is concerned with is those Nazi Doctors, whose oath to heal were corrupted by a political system that changed their inner moral judgment. He carefully invited them to talk to him considerably after the war, and many of them agreed to talk to a Jewish doctor through interpreters. No small feat to accomplish

In this film, Lifton, now in his eighties, is lucid and incise, clear thinking and persuasive. But at the same time, oddly, seemingly without any emotional power of his convictions. His style is straightforward, sparse and linear like the cartoons he drew to ease his emotional strain. Much of the film is centered on Lifton’s face in the confines of his Wellfleet office where his psychohistory group met. Surrounded by his library and the allusions to his earlier findings, the film lacks some power. Perhaps Lifton’s conversational style that allowed people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and interests to talk with him and reveal their experience, lacks something when it is the central focus of the film. Yet the film, made for distribution in Germany was successful in drawing an audience there.

I believed strongly through the movie, and the Q and A with Dr Lifton that followed, that the film was misnamed; it should have been called CONVERSATION WITH A ETHICAL HERO. Certainly, although not in evidence in this documentary, Lifton undertook heroic tasks in asking his readers to understand the profound effects of moral conflicts affecting America since the dropping of the atomic bomb in the 1940’s.

The content of his deeply important efforts, in its minimalizing presentation, is at best vague. Lifton never explains or is asked about the origins of his interest in seeking out the surviving Nazi Doctors, nor about its impact on him and what he anticipated. He generously offered some insight into his interests in a personal interview for which I am thankful. Given that 65 years have elapsed since the war with Germany, the few under-30 members of the audience may not know the wide-ranging details of sanctioned medical killing in Germany. Lifton’s all too brief linking of compulsory sterilization, euthanasia and genocide obscures the real racial megalomania of the Nazis, passed on to their physicians and medical schools. As I believe the film was made by its politically sensitive directors for consumption in Germany, I am afraid it will be perceived as only an old man’s reminiscences: What a wasted opportunity.

The film is sparse and utterly focused on Lifton, no others were present except for some casual moments, lending a homey feeling to some scenes. The frequent cut-away scenes that are interspersed, of the Atlantic Ocean beach waves, initially are puzzling and take on, through their repeated appearance, a curious note. Are they giving time to digest the material or fear an emotional overload in the audience of the awful emotional material hinted at but never explicated? Lifton graciously confirmed the directors’ use of the Wellfleet beach scenes as a respite from the content. I, for one, am not sure it was needed.

A film honoring Lifton, or coming to grips with the increasing modernization of killing – ” lives not worth living” and of civilians legally defined as “unworthy” – in today’s conflicts between world cultures, may not be welcomed. Nor will Litton’s appraisal of the vulnerability of German Doctors, and of doctors in general, to corruption of their morals. In the latter, I again believe Lifton hints at deeper motives lurking behind the wish to heal in the origin of the wishes to be a doctor.

On a personal note I did not enter the viewing of the film as an admirer of Lifton, but although I believe the film is of mixed success as a documentary, I came away an admirer of my fellow Brooklynite. In the hour-long conversation we eventually were able to have concerning his varied interests and this film, I came to understand both the emergence of his interests and his style. He has placed himself as the psychological moderator for the study of deeply profound and pivotal issues. A moderator’s role is to enable others to speak through him. Perhaps no Nazi doctor would speak to anyone other than Lifton in this stance. As an interpreter of events, rather than a careful painter of a picture of conflictual decisions and personal belief as Lifton is, I wish to go deeper into the soul of these events. As if that wish is possible!

Having been a witness to many of these events at a much further distance than Lifton, I was drawn to his in-closer ” take” on these profoundly important pivotal moral conflicts. Moreso because his “take,” his confident vision, was different from my own. Absent from this documentary is the impact on Lifton, as a psychiatrist and as a thinking man, of his encounters with the pain of others and the kinds of atrocities that occur in political and military warfare. Those seeking the answer to questions of how human beings can become easily eliminated as in Hiroshima, Mi Lai, Viet Nam and Auschwitz will find little but clues here. The roads to mass murder, in its various forms, find little explanation in the memories of its survivors or its interviewed perpetrators. Not only time affects memories, but group affiliation and trauma governs memory. The problems with psychohistory are many: it reveals as much as it conceals. But like individuals, political groups and politics are also driven by emotions and fantasies. If psychoanalytic insights can travel outside the office, then history must teach. And someone should treat Lifton as obligatory in this age of continued profound murderous possibilities.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, Norton (New York City), 1961. edited excerpts available online

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, Random House (New York City), 1968.

Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Random House, 1968.

Birds, Words, and Birds (cartoons), Random House, 1969.

History and Human Survival: Essays on the Young and the Old, Survivors and the Dead, Peace and War, and on Contemporary Psychohistory, Random House, 1970.

Boundaries, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Toronto), 1969, published as Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution, Random House, 1970.

Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans–Neither Victims nor Executioners, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1973.

(With Eric Olson) Living and Dying, Praeger, 1974.

The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology, Simon & Schuster, 1976.

Psychobirds, Countryman Press, 1978.

(With Shuichi Kato and Michael Reich) Six Lives/Six Deaths: Portraits from Modern Japan (originally published in Japanese as Nihonjin no shiseikan, 1977), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1979.

The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1979.

(With Richard A. Falk) Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism, Basic Books (New York City), 1982.

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, August 2000( first edition 1986).

The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, Basic Books, 1987.

(With Eric Markusen) The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat, Basic Books, 1990.

The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, Basic Books, 1993.

(With Greg Mitchell) Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Putnam’s (New York City), 1995.

Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Owl Books, 2000.

(With Greg Mitchell) Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions, Morrow, 2000.

Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World, Nation Books, 2003.

Lifton as editor

The Woman in America, Houghton (Boston), 1965.

America and the Asian Revolutions, Trans-Action Books, 1970, second edition, 1973.

(With Richard A. Falk and Gabriel Kolko) Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibilities of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts of War, Random House, 1971.

(With Eric Olson) Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, Simon & Schuster, 1975.

(With Eric Chivian, Susanna Chivian, and John E. Mack) Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War, W. H. Freeman, 1982.

(With Nicholas Humphrey) In a Dark Time: Images for Survival, Harvard University Press, 1984.

During the 1960s, Robert Jay Lifton, together with his mentor Erik Erikson and MIT historian Bruce Mazlish, formed a group to apply psychology and psychoanalysis to the study of history. Meetings were held at Lifton’s home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, as it became known, focused mainly on psychological motivations for war, terrorism and genocide in recent history. In 1965, they received sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field of study. A collection of research papers by the group was published in 1975: Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers (see Bibliography; Lifton as editor).

Lifton’s work in this field was heavily influenced by Erikson’s studies of Hitler and other political figures, as well as Sigmund Freud’s concern with the mass social effects of deep-seated drives, particularly attitudes toward death.

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