In this rich opening chapter of his work on the Nazi doctors, Lifton lays out the groundwork for answering the question of how German doctors became the agents of Hitler’s vision of the purified Aryan race, sterilizing involuntarily several hundred thousand citizens with a variety of mental and physical deficiencies. His answer, in brief: a romanticized genetics coupled with total political control.

Amazingly, the Nazi medical atrocities were carried out not against the opposition of Germany’s medical establishment, but with its approval. (Of course, there were individual dissenters, the more vocal of whom were removed from positions of authority or put to death). Nazi leaders worked hard to convert medical people to the official position. This was accomplished partly by force, but also partly by metaphor, as the normal language of medicine was used to hide the unethical nature of what doctors were being asked to do.

Individual patients were replaced by the racial term "Volk," meaning the (Aryan) people, and their rights were superceded by their doctors’ new duty to assure the health of this collective political idea. According to Nazi publicity, the Aryan race was in grave danger of "Volkstod," of dying out, because its genetic pool had been contaminated both by the transmission of inherited genetic defects and by the "foreign invasion" of Jews and their intermingling with members of the "superior" Aryan race.

To save their new patient, German doctors were expected to carry out the sterilizations, medical experiments, and, later, the euthanasia required by Nazi doctrine, which, in the words of one Nazi writer, declared that "misery can only be removed from the world by painless extermination of the miserable." Doctors were urged not to worry about ethical issues, because Nazi medicine was "nothing but applied biology."

In these ways, says Lifton, Hitler’s racial policies were ’medicalized’ and their evil made less obvious. Those who went along were billed as the "saviors of mankind," the "alert biological soldiers" whose actions would restore the purity of the Aryan race. Jewish doctors were not invited, of course, their research having been officially discredited in the mid-1930s, Lifton tells us, and their medical licenses revoked in 1939--in spite of the fact that they made up half the doctors in some large cities.


Nazi Germany is not the only place where medicine has been influenced, even distorted, by politics. Lifton sets his discussion against the background of eugenics movements in other countries, remarking that in the 1920s the U. S. had a set of eugenics laws and practices that made the Nazis envious. In an essay in this database, Ehrenreich and English argue that sexual politics distorted American medicine in the 19th century (see annotation of The Sexual Politics of Sickness), and the film Miss Evers’ Boys gives us an American example from our own century of the distortion of medicine by the politics of race(see annotation).

Primary Source

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide


Basic Books

Place Published

New York



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