Bettleheim, Bruno. "The Specialty Was Murder," a review of The Nazi Doctors, by Lifton,
Robert Jay. (New York: Basic Books, 1986) New York Times Book Review, 5 October 1986, p.
This is a most flattering review of a book which, Bettleheim admits, he may not be able to
understand. As he puts it, there are some things which cannot be studied from a psychiatric,
psychoanalytic point of view, as there are some things which are beyond rational explanation.
The participation of physicians in the horrors of the extermination camps and other Nazi
atrocities is one of those things. Lifton has it that physicians were lured into participation by first
doing the little work, killing defective children or participating in abortions; they only gradually
moved on to mass murder. I am not sure that Lifton's argument is valid. Consider, what the
physicians did (identifying the patients, administering medicines [poisons], pronouncing death),
are just the things that physicians must routinely do. They were not doing things for which they
were not trained. They were using the usual skills of the physician and required no special
training to put those skills to work. Bettleheim insists that he must know "motives" before he
understands why people behave as they do. My own feeling is that people are capable of doing
what is normal for them regardless of the consequences.
Lifton reports that at least one physician described what he did as the removal of a racial
gangrene: Jews were an infection which had to be removed and he used his skills to remove that
infection. And it is here that I see the medicalization of extermination. Medicine is, despite its
rhetoric, a tool to be used for good or evil. Here it was used for harm.