What have we learned from history?

By Nina K. Thomas, PhD

At 86 years old he is stooped and looks physically frail, despite the contrasting shock of his full head of white hair. His apparent physical frailty belies the keenness of his mind and the strength of his voice with which he continues to speak out against evil, in particular the abuse of doctors’ “mythic” role in society.

Psychiatrist and peace activist Robert Jay Lifton and his research are the central subjects of Robert Jay Lifton and The Nazi Doctors, an extended filmed interview with him that was shown at New York’s Film Forum on October 6, 2010. It will be in national release in the United States in January 2011. I looked forward to the screening with keen interest since Lifton himself would be in attendance and, along with one of the film’s directors, Wolfgang Richter, would participate in a question and answer session following the screening.

In writing this essay I see how much my anticipation of Lifton’s commentary colored my experience of the film. Like many others both within and outside the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I hold Lifton in high esteem as an heroic figure for his valuable and penetrating examinations of the psychology of power and of terror and its perpetrators. Since viewing Nazi Doctors, however, my sense of the film qua film has shifted markedly. I find myself returning to the absence of representation that I needed for the film to have had an impact beyond its critical subject. Equally, my reaction to the film was shaped by my having seen another film the previous evening. Again a Film Forum offering, it was entitled: Nuremberg: It’s Lesson for Today. Together the two films carried me over a cascade of thoughts about and reactions to the legacy of catastrophic trauma, its representation and its meanings and cautionary lessons more than half a century later. Robert Jay Lifton and the Nazi Doctors is “un-cinema;” a spare, highly intellectual treatment of those physicians who were the foot soldiers of the Nazi plan to eradicate all “contaminants” of the Aryan gene pool.

Lifton’s research on which the documentary is based, Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, was first published in 1986 based on his extensive interviews in 1978 and 1979 with 40 doctors who carried out the Nazi‘s “purification” through “direct medical killing” of “life unworthy of life” (Lifton, 2000, p.21). In the film Lifton describes his research and his experience of engaging the doctors in conversation.

Nazi Doctors, the documentary, focuses almost entirely on Lifton at home on Cape Cod, in conversation with the films’ off camera directors, with the occasional cut-away to shots of the ocean or the beach around Lifton’s home. The few visual images that anchor the film in its historical subject occur at the film’s opening—a pile of broken dolls, the grass covered railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. Both Lifton and Richter describe their choice to limit the visual field as designed to create the feeling of conversation about extreme events and invite the viewer into their dialogue: “speaking in ordinary terms” about “the most difficult matters to take in” (Lifton, October 6, 2010). However, the lack of either archival footage or visual representation of what is being talked about renders the film an intellectual rather than affective experience. Richter asserts that “what might be the problem nowadays is…all the cruelty in our minds. The pictures which are evoked in my mind are much stronger than all these things we have seen thousands of times.” (Wolfgang Richter, October 6, 2010). Although his premise is psychoanalytically interesting, ultimately his choice impoverishes the film itself. As one reviewer wrote:

Since this is all secondhand storytelling, the flesh-and-blood people being analyzed never seen or heard from, they’re depersonalized and distanced from us. These men of Mengele are portrayed only in the abstract, so how could we possibly be moved to be disgusted and horrified by their actions? Ultimately, we feel nothing toward them. Which happens to be exactly how the Nazi doctors were able to kill with such a clean conscience. (Lauren Wissel, October 3, 2010)

My viewing of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, was a very different experience. The film documents the 1945 trial of the engineers of the Nazi killing machine, among them Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goring and others. Constructed of filmed portions of the trial as well as films discovered in Nazi archives and edited for use as evidence, Nuremberg was released in 1948 only in Germany. The history of the filmmaking and ultimate “suppression” (it was never previously shown in the United States; its original negative “lost“), is a powerful lesson in the propaganda machinery behind postwar “recovery.” [1]

Among the chilling aspects of Nuremberg are the images. As much as I have seen of, read about, listened to and thought I knew about the Holocaust, it was the images of men and women in Germany and Poland; the accused themselves; the rubbled landscape and impoverished people of Germany and its concentration camps; the children, the corpses and the then experimental use of carbon monoxide to exterminate the first victims of gassing, led away naked, that imprint the unspeakable horror of the events on me and, I venture, on any viewer. Few of them were new to me. Yet their horror was undiminished. Lifton’s statement quoted at the opening of this essay: “to permit one’s imagination to enter into the Nazi killing machine--to begin to experience that killing machine--is to alter one’s relationship to the entire human project. One does not want to learn about such things” (2000, p.3), aptly characterizes the immense difficulty I experienced in watching, not Nazi Doctors but Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. Occasionally I could not look and felt as though I failed in bearing witness to the horrors of the past; that I was, in averting my gaze, unwilling to take it in and in not doing so was betraying the victims who had perished in those places and in those ways.[2]

How can such catastrophic trauma as occurred in the Holocaust be represented without creating pornography? Does our repeated exposure to such images ex-sanguinate them of meaning? Does their repetition risk becoming, as Anthony orates over the dead body of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play:

“…dreadful objects so familiar

That women shall but smile when they behold

Their infants quartered by the hands of war” (Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc 2)

To include or not include the images of victims and perpetrators raises a telling problem. Where is the informed consent to use a person’s tragedy for whatever purpose, voyeuristic or heuristic? One colleague opined that the victims are dead, thus their “informed consent” is moot. But is it truly moot or merely mute? Does it not perpetuate the objectification of victims to use such images? Lifton remarked in his commentary on one of a number of ironies that emerged from his work. His study of Nazi doctors required extensive review by Yale’s committee on the use of human subjects before it gave approval. He complied with the contemporary rules for scientific research. The Nuremberg protocols for the study of human subjects had been established as a consequence of the Nuremberg medical trials of the very people whose cohorts were the subject of Lifton’s research, authorization that was absent from the doctors’ scientific “research” which comprised the Nazi plan.

Lifton describes the lack of remorse in the doctors he interviewed as well as their denial. “People felt this is not murder, it is a putting-to-sleep.” as Dr. F. declared to him (Lifton, 2000, p.57). Lifton is affronted by the comfort even affluence in which the doctors live at the time he met with them, some continuing to practice medicine. What leaves an indelible mark, however, is less Lifton’s description of these facts than hearing the testimony of those on trial in Nuremberg; their diffusion of responsibility and denial as one after another invoked “we didn’t know.” He didn’t know the extent of what was happening, he says. “until the very end.” The “we didn’t know” defense is one that has become very familiar in other post-conflict contexts (viz. the South African post-apartheid undertaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

What remains with me of the films I saw over those two evenings are the images. In Nuremberg, they are intended to “awaken” and “shock,“ as Sontag writes about the impact of Goya’s series of drawings Disasters of war (2003, p.42). Viewing Nuremberg evoked memories for me of other heinous images from another war, these of hooded and shackled prisoners in Guantanamo; the pyramid of naked Iraqi men in Abu Ghraib with Spt. Charles Grainier beside them giving the “thumbs up” sign; Lyndie England holding a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man also in Abu Ghraib. Whaever the intentions of the photographer may have been, those images, like the ones in Nuremberg, also awaken and shock. Although the intent may be unknowable, it is tempting to infer that, as with the images from the Holocaust that constitute Nuremberg’s evidence, the intent of the Abu Ghraib photographs is to dramatize the power of the perpetrators and the degradation of the victims. Such is the stuff of pornography: exploitation, humiliation and exercise of power over a subject. As a consequence, the effect is both to enthrall and repel.

Taken in tandem, Robert Jay Lifton and the Nazi Doctors and Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today serve up powerful lessons if we choose to heed them. I would like to believe that Lifton’s central thesis of the “atrocity-producing situation,” that any of us may become socialized to killing in the name of a state’s repressive agenda, is untrue. And yet.

And yet, we know that doctors are not immune from applying their “science” in ways that betray their mission of healing. This has become all too clear in the contemporary context in the multiple instances in which doctors within the United States pursued medically corrupt experiments like those in the Tuskegee syphilis studies and more recently revealed in the experimentation in Guatemala of intentionally infecting prisoners with STDS (New York Times, Oct. 7, 2010). Equally important, we ought not look away from the role doctors have and continue to play in the pursuit of the United States’ security policies involving “enhanced interrogations,” code words for torture.

Finally, how well do trials serve as a mechanism for righting the crimes of war? Nuremberg is variously referred to as “victors’ justice” and as one of the most significant contributions to the development of international human rights law. Trials of the perpetrators of war crimes are currently underway in multiple countries around the world. Is there any likelihood that one such might take place in the United States for the crimes committed in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Despite his admission of having authorized water boarding (Wing, Nov. 4, 2010), it is most unlikely that any legal prosecution will be brought against either former President Bush or former Vice President Cheney despite their well documented culpability for such crimes as well as their engendering the “atrocity-producing situation” Lifton refers to. That leaves only the foot soldiers to bear responsibility and of course, those of us who must also bear the shame and guilt for sitting by and allowing it to happen. Unless of course we do something before those feelings wither. z


Lifton, R.J. (2000) Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York, NY: Basic Books.

New York Times. (Oct. 7, 2010) “Editorial: The Experiments in Guatemala.”

Norris, J.C. (Sept. 19, 1949). Army Reluctant to Clarify Inaction on Nazi War Film. Washington Post, p. 1. Retrieved from:

------. (Sept. 22, 1949). “Army Mum on Discrepancies In Story on Nazi Trail Film.” Washington Post, p. 22. Retrieved from:

Richard, F. (2010). “The Thin Artifact.” The Nation, Dec. 13, 2010, pp. 31-39.

Shakespeare, W. (1942). Julius Caesar. In Neilson, W.A. & S. J. Hill (Eds). The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., pp. 1014—1042.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York, NY: Picador.

Wing, N. (Nov. 4, 2010) Bush Directly Authorized Use Of Waterboarding, Still Rejects ‘Torture’ Classification In New Book. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: Nov. 27, 2010.

Wissel, L. (2010). Robert Jay Lifton and the Nazi Doctors. Slant, October 3, 2010 Retrieved from,%202010, Nov.16, 2010.

[1] The history of the making of “Nuremberg” and its restoration for current release after the original negatives were lost is fascinating reading. It is well documented in filmmaker Stuart Schulberg’s personal papers and online at: An intrepid Washington Post reporter, John Norris, covered the Department of War’s unwillingness to release the film for U.S. audiences in 1949 in two articles (Norris, Washington Post, Sept. 19, 1949; Sept. 22, 1949).

[2] To take up the matter of looking at other people’s suffering is beyond the scope of this essay. The reader would be well rewarded by Sontag’s (2003) critical consideration of the subject in her extended essay “Regarding the pain of others,” as well as a comprehensive book review by Richard entitled: “The Thin Artifact” (2010) of Linfield’s recently published“The Cruel Radiance.”

“To permit one’s imagination to enter into the Nazi killing machine–to begin to experience that killing machine–is to alter one’s relationship to the entire human project. One does not want to learn about
such things”

(Lifton, 2000, p.3)