94-year-old Nazi SS camp guard goes on trial in Germany
Johann Rehbogen has been accused in participating in hundreds of murders at the Stutthof concentration camp. Rehbogen claims that he has no knowledge of what was happening at the camps. This article is not about the details of the trial, or even how Rehbogen could make such a claim. Instead, it centers on a question that many of us ask when we learn about the Holocaust: how could seemingly normal people participate in such atrocities? I’m going to focus on a group of people who should have been particularly opposed to the genocide, but who instead actively participated in them: doctors.
Few people realize that the Nazis used medicine to legitimate their anti-Semitism by identifying themselves as doctor and Germany as patient. Nineteen-thirties Germany was sick, the Nazis claimed. The symptoms were obvious to any German citizen: rampant inflation, foreign occupation, and the bitter sting of the WWI defeat.
Good doctors do not treat individual symptoms. Rather, they treat the root cause. Rassenhygiene (“racial hygiene”) was the source: a weakened “germ plasm,” what we would not call a gene pool. In April of 1933, Hitler charged the doctors of Germany with the racial health of their nation. The state established training centers designed to equip doctors with the tools necessary to treat the entire German race. As a result, doctors became indoctrinated with the ideology Rassenhygiene. They become convinced that the health of their nation required certain sacrifices––amputations, as it were. Scholars refer to the medicalization of killing as “As If Medicine.”
Almost every step in march towards genocide was saturated in medical jargon. The roots of the Holocaust trace back to Nazi initiatives to cleanse their gene pool from within. The first victims were children with severe birth defects or genetic conditions. The “Reich Committee for the Scientific Registration of Severe Hereditary Ailments,” an entirely fake organized designed to disguise the child-murder operation, selected children for death. The order was handed down euphemistically as an “authorization” to “treat” the child. Selected children were to be sent to fictional medical centers with names like “Children’s Specialty Institutions (or Departments)” or “Therapeutic Convalescent Institutions.” In reality, though, the children were distributed amongst ordinary pediatric wards sympathetic to Nazi goals. Letters encouraged reluctant parents to allow transfer of their children in order to grant them the best treatment available; when parents finally consented, children were kept under the pretense of medical observation for a few weeks and finally killed.
The infamous T4 group also relied on “As If” justifications. Killing centers were set up, to which patients were sent via the “Common Welfare Ambulance Service Ltd.,” often driven by SS men dressed as medical professionals. The actual murder was committed by a doctor. The act was referred to as Desinfiziert (“decontamination”), and the perpetrator was called Euthanasiearzt (“euthanasia physician).
Participants kept a medical facade even during the implementation of the Final Solution at the concentration camps. When victims entered the camps, they were “selected” by a doctor. Often, a Red Cross truck was conspicuously parked in view of the victims, giving them a false sense of security. The gas chambers were carefully crafted to look like they were part of a medical procedure and impeccably clean. Even amongst themselves, doctors used “As If” language, allowing them to pretend as though they weren’t committing murders, but instead doing a medical procedure.
Most of the doctors who participated in the killings were not secret psychopaths. They were inundated with the ideology of racial hygiene––with racism. They were so saturated with this kind of thinking that they changed their whole way of seeing the world, re-calibrated their moral compasses, and engaged in horrific acts.
Mark Twain once said that history may not repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes. There is no genocide in modern America, but we do see mass shootings, individual shootings, and political partisanship all rooted in ideology. Nazi doctors highlight just how extreme the effects of ideology can be. We should remember that as we find ourselves attracted to the various “isms” we’re faced with in modern America, including but not limited to liberalism and conservatism.
Posted by Josh Taylor