Robert Jay Lifton Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

>Evil, the Self, and Survival: Conversation with Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and author, 11/2/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 5

Research: The Roots of Evil

Now your next major book, which we have here, was on the Nazi doctors and medical killing and the psychology of genocide. In the introduction to that book you tell of a rabbi who came up to you at a lecture and said, "Hiroshima is your path as a Jew to the Holocaust." In retrospect, was he right?

Well he was a friend as well as a rabbi, and it wasn't at a lecture. He actually visited me in my home. And in a way, I think if it happened at a lecture it might not have made the impact on me that it would as a friend sitting next to me at a table just as we are sitting here. I had a very complicated feeling. I was annoyed by it because, as I wrote, it seemed pontifical -- even for a rabbi, who is supposed to, I guess, pontificate. But I didn't entirely disbelieve it either, and actually I came to see that the combination of my being a Jew and the Holocaust and its influence on my life very early on affected my way of responding to nuclear weapons and the Hiroshima experience. These are very different events, but they're both massively destructive and deeply dangerous to humankind, and really to the continuity of all human life. So in that sense they blend. And I came to think he was more than a little correct in what he said, and the fact is that after I did the Hiroshima work, and especially after the work on Vietnam, where the men I interviewed or worked with in the rap groups were both perpetrators and victims. That was the idea. They were really responsible, or some other GIs, for atrocities in Vietnam in a war that should never have happened, as they felt and I felt. But at the same time they were victims in that they were sent there ignorantly and they suffered, and had all kinds of psychological aftereffects from it. And they taught me a lot about the capacity for change. From that process one could see really new kinds of self taking shape. So later on I wrote about the Protean self, even though I'd written my first essay on the Protean self way back in the late sixties, maybe published in the early seventies, which I derived from my early work on Japan. But I wasn't ready to write the whole book until I'd thought it through much more. And that I published in, I think it was 1993. A long time later.

In this work on the Nazi doctors your focus on historical processes and psychological processes come together as you account for the way the medical profession participated in the extermination of the Jews at the Auschwitz camp. Let's talk a little about the psycho-historical principle of the Nazi regime and how it combined with the psychological processes within the doctors which you call "doubling."

book cover One reason that I embarked on a study of Nazi doctors was that in this personal journey, I had the feeling increasingly that I did want to do a Holocaust study and that increasingly I wanted it to be of perpetrators, which I thought was more needed. I was involved with ideas about survivors but a lot of work had been done on them and very little on the psychology of perpetrators.

So you moved from survivors to perpetrators.

That's right, in studying Nazi doctors. And when somebody, in fact, who had been my editor part of the time for my study of Hiroshima survivors called me up and said he had some interesting materials on a trial of doctors, it involved mainly doctors in Frankfurt, and wanted to show them to me, I really jumped at that opportunity to make that the beginning of a study of Nazi doctors, because they were revealed to me to have been very important in the killing process. And the way that I came to see it as I studied it more was that the Nazis, especially Hitler and his inner circle, really viewed their whole movement as mainly biological. One Nazi doctor whom I interviewed put it in words like this: "I joined the Nazi party the day after I heard a speech by Rudolph Hess in which he declared National Socialism was nothing but applied biology." And the applied biology for the Nazis was finding some way to heal or cure the Nordic race. The idea was, partly in Hitler's writings, the Nordic race was the only creative race, that could create culture. The other races could sustain it but not create it. And the Jewish "race" was a culture-destroying race. But the Jewish race had infected the Nordic race and something had to be done to get rid of that infection. So this is, in a sense, a biological kind of process and I called it in my work, a "biomedical vision" at the heart of Nazism. And that was a major reason why they focused so centrally on the doctors as a group, which Hitler emphasized very early on: doctors were especially important to the whole Nazi project. And it turned out to be that way, as I found in my work.

And so this Nazi ideology lifted up the doctors but internally. Tell us a little about this process of "doubling" and how healers became killers at the Auschwitz camp.

One dimension was the large psycho-historical dimension we just talked about, that biomedical vision. But the other dimension was what you are raising now, the nitty-gritty way in which a doctor who is trained to heal instead becomes part of the killing mechanism. A lot of things made it happen, and there's a process that can be called "socialization to evil." Nazi doctors joined the party seeking the promise of revitalization that Hitler offered. That's joining the medical profession, which is a group of its own, and then the military, and then being sent to a camp -- all those were groups they became part of and were socialized to. The socialization to evil, I discovered, is all too easy to accomplish. These doctors had not killed anybody until they got to Auschwitz, so they weren't extraordinary killers to start with. They were ordinary people who in that way were socialized to evil. And a key mechanism in that socialization to evil was what I came to call "doubling." One can understand that if one sees that these Nazi doctors were at the heart of the killing process in Auschwitz. They did selections, they selected in the camps. They were in charge of declaring people dead. In a sense, they ran the killing process, although their assistants more and more did it for them. So when they were in Auschwitz they had an Auschwitz self, which was responsible for doing all of this, as well as for the very vulgar life that one led in Auschwitz. Very heavy drinking and vulgar jokes, and the whole combination of things that made up Auschwitz. But they would go home to their families, from Poland to Germany, for weekends or for leaves and they would be ordinary fathers and husbands where they would function in a relatively ordinary way, calling forth a non-Auschwitz self or a prior, relatively more humane, self. And each of these selves functioned as though it were a separate autonomous self. And that's why I called it "doubling," even though, of course, they were part of the same overall self. And doubling has more to do with the work of Otto Rancke, one of the early psychoanalysts, than with Freud himself, but that kind of process is talked about in his work and in some other early psychiatric practitioners and psychological practitioners. But it became a mechanism of socialization to evil, as I saw it, in Nazi doctors, and of course it was a very worrisome kind of insight because it didn't have to stop at Nazi doctors. It certainly was embarked upon in many ways by Aum Shinrikyo, the destructive murderous cult which I studied more recently. So it can be used by anyone, so to speak, as a form of socialization to evil. And they don't necessarily call it that but that's what happens, in effect.

Your newest book is about the Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese terrorist cult that set about to gather an infrastructure that, in the end, was ready to call for destroying the world in order to save it. In the Nazi book you say, "No individual self is inherently evil, murderous, or genocidal. Yet under certain conditions virtually any self is capable of becoming all of these things." Is it fair to say that what you find particularly disturbing in looking at this terrorist group is the same themes about purification, destruction, and apocalypse in order to save the world, but in this case it's no longer the state that's behind the scenes as was the case with the Nazi doctors, as was the case with the atomic weapons establishment, but rather cult groups that acquire access to biological and nuclear weapons?

book cover Yes. In the case of Aum Shinrikyo they weren't, at the beginning, by any means clearly a terrorist group. They were one of the Japanese so-called new religions. And there are an extraordinary number of new religions ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, and especially with a new rush, what they call the "rush hour of the gods" after World War II, and then again intensely after 1970. Young people and not so young people were drawn to Aum Shinrikyo because it gave them strong religious satisfaction. And Asahara Shoko, the guru of Aum Shinrikyo, was a very talented religious teacher and a very gifted teacher of yoga, as well as a self-promoting con man. One can be all these things in the same sense of self. And to some extent some of these disciples who underwent these mystical experiences with the help of all sorts of meditation practices, including sustained rapid breathing, which brings about deoxygenation and lends one really vulnerable to high states and mystical experiences, they became very attached to the guru and to this kind of religious practice. And they could, in a sense, turn the other cheek or numb themselves to evidence of violence within the cult that they didn't want to see because they were so drawn to the cultic experience. And in that sense they could form both an Aum self, which was thriving in Aum, and a non-Aum self or anti-Aum self which had doubts and even antagonisms, but which had to be suppressed because such doubts within that guru-dominated cult were taboo. But certainly these young people were not inherently evil any more than the Nazi doctors were inherently evil. They were socialized in one way or another into a group that became evil, and the young people at Aum didn't even know that Asahara was stockpiling these chemical, and, with the help of his trusted high disciples biological/chemical weapons -- and attempting to obtain nuclear weapons.

Next page: Lessons Learned

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California