Home > News Stories > Bioethicist Explains Physician Involvement in Holocaust Torture

Bioethicist Explains Physician Involvement in Holocaust Torture

By: Scott Flaherty

September 30, 2010

Boston, Mass. — The director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at Boston University described yesterday the role played by physicians in torturing Holocaust victims, and said physicians might be predisposed to torturing because they are trained to compartmentalize, rely on euphemism, and tend to display narcissism.

Wearing a loosened maroon tie and a blue dress shirt, Dr. Michael A. Grodin said that a “fantasy of power” is inherent to the profession, which partly explains why physicians are more susceptible to becoming perpetrators of torture.

Grodin went on to say that the typical training undergone by physicians aligns very well with factors that can lead someone to become a torturer, including a high degree of compartmentalization, a tendency toward sadism and voyeurism, a reliance on euphemism, and narcissism.

He said half of the Nazi party was composed of physicians who were intimately involved with much of the killing during the Holocaust and illustrated this fact with an organization chart which included Adolf Hitler and several other high-ranking Nazi officials, a majority of which were physicians.

Grodin spoke in a conference room at Harvard University’s Countway Library of Medicine.  Early in the presentation, he divided the audience of about 20 people, which included students and physicians, into groups of three or four to discuss possible explanations for what would lead to perpetrating acts of torture and why physicians might be more susceptible to involvement in torture.

During the group discussion, Dr. Leo Buchanan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Harvard University Health Services, recalled an essay by philosopher Hannah Arendt, which discussed the “banality of evil” and was written in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party.

Drawing on the essay, Buchanan said some Nazis did things for “silly reasons,” such as obtaining promotions to higher military rankings.

Buchanan and others in the group also discussed the power dynamic that exists between doctors and patients and how that dynamic might intensify in extreme circumstances involving torture.

In addition to the group breakout session, Grodin engaged the audience by asking and accepting questions throughout the presentation, saying “this is participatory.”

Grodin spoke quickly and spent the last half of his presentation showing a video including interviews with several torture victims, footage of Nazi death camps and the Nuremburg trial, and interviews with American soldiers responsible for torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Grodin is a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Public Health, and is the founder and director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust, an “international center involved in the research, teaching, service and advocacy of contemporary and historical issues arising from the role of medicine in the Holocaust,” according to its website.

Grodin’s presentation was part of an ongoing series focused on the history of psychiatry and medicine, co-sponsored by the McLean Hospital Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education and the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library of Medicine, according to the Countway Library website.

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