"The Dark Psychology of Dehumanization, Explained"
People often wonder how the evils perpetrated during the Holocaust could have occurred. Specifically, questions regarding the medical community's involvement in the labeling, persecution, sterilization and eventual mass murder of millions of people have continued to plague scholars and lay people alike. While it is impossible to provide an accurate answer to this question, when I lecture on this topic I often point to two distinct processes that may have made it easier for healers to become killers.
Dehumanization can be defined as "the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities." A more colloquial way to describe the process is that certain groups of people deem other groups of people as "less than." Less than what, you may ask? That depends on the situation. As this article points out, dehumanization can come in varying forms and strengths. I will leave it to Mr. Resnick to describe these aspects of dehumanization and will focus my comments solely on dehumanization as it pertains to the Holocaust. During the Holocaust, the process of dehumanizing inferior elements of the population (i.e.; mentally and physically disabled, Jews, Roma, political dissidents) was taken to such a degree that these groups were no longer considered people at all. They were "less than" human. In fact, they were even considered "less than" animals. This is the reason why despite the very strict laws banning vivisection, experimentation on prisoners in concentration camps was not only permitted, but encouraged. Under Nazi medicine, experimenting on live animals was unethical, however experimenting on Jews- who were considered pathogens infecting the health of the German nation- was not only ethical, but a means to improve the future of society.
Combining dehumanization with medicalization paints a more complete picture of the transformation within medicine in Nazi Germany. Medicalization, or "the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment" helped turn theory into practice. Again, to put it in colloquial terms, dehumanization and medicalization can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Dehumaniziation provides the theoretical justification for medicalization. Medicalization provides the means for dealing with dehumanized groups. Fritz Klein, a Nazi physician, offered a concise version of this argument when he stated, “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is a gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind” (Lifton, 2000, p. 29).
The Maimonides Institute for Medicnie, Ethics and the Holocaust believes in the basic dignity of all people. In our opinion, the act of dehumanization is not only unethical, but can lead society down a very dangerous path. Mr. Resnick's article is enlightening because it shows that despite our horror at the abrogation of ethics that took place during the Holocaust, some of the foundational theories that led to these medical transgressions continue to exist and thrive in modern society. How will society deal with dehumanization moving forward? How can we ensure that dehumanization is not used as the foundation for murder and genocide, as it was during the Holocaust? Understanding and exploring the history of dehumanization- as well as medicalization- can help provide ethical guidelines to ensure that "Never Again" is more than just a rallying cry.