In examining the basis of Nazism’s social and political philosophy, one cannot help but notice the role that psychiatry played in promulgating the hatred, racism, and elitism that permeated German society during Hitler’s era. Even before Hitler’s rise to power, the nihilism of Nietzsche, Darwin, Malthus, and others contributed greatly to the framework of National Socialism.
From the days of WWI, psychiatry allied itself with the German military, creating an environment that treated the foot soldiers that suffered from shell shock, post traumatic stress, and battle fatigue as mentally inferior, and subjected them to sadistic treatments, all in the name of science. Soon racist theory and psychiatric theory merged into an unholy alliance that was enthusiastically embraced by Hitler and his rising party, giving an air of scientific legitimacy to the atrocities that were eventually committed during Nazi rule.
In 1895 Dr. Alfred Ploetz first published the “scientific” basis for what would become the Nazi racial hygiene program. His idea of controlling genetic characteristics inspired a whole generation of psychiatrists to create genetic guidelines that determined the biological value of a human being. His theories led to the systematic murder of entire segments of society as racial cleansing became the means to creating the superior Aryan ideal.
Through the acquisition of political power, Hitler and his party were able to legislate additional venues of racial cleansing, especially euthanasia, as a “humane” means to end the life of those with physical deformities, mental defects, and incurable illnesses. As the government continued to push the “humanity” of these laws, German society began to accept the twisted logic behind it. Also helping was the giant Nazi propaganda machine, which reiterated the message daily.
The scientists, physicians, and psychiatrists of early 20th century Germany abandoned the main rule of medicine – first do no harm. Sadly these ideas did not perish with the Nazi regime. At the end of WWII, the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) began to smuggle into the United States many of the men in the German scientific community, ostensibly to keep Russia from co-opting their talents.
Several of these doctors and psychiatrists became the personal physicians of American presidents during their terms in office, influencing public policy in medicine and education. Some found their way into the military and the CIA, performing unethical experiments on soldiers and United States citizens, all in the name of science.
And today we see their influence in medicine and bioethics. Doctors and psychiatrists with mindsets no different than those in Hitler’s Germany are pushing to the forefront of American society the ideas of euthanasia and quality of life in terms of a person’s value to society. Our educational institutions, from elementary to college level, are offering curricula in “Values Clarification”, “Moral Reasoning”, “Death Education”, and “Bioethics”, to name a few - all designed to improve the “mental health” of the next generation. It is a chilling reminder of the deliberate programming visited upon the German children by the Nazi party in the 1930s.
The authors of Psychiatrists – the Men Behind Hitler have produced a provocative and thought-provoking work. They have shown that the field of psychiatry was founded by men who believed that man has no spirit or soul, that he is captive to his passions and instincts, and any thought of right or wrong is an obsessive neurosis to be eradicated. They have provided proof that these men believed that morality was a ball and chain, one that prevented man from thinking and acting freely, a hindrance to his continued evolution and enlightenment, and that this belief system continues to this day among many practitioners. After WWII, we said never more again to the atrocities committed. It seems however, that we’re allowing ourselves to peer down that slippery sllope once again.