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 the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.
SS Dr. Fritz Klein, a doctor at Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Have you ever asked yourself who educated Mengele, Freisler and the hundreds of well-trained doctors and lawyers who made the Nazi machine work? …They weren’t educated in Nazi universities. They were taught in world-renowned universities in a time when having a degree from a German university was as good as you could get.
Dr. Franklin H. Littell, Department of Religion, Temple University, Methodist minister, Holocaust scholar

Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, taught that free will means that our moral and spiritual characters are never set in stone. At every moment we are able to renew ourselves and achieve great spiritual heights by doing the right thing and taking responsibility. At the same time, we are at every moment tempted by sin and can destroy a lifetime of good deeds by making even a few bad choices.

There are individuals who choose to go over to the Dark Side, a.k.a. Evil. Like Darth Vader in Star Wars, they can be vengeful, angry and bitter and work for people who use them for their own nefarious purposes. (In the end, Darth Vader sees the error of his ways and redeems himself by destroying the Empire that empowered him.)

Power corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely. -- Lord Acton

Power is the central attraction of the Dark Side. People enjoy the power of controlling other people, and many times power that can be used for “good” is used instead to commit unethical and immoral acts. Most people who are evil feel that they are above the law, that they are exempt from mainstream societal mores and morals. Their sense of entitlement gives them a sense of superiority.


Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who fled the Nazis, decided during the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, that evil was banal -- ordinary and humdrum because she thought Eichmann was banal.

She was wrong. Evil is never banal; the evildoer may sometimes be banal, if he is the one who is simply following orders. But Eichmann was not following orders. He was evil and led evil men who believed that every Jew on the planet needed to be destroyed.

Based on documents that are now available, historians agree that there was nothing banal about Eichmann and the bureaucracy of which he was a part. In Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, author Yaacov Lozowick, clearly shows that Eichmann and his team were a group of people who were completely aware of what they were doing. They were people with high ideological motivation, who took the initiative and contributed far beyond what was necessary to achieve their murderous goals.

As he noted, “…there could be no doubt about it: they clearly understood that their deeds were not positive except in the value system of the Third Reich. They hated Jews and thought that getting rid of them would be to Germany’s good. ”

Hans Safrian, another historian (who wrote “Eichmann’s Maenner” in German) described how Eichmann was the man who sent his forces across the continent, to do their work there. He documented the conscious moral dedication that enveloped Eichmann and his men. They were anything but banal. They followed and executed their racist ideology by taking the initiative, using innovation, zeal and dedication. They may have been paper pushers for the most part, but when they made decisions, they were ruthless in condemning the Jews to their fates.

In an email to the authors, Yehuda Bauer wrote, “Eichmann managed to fool her (Hannah Arendt), and many others. He was no cog. He was part of the machine motor. He was an initiator, and a convinced and extreme Nazi ideologist and antisemite. The bureaucratic group he was part of was, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), was ideologically motivated and was the moving spirit of the Nazi terror machine. The RSHA was responsible only to Himmler and Hitler, and received their full support; it was the center of the terror regime. It was responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, for the Gestapo, for population movements, for the mass murders.”

All of us -- under the wrong circumstances -- have the capacity to do evil if we make the wrong choices.

In many cases the evil doer is a sociopath obsessed with the uses of power. But evil acts are not confined to sociopaths. All of us -- under the wrong circumstances -- have the capacity to do evil if we make the wrong choices.


Power can be defined in many ways. It is the ability to get what you want because you have the talent, method or tools to do so, whether by right or might. The University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium makes distinctions between three kinds of power—”power over,” “power to” and “power with.”

Power over” means you control other people. Those in control can attempt to influence the masses with verbal persuasion. But if that doesn’t work, if people don’t want to do what they are told to do, the “controllers” can resort to using the violent tools of power: force, torture or threats. In most cases, when someone abuses his/her power, his/her victims become excessively dependent, and every aspect of their lives is controlled.

In a family dynamic this often manifests itself in domestic violence. In an organization or society, some leaders, usually the most charismatic, are given total power over their followers, who become their “subjects” and do as they are told. In addition to destroying their individuality, this absolves their followers from making choices and taking responsibility for their actions.

Power to” means you have the ability, resources, and method to do whatever you want; it allows you to do things other people cannot or will not do.

Power with” means that you bring together other entities or people who will help you accomplish your goals. In a positive world, it would be the equivalent of joining a neighborhood watch group, or founding a committee to build a park, or creating cooperation between groups or individuals to get something accomplished for the benefit of the community.

These same kinds of coalitions can be used to perpetrate evil. In communist and fascist countries, people spy on and report their neighbors for real and imagined acts. In these cases, as in Nazi Germany, children are taught to inform on their own parents and siblings. Family members who resist the party line can land in jail or worse.


The role of a physician, a doctor, is to save life. A positive example of “power with” is Dr. Jonas Salk, who used his power to stop a dread disease, polio, from killing millions of children. Developing the polio vaccine, he used the power of persuasion to convince medical experts and government leaders that his discovery could save millions of lives. He used his power “with” the power of others to make the vaccine available worldwide. Edward R. Murrow the dean of CBS reporters, wanted to know if Salk did it for the money. In 1955, in televised interview, he asked Salk who owned the patent for the vaccine. The image shows Salk was surprised. He said, “Well, the people, I guess. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

On the other hand, even before the establishment of the Third Reich, German doctors were the staunchest supporters of the Nazis. Starting in 1939, they were the first to kill “defective” German babies on Hitler’s orders. By 1942, 45 percent of non-Jewish German doctors were members of the Nazi Party, a higher percentage than any other group of German professionals. These 38,000 Nazi doctors viewed killing as a therapeutic imperative. None of the German doctors who worked on human medical experiments and were tried in Nuremberg ever admitted that what they did was wrong.

What could they have been thinking when they killed all those people?

The Hippocratic Oath, taken by doctors since ancient times, is a promise not to harm patients. During war crimes trials, 23 doctors who worked in Nazi concentration camps were found guilty of breaching the code of medical ethics by performing horrifying medical experiments on prisoners. This led to discussions regarding ethical treatment of human subjects, and outlined the ethics of medical research with regard to the human rights of these subjects.

In Auschwitz and other death and concentration camps, German doctors sold on Nazi ideology chose who would live long enough to be worked to death and who would be gassed, shot or hanged immediately. They also performed medical experiments on human beings without their consent, rarely using anesthetics. Among them were experiments to determine how quickly a poison or disease can kill, how long it takes a human being to freeze, and why twins do or don’t have the same traits. These experiments were mostly about discovering effective ways to kill. Ironically, some of the life-saving techniques used in medicine today came from some of those terrible, terrible experiments.

In the 1930s, when medical experiments based on race were conducted in the United States, no one admitted wrongdoing. On July 25, 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller revealed the top-secret Tuskegee Syphilis Study that allowed a focus group of black men to go untreated for their disease. She wrote: “For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service has conducted a study in which human guinea pigs, not given proper treatment, have died of syphilis and its side effects…”

One of the results of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials was the notion of “informed consent.” In the United States, doctors cannot perform a medical service or procedure on you unless they tell you what is going to happen to you, and you must agree, in writing, before they can proceed. You also have the right to stop a procedure or treatment.

Using humans for medical experiments raises ethical issues. We need to consider the ethical dilemmas when we carry out human medical experiments to save lives today. We have to ask ourselves if assisted suicide in cases of terminal illness is acceptable. We need to ask ourselves if abortion is acceptable, and under what circumstances. Should people participate in clinical trials or drug tests, when those tests might cause them harm? Furthermore, is it ethical to suppress negative information? For instance, how do we deal with corporations that refuse to link tobacco inhalation to lung cancer and other diseases or those who “fail” to recognize dioxin as contributing to diseases in Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange? What do we do when the government fails to acknowledge troop exposure to airborne contaminants during the 1990 Gulf War and how this affected 25 percent of Gulf War veterans?7 What do we say to a government that refuses to extend health care benefits to wounded veterans and their families?

Mankind has been given the knowledge and ability to perfect the world. All we have to do is make ethical choices -- and that is not always an easy thing to do. Good and evil co-exist. If there is no sadness, how can we know happiness? If there is no disease, how can we appreciate good health? If there is no war, why would we work toward peace? And if we don’t know the difference between good and evil, how could we make the world a better place? Our responsibility is to resist the lure of the dark side.

Excerpted from: Why Should I Care? Lessons from the Holocaust, By Jeanette Friedman and David Gold

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