Basic Books, 1986 (2017)

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

“A monumental achievement: an awesome account of the ultimate transgression of the Hippocratic Oath: a formidable contribution fo Holocaust studies.”

—Francine Du Plessix Gray

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

In his most powerful and important book, renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton presents a brilliant analysis of the crucial role that German doctors played in the Nazi genocide. Now updated with a new preface, The Nazi Doctors remains the definitive work on the Nazi medical atrocities, a chilling exposé of the banality of evil at its epitome, and a sobering reminder of the darkest side of human nature.

Nazi doctors did more than conduct bizarre experiments on concentration-camp inmates; they supervised the entire process of medical mass murder, from selecting those who were to be exterminated to disposing of corpses. Lifton shows that this medically supervised killing was done in the name of “healing,” as part of a racist program to cleanse the Aryan body politic. After the German eugenics campaign of the 1920s for forced sterilization of the “unfit,” it was but one step to “euthanasia,” which in the Nazi context meant systematic murder of Jews. Building on interviews with former Nazi physicians and their prisoners, Lifton presents a disturbing portrait of careerists who killed to overcome feelings of powerlessness. He includes a chapter on Josef Mengele and one on Eduard Wirths, the “kind,” “decent” doctor (as some inmates described him) who set up the Auschwitz death machinery. Lifton also psychoanalyzes the German people, scarred by the devastation of World War I and mystically seeking regeneration. This profound study ranks with the most insightful books on the Holocaust.


“Must reading. . .The book as a whole stands without competition in the English language.”

—Raul Hilberg, author of Destruction of the European Jews

“A powerful reminder not only of what happened, but of the monumental evil done by particular human beings who were trained to heal and cure.”

—Robert Coles, Boston Globe

“This is not only one of the most important works on medical ethics yet written. It also breaks through the frontiers of historiography to provide a convincing psychological interpretation of the Third Reich and the crimes of National Socialism. No one will be able, in my view, to write preceptively about those times in the future without referring to this interpretation.”

—Neal Ascherson, New York Review of Books

News and Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

“Lifton has written a compelling book, which….is admirably unflinching and provocative….The book is a major contribution to Holocaust study and medical ethics.” See more

Los Angeles Times

““The Nazi Doctors” is a full, sometimes unbearable account of the horrors that went on. That is not its point nor its originality; but these horrors, in which Lifton immersed himself during years of research and interviewing–and in which we, as readers, now find ourselves immersed–make possible the book’s real achievement.” See more