An Attempt to Survive the Holocaust Through Detachment

In order for anyone to attempt to survive the realities of the Holocaust concentration camps, there must be a change in one’s mindset. For many, it was imperative that they detach themselves mentally from the situation that they were in. This detachment was imperative by not only the prisoners of the camp but by the doctors and the soldiers as well. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (2000) discusses the importance of this survival instinct in his book, The Nazi Doctors: Medicalized Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. He coins his term of detachment as “psychic numbing” – “an interruption in psychic action – in the continuous creation and re-creation of images and forms that constitutes the symbolizing or ‘formative process’ characteristic of human mental life” (p. 442). Lifton argues that in order for the doctors and soldiers to commit the heinous crimes that they did, they had to undergo “psychic numbing” in order to achieve the “final solution” that the führer, Adolf Hitler, had set forth.

Earnst B., one of the doctors interviewed for Dr. Lifton’s book states, “One could react like a normal human being in Auschwitz only for the first few hours” (p.443). Dr. Lifton argues that the doctor is describing, once a person entered through the gates of a concentration camp, Auschwitz in particular, there began the disassociation, or “psychic numbing” from the horrors that were taking place. The numbing began long before concentration camps were made; it began during the propaganda that was presented by the Nazis. This propaganda instilled in the soldiers that the “undesirables” – namely Jews – were not people at all. This made soldiers numb to the victims because “those victims never existed” (p. 443). The logic would seem to follow, according to the Nazis, that if a person is not viewed as a person then killing them does not violate any moral standards – thus, allowing them to continue their “duties” without feeling guilty.

It has been argued that one of the more daunting tasks that doctors and soldiers had to do at the camps was the selection process, where they would select the people that were going straight to the gas chambers, the people who were going to be tested on, and the people that were going to work at the camp. Lifton argues that after a person’s first or second selection process, one had “made a pledge to stay numbed, which meant to live within the restricted feelings of the Auschwitz self” (p. 443). Essentially, upon entering a concentration camp, personnel were not allowed to feel, they were only allowed to do their job. It was customary for selection personnel to drink before the selection process began. Drinking together in a group setting allowed for the men who had been at the camp for an extended period of time to share with the newcomers the hatred of the “undesirables” thus creating a common enemy and allowing them to bond over the events that were coming to pass. The strength of this bond further helped the men detach themselves from the realities of what they were going to do – choosing life or death of a complete stranger. Lifton states that through this numbing process, “he no longer experienced them as beings who affected him – that is, as human beings” (p. 444). The disassociation from the realities of the death camp further enabled these soldiers and doctors to commit terrible crimes against humanity and allow most of them to be able to live with the horrors they had committed.

Additionally, Dr. Lifton argues that in order for the Nazi doctors to further detach themselves even more, they had to create a separate reality of the concentration camp. He gives an example of this feeling as, “Anything I do on planet Auschwitz doesn’t count on planet Earth” (p. 447). He is suggesting that what was being done at concentration camps was acceptable (to the Nazis) because they had created a separate reality, which enabled them to create a new set of norms and rules that were acceptable there because they were different from the rules and norms of most other countries in the world. This new mindset enabled the Nazis to reject the notion that what they were doing was amoral, because they had established their own “rules” of what morality was in the concentration camps – annihilation of “undesirables” was the “right thing to do” on “planet Auschwitz.”

Furthermore, Lifton argues that the “diffusion of responsibility” (p. 444) played a key part in the numbing process. There are three different attributes of this diffusion of responsibility; “military order, designated role, and desirable attitude” (p. 444). The “military order” refers to the claim that one was simply following orders, which one assumes since he or she was simply following orders; it exonerates him or her from the questionable action that was committed. The “designated role” refers to the expectations set forth by leaders for someone to do their job. Lifton gives the example, “I am expected to select strong prisoners for work and weaker ones for ‘special treatment'” (p. 444). It is important to make the distinction between the “military order” and “designated role” by assignment to do a job and the expectation of how the job is to be done. Lastly, the “desirable attitudes” refers to the attitude of the job that the individual is told to do and expected to do to the best of his or her ability. For example, not only is one supposed to choose who lives or who dies, it is expected that the selector maintains discipline and stern in the selection process – a process where emotions are not acceptable. In order for the selectors to perform their job properly, all three of these attributes must be upheld. For these attributes to be upheld, it is plausible that only through disassociating oneself from the “victims,” a person is able to truly perform the duties of his or her job.

Dr. Lifton argues that for the Nazis to continue with the horrors they were committing, they had to exercise total control over not only of themselves, but of the prisoners as well. This type of control took many forms, but a sense of omnipotence was evident throughout many of the Nazi doctor’s mindset and demeanor. Lifton argues that since the Nazi doctors have such control over life and death, they began to develop a type of a “god-complex,” which included a sense of complete power and control. Dr. Lifton states, “While the omnipotence was supposed to be limited by policies from above… in actuality the mood or whim of the SS doctor could determine the prisoners’ fate” (p. 448). Lifton is proposing the notion that while the higher-in-command SS and Nazis thought they were in control over which prisoners live and which die; in actuality, it was the doctors who made that choice – giving them the power, not the people who were above them in command. Moreover, Lifton points out that the Nazi doctor’s power was shown through the “manipulative use of the bodies of prisoners” (p. 448). Not only were Nazi doctors responsible for the selections, they were also responsible for the countless tests they would preform on any given prisoner that they wanted. Yet again, exercising their control over the camps far more than the soldiers could ever hope to do.

In continuaion, Dr. Lifton argues that the Nazis had to “surrender to the environment” meaning that they were not allowed to feel anything which gave them a “psychological advantage” over the prisoners. For example, he proposes, “The Auschwitz self could feel: I am not responsible for selections. I am not responsible for phenol injections. I am a victim of the environment no less than the inmates” (p. 450). Given the environment that they were in, they felt a need to acclimate to it, thus allowing them, in their own minds, to kill and commit the heinous crimes that they did. Dr. Lifton proposes that once a Nazi accepts the realities of the camp and the environment that they are in, they allow themselves to conform to the norms of the environment; forgetting the morals that they possibly held long before their arrival to the camp.

He describes the concentration camp’s expectations were and rationale was, “Mass murder is the norm, so it is commendable to select and thereby save a few people, or to experiment on prisoners and main or kill a few here and there since they are in any case destined for death” (p. 450). Here, it can be seen that not only did the Nazis conform to a very different way of life; they also rationalized why they were doing the “right thing” through selections and testing – because in their mindset, they [Jews, gypsies, “undesirables”] were going to die anyway.

Dr. Lifton brilliantly argues the importance of language, in the numbing process, which each German individual had to undergo and acclimate to in order to perform the tasks that were expected of him or her. He states, “But at the same time the language used gave Nazi doctors a discourse in which killing was no longer killing; and need not be experienced or even perceived, as killing” (p. 445). The words that were used in concentration camps were evoked a “military-medical behavior” such as; “‘ramp duty… possible solutions, evacuation, and resettlement” (p.445). Dr. Lifton even points out the word “selection” implies sorting the healthy from the sick — a type of Darwinian “natural selection,” which he points out has nothing to do with killing. Transforming their language in order to disassociate what was really being done to the prisoners allowed them to change their frame of thinking; thus allowing them to kill without thinking they are truly killing. Moreover, Dr. Lifton argues that one of the greatest ways doctors were able to function in the medicalized killing and testing on prisoners was through their ways of making everything very technical. For example, Dr. Lifton proposes that their [Nazi doctors] sense of “humanity meant killing with technical efficiency” (p.453). As aforementioned, the language of the camps was central to allowing the Nazis to rationalize that what they were doing was okay, since they were essentially changing the language to conform to the norms of the camps; which included the exclusion of any form of emotions. When language is technical, as it was in Auschwitz, it is much “easier” to commit terrible crimes, because they have rationalized themselves to think that it is merely a job – not a crime against humanity.


It was almost necessary for the Nazis to undergo a break with their previously known reality in order to perform the “duties” that was required of them. In order for this break to happen, there had to be a disassociation from the prisoners. Dr. Robert Lifton argues that this break with reality and the beginnings of the disassociation began long before many of the Nazis went to the camps. This detachment from regarding “undesirables,” namely Jews, began during the propaganda set forth by the führer, Adolf Hitler, and his aim to enact a “final solution” and bring the Germans back to their “rightful” place in the world.

To begin, Christopher R. Browning (2011) writes in his article, “Ordinary Men” about a police commander of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, Major Wilhelm Trapp, who commanded his battalion to round up Jews to take to a concentration camp. When discussing the assignment that they were given he began to talk about how the “Jews had instigated the American Boycott that had damaged Germany” (Niewyk, p. 85). This anti-Semitic attitude was abundant in Germany as one Nazi doctor states in Dr. Lifton’s (2000) book, “You could always say that Jews were guilty… arch enemies of Germany… the step to their annihilation is only a millimeter long” (pp. 438-439). Since this disassociation had already begun long before the annihilation of the Jews, it would not be nearly as difficult to “convince” these policemen that what they were being told to do was indeed the right thing. In Browning’s article, he discusses Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment and applies the findings to the notion of socialization in terms of an “evolutionary bias [that] favors the survival of people who can adapt to hierarchical situations and organized social activity” (p. 91). Browning suggests that we have an internalized inclination to obey, and specifically obey authority. This makes it much easier to be socialized into believing what the “authority” wants us to believe – even as much as Browning suggests making it a “moral imperative” (p. 91). Furthermore, he discusses the notion of a “agentic state” where the individual becomes a tool of another person’s will; therefore, no longer feeling responsible for their own actions, as they were just doing what they were told. Lifton argues that this type of obedience to authority is a type of “numbing” in and of itself. Since the Nazis thought that they were following orders and doing as they were expected to do, they had disassociated themselves from the situation; thus, psychologically allowing themselves to commit the terrible crimes they had done.

In a very different perspective, victims of the Holocaust also had to adapt to a sense of detachment in order to survive. In Zoë Vania Waxman’s (2011) piece, “Women and the Holocaust,” she discusses the importance of disassociation between a mother and her children as a way to survive the terrors that awaited them. Waxman states that at Auschwitz-Birkenau, women who would not leave their children (under fourteen years of age) were sent to the gas chambers with them. This forced mothers to make a “choiceless choice,” whether to leave their children to potentially die alone or to be a “dutiful mother” and follow her children to both of their deaths (Niewyk, 2011, p. 135). If a woman chose to be separated from her children then there must be a certain level or detachment from her children in order to make an effort to survive. Waxman gives the example of a woman who denies the child running behind her, crying for her, is indeed her child. When a Nazi officer tells the woman to take her child, the woman tells him over and over that the child is not hers in order to hope for survival.

Another example of this type of detachment is found in Tadeusz Borowski’s article, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” In Borowski’s article, there are two men who are charged with unloading people from the cattle cars and deceiving the prisoners as they make their way to the gas chambers, knowing that once they are dead it is their job to remove them from the chambers and go through all of their belongings in search of their clothes, food and valuables. While many on the outside may look at this story and ask how he could possibly do such things, deceiving and becoming an accomplice to the heinous crimes, it must be understood that for him, there was no choice. It was either do his job or go to the gas chambers along with all of the other prisoners. In order for him to make an attempt to live with himself, the author had to learn how to detach himself from what he was doing. Part of his detachment is a sense of anger towards the prisoners that were being sent to the gas chambers. He was angry with them for making him do the job that keeps him alive and blamed them for the disgust that he felt of himself. In order for him to continue with the job that was keeping him alive, he had to make the prisoners a type of enemy so that he would not be emotionally distressed sending them to their deaths; thus, able to perform the job that he was given that ensured his survival, if only for the time being.

This is a prime example of the kind of detachment that one had to undergo in order to hope for any type of survival in the concentration camps. This type of numbness is central to Dr. Lifton’s argument for how the doctors and soldiers were able to make selections from the trains. To them, it was essential that they restricted their feelings toward the matters at hand and simply made the selections that they were expected and supposed to do. Although it may seem odd to compare Nazi feelings and prisoner feeling as very similar to each other, both peoples had to psychologically change their mode of thinking – detaching themselves from the realities of the camp in order to hope for survival or to complete their daily duties.

Finally, in Elie Wiesel’s (1997) article, “Death against Life,” there is yet a different type of detachment that occurs during the liberation from the concentration camps. In Wiesel’s piece, he describes the liberation of Buchenwald and the emotional disassociation that he felt near the end. He states at the end, “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me” (Brown, Stephens, Rubin, 1997, p. 339). What the author is describing during the liberation was the emotional detachment that he felt once he saw his reflection. The image of his past, as a likely healthy child, and then image of his current appearance is nearly too much for him to comprehend. Once the camp was liberated, he had to emotionally detach himself from what he used to be – in a sense, he had to move on and forget what his appearance was like from near starvation. Although the detachment process is evident, it is not necessarily completely fulfilled as he states in the last aforementioned sentence. He appears to feel a need to detach himself from the emotional and physical trauma that he had undergone during the camp, but finds it to be quite difficult to forget the look of his near-to-death eyes, something he had never seen before. This type of separation of one person into seemingly two completely different people is a defined by Dr. Lifton (2000) as “doubling.” Although Lifton uses his term to explain how Nazi doctors were able to both save and kill lives, the same concept could be applied in the situation of Wiesel. For example, Lifton talks about how Nazi doctors turned from a healing self to a killing self through the doubling process. Doubling is seen as almost an evolution to adapt to the current environment in order to survive and thrive. Wiesel doubled when he came from near death at the camp to a survivor of an irrefutable tragedy. It can be argued that doubling allows a person to not only become two different people, for example, but also to evolve from one person to a very different person. This process is one that many survivors had to come to terms with, one way or another, and to find a way to either deal with the emotions that they were faced with after being liberated or to find a way to detach their emotions from the terrors that they had overcome and attempt to move on.

In conclusion, detachment was one of the central coping mechanisms that many had to undergo in order to either attempt to survive the horrors of the concentration camps or to maintain their diligence to their daily duties at the camp. One way or another, the use of disassociation helped many cope with the troubles that they were faced with and allow themselves to do what they had to do to survive and potentially thrive in the concentration camps. Ironically, the form of detachment that many prisoners experienced while at the camps allowed them to survive the horrors that they were faced with, while the same “psychic numbing” (Lifton, 2000) allowed the Nazi doctors and soldiers to commit the crimes against humanity that they did.


Brown, J. E., Stephens, E. C., & Rubin, J. E. (1997). Images of the Holocaust: a literature anthology (pp. 277-339). Chicago, IL: NTC publishing group.

Lifton, R. J. (2000). The Nazi doctors: medical killing and the psychology of genocide (pp. 442-458). N.p.: Basic books.

Niewyk, D. L. (2011). The Holocaust (fourth ed., pp. 60-99). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.