This week’s New England Journal of Medicine opens with an essay by Elie Wiesel entitled “Without Conscience.” The essay asks how Nazi doctors, who played a horrifically crucial role in the organized cruelty of the Holocaust, came to betray the Hippocratic oath, their consciences, humanity. The essay is adapted from an earlier version in a 2001 collection, reprinted here to commemorate Wiesel’s liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp sixty years ago, on April 11, 1945. When we read that German doctors tortured and executed the insane, the terminally ill, children and the elderly as well as Jews, though, it’s difficult not to hear sobering echoes of recent headlines and heartaches.
“Nazi doctors did their work without any crisis of conscience. They were convinced that by helping Hitler to realize his racial ambitions, they were contributing to the salvation of humanity. The eminent Nazi doctor responsible for ‘ethical’ questions, Rudolf Ramm, did not hesitate to declare that ‘only an honest and moral person may become a good doctor.’ …
“None among them acted under duress–neither those who presided over the nocturnal divison of new arrivals, nor those who killed the prisoners in their laboraties. They could have slipped away; they could have said no. Until the end, they considered themselves public servants loyal to German politics and science. In other words, patriots, devoted researchers. Without too great a stretch, maybe even societal benefactors. Martyrs. …
“It is impossible to study the history of German medicine during the Nazi period in isolation from German education in general. Who or what is to blame for the creation of the assassins in white coats? Was the culprit the anti-Semitic heritage that German theologians and philosophers were dredging up? The harmful effects of propaganda? Perhaps higher education placed too much emphasis on abstract ideas and too little on humanity. I no longer remember which psychiatrist wrote a dissertation demonstrating that the assassins hadn’t lost their moral bearings: they knew how to discern Good from Evil; it was the sense of reality that was missing. In their eyes, the victims did not belong to humankind; they were abstractions.”
I doubt that my rhetorical, historical, ethical or emotional resources are sufficient to provide Wiesel’s topic the treatment it’s owed, and thus I hesitate to advance any answer to his questions. I do have an enduring interest in questions of conscience, though, and I find Wiesel’s suggestions, on one level, astonishing. Conscience has traditionally been understood as a self-legitimizing agency of the soul that defines itself in opposition to external claims of authority and mobilizes dissent against those claims: martyrdom is the final and supreme performance of conscience. Here, though, Wiesel suggests not that conscience was trumped by those external claims, but that conscience came to identify itself with those claims through the ideological apparatuses of theology, philosophy, education: conscience was not obliterated, but invaded. Conscience continued to navigate between Good and Evil, to point toward the “honest” and “moral,” as it always had–but now it oriented its compass between the poles of Nazi power.
To what extent will Mormon theology allow us to entertain Wiesel’s suggestion? Because we replace traditional (internalized) conscience with the (externalized) Light of Christ, it’s difficult to see how evil could exercise such an utterly invasive effect. But how do our categories then explain the actions of those Nazi doctors? When plunged into Night, does Light persist?