Georges Federmann: I encountered forms of evidence, lights that confirmed to me that the ideological structure of Nazism, which we were supposed to have distanced ourselves from forever since 1946, was still at work with slightly different expressions, obviously.
Johann Chapoutot: Yes, there is a fact that cannot be ignored, and one cannot bypass it either. The medical profession, specifically doctors – I don’t know about nurses, but for doctors, it’s very clear – the medical profession is the most Nazi-fied under the Third Reich. In fact, there are three massively Nazi-fied professions: archaeologists, jurists, and doctors. It’s not a coincidence; in all three cases, the Third Reich aims to be a renewed normative culture. Jurists participate in this, it is intended to be a genealogy of race, and archaeologists are part of this project. Moreover, Nazism also aims to be a social, hygienic, racist medicine that speaks the language of medicine, to which doctors bring both their endorsement, their credibility, their enthusiasm, and their participation.
In France, we have the case of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who in 1937 became a true Nazi. It is very clear in his pamphlet from 1937, Bagatelle pour un massacre. One of the reasons Céline turns to Nazism is that he is a doctor. He is a real doctor, he likes it, he has done it all his life, and he is recognized as a good general practitioner. Céline is someone who deals with social medicine, public health policies. He was detached to the League of Nations (SDN) to take care of it in Geneva, and he recognized in Nazism, and in the Nazis, his concepts, language, and reasoning, which gained his trust.
Doctors under the Third Reich understood that they could access power and have control levers. This was the case with a swift and immediate confusion between biology and politics. As early as April 7, there is a law for racial purification of the civil service, and on July 14, 1933 – not by chance, as they chose Bastille Day – hereditary health courts are created. These courts consist of three members: a professional tribunal magistrate, a police officer, probably a member of the SS, and a doctor, who may also be a member of the SS, and they decide on mandatory sterilizations. In this case, 400,000 legal sterilization verdicts will be pronounced. So, among the three most Nazi-fied professions, doctors stand out, which may seem curious, surprising, and shocking, considering the Hippocratic Oath. However, by working on Nazi normativity, I realized that the Hippocratic Oath is still recognized under the Third Reich, but its purpose has changed. It is no longer about treating the individual precisely, idiosyncratic, and individual; it is now about treating the racial community. The focus has shifted from an individualistic perspective to a holistic perspective, which is what the Hippocratic Oath refers to now – the grand whole of the race. Moreover, the top leaders of the SS and the Gestapo also refer to this.
I think of Dr. Werner Best – and when I say doctor, I mean doctor in the German sense, as he is a doctor of law. In 1936, he published an article in the journal Die Deutsche Polizei where he said that the Gestapo, of which he is one of the two main leaders, is the “physician of the German body.” The body targeted by medical practice is the German body. Like all doctors, he says, we are sometimes obliged to have somewhat invasive, intrusive, and painful interventions, but it is for the good of the body, for the good of the grand whole. So, if I pull out decayed teeth, it’s not kind to the tooth, but it’s friendly to the body. This reasoning is put in place, and reference is also made to medicine and biology. Hitler, for example, said that “Nazism is applied biology.” This obviously cuts short any political debate since Nazi solutions are apolitical, dictated by science, and not open to discussion.
Georges Federmann: Psychiatry is not practiced the same way in Strasbourg, where there were experiments on humans in 1943, as on the side of Toulouse, where Simon de Monfort reminded his troops that they could burn all the inhabitants of Béziers and its surroundings since God would recognize His own.
Johann Chapoutot: Georges describes an idiotic medicine in the etymological sense. In Greek, “idiotes” means someone who is enclosed in himself, idiotic due to its positivism, its scientism that believes itself detached from any context and history. History, in turn, requires reflection, especially in Strasbourg, as the University of Strasbourg in 1941 was established as a Reich University. There were three such universities – Prague, Strasbourg, and Posnan – which were showcases for the regions annexed by the Nazis. There was this anatomical collection that Professor August Hirt wanted to establish using Jewish corpses manufactured for the occasion, as it was about preserving skeletons. That’s why a gas chamber was set up in the Struthof camp. Indeed, it seems to call for reflection, but not out of scientific pride or positivist blindness. It is believed that medicine can dispense with all that because science is neutral, technical, eternal, and not linked to history.
Georges Federmann: With the Ras le Front society, we managed to convince the mayor, Catherine Trautman, to rename Rue Alexis Carrel in 1989, a Nobel Prize-winning physician who considered gassing deviants as a measure of justice, to Rue Adélaïde Hautval, who had refused to collaborate with Mengele at Auschwitz and committed suicide due to Parkinson’s disease. The second case is having the René Leriche Pavilion renamed, the first president of the medical order between 1940 and 1942, who enforced the first two anti-Jewish laws.
Johann Chapoutot: We know that Nazism is the type of regime that designates what is called a scapegoat, preferably an internal enemy, to divert attention from real problems. This is something very classic, seen at work today in our news. In the Third Reich, there was even a denial of the existence of social classes. This is also something we’ve seen since the 90s – the denial of the existence of social classes, our divergent or opposing interests, and the existence of class antagonism. Warren Buffet rightly said that there was indeed a class war, and he was winning it.
Beyond that, and more profoundly, Nazism reveals structural aspects of our modernity. The social sciences have been striving for a century or more to define what modernity is. It has been discussed since the late 19th century when Germany experienced a very rapid and violent demographic transition, along with forced industrialization. Germany, still rural and agricultural in 1871, became mostly urban by 1881, 50 years before France, even though the industrial revolution started much later. To define this modernity, of which Nazism is an expression, and this strong tendency today, we can read German authors, especially Marx and Engels.
When rereading the Communist Manifesto in 1848, we can realize the brilliant anticipations of these two authors in defining our world. I think of the phrase “on the icy waters of selfish calculation.” Marx and Engels wrote in 1848 that we would leave the wonderful world of a religion that was adored and illuminated by difficult daily lives; we are now, through the bourgeoisie, plunged into the “icy waters of selfish calculation.”
So, to define this modernity, we have Marx and Engels, Nietzsche in the second half of the 19th century – not the pre-Nazi figure we imagine or denounce, but someone who describes phenomena. He precisely describes this world reduced to a plane of immanence without any transcendence, without any value, a world where God has been killed. Nietzsche says we killed Him, and he partly observes that only forces governed by the will to power clash in this world. The truth of the world, Nietzsche says, is the will to power. He does not boast about it; he observes it, regrets it even, and he is very enlightening to describe the world we live in today – a world that is pure immanence, where power allows distinguishing individuals.