I have often wondered how intelligent and well-meaning people could so cheerfully commit immoral acts. Tony Ortega’s fine book about Paulette Cooper’s remarkably brave stand against Scientology – The Unbreakable Miss Lovely – shows that some of her persecutors continue to justify their outrageous actions of the 1970s, because they continue to hate her. It is impossible for them to admit that they were wrong, and that Paulette was exposing a criminal and profoundly unethical organization.
Agents of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs have occasionally tried to explain their unethical behaviour to me. ‘If we don’t use Fair Game, how will we stop the Suppressives?’ one young woman asked me. A twenty-year member explained that the perilously short time left to ‘Clear the planet’ justified ‘fascist’ behaviour. And, yes, he used the word ‘fascist’.
One answer is indeed found in those most extreme of fanatics, the Nazis. If I could elect just one individual for a Nobel Prize, it would definitely be Robert Jay Lifton. His compassionate analysis of Hiroshima, of the victims of the Chinese thought reform camps, and of the Aum Shinrikyo cult are all classics of rational analysis. I have never managed to finish The Nazi Doctors, because the subject matter is simply too frightening, but I am familiar with its core concepts.
Under the Aktion T-4 programme in Nazi Germany, family doctors murdered 70,000 of their ‘disabled’ patients. Doctors were also the profession with the highest membership in the Nazi party (45% of doctors joined up). So much for the caring profession and the Hippocratic Oath. But, as the philosopher Michael Jagger put it, ‘the gangster looks so frightening, with his luger in his hand, but when he gets home to his children, he’s a family man.’
There is a remarkable little book called Are We All Nazis?. The author, Hans Askenasy, was in a concentration camp as a child. He became a fighter pilot in the US, and then a psychologist working with disturbed and often violent adolescents. He examined the lives of the leading Nazis, and, to his surprise, found that none of them were sadists. They were committed to a cause. They believed that the German people had fallen upon hard times because of ‘inferior’ populations – the Jews and Romanies. It was their task to eliminate the toxic effect of these ‘parasites’.
The Jews, Romanies, Blacks and Communists had to be exterminated as ‘vermin’. The Slavic peoples were to be put back in their place as ‘slaves’. And the world would be saved.
Heinrich Himmler was the head of the SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party that controlled the extermination programme. Here is his own justification for the mass killings: ‘I am not a bloodthirsty man and not someone who takes pleasure in difficult duties. But … I have such strong nerves and such a great sense of duty I might say that when I recognise something … essential, I execute it without compromise. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses lie side by side. Whether there be 500 or 1000. And to endure that and, apart from a few exceptions, to remain decent has made us tough but it is never mentioned and it will never appear in the glorious annals of history. We can have but one desire as to what is said about us these German officers, these German soldiers, these German generals, they were decent’. The ‘glorious annals of history’ take a very different opinion of Himmler’s decency.
To work their horrors, the Nazis had to separate themselves emotionally from their actions. The Nazi doctors, and the concentration camp guards, were able to put aside their humanity, their compassion and their fellow feeling, because they were wedded to a higher purpose: the salvation of the Aryan race. They shifted into the Nazi identity by ‘doubling’. At Nuremburg, one after another claimed that they were simply following orders – befehl ist befehl – they felt no personal responsibility for their actions.
Fortunately, most cult members don’t travel the path to that hideous extreme – the final stage of Lifton’s thought reform model, the actual ‘dispensing of existence.’ However, this doubling of identity can remain a problem for many years after leaving a cult.
I have no agenda to destroy any cult, let alone to harm believers – quite the opposite, although I’ve had to put up with some pretty savage attacks from those believers over the decades. If I could help a cult leader, I would. However, I would also restrain them from committing further evil, if I could.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about an experience in a cult or coercive group or relationship that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!