One thing I think I'll always remember from Robert Jay Lifton 's excellent book, The Nazi Doctors -- though not the only thing -- is the ease with which I found myself able to sympathize with certain aspects of the Nazi mindset, the "Nazi biomedical vision" as Lifton calls it.
The Nazis (and some others!) gave eugenics a bad name, and few openly embrace eugenics today. Yet eugenics had many eminent supporters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's easy to see how people could be attracted to the idea of humanity taking control over its genetic pool and implementing eugenic measures designed to ensure that future generations are healthier, more intelligent, and of better moral character.
The view that racial differences are genetically important and that the races differ significantly in their intellectual and moral capacities has a similar history, involving some of the same figures. Like eugenics, the position had numerous eminent adherents in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to become a political hot potato in the second half of the 20th century.
Both positions are of course abhorrent; let's take this as common ground. But I don't think they are obviously abhorrent. And it is that last fact to which I want to call your attention. In the current political climate, mainstream and liberal thinkers reflexively dismiss these views without, perhaps, appreciating their potential attractiveness to reasonable people in the right frame of mind and the right cultural context -- frames of mind and cultural contexts not too different from our own.
And of course, if you combine these two opinions (and certain views about the division and character of the races), one can come startlingly close to seeing merit in Nazi policy. In a Malthusian world, one might think it a moral duty to open up Lebensraum ("living space", i.e., new territory) for the genetically superior; given limited resources, one might think it best to trim away poor, and potentially genetically corrupting, stock. Evil can acquire the look of a moral imperative. If the heart rebels (as the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, one of my favorite moral psychologists, thinks it will), one might interpret that rebellion as misplaced compassion -- or at least compassion that should not be acted on, like the compassion that judges must sometimes set aside in delivering appropriately hard sentences.
That evil can disguise itself as reason is of course not news; but I think it salutary to remind ourselves sometimes how easily it can do so. Our ordinary, lazy habits of thinking tend to exaggerate the distance between ourselves and those we condemn.
Starvation as a method of killing was a logical extension of the frequent imagery of mental patients as "useless eaters." As a passive means of death, it was one more element of general neglect. In many places, mentally ill patients had already been fed insufficiently; and the idea of not nourishing them was "in the air" (p. 98).
and (you may wish to skip the following quote if you are easily upset):
I remember the gist of the following general remarks by Pfannmueller: These creatures (he meant the children) naturally represent for me as a National Socialist only a burden for the healthy body of the Volk. We do not kill (he could have here used a euphemistic expression for this word kill) with poison, injections, etc.; then the foreign press and certain gentlemen in Switzerland would only have new inflammatory material. No our method is much simpler and more natural, as you see. With these words, he pulled, with the help of a ... nurse, a child from its little bed. While he then exhibited the child like a dead rabbit, he asserted with a knowing expression and a cynical grin: For this one it will take two to three more days. The picture of this fat, grinning man, in his fleshy hand the wimpering skeleton, surrounded by other starving children, is still vivid in my mind (p. 62).
There are different kinds of evil -- evil in passion, evil in neglect -- but it is this cold evil, rigorously rationalized, whose shadowy potential in myself frightens me most.