Readers of The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat meet Theodore Taylor, a physicist interviewed by Robert Jay Lifton in December, 1987. Mentored by the likes of Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, Taylor so intently dedicated himself to the development of nuclear arms that he professed feeling “more at home in the laboratory than at home.” Yet that statement was not Taylor’s last, which explains why Lifton and his coauthor, Eric Markusen, conclude their disturbing yet guardedly optimistic book with a different revelation from this man, who eventually became one of the most antinuclear of former weapons scientists.”
Taylor told Lifton that his conversion traced back to the mid- 1980’s, when he first visited the Soviet Union. While observing happy young people in Red Square, Taylor experienced a flashback. As memory returned him to the night when one of his children was born, he began weeping uncontrollably. Taylor had not been at the hospital but at the Pentagon. Nor was his attention on his wife and child. It had focused instead on aerial photographs and nuclear attack plans aimed at Moscow. Through tears produced by collisions of the past and present, Taylor saw “a symptom of insanity” in the life he had led and felt an imperative to overcome it.
In Taylor’s self-acknowledged symptom, Lifton and Markusen see something far more pervasive, potent, and paralyzing than his words alone might suggest. They call it “the genocidal mentality,” an evolving constellation of historical, social, and psychological factors that could destroy the human species. Taking heart from examples such as Taylor’s, the authors find that mentality “neither biologically ordained nor intractable.” As the book’s subtitle suggests, however, “Nazi Holocaust and nuclear threat” show how enormously malignant and deeply entrenched the genocidal mentality has become.
The book appeared before the 1990 erosion of Communist authority in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe substantially changed—some say ended—the Cold War that had escalated the Soviet-American arms race over four decades. Nevertheless, The Genocidal Mentality still provides warnings as timely as they are unsettling. Just as the conclusion of World War II did not end genocide—a fact that makes memory of the Holocaust more, not less, important—so improved Soviet-American relationships, including arms-reduction agreements, ought not to create the presumption that nuclear warfare is a thing of the past.
Lifton, a distinguished psychiatrist whose many notable books include his ground-breaking Nazi Doctors (1986), rightly puts scholarship in the service of morality by teaming up with Markusen, a sociologist who concentrates on nuclear weapons policies, to explore the genocidal mentality’s components. By identifying them and showing how they work, the authors try to improve the chances for a hopeful alternative, which they call a “species mentality.”
As their point of departure, the authors cite Elie Wiesel, Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and the 1986 Nobel laureate in peace. “Maybe,” he has observed, “the whole world, strangely, has turned Jewish.” Wiesel’s remark links Auschwitz and the Holocaust, on the one hand, and Hiroshima and MAD (mutually assured destruction), on the other.
Nazi Germany’s “final solution” tried to annihilate the Jewish people root and branch. Although the aims at Auschwitz and Hiroshima differed vastly, the atomic bomb used by the United States against the Japanese added a new dimension to the boundary shattering done by the Holocaust. The gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz made the unthinkable thinkable, but at Hiroshima the potential for mass death entered new magnitudes. First the Holocaust demonstrated that a particular people—the Jews—could be targeted for total elimination and come all too close to that fate. Then the nuclear age begun at Hiroshima demonstrated that the human species itself might become “Jewish” through targeting that could destroy it root and branch.
The links do not stop there. Following Wiesel’s cue, Lifton and Markusen show how the genocidal mentality that drove Nazi Germany and its Jewish victims to Auschwitz, far from being a bizarre anomaly, is symptomatic of social patterns of thought, action, and personality that span contexts and continents. Those patterns reveal destructive tendencies with global and even cosmic implications.
“Genocide” refers to the attempt to destroy—directly by killing or indirectly by less immediate means—a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Although genocide is nothing...
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