Rush Limbaugh and those invoking the Nazi analogy to attack President Barack Obama’s effort to reform health care in America are not “insane” as David Brooks pronounced on last Sunday's “Meet the Press.” Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the rest of the loud-mouthed right wing are, when they even hint at an analogy to the Nazis in talking about Obama’s health reform effort, engaged in something far worse than insanity. They are engaged in the vile evil of Holocaust denial.
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For some time now, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has held the title of the world’s most dangerous anti-Semite due to his denial that the Holocaust occurred. Limbaugh and his ilk who have been throwing around references to Adolf Hitler, National socialism and Nazi medicine without hesitation have surpassed the danger posed by the Iranian president. They are offering a false view of why the Holocaust happened. Their flagrant, deliberate and invidious distortion of what happened to medicine in Nazi Germany must not be allowed to stand. Not just because health reform is too important an issue but also because the truth is too important to let ignoramuses destroy it.
At the end of April, 1945, my father found himself at the gates of a very awful place. Having been one of the first residents of Massachusetts drafted into the army, he had spent the past three years fighting his way through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and into Germany. Over the years I have heard a variety of stories about his heroic service in those campaigns. But he has had very little to say about what he saw or felt when, as a Jewish American soldier, he found himself staring at the few emaciated survivors of the Dachau concentration camp.
The only single comment he has ever offered about that experience was uncharacteristically curt, “We took no more prisoners for about two weeks.” Those who know my father, who at 88 just spent an emotional weekend at the World War II Memorial, know that sentence is completely out of character for the man who spent his entire life as an admired and beloved healer — a pharmacist in Framingham, Mass.
My father’s war experience drew me to try and understand what had happened at Dachau. I have spent nearly 30 years trying to understand how the most scientifically and medically advanced nation of its day could have conducted the mass murder of so many Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and pacifists.
Contrary to what Limbaugh and other Holocaust deniers would have you believe, German medicine and science were not brought into the Nazi party once Hitler took power. They fueled the fire for what became Nazism with bigotry proffered as science.
What distinguished the doctors and scientists of Germany pre-Hitler was that so many of them were firm believers in racial hygiene — the view that the Aryan race’s very existence was threatened by inferior peoples such as Jews, blacks and Slavs. They felt the only way to protect their "race," a concept that itself made little biological sense, was to prohibit reproduction with inferior people and, ultimately, to destroy them. It was racism masquerading as science that formed the basis for Nazi science and medicine right down to the gas chambers and ovens that my dad found himself staring at in 1945.
Racism was at the core of Nazi medicine. Racism and a bizarre form of genetics that saw all manner of human frailty and weakness from prostitution to alcohol abuse to petty theft as highly heritable. When Hitler set out to kill the handicapped and the mentally ill he did it to protect the genetic future of Germany. When the "useless eaters" were targeted for euthanasia it was because of the threat they posed to the genetic health of future generations. When Nazi doctors mandated abortion it was to eliminate "mongrel" babies. When Nazi doctors analyzed how many of your ancestors had to be Jewish for you to be a Jew or when they killed all manner of Slavs, it was to remove these dangers from undermining the public health of the Reich.
Limbaugh, Beck, Palin and other Holocaust deniers ignore the core racist evil of Nazism. They reach for preposterous analogies between counseling people about living wills and the forced, involuntary mass murder carried out in the name of racism in concentration camps.
When the right wing, in their distaste for the President's push to reform a heath care system that even the American Medical Association and the pharmaceutical industry recognize has to be fixed, suggest that the disabled will be targeted, or that the elderly will be killed or find themselves without health care due to rationing by government bureaucrats as happened in Nazi Germany, they marginalize the gross evil that was the racial bigotry that fueled Nazi programs to euthanize, sterilize, experiment upon and torture people in places that were in no way connected to hospitals, clinics or nursing homes.
There is plenty to debate about health reform. But there is nothing to debate about the contemptible introduction of references, direct or oblique, to Nazi Germany. To do so is to engage in Holocaust denial. To do that is, as those Americans of the greatest generation who died or were injured fighting the Nazi menace well understood, inexcusable.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
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