Witness to an Extreme Century, by Robert Jay Lifton

Near the end of his memoir, Robert Lifton writes about Victor T., a Jewish doctor who had been an inmate at Auschwitz. While at Auschwitz he acted heroically, tending to patients in one of the camp's infirmaries and often endangering his own life in order to save theirs. Yet when Lifton went to interview Dr. T in the late 1970s, he found that he was haunted by his actions at Auschwitz, critical of himself for perceived failures and for things that he did in order to survive. Lifton had witnessed this same self-criticism in an American soldier who had refused to participate in the My Lai massacre. He began to discern a link between the capacity to be self-critical and the capacity to resist evil. It was one of the more startling insights that he gained in a lifetime of studying evil and atrocity.

Lifton has spent his career interviewing people who participated in traumatic historical events and trying to understand how cultural, governmental and religious forces can manipulate and change a person over time—and how some people can resist. In the process he has become a critic of rigid dogmatism. He was a leading advocate in the anti-nuclear armament movement and the peace movement of the Vietnam era.

Lifton found his life's work by accident. As a U.S. Air Force psychologist in the early 1950s he interviewed recently repatriated American POWs who had been victims of the Chinese government's efforts at thought reform. He later interviewed French missionaries and Chinese refugees who had been subjected to the same brainwashing techniques. His study launched his career as a psychologist of war and violence. Some of his essential insights from that early work followed him into subsequent studies of nuclear holocaust survivors in Hiroshima, Vietnam veterans, and German doctors who willingly served in concentration camps during World War II.