Psychology and Sociology

Psychological factors played a role in the daily routine of genocide. One reason that the SS constructed death camps was its concern about reports indicating the adverse psychological effects of face-to-face killing on its murder squads. The killing facilities minimized contact between killers and victims, were far more “efficient,” and had the added benefit of preventing panic among the victims by deceiving them about their purpose until the last moment (see, however, figs. 9 and 10). Jewish resisters, for their part, strove to transform the perceived predilection of their communities passively to accept their fate. On the first day of 1942, the Jewish Pioneer Youth Group in the Vilna Ghetto issued a proclamation calling for resistance against the Germans. Culminating with the plea, “Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter!” this was one of the earliest and most forceful calls for armed Jewish resistance to Nazi genocidal policies; it also exemplified the difference between Jewish and gentile opposition to the Germans.

Setting out from the assumption that the Jews were already doomed, these young men and women insisted on choosing the manner of their death; they believed in the historical significance of going down fighting rather than being passively led to the killing sites. As their manifesto proclaimed, “It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers.” That this was a minority opinion, held mainly by young Zionists, had to do, of course, with the objective limits on resistance: numerical inferiority, isolation within a largely hostile gentile society, and lack of arms and training. More important, however, was the fact that the decision to leave the ghetto and form fighting units in the forests meant abandoning parents, siblings, children, and spouses to be murdered by the Nazis. Here there were no easy moral choices, even if the expectation was that ultimately all would die. This is why the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion occurred only after the bulk of the Jewish population—including most of the old, the sick, and the very young—had already been sent to the gas chambers, and the remaining Jews knew that the final elimination of the ghetto was imminent. Paradoxically, then, the choice to fight was an admission of the inevitability of destruction, while the choice to struggle for survival represented hope, however slim, for the future. If gentile resistance was motivated by the prospect of liberation and national resurrection, Jewish resistance was an expression of despair, a final gesture by a slaughtered people. Especially in those parts of Eastern Europe and western Russia where the vast majority of the Jews lived, fighting meant choosing how to die, not how to live (fig. 16).

Contested martyrdom. Memorial to the Polish uprising of summer 1944, built after the fall of Communism in central Warsaw, Poland, and shunned by the population.

FIGURE 16. Contested martyrdom. Memorial to the Polish uprising of summer 1944, built after the fall of Communism in central Warsaw, Poland, and shunned by the population.

Outside observers were quick to reach conclusions about the psychological makeup of both camp inmates and their guards. Such theories may have facilitated coming to terms with unprecedented inhumanity, but they distorted reality. Defining the Holocaust as a case of unique extremity made it possible to repress its implications for subsequent “normality.”

Bruno Bettelheim’s early attempt to analyze camp inmates’ psychology focused on what he saw as their regression into childhood behavior, manifested in a tendency to soil themselves, an inability to act as mature adults, and an internalization of the values of the SS. Having experienced only the relatively benign camps of the 1930s, Bettelheim had little knowledge of the vastly different concentration, labor, and death camps of the war years. He also tended to confuse patterns of behavior imposed on the inmates by the camp system (such as restricted access to latrines, rampant diseases, and intentional humiliation) with actual changes in their personalities, which often ended up in total disintegration and transformation into musselmen. Yet Bettelheim did qualify the widespread view that political prisoners were invariably heroic adversaries of the Nazis, and seems to have been right about the tendency of some inmates to emulate their tormentors, if mostly as a survival technique. Subsequent conceptualizations of the Jewish victims’ psychology reflected prejudices about so-called Diaspora mentality. Here the argument was made that the Jews became complicit in their own destruction at the hands of the Nazis by reverting to “traditional” strategies of accommodation with their persecutors. Paradoxically, while Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, for instance, were attacked by the Zionist establishment for stressing Jewish complicity—and hence for being the proverbial self-hating Jews— Zionist rhetoric itself maintained that, with a few heroic exceptions (greatly highlighted in Israeli Holocaust remembrance), the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter precisely because of that very Diaspora mentality that Zionism was striving mightily to transform.

Recent studies of survivors, as well as of their (and the perpetrators’) children, often reveal the impact of the Holocaust on individual and collective psychology. This belated recognition of the Holocaust’s long-term effects has been accompanied by a growing scholarly preoccupation with trauma in a variety of disciplines, ranging from psychology to history, from literary criticism to law and philosophy. In the early years after the event, however, survivors who wished to talk about their experiences rarely found anyone prepared to listen. This imposed silence added to the survivors’ mental turmoil. Even psychologists were often unwilling to confront this phenomenon of mass trauma at the time, preferring to integrate it into existing and not necessarily relevant theories. This contrasted sharply with the far more efficacious reaction of psychologists to the massive incidence of “shell shock” during World War I and to its World War II equivalent, renamed “combat fatigue” (and later still “combat stress” or “combat syndrome”), not least because armies and states had a much greater interest in returning mentally disabled troops to battle than in focusing on the shattered minds of the survivors of genocide. Fifty years after the Holocaust, it is, naturally, less difficult to deal with its traumatic consequences: by now the Holocaust seems to lack any immediate implications and no longer appears to threaten conventional views of civilization. This perhaps guarantees the return of the repressed in the form of yet more atrocity.

As for the psychology of the killers, two polar arguments have recently been debated. In his 1992 study, Ordinary Men, historian Christopher Browning refers to the psychologist Stanley Milgram’s behavioral experiments—conducted a generation earlier—to suggest that peer group pressure was the main reason why men participated in the Third Reich’s genocidal campaigns. He thus implies that under similar circumstances all people could become mass murderers. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) traces the main motivation for the Holocaust to German antisemitism. To his mind it was not so much the Holocaust that was unique, but rather the German hatred of Jews, whose cultural and historical roots stretch all the way back to Martin Luther. Of the two views, Goldhagen’s is the less threatening, since it comes with the qualification that “the Germans” have changed since 1945 and hence that what they did or were capable of doing is of mere historical interest with little relevance for the present. Indeed, his thesis adds little to our understanding of the numerous postwar genocides and atrocities. Conversely, Browning’s assertion that humanity will always contain within itself the potential to perpetrate mass murder is far more disturbing. Yet while it provides insight into genocide as a universal phenomenon, his thesis does not explain why in certain situations where genocide might have been expected to manifest itself it did not take place. By overemphasizing the influence of behavioral patterns on participation in mass murder, Browning minimizes the often crucial role of ideological motivation, and ends up with a generalization that obscures some aspects of the specific circumstances he is simultaneously at such pains to reconstruct.

This brings us to a very different approach to understanding modern genocide, whose focus is more on the general socioeconomic context than the psychological makeup of particular actors or collectives. The late German historian Detlev J. K. Peukert made the argument that the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent establishment of the Nazi regime must be understood within the context of German society’s failure to adjust to a rapid process of modernization, which produced what he called a crisis of classical modernity. The tremendous material and psychological pressures experienced by large sectors of society undergoing rapid economic and social transformation made them increasingly susceptible to radical political movements and tenets. Moreover, the promises made by the allegedly objective modern science of eugenics about its capacity to improve society by means of biological manipulation were especially welcomed by a public pervaded by phobias about degeneration and pollution. For Peukert, Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic represented the European malaise in extremis, a disease whose symptoms were deep anxiety, paranoia, growing aggression—and violence.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman pushes this conclusion even further. Blaming his colleagues for having failed to integrate the Holocaust into the general stream of European history since the Enlightenment, Bauman demonstrates that precisely because sociology was founded on assumptions of rationality and improvement, it has not been able to come to terms with an event that refuted the notion of humanity’s inevitable progress, the assumed interdependence of humanism and technological and scientific development, and the proposition that in modern society people’s actions are susceptible to rational explanation. According to Bauman, rather than being a throwback to a premodern era, or a phenomenon that embodies atavistic impulses, the Holocaust was, in fact, facilitated by modern modes of thinking and organization. The Enlightenment notion of the “gardening society,” whereby man must learn to order and control both his natural environment and his own nature, rather than creating a “crisis of modernity,” set the stage for operations of radical social surgery, whose scale and efficiency were tremendously enhanced by the advances made in science and technology. Progress, therefore, could mean widespread destruction in the name of improving the lot of humanity as such.

What we have here, then, is an attempt to read back the lessons of the Holocaust all the way to the Enlightenment, the source of everything we normally associate with progress, democracy, and morality, that is, the values and forces that are thought to have opposed Nazism. Such a radical critique was proposed thirty years earlier by Jacob Talmon, who claimed to identify the roots of both liberal democracy and totalitarianism in the ideas of the Enlightenment and their implementation in the French Revolution; it is also indebted, of course, to Hannah Arendt’s better known and pioneering study of totalitarianism. For Bauman, the belief that man can take his destiny into his own hands and mold his species’ future combined with the nineteenth century’s faith in the positive and creative powers of science to make possible mass democracy and unparalleled material progress. But, at the same time, this combination also fueled the nihilistic energies of those who wished to attain total control over the life and fate of humanity, to weed out whoever appeared to them unworthy of life, to crush all opponents, misfits, inferior races, and anachronistic classes and to decide what was to be thrown into the dustbin of history, what the future would look like, and what were the best ways and means to get there. In other words, Bauman sees the main lesson of the Holocaust as the realization that the values we trust in and the institutions we have created, perceived by us as bulwarks of liberty, justice, and humanism, contain within them seeds of totalitarianism, nihilism, and genocide.

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