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writing for godot

Bettelheim and Extreme Situations: From Concentration Camp to Modern Mass Society

Written by Judy Pasqualge   
Monday, 17 February 2020 02:14


Throughout history, the conqueror's power has made men invest him with virtue, at times even to transfigure him into a demigod or hero. It seems almost inevitable as a mental process. The greater an individual's power over others, the greater the evil that might possibly originate with him. The greater the threat, the greater the need to deny it by believing in his virtue. (Bruno Bettelheim. The Informed Heart. Autonomy in a Mass Age (1960), 88-89)

The stereotype [of the SS] made submitting to him less damaging to the prisoner's narcissism and allowed him to identify submissively with the great power of the SS. The prisoner could then enjoy the limited security that comes with utter submission, and could also share the power of the SS in a devious way. (221)

For a year, from 1938 to 1939, the Austrian psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim was interned in Dachau and Buchenwald. At that time, these were concentration camps, not set up for extermination. His book on this experience, The Informed Heart, is of great use in looking at our own society, how people and their personalities can undergo great change, and how this can be resisted.

In particular, in an extreme situation, people may not realise the effects on their own personality, including: loss of the ability to think critically and make decisions; the tendency toward childlike behaviour; increased hostility; underlying guilt; and the lessening of the ability to act due to anxiety. A key factor in this is the holding of stereotypes ‒ one promoter of this being the media.

His analysis is based on the idea of individual autonomy: the inner ability to govern the self and the conscientious search for meaning (despite the realisation that there is no purpose to one's life). One acts out of inner conviction, not convenience or resentment, or external persuasion or controls. One is conscious of his freedom, has a sense of identity, self-respect and inner freedom. (75)

A sense of restricted autonomy, a vagueness regarding the self, is fostered by it being hard to develop and live by one's own standards, sometimes in the context of many choices; there is an illusion of greater freedom ‒ with failing to satisfy desires becoming more damaging; there are more choices than anyone can be expected to handle; and education is not provided with examples and guidelines on which desires are to be gratified. (81)

With quick social change, the more one lacks true autonomy, the reliance on society increases. (82-83) The individual feels powerless, an object of manipulation ‒ requiring a compensation. The more powerless the individual becomes in the mass state, the more important power holders appear. (84-85) A person needs to believe that power holders will take care of him, and any lack of justice is blamed on middlemen. With a belief that his society is the most powerful, he becomes less powerful. (88) With an absence of personal identity, a person looks to the outside, and lastly to the state, increasing the feeling of helplessness; mass society must always claim and demonstrate that it is powerful, that its strength provides security. (100-101)

Extreme situations produce deep feeling impressions, and clear thinking becomes difficult. A person's personality may quickly and radically change, for better or for worse. In the camp a person needed to come to quick realisations in order to survive. Decisions had to be made on where and where not to adjust, on how to act, and clear thinking was crucial. (21-24)

The Nazi system of imprisonment was planned to cause physical and psychological exhaustion. In addition to physical traumatisation, three other methods were used to destroy personal autonomy: force prisoners to adopt childlike behavior; force them to give up their individuality and merge into an amorphous mass; and destroy the capacity for self-determination ‒ the ability to predict the future and to thus prepare for it. (131)

Bettelheim notes how new prisoners quickly started to act like children: lie, loss of restraint, unable to distinguish between reality and wishful/anxious daydreaming; satisfaction in eating, sleeping, resting; live in the immediate present, lose feeling for sequence of time, inability to plan for the future/give up immediate satisfactions; boastful, not shamed when known they had lied; make quick friendships and break them; impotent rage; wishful denial of what is too unpleasant. (115, 131, 168, 254)

Bettelheim says that the Hitler state gave an outlet for one instinctual tendency ‒ hostility. He states that in the mass state inner controls and deeper inner satisfaction have weakened from generation to generation from about the turn of the century. If this were to continue there would need to be a compensation of stronger and stronger outside controls. The Hitler state made individuals dependent and ungratified, leading people to want to be more taken care of, leading to frustration, and then a reliance on outside guidance in all activities. (102-104)

Bettelheim characterises "the true conflict of our times" as man's "inability to make a choice, as he sees it, between renouncing freedom and individualism, OR giving up the material comforts of modern technology and the security of a collective mass society." Often this as a problem is denied. (51) Technical developments ask for cooperation of the many, and "... the cooperation by large groups cannot be achieved without imposing controls." When free decision is too restricted, this reduces the scope of personal responsibility, and thus an individual's autonomy. If one is denied a part in decision making on matters of deep concern, this produces a feeling of impotence ‒ "being subject to tyranny." (69-70)

Bettelheim notes the effects of one of the key machines of his time ‒ TV. TV promotes thinking in stereotypes. Diction used is often suave, or an emotion-laden idiom, or talking down ‒ in real life people arouse less feeling. People come to expect life as a sequence, with a beginning, middle and a predictable end/solution; but real life is too complicated, and this leads to discouragement. A block of solid inertia forms; people become emotionally isolated from others, and reluctant to become active in learning or in relations with others. (55-56)

With regard to stereotyping, Bettelheim relates how his group, Jews, held stereotypes similar to those held by the SS guards. The images were entirely negative, and did not permit the realistic evaluation of an individual. The aggressor had to be thought of as stupid, and then invested with inhuman characteristics; a person could then submit without being degraded or losing self-respect. As with negative stereotypes in general, one's own undesirable motives and characteristics were projected into the stereotype of the SS. (217-20)

The SS stereotype of the Jew portrayed him as being more dangerous than in reality, with images ranging from inferiority/contamination to being part of an international conspiracy ‒ again a projection of the persecutor. In any such situation, the more violent the persecutor, the more he must justify this by the dangerousness of the victim's power. The greater the power is seen to be, the greater his anxiety, and then the greater the violence. (217-222)

In the end, most 1-to-1 SS-prisoner interactions resulted in only a "clash of stereotypes." (226) This stereotyping of the SS, however, could serve to decrease the chances of survival, as in an example Bettelheim gives on interactions with an SS guard who controlled the access to medical treatment: a prisoner's 'story' about how he deserved treatment might be taken by the guard as an attempt to dupe him, i.e., that he was stupid/inferior.

With regard to German civilians, Bettelheim notes that the concentration camps served less directly to intimidate than to modify their personalities. The individual won't risk his life over small inroads into his autonomy. When the inroads are continuous, this saps courage, with fear to take action. The more energy a person spends on managing the anxiety associated with not acting, the more he feels less capable of acting on his own. The longer action is delayed, the weaker is the ability to resist, and the more one is thrown back to depend on externals ‒ and this process has its own momentum. (260-61, 274)

However, in the end, in the camp and in society, a person always has the freedom to evaluate, and is free to decide on his inner approval or resistance to what is forced on him. One must fight against finding it pointless to make decisions, whether due to an extremely oppressive situation or if important decisions are made by others. One must be able to see the dangers and take conscious action based on personal decision. He must preserve some areas of independent action. (61, 72, 147-48)

Indeed, notes Bettelheim, "... the last, if not greatest, of the human freedoms: [is] to choose their own attitude in any given circumstance." (158)

*    *    *    *    *

In this year of 2020 in the US we live in an extreme situation. The reality is a combination of a greater sense of commonality (witness the huge support for issues regarding health care, a livable wage, immigration, the earth crisis, denuclearisation, etc.), AND of great anxiety (fear of the future, producing anger, despair). There seems to be a lessening of evaluative thinking, and more denial. Reactions are quick and full of emotion. Stereotypes abound, on all sides. This produces more internal guilt, with more to cover up to oneself, more anxiety, and then an increased reliance on externals.

And it seems, as Bettelheim writes, that many people do not want to know "that a repressive regime can so disintegrate the personality of adults that out of pure anxiety they can firmly believe what they would know to be false if their anxiety permitted them to know it." (282)

Bettelheim states that ruling classes, including in the prisoner hierarchy, lose empathy with those lower; and have guilt about the advantages they have, producing a greater need to justify themselves, by "pointing to their greater value to society because of their power to influence, their education, their cultural refinement." (183-84) This is one cause of the image problem, and thus appeal, of some of the Democratic Party candidates. It was a factor in the 2016 election loss.

It may be surprising to learn that the group most hated by the SS was the professional, well-educated middle classes, who often had fought the Nazis only by using derision (unlike political anti-Nazis). (203) This characteristic of some US corporate media groups and commentators impacts the image of the DP, and weakens the fight against the RP.

Finally, regarding Hitler's dedicated followers, they were destroyed as persons. The higher up in the Nazi hierarchy, the less influence a follower had on shaping decisions, and the more he lived by the leader's will/lived only through the leader: the high command were puppets. (233) This is the situation of Republican senators and administration officials, among others.

The bigger, global picture sees a rise in far-right groups and governments ‒ including 'captured' states, which are increasingly aligning and acting in concert. We see President Trump, leaders in Central America, the Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, India, Russia, and more. This is a reality that cannot be denied or repressed. The far right has a strategy, including military role and economic model, which works against individual autonomy and freedom.

Truly, as Bettelheim puts it: "... when a world goes to pieces, when inhumanity reigns supreme, man cannot go on with business as usual. One then has to radically re-evaluate all of what one has done, believed in, stood for. In short, one has to take a stand on the new reality, a firm stand, and not one of retirement into even greater privatization." (257) your social media marketing partner
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