How the Nazi system destroyed individuality, how individuals resisted the system and the monstrously destructive psychological field, which strategies were used by the Nazis in order to make individuals into biomass
When preparing for the public lecture regarding individual psychology, I was leafing through excerpts from the book “Enlightened Heart” by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. In it, he describes his experienced as a prisoner in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1938-1939, as well as the experience of other people who were forced to face the system of destruction of human dignity later, when the Nazis “unfolded” fully. I made notes, marked pages, and it resulted in this article.
I was interested in the psychological aspect of what was happening in concentration camps. How the Nazi system would destroy individuality, how individuals resisted the system and the monstrously destructive psychological field, which strategies were used and how they were deformed. In the end, individuality is our strategy of adapting to the world around us, and what we are depends a lot on what this world around us it like, writes Ilya Latypov.
Let us begin…
The Nazi system in 1938-1939, when Bettelheim was in Dachau and Buchenwald, was not yet aimed at total elimination, though they did not give much value to the human life back then either. It was oriented towards the “cultivation” of slave workforce: ideal and obedient, one that doesn’t think of anything but encouragement from their master, and which is expendable. Accordingly, it was necessary to make a resistant adult individual into a scared child, infantilise the person by force, achieve their regression – to a child or even an animal, a live biomass without a personality, will or feelings. Biomass is easily governed, it does not evoke compassion, it is easier to regard it with condescension and it will obediently go to its death. So it is convenient for the masters.
When generalised the main psychological strategies of suppressing and breaking individuality described in Bettelheim’s works, I outlined and formulated a number of key strategies which are universal in general. And in different variations they have been repeated and still are on practically all levels of social life between the family and the state. The Nazis simply gathered all of this into a single concentrate of violence and horror. What are these methods to turn the individual into biomass?
Rule 1. Make the person engage in meaningless work.
One of the SS’ favourite things to do was to force people to engage in absolutely meaningless work, and the prisoners understood that it had no sense at all. Haul boulders from one place to the other, dig trenches with their bare hands, when the spades were lying close by. Why? “Because I said so, you Jewish snout!”
(How is it different from “because you have to” or “your job is to work and not think?”)
Rule 2. Impose mutually exclusive rules whose violation is inevitable.
This rule created an atmosphere of constant fear of being caught. The people were forced to make deals with the guards or “capo” (the SS assistants among the prisoners), becoming totally dependent on them. A broad field for blackmail unfolded: the guards and cope could pay attention to violations or not, in exchange for this or that service.
(The absurdity and contradictory nature of parental demands or state laws are a total analogy.)
Rule 3. Impose collective responsibility.
Collective responsibility makes personal responsibility vague – this is a well-known rule. But under conditions when the price of making a mistake is far too high, collective responsibility turns all the group members into safeguards for each other. The group itself becomes and unwitting ally of the SS and the camp administration.
Frequently, an SS officer, subject to a momentary caprice, would give yet another senseless order. The strive for obedience rooted itself in the psyche so deeply that there were always prisoners who would adhere to the order for a long time (even is the SS officer forgot about it within five minutes) and would force others to do it as well. As such, once a guard ordered a group of prisoners to wash their boots from the inside and the outside with water and soap. The boots became hard as rock and gave them blisters. The order was never repeated again. Nonetheless, many of those who have been in camp for a long time continued to wash their boots inside and out every day and accused those who didn’t do it of disobedience and dirtiness.
(The principle of group responsibility… When “everyone is to blame,” or when a certain person is only viewed as a representative of a stereotype group, and not someone who possesses their own opinion).
These are the three “preliminary rules.” The next three are the hit link that disintegrate an already prepared individual into biomass.
Rule 4. Make the people believe that nothing depends on them.
For this, one should create an unforeseen atmosphere, in which it is impossible to plan anything, and force the people according to instructions, cutting off any initiative.
A group of Czech prisoners was destroyed this way. For some time they were outlined as the “noble” ones which had the right to certain privileges, they were allowed to live in relative comfort without work or loss. Then the Czechs were suddenly thrown to work in a mine, where there were the worst working conditions and the highest mortality rate, having cut back on their food rations as well. Then back – into good accommodation and easy work, several months later – back to the mine and so forth. Nobody was left alive. The complete lack of control over their lives, the impossibility to predict what you are being encouraged or punished for, make you lose your ground. The individual simply cannot develop adaptive strategies in time, and completely disorganises.
“A person’s survival depends on their ability to retain some area of free behaviour, retain control over some important aspects of life despite the conditions that seem unbearable… Even an insignificant, purely arbitrary possibility to act or not act, but according to one’s will, allowed me and those like me to live,” B. Bettelheim.
The incredibly strict schedule constantly made people hurry. If you tarry one or two minutes when washing up, you won’t make it on time to the toilet. If you hesitate when making your bed (Dachau had beds back then), you won’t have breakfast, measly as it is. Haste, the fear of being late, not a second to think and stop… You are constantly being made to hurry by personal guards: time and fear. You are not the one who plans the day. Encouragement and punishment were unsystematic. While at first the prisoners thought that good labour would save them from punishment, later they would understand that nothing guaranteed their safety from being sent to mine rocks (the most dangerous task). And they were encouraged just because. It simply depended on the SS officer’s caprice.
(Authoritarian parents and organisations benefit a lot from this rule, because it provides the lack of activity and initiative on part of the addresses of the messages such as “nothing depends on you,” “and what did you achieve,” “this is how it always has been”).
Rule 5. Make the people pretend they don’t see our hear anything.
Bettelheim describes the following situation. An SS officer is beating someone. A column of slaves walks by which, upon seeing the beating, turns their heads in unison and speeds up pretending with all their might that they “did not see” what was happening. The SS officer shouts, “good job!” without leaving his task. Because the prisoners showed that they have learned the rule “not know and not see what we should not.” And the feeling of guilt and helplessness is reinforced in the prisoners and at the same time they become the SS officer’s allies by playing his game.
(In families with flourishing violence, the situation when someone from the family sees and understands everything but pretends that they don’t see or understand anything, is frequent. For example, a mother whose child is subject to sexual harassment on part of the father/stepfather… In totalitarian stated the rule “we know everything but we pretend…” is the most important condition for their existence).
Rule 6. Force the people to cross the last internal line.
“In order not to become a walking corpse and remain a human being, however humiliated and degraded, it was necessary to understand the entire time where the line of no return lies, the line that one cannot cross any further under any circumstances, even if one’s life is in jeopardy. Understand that if you survived thanks to crossing this line, you will go on living a life without any meaning.” B. Bettelheim.
Bettelheim offers a very exemplary story about the “last line.” Once an SS officer noticed two Jews “slacking off.” He made them lie down in a dirty ditch, called a Polish inmate from the neighbouring brigade and ordered to bury them alive. The Polish man refused. The SS officer started beating him but the Pole continued to refuse. Then the guard ordered them to switch, and the two got orders to bury the Polish man alive. And they started burying their fellow unfortunate soul without any hesitation. When the Polish man was almost underground, the SS officer ordered them to stop, dig him out, and then lie down into the ditch once again. And once more he ordered the Polish man to bury them. This time he obeyed – either out of spite or thinking the the SS officer would have mercy on them at the last moment. But the guard did not have mercy on them: he settled the soil over the heads of his victims with his boots. Five minutes later, they, one dead and one dying, were sent to the crematorium.
The result of the execution of all the rules:
“The inmates that learned the thought constantly imposed by the SS that they have nothing to hope for, those that believed that they were unable to influence their situation in any way – such inmates literally became walking corpses…” B. Bettelheim.
The process of transformation into such zombies was simple and visible. First the person stopped acting upon their will: they no longer had an internal source for motion, everything they did was determined by pressure on part of the guards. They automatically carried out orders without any selection. Then they stopped lifting up their feet when walking and started shuffling their feet characteristically. Then they started only looking forward. And then death would come.
The people would turn into zombies when they rejected any attempts to comprehend their own behaviour and came into the state when they would accept anything coming from outside. “Those who survived understood something they had never done before: they have the last but possibly the most important human freedom: under any circumstances to choose their own attitude to what is happening.” Where there is no personal attitude, there is a zombie.
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina