The Past as the Crossroads of the Present and the Future:
Reverberations of the Holocaust

Peter Suedfeld
The University of British Columbia

Note: This paper was presented as the Presidential Address at the Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, Halifax, N.S., 20 May, 1999. A later version will be published in Canadian Psychology. Any reproduction or dissemination without the permission of the author and the copyright holder (the Canadian Psychological Association) is prohibited.

This is the beginning of the Sixtieth Anniversary convention of the Canadian Psychological Association. It is easy to think "sixtieth anniversary" without thinking back to what things were like at the time of the first CPA convention. It was 1939, a period marked by a surging tide of militant dictatorships in many parts of the world and by political confusion and economic distress in democratic nations. Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich, assuring Europe that the abandonment of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis had guaranteed "peace in our time"; and Hitler and Stalin were about to carry out their joint destruction of Poland, the beginning of the most extensive and most destructive war the world had ever seen. Notwithstanding our national myth fifty years later, Canada was about to join, to a great extent willingly and even enthusiastically, in the just war to defeat a group of truly evil empires.

The upheaval that followed truly shook the world. For tens of millions of people, it meant the end of life. For those who lived through it, the war remains an indelible marker by which and against which the rest of life is measured. Even those who were born after it was over are imbued with its impact and consequences, from the vast battles on the Eastern Front and the Pacific Ocean to nuclear weapons, the formation of the UN, and the Cold War.

One set of images we all carry from that war attracted little attention at the time: the Nazi attempt to annihilate all Jews within reach, now - but not then - called the Holocaust. The mass murder of some six million people, including one and a half million children, has left us with the memory of countless photographs, films, television shows, books, poems, and articles.

These images are so salient in our individual and cultural memory that the Holocaust has become one of our most salient illustrations of Kahneman and Tversky's availability heuristic. "The Holocaust" has been used as the metaphor for the Cambodian "classicide"; the Chinese suppression of Tibet, the civil wars in Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia; and, in an interesting anachronistic usage, for the dispossession of aboriginal peoples by Europeans in Australia and the Americas. It has even been featured in the debate about legalized abortion, both in Canada and the United States. Just as each of these events has been equated - no matter how wrong-headedly - with the Holocaust, so politicians have referred to the failure of the democracies to do anything about the real Holocaust as a justification for not ignoring similar happenings now. The most recent of many examples were President Clinton's speech and a Newsweek interview with Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, both of whom explained the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as based on the refusal of current world leaders to stand by idly while another Holocaust occurs.
The Holocaust has left us with many psychological questions. The past six decades of theorizing and research have not answered those questions, although we perhaps have made some progress. I review these issues partly because of the immensity of the problem and the task, and partly because doing so fits the underlying topic of this convention, looking back at our past and forward to our future. In the case of the Holocaust, unfortunately, we must study the tragic past because it will help us to understand similar tragedies in the present, and perhaps to prevent them in the future.

Psychology Addresses the Holocaust

The Holocaust, although unique in many ways, was the precursor of more recent episodes of murderous persecution, quasi-genocide, and "ethnic cleansing" - the foci of the ongoing joint Ethnopolitical Warfare Initiative of the Canadian and American Psychological Associations. One of the component projects of that Initiative is the development of theories of how such conflicts begin, how people assume the roles they do, and how psychology can contribute to predicting, preventing, ameliorating, and ending the violence. As Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing as practical as a good theory; and "practical" theories in the current context would enable us not merely to formulate post hoc explanations for ethnic conflicts, but to devise effective methods of prediction and intervention. Understanding the causes of persecution can help in facilitating reconciliation between members of the opposing groups and the reconstruction not only of a damaged physical environment but of damaged psyches and social relations. Not least may be the effect on survivors, for many of whom the sheer randomness and incomprehensibility of the event can be among its most painful consequences.

Psychologists have not been able to contribute much to our understanding of the origins of the Holocaust. Historians and political scientists have analyzed the Nazi Party's emergence from the chaos of the 1920's to grasp total power over Germany in the 30's and domination over much of Europe in the early 40's, how its leaders planned the complete annihilation of European Jewry, and how they - with the active help of thousands of people from many countries and the passivity of millions of others -- accomplished about two-thirds of that goal. Psychology's problem in this regard is that we are oriented toward producing or testing general theories of human behaviour; the CPA-APA conference on the origins of genocide illustrated that qualitative, holistic disciplines such as history and area studies are better suited to explaining the many idiosyncratic features of the Holocaust and subsequent massacres.

Our discipline has produced studies of Hitler and his inner circle. Most of these have involved a little evidence and a lot of speculation about such topics as Hitler's genital malformation, sexual repression or perversion, inferiority complex, frustration over his failed artistic ambitions, fear of having "Jewish blood" himself, and his resentment because a Jewish doctor was unable to cure his mother's cancer. Other researchers have used psychometric instruments and content analyses to examine such groups as the main Nuremberg defendants and key functionaries such as Adolf Eichmann. None of these studies has been able to pinpoint and document anything so unique in their personality, family background, or personal history that it would explain their dedication to what they called the Final Solution even at the cost of reducing Germany's ability to wage war against advancing enemy armies.

The Psychology of Perpetrators

Psychology has done better at explaining the behaviour of the ordinary "followers" who actually carried out the atrocities of the Holocaust, and their more recent counterparts. In the area of personality, the work of Adorno et al. was the first attempt to validate a theory about the kind of family constellation and resultant personality Gestalt that makes people likely recruits to Fascism and other ethnocentric ideologies. Harvey, Hunt, and Schroder have suggested more generally how unilateral child-rearing patterns can produce adults whose minds, once set, are rigidly impervious to contradictory information. Other theorists, while not primarily concerned with developmental processes, have studied relevant cognitive styles and social ideologies, including dogmatism and social dominance orientation, a belief in a hierarchical society. We have explored such individual traits as sensation-seeking and need for power, both of which may play a role in the motivation of at least some perpetrators.

We also understand some of the cognitive and emotional processes that exacerbate intergroup hostility. Reinforcement theories explain persecution that produces material benefits for the participants - removing professional competitors and turning the possessions of the persecuted group over to the persecutors, for instance - an obvious feature of the Holocaust. Both experimental and archival studies indicate that stress lowers the threshold for aggression, which may help to explain why difficult life conditions and stress-inducing training methods play a role in producing torturers and genocidal killers.
On a more subtle level, there have been many studies of stereotyping, a cognitive shortcut that minimizes differences within groups and exaggerates differences between groups, which makes it easier to see all of "them" as equally bad, and as equally worse than all of "us". Mel Lerner's "just world" hypothesis shows how this in turn leads to the thought that "they" deserve the suffering we are inflicting on them. Psychodynamic theorists have explored the workings of defence mechanisms such as projection, which may underlie the perception that the other group embodies all of the immoral acts and thoughts we cannot admit in ourselves, and compartmentalization, which enabled people whose day-long occupation was murder to go home after work was done to a civilized family evening.

Sherif's Robber's Cave study demonstrated how leaders, by framing situations in terms of intergroup competition, can produce hostility and aggressive behaviour between component groups. We can see the workings of an ingrained us-vs.-them mentality in experimental "minimal" groups, which are composed in a completely arbitrary way and whose members never even meet each other. Evolutionary psychologists can explain how such ingroup-outgroup biases derive from strategies that improve reproductive fitness.

Our colleagues have also indicated why some people participate in aggressive acts against defenceless individuals. Milgram's research has shown the prevalence, but also the limitations, of obedience to what appears to be legitimate authority; Kelman, French and Raven, and others have analyzed how a leader's perceived expertise, attractiveness, power, and arguments can make trust and obedience more likely. Asch and Schachter demonstrated that even under unthreatening laboratory conditions, conformity to peer-group norms and pressures makes it difficult to dissent when those around us are fully convinced that they are right. We have seen how groupthink, a combination of ingroup pride, conformity, and leader-worship, may lead to the unthinking approval of decisions that are both immoral and disastrous. Kelman and Hamilton's model of how moral inhibitions against violence are weakened, first by the approval of an authority figure, then by the very experience of committing violence, and last by the dehumanization of the victim group, seems valid for what they call "sanctioned massacres", including the Holocaust and beyond. The work of Schachter and Singer led to studies of how diffuse psychophysiological arousal can be channeled into a particular form of emotion, quite possibly a factor in violent mob behaviour. Going beyond the laboratory, Ervin Staub has traced the step-by-step indoctrination and training - the "continuum of destruction" -- that turns an innocent military conscript into a torturer, as well as the conditions that can turn an artistically advanced, scientifically sophisticated nation into a culture of mass murder.

Bystanders and Rescuers

In the case of the Holocaust, and probably in most genocides since then, active participants on the one hand and those who fought against them (whether by rescuing intended victims or in other ways) were a minority compared to those who took no action one way or the other. The most relevant psychological research here is that of Darley and Latané. Moved by the failure of observers to intervene in an actual murderous assault in New York, these social psychologists devised a series of studies that succeeded in showing that people are likely to remain bystanders unless they are somehow brought to perceive a personal responsibility to step in. Diffusion of responsibility may explain why some perpetrators of atrocities feel guiltless when they ascribe the responsibility for their actions to "orders". It certainly does help to explain why the vast majority of European citizens stood idly by during the persecution, removal, and killing of their Jewish compatriots.

Some studies have indicated that people who are familiar with Milgram's obedience studies are less likely to obey hurtful commands, and that exposure to the diffusion of responsibility experiments increases the likelihood of helping. It may be that a similar "enlightenment effect" has played a role in motivating the actions of the UN and NATO in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia.
The same may be said of the international community's recent willingness to resettle survivors in a new and safe location. People trying to flee the Nazis were turned away by almost every Western country, and by all of the major ones. The attitude and actions of Canada's government are well summed up by the title of a book dealing with this event: "None is too many." Perhaps enlightened by the eventual outcome, perhaps feeling guilty for rejecting thousands who then went to their deaths, more recent governmental policies have allowed for the immigration of survivors from Asian, African, and European persecutions.

Rescuers are different from bystanders. Few as they were in World War II - by some estimates, about 1% of the Christian population of Nazi-dominated countries - those who risked arrest and possible death by hiding Jews felt personal responsibility for saving innocent lives. Some were motivated by positive reinforcement, actual pay or the approval of valued others. Oliner and Oliner reported that many rescuers were "normocentric": obeying the norms (including the internalized norms) of a particular reference group or belief system, frequently religious or political. Their initial intervention could be attributed to conformity or obedience, when family members, a church congregation, a Resistance leader, or a priest asked them to join in a rescue effort.

In some cases, they followed the same foot-in-the-door technique of involvement as had the murderers whom they were trying to frustrate: starting with small acts of kindness and moving on to greater and greater commitment. As shown by research on both helping behavior and resistance to demands for aggressive behaviour, personal appeals by potential victims were powerful motivators for offering help. So was a perception that the person in need of help was similar to oneself.

Victims and Survivors

I'm using the word "victim" to identify the persecuted, whether or not they eventually survived. For a representative sample of the "victim" group, the study would have to be done while the persecution is going on, obviously not a likely event. Thus, most research on victims is really autobiography. Some of it is anecdotal, recounting episodes of selfishness and self-sacrifice, or presenting only historical accounts of life and death in a particular camp. Among the few systematic projects are the works of people like Bruno Bettelheim and Victor Frankl, who observed their own behaviour and that of their fellow inmates and published their conclusions after liberation. Analyses of this sort have had mixed results. Bettelheim mostly disparaged other inmates, highlighting, for example, regression to childish behaviour patterns; "Muselmanism", a state of complete passivity and apathy that usually led to the rapid death of the prisoner; and identification with the aggressor, Anna Freud's concept that Bettelheim applied to inmates who acted like guards, abused other prisoners, wore bits of cast-off SS uniform, and so on. Bettelheim's analyses of concentration camp life have been criticized on the basis of his limited experience, unwarranted generalizations, and self-enhancing bias.

Frankl, on the other hand, emphasized how dedication to the goal of understanding enabled him to distance himself from his suffering, to adopt a dispassionate perspective, and after the war to develop a school of existential therapy focusing on the search for meaning. It is noteworthy that Aaron Antonovsky's concept of the characteristics that enhance survival under difficult conditions, published some 20 years later, focuses on the Sense of Coherence: finding meaning in what is happening and seeing how it fits into the rest of one's life.
In contrast to the limited research on victims, psychiatric and psychological studies of Holocaust survivors are legion: almost 2500 in Krell and Sherman's 1997 bibliography, which deals only with former concentration camp inmates. Until fairly recently, the focus has been clinical, concentrating on pathological outcomes. Among common beliefs is the universality of severe "survivor guilt", supposedly purely because of having lived whereas others had died. A combination of other long-term symptoms was labeled "survivor syndrome," "persecution syndrome", or - most frequently -- "concentration camp syndrome" [also known as "KZ syndrome" from the German abbreviation for Konzentrationslager]. It included chronic diffuse anger and anxiety, sleep disturbances, anhedonia, flashbacks, hypervigilance, depression, psychosomatic and sexual dysfunctions, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, inability to establish close emotional ties with others -- all of the patterns now more generally subsumed under the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For the first few decades after the end of the war, few professionals doubted that survivors, especially those who had been in the death camps, had lost all chances for a normal or even a tolerable life. A mental health professional, called in to assess children liberated from Buchenwald, predicted that none would ever be able to function in society: given the irreversible effects of early childhood experience, they were psychologically crippled forever. Many studies were based on clinical interviews, and explored the precise configuration of symptoms presented by the survivor patients. Eventually, the circle of interest expanded to include the children of survivor parents (the so-called Second Generation) and, in the past few years, their grandchildren (the Third Generation).

The almost exclusive focus on pathology is beginning to change in response to empirical studies presenting contrary evidence. There is no doubt that there are survivors, and survivors' offspring, who are troubled and whose adjustment to life is marked by difficulties and disruptions. But the severity of these symptoms differs widely from person to person and from time to time; and a high proportion of survivors shows no serious afflictions of this sort at all. The occasional nightmare or episode of irritability is not outside the boundaries of normal experience, nor does it interfere with work, family, or recreation. Such findings have contributed to the growing re-orientation of psychology toward studying such positive human traits and reactions as resilience, hardiness, effectance, and coping.
Jerome Kagan and other developmental psychologists have refuted the old axiom that early childhood experience is the supreme determinant of adult personality. Children who survived the Holocaust provide compelling evidence for rejecting the traditional view. Youngsters who lived among massive violence, knew they could be its targets, were deprived of family support, food, shelter, adequate clothing, medical care - whose exposure to wounds and death was not via TV shows or video games - nevertheless mostly grew up to be normal and productive. For the most part, they healed themselves. Incidentally, the group of irretrievably damaged Buchenwald children I mentioned earlier now includes among other outstanding citizens Robert Waisman, a respected businessman and philanthropist in Vancouver; Meir Lau, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. And current research indicates no more psychopathology among the Second Generation than among other people of the same age - unless one infers it from casual observations that they seem disproportionately represented in the helping professions, especially medicine, psychology, and social work.

In my own studies, we have discovered that a lower percentage of Holocaust survivors than of a North American comparison group had ever felt the need to consult a mental health professional. Survivors were successful at resolving psychosocial crises such as those outlined by Erikson. They are fairly content with their life; somewhat less so than the comparison group, but around the moderate portion of our scales. Their outlook on life and their attitudes about the world are essentially indistinguishable from those of the comparison group. Among the few significant differences we have found is that survivors tend to trust people less, ascribe people's outcomes more to luck and chance than to personal control, and have a higher sense of self-worth. Our quantitative research findings, which I have outlined in my Hebb Award presentation, are well in line with those of other recent investigators who have used qualitative methods.

The recognition of the hardiness and resilience of this group, part of what is becoming a change in the psychological world view, emphasizing the strengths and positive characteristics of human beings, should spark two further research efforts. One should be to pinpoint just how the coping and adaptation process functions. For example, almost all of the survivors ever studied had emigrated from their original homelands, and there is evidence that their country of resettlement is an important variable in adjustment. But, although anecdotal accounts indicate that they are eager to assimilate when they arrive, it would be interesting to use John Berry's model to study how they relate to the new culture and also in how their relationship to the host culture may have changed as they aged.

Second, of course, it is important to compare this group with survivors and refugees from more recent persecutions. Holocaust survivors have had more than fifty years to reflect upon and make sense of their experiences; would studying that process help us to predict the life-span development of Southeast Asian Boat People, Tibetans, Tutsis, Somalis, Bosnians, Kosovars, and other post-traumatic immigrants to the West? Some research on Vietnamese and Laotian refugees, who have now been settled in Canada for a dozen years or so, shows similarities in their ability to adapt successfully; but a wider and continuing research effort is needed.

Psychological Interventions

Psychology is a profession, not only a science; and there is a place for psychologists in solving the practical problems posed by ethnopolitical persecution. Here, the Holocaust is relevant mostly as a demonstration of what was not done then, but should be tried now; the CPA-APA Initiative is engaged in facilitating this process. At this point, we are pursuing two paths:
(1) Many of our colleagues are involved in improving and applying the techniques of nonviolent conflict resolution. Just as one example, Herbert Kelman, a distinguished social psychologist and himself a refugee from the Nazis, has long been involved in conducting discussion workshops between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, teaching the techniques of peaceful negotiation: understanding the other side's point of view and their emotional arousal cues, identifying areas of agreement and common interests as well as rivalry. Among Canadian colleagues, Ronald Fisher is pursuing similar work. Additional promising strategies can be based on the ideas of Gordon Allport, Elliot Aronson, Mark Zanna, and other colleagues - for example, about the conditions under which equal-status pursuit of superordinate goals is likely to reduce ethnic prejudice.
It may be that psychological expertise cannot prevent genocide - after all, psychiatrists have been prominent in both the Nazi and the present-day Serbian "ethnic cleansing". But if even one person with an appreciation of peaceful techniques reaches high office, or if even one turns from a potential perpetrator to a rescuer, the effort is justified.
(2) Psychologists also have considerable experience in treating those who have been emotionally marked by stress, trauma, and disaster of all sorts. We have seen our Canadian colleagues step in with counseling and therapy for survivors of natural as well as man-made catastrophes: fires, floods, air crashes, and many less publicized tragedies. Jane Mocellin is even now moving among refugee camps for the UN, improving the delivery of such services in areas of ethnopolitical war.

One goal of the CPA-APA Initiative is to strengthen psychology in bringing this expertise to bear on the widespread upheaval of ethnopolitical conflict, not only to help local survivors but also to support other rescue and aid workers and military peacekeepers, as needed. We would like more psychologists to be on site when needed and to have them train indigenous practitioners in the use of the most appropriate psychological techniques to help their afflicted compatriots. Eventually, we should also intervene to help resettled survivors to adapt to their new milieux; but the Initiative has not yet addressed this issue.

The major ongoing activities of the Initiative at this time revolve around practical applications. This summer will see both a conference chaired by Ron Fisher on how to train psychologists to provide services in situations of ethnopolitical conflict and the first training session of the newly established Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania, whose mission is to provide postdoctoral training to psychologists who want to enter this new branch of the profession. Canadian psychologists are urged to participate; I can give you the Internet address after this talk.


At this convention, we are dedicated to facing the past and the future. But we can face them only in memory and in imagination, because where we live is in the present. The Holocaust, now more than fifty years in the past, reverberates in our present, in the memory of thousands of survivors, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers and in a massive archive of documentary and fictional publications, films, artworks, and television shows. Many are widely known and acclaimed: I need mention only The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler's List, and the recent Oscar winner, Life is Beautiful.
Unfortunately, the Holocaust also foreshadowed the more recent past, and the present, in its embodiment of groundless hatred, pitiless persecution, pointless degradation, and endless killing. Although not of the same level of technical organization or sheer magnitude, the killing fields of Cambodia, Tibet, Viet Nam, Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia all echo the horrors of the Nazi enterprise. No one knows where else, and who else, will see the same horrors in the future, but we can be fairly sure it won't stop with Kosovo.

Psychology is not a panacea. Our knowledge is admittedly incomplete and tentative, and our techniques are limited in power and scope. But I hope I have shown that neither the knowledge nor the intervention is negligible. We can in fact make important contributions right now, and even more important ones in the future. To paraphrase a sage who would have been murdered by the Nazis had he lived in their time and place, we are not expected to complete the work; but neither are we free to keep our hands from it. CPA, with our colleagues, friends, and partners, has accepted the challenge.