The Psychology of Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Victims of the Holocaust

By Leila Amin 

Attempting to explain human behavior during an event as unfathomable as the Holocaust can seem like an impossible task. However, although a nation of bystanders was crucial to its implementation, so too was an army of active perpetrators, each of whom had to undergo a transformation of their own in order to carry out the tasks allotted to them.

The psychological concept known as doubling heavily influenced the effects and duration of the Holocaust, because it allowed the Nazis to split their emotional and psychological selves into only a fraction of their previous beings, and in so doing rid themselves of the urge to be compassionate or kind. Doubling, as explained by psychiatrist Robert Lifton, is “the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self.” Without even realizing it the Nazis had split themselves into mere shadows of their previous beings, discarding the emotions that made them human such as empathy and concern, and replacing them simply by doubling up on the equally human emotions of anger and neglect.

This transformation, however, did not happen overnight. Many early accounts of Nazi behavior reflect increased mental instability and a reluctance to follow orders, suggesting that time played a crucial role in facilitating the process by which the Nazis adapted to their crushing surroundings and occupation. The perpetrators and their victims may have been diametrically opposed, but there was one thing they had in common—they were both prisoners. For the Jews it may have been physical, but for the Nazis, it was psychological. And each group had to adapt to their own terms of imprisonment in order to survive.

Just as the Nazis had to undergo extreme psychological shifts in order to invoke terror, so too did their victims in order to survive it. The prisoners, like the perpetrators themselves, had to cut themselves off from their established perception of reality and replace it with one far more malleable in order to withstand such inconceivable brutality. Doubling was an integral aspect of this transformation because it allowed both the Nazis and their prisoners to confront the unimaginable and accept it as the norm, a process which would not have been possible had one part of the
self not disavowed the other.

In its pre-World War II usage, the term holocaust typically referred to a religious sacrifice involving material consumption by fire, which reflects the true nature of the Nazi self-image. The Nazis saw themselves as guardians of the German people; they were completely incapable of confronting their reality. The weight of the Swastika bore down not only on its prisoners, but on its perpetrators as well. The only means of survival was to mask observation as impotence, torture as research, and murder as sacrifice. And when the world finally lifted that intricately constructed mask seven years later, Jews, Nazis, and ordinary citizens alike were forced to look themselves in the mirror and collect the broken shards of a nation that was once whole.

Leila Amin is a nineteen-year-old student from Los Angeles who is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Michigan. 

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