Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On Bruno Bettelheim & the Holocaust

The book by Bettelheim, Bruno, The Informed Heart : Autonomy in a Mass Age, that I referenced in lecture has now been put on course reserve. Bettelheim, a child psychologist was imprisoned before WWII in Buchenwald and Dachau as an Austrian Jew. The Informed Heart is a study of human psychology under extreme conditions, and draws an astonishing force from the distance between the horrors of the events that he details (his own experience in the camps and his observation of fellow prisoners, the army guards, the Gestapo, and the SS in general) and the detached and analytical scholarly tone in which the book is set.

The passage that I refered to, in the context of the last panel on page 227 in Maus is as follows:
....the latrines themselves were usually nothing but a trench with logs on either side on which prisoners had to balance. Any public elimination was extremely degrading to Germans, because in Germany utter privacy when eliminating was the absolute rule, except for infants and small children .... Therefore, enforced observation of and by others was a demoralising experience.
I highly recommend the book as an indispensible analysis of not merely the details of the Nazi concetration camps, but of the psychology of the administrators, the guards and the prisoners: issue such as individualism, the fate of the hero, rationalisation of attitudes in both directions (e.g. helpless prisoners to all-powerful guards, and German guards to Jewish prisoners.) It is also a sustained argument against moral equivalancy: the extreme brutality and inhumanity of the Nazis a thesis.

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