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Grotjahn, M. (1945). Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations: Bruno Bettelheim. J. of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XXXVIII, 1943, pp. 417–452.. Psychoanal Q., 14:143-144.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations: Bruno Bettelheim. J. of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XXXVIII, 1943, pp. 417–452.

(1945). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 14:143-144

Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations: Bruno Bettelheim. J. of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XXXVIII, 1943, pp. 417–452.

Martin Grotjahn

The author, who has spent one year in two German concentration camps for political prisoners—Dachau and Buchenwald—reports his psychological observations. He stresses the fact that his observations are to a certain extent based on self-observation and thus subjective in character. They were actually started as a diversion to enable the author to bear his experience.

The aims of the concentration camp as an institution are to break the prisoners as individuals, to spread terror among the rest of the population, and to provide the Gestapo with a training ground and an experimental laboratory. In most cases, the shock of unlawful imprisonment is followed by the even more stunning shocks of transportation to the camp and the first experiences there. Nonpolitical, middle class prisoners experience comparatively more suffering than either politically oriented prisoners or members of the upper classes. The typical initial reactions are feelings of detachment: 'this can't be true … things like this just don't happen'. The first few weeks are

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the worst; persons who manage to live through the transportation to camp and the first three months thereafter, have a fair chance of surviving. If the tortures become too intense, indifference takes the place of anxiety. Prisoners are particularly sensitive to punishments resembling those a parent might inflict upon a child. Prisoners' dreams rarely deal with situations of extreme torture but instead with comparatively smaller maltreatments. Group formation, especially around a hero or martyr, is very effectively prohibited by means of group punishments. For only a short time do the new prisoners direct their hostility primarily against their real enemy; in many cases it is soon turned against former friends or members of the family by whom the prisoners feel deserted. Old prisoners come to direct their hostility mostly against themselves. Gradually a regression to infantile levels take place, turning many prisoners into willing tools in the hands of the Gestapo. In the phase of 'final adjustment', the strangest phenomenon of all could be observed: the prisoners' identification with the guards. Certain prisoners even tried to imitate the guards' uniforms, became cruel to their fellow-prisoners, partly accepted Nazi ideology. The author's conclusion is: What thus happens in an extreme fashion to the prisoners in concentration camps, happens also, in a somewhat less exaggerated form, to the inhabitants of the great concentration camp called 'Greater Germany'.

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Article Citation

Grotjahn, M. (1945). Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations. Psychoanal. Q., 14:143-144

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