Psychological Trauma and the Holocaust, Research Paper Example

The ever-increasing pertinence of Holocaust studies within the academic literature can be immediately identified in terms of the vast range of problematics this tragedy evokes. Fundamental issues such as ethics and theology become radically interrogated by the sheer brutality of the violence that was enacted, such that the Holocaust itself presents fundamental challenges to notions such as how theology can reconcile this horror with a concept of a good and just God, whereas ethics is somewhat disrupted from within according to a misanthropy that historically takes a hellacious form in the figure of the Nazi. Furthermore, themes such as politics and law are also brought into play, as academics attempt to study the political and legal mechanisms that made such a systematic mass extermination possible and effective, while simultaneously debating the extent to which a concept of criminality can be conferred to these acts. Ultimately, however, the real horror of the Holocaust is only grasped when one accepts a certain phenomenological perspective, that is, when one attempts to ascertain the first-person subjective viewpoint of the victims of the death camps. In this case, it is the undeniable psychological trauma of the Holocaust that denotes the ultimate meaning of this event: the Holocaust is a form of existence experienced by human beings that inexorably bears something within it that appears to be inhuman. Literature that has approached the Holocaust from such a psychological perspective attempts to delineate, elaborate and work through the traumatic corollaries of the immanent experience of those interned in the camps, whose physical and psychic life within their confinements demarcates a certain border zone between life and death. In other words, according to the themes evoked by the deeply philosophical and psychological works of Holocaust survivors such as Primo Levi, human beings become embodiments of the living dead. Whereas psychological approaches within the literature are numerous, each influenced by their own respective theoretical school, when considering the directness of trauma experienced by those subjected to the death camps of Nazi Germany, it appears that such a psychological trauma, in order to be most accurately understood and, furthermore, to have its horror most lucidly communicated, must take into account this certain blurring of distinctions between living and dead, according to which the very humanity of the individual itself is disclosed in a negative form that puts into question what such humanity means. This calls for a radical approach to psychological trauma specific to the Holocaust. For insofar as psychology can be generally understood as an account of the workings of the human consciousness and unconscious alongside the general societal forms and arrangements that contribute to their formation and structure, the Holocaust represents, in contrast, a precise instance when human consciousness and unconsciousness are sought to be violently transformed by an outside force into something inhuman. If traditional psychological theory has been based on a basic stability and normativity of structure, irrespective of cultural and social and historical contingency, (i.e., the constancy of the Freudian Oedipus Complex, the stability of the Jungian archetypes, etc.), there is a sense in which the Holocaust can be said to have engendered psychological trauma by opening the very gap in this normativity and stability of structures, as it directly confronts the unfortunate victims with a certain psychological limit, by which the very conceptualizations of humanity break down in a confrontation with brutal violence and existence. Psychological trauma in the specific context of the Holocaust thus represents a certain limit case of psychological discourse and investigation, since the humanity that is correlated to the objects of psychological study are violently forced to an extremity that questions the humanity of those suffering themselves. The trauma of the Holocaust victims takes the form of a violent interrogation of the prisoners’ individual humanity through an experience that radically alters their psychic life. Such a forced de-humanization becomes the psychological trauma of the Holocaust.

Insofar as such an account of psychological trauma in the Holocaust ultimately infers a psychological approach that perhaps breaks from traditional conceptual psychological schemes, it is in this sense that the first person or subjective viewpoint should be underscored as exemplary in terms of the study of such trauma. Certainly, when considering the broader horizon of psychological trauma and the Holocaust, there is a sense in which the descendents of Holocaust survivors must also be considered as belonging to this trauma, irrespective of their not having directly experienced of these events. Hence, Rao (2008) notes that “further clinical studies of Holocaust survivors’ children who presented for psychotherapy, especially those raised in North America and Israel, portrayed characteristic conflicts and recurrent patterns such as depression, guilt, aggression, problems in interpersonal relationships, separation-individuation conflicts, and identity issues.” (p. 359) However, the research has also noted that such responses are too varied to in fact constitute “a “syndrome” (Rao, 2008, p. 359), such that they rather denote a “complex or “profile”” (Rao, 2008, p. 359): In short, psychological responses and reactions to the Holocaust are too heterogeneous within subsequent generations to yield a clearly defined psychological phenomenon. This is important to emphasize, because it provides a valuable contradistinction to the precise psychological effects present in Holocaust victims and survivors themselves; in other words, it contrasts with the particular psychological conflicts that the Holocaust experience in its specificity engendered.

Yet, as the literature notes, such a specificity itself nonetheless remains difficult to fully comprehend, as “a standard difficulty in conceptualizing psychological trauma persists…in determining the relation between symptoms or the expression of trauma and their specific origin…the issue here is related to the distinction…between the historical truth (or falsity) of memory and the testimonial truth that may emerge in the same discourse, indeed in the same words.” (Lang, 2005, p. 83) This is a crucial point in the analysis of psychological trauma and the Holocaust from an immanent and almost phenomenological perspective, as the victim’s traumatic experiences themselves become difficult for the victim him or herself to understand. There is a tension in attempting to identify the particular trauma engendered during the actual event itself and the expression of trauma that occurs when one expresses these experiences, to, for example, a psychiatrist. Thus, there may be an asymmetry between a distinct horrific event that is psychically experienced and how this event is then interpreted and recounted in the setting of psychologically counseling. Nevertheless, perhaps it is this very gap that can help us better understand what the overall inhumanity of the Holocaust suggests in regards to the psychological, and furthermore, how the Holocaust essentially represents a unique form of psychological trauma (or rather, one common to similar examples of genocide and internment), insofar as it presents the extremities of what it means to be human: it is this gap itself between the event and the recollection of even that mimics the gap and the void experienced when one’s own humanity is itself pushed to an unprecedented limit.

In order to develop this point further, it is first necessary to attempt to understand the subjective perceptions of victims of the Holocaust. In this regard, the autobiographical reflections of Primo Levi are of particular importance, to the extent that they underscore how the Holocaust designates precisely a limit case of humanity and thus how such a limiting of what it means to be human may inform a psychological account of Holocaust trauma. Yet the importance of Levi is that he does not merely offer biographical or empirical descriptions (and hence, why Levi has remained a prominent primary source in Holocaust studies), but moreover theoretical descriptions of the exact psychological effects of the Holocaust. For Levi, the psychological trauma of the Holocaust victim lies in the fundamental decision regarding his or her own humanity, a decision that is entirely out of their own subjective reach and influence, and thus denotes a profound powerlessness that is experienced by the victim. For example, in the Drowned and the Saved, Levi will draw on his own unique experiences to advance the following formulation of the traumatic de-humanization inherent to the Holocaust; not only are the lives of the victims pushed to a threshold, but also their status as human, as persons: “Willingly or not, we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.” (1989, p. 69) Levi’s account of the psychological here reflects a psychological sense of powerlessness that is primarily experienced by the subject. But this is not entirely psychological, or rather, it is not experienced as entirely subjective: Levi’s careful delineation of a presence of death that inhabits the entire world and environment of the victim demonstrates that the particular psychological trauma of the Holocaust is as much exterior as interior to the subject. For Levi, this trauma is ultimately produced by those who hold power, that is, the difference between those who are the “lords of death” and those who are “in the ghetto”: those in power are those who decide who is human and who is not. The psychological trauma here is explicit, as it recalls the direct mutilation of the very humanity of the subject, and his or her psychological trauma rests in the encountering the limit case of what it means to be human.  In Levi’s If this is a Man?, for example, such a dehumanization at the heart of the psychological trauma of the Holocaust is made explicit, when he cites the remarks of an Austrian officer: “that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts…we must force ourselves to save at least, the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.” (1989, p. 49) The Austrian officer’s remarks bear a resemblance to Levi’s basic thoughts on psychology: the intent of the Lager or concentration camp was to introduce a de-humanization whereby the humanity of the prisoners is transformed. The camp strives to transform one into a “beast” on a psychic as well as physical level. That, which is encountered in this trauma, is one’s own fragile inhumanity. The beast is a degradation of the psychological and physical life of the prisoner; the Holocaust itself is a “machinery” that perpetuates the production of the destruction of psychological and physical life. Hence, the need to fight this machinery means to fight this de-humanization and de-psychologization, which questions the humanity of the victims. Those who run the camps pronounce the inhumanity of the prisoners; simultaneously, they wish the prisoners to psychically understand themselves as inhuman. Hence, in the Holocaust, following Levi, there is a very particular psychological conflict that occurs, one which corresponds to the trauma caused. Whereas traditional psychological attempts to discern what makes us most human, namely, how we operate in a familial or social setting, and thereafter, according to such an analysis, we may understand, for example, how an individual may differ from a particular norm, such that psychological trauma entails the differentiation from this norm, in the case of the Holocaust, such a deviation from a norm or the logic of the deviation is inherently radicalized: the social and political system forces a de-psychologization, a de-humanization. It is a radical questioning of the outside towards the interior of the subject that takes the form of an assault against their own value as a subject. The psychological trauma of the Holocaust entails that the victim begins to doubt in his or her own humanity.

The ultimate result of such a psychological trauma is the production of what Levi terms “the Musselman”, a name that was given amongst those who were in the concentration camps to those who had lost all sense of their individual humanity. Levi’s notion of the Musselman means the following: “the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, [who] no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual.” (Agamben, 1999, p. 41) The Musselman is thus simply a prisoner who has fully succumbed to the effect of the process of de-humanization, one whose psychic life has completely collapsed and has been entirely separated from the very standards of human normativity. As Agamben (1999) writes, “the Musselman is an indefinite being in whom not only human and non-humanity, but also vegetative existence and relation, physiology and ethics, medicine and politics, and life and death continuously pass through each other.” (p. 47) The Musselman thus represents a certain endpoint of the psychological trauma of the Holocaust prisoner, a moment in which the de-humanization of the individual has fully taken root, as the prisoner becomes an empty vassal, a human and subjective void. It can be stated, therefore, that the Musselman is the representative of that which is beyond psychological trauma, since this individual no longer functions as a living human being.  The figure of the Musselman that Levi surfaces is invaluable for the evaluation of psychological trauma in regards to the Holocaust, because the trauma at stake is precisely that the prisoner may themselves become a Musselman: this is the end result of this process enforced entirely from the outside according to a radical de-humanization that one is powerless to withstand. This trauma of the Musselman to the other prisoners is so severe, that “death camp survivors…would often report how necessary it was to avoid fellow prisoners once they reached the point of no return in this deteriorated, dying, old man state as it could be quite infectious to others.” (Brenner, 2008, p. 176) This is a new concept of psychological trauma which the Holocaust reveals, whereby the extreme de-humanization on the psychic and physical levels of the Musselman is so explicit that it may psychically infect those who have not reached this stage, as they directly encounter the possibility of their own de-humanization, their loss of their own innate psychic life as human beings.

Such an attack on the very pillars of human subjectivity that is altogether characteristic of the psychological trauma engendered by the Holocaust is also registered in how Holocaust survivors recall their own experiences.  As Reading (2002) notes, the Holocaust survivor is a “shattered self”, whose “traumatic memories, as opposed to common memories, are generally a central part of the narrative in Holocaust autobiographies.” (p. 25) The personal traumatic memories as opposed to a shared memory evinces the deep psychological effect of the event, as it tends to inscribe itself on the survivors in terms of a grave personal wound. Hence, although the holocaust is a historical happening and thus remains part of a common social narrative, its traumas tend to be registered entirely in terms of individual memories. Traumas will essentially take the form of how the human subjectivity of the individual was itself threatened: this threatening of human subjectivity will emerge from different points of view according to the individual in question. In essence, this highlights the deeply subjective nature of the psychological trauma of the Holocaust, and furthermore, precisely the form that such a psychological trauma takes, insofar as it is fundamentally related to the de-humanization of the subject, the subject’s own loss of their psychic independence, and the erosion of the stable categories and definitions of what it still means to be human. The psychological trauma of the Holocaust is a radically existential trauma, in which one understands that the line between what is or is not human is incredibly thin. It is not merely enough to be an embodied or living subject to be human, but rather one can have their humanity completely stripped before them and become, like the Musselman, an example of the living dead.

Thus, the fact that when considering the Holocaust “the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others” (Cohen 2005, p. 123), such disempowerment can be understood in terms of the destructive blow against the individual’s subjective psyche, whereby the existence of the latter itself becomes an issue towards which the subject is powerless. There is no hope within the confines of the camp for improvement or assistance: one is completely subjugated to the de-humanizing practice of those who decide upon life or death, who decide upon who is worthy to be called human. Concomitantly, the “disconnection from others” arises from the loss of this very humanity, since humanity and being human are not merely entirely subjective experiences, but rather connote the individual’s belonging to social, cultural, and familial structures. To disconnect from others means to negate the humanity of the subject. Hence, the unique form of psychological trauma of the Holocaust victim lies in this double infliction of the loss of subjective autonomy and the loss of communal bonds that register themselves in the subject in the form of their own immanent de-humanization.

Accordingly, the unique form of psychological trauma experienced by the victims of the Holocaust can be identified in the extent to which the psychological state of the individual is pushed to an extremity, that is, a point at which the individual is threatened to have his or her own status as a human being forcefully taken from them. The psychological trauma of the Holocaust lies in a subjective de-psychologization, whereby the victim finds themselves confronted with the void of human existence, one entirely lacking in psychological and humane capacities, such as in the form of the Musselman. Such a trauma denotes the confrontation between one’s own existence and the possibility of one’s non-existence, as the humanity of the prisoner is constantly questioned and assaulted by the inhumanity of the surrounding situation. Accordingly, the experience of the Holocaust itself can be said to challenge existing theories of psychological and well-being, because there is a sense in which the disorder cannot be classified as a deviation from a norm, but rather the norms of the situation themselves constantly question the individual’s existence, violently uprooting its stability. This is not the case of psychological trauma understood as a form of psychic disorder, but rather a case of psychological well-being pushed towards the nullification of psychic health itself, as the body becomes a vacant vessel emptied of life.


Works Cited

Agamben, G. (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books.

Brenner, I. (2009). Injured Men: Trauma, Healing and the Masculine Self. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cohen, S. K. (2005). Child Survivors of the Holocuast in Israel: Social Dynamic and Post-War Expereinces: Finding their Voice. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press.

Lang, B. (2005). Post-Holocaust: Interpretation, Misinterpretation, and the Claims of History. Bloomington; IN: Indiana University Press.

Levi, P. (1987). If This Is a Man? London: Abacus.

Levi, P. (1989). The Drowned and the Saved. London: Abacus.

Rao, A. (2008). Intergenerational Effects. In: G. Reyes, J.D. Elhai, J.D. Ford (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. (pp. 358-363). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Reading, A. (2002). The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory. London: Palgrave MacMillan.