Menu Close

Holocaust – Jews informing – "identification with the aggressor"; a love for power

Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons' camp. Photo credit: Alice Lev Collection
Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons' camp. Photo credit: Alice Lev Collection
Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons’ camp.
Photo credit: Alice Lev Collection

 The following is part VII – the continuation of a transcript of an interview between Patrick Wanis, Human Behavior and Relationship Expert, PhD and    Professor Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, exploring humankind’s love for power, the Kapos, why even persecuted people identify with the aggressor, and why the only group of people that never informed on the Jews or sided with the Nazis was Jehovah’s Witnesses. Click here to read Part VI of this interview:

Professor Zimbardo: Yeah, you know, there’s an interesting observation made many years ago by a famous psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim. He was in Nazi concentration camps for an actually short time at the beginning of the Holocaust and wrote some books about it. He had a concept that he developed from Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, called “Identification with the Aggressor.” A lot of the prisoners, he said, would identify with these terrible Nazi guards. He even has a thing like if a button or something came off a Nazi guard’s uniform, they would pick it up and put it on – like carry it in their pocket to have a piece of the power.

So in a concentration camp, as in prisons, guards have total power over prisoners’ lives. And instead of hating these guards, what he’s saying is some of the prisoners identified with the aggressor. Anna Freud had said earlier that this is also like the anti-Semitic Jew, that is, people who —

Patrick: People who hate themselves?

Professor Zimbardo: Yeah. People who know that others despise them but then come to accept that; and then by identifying with the aggressor, you try to minimize the gap between you and this powerful aggressor.

Patrick: Well, wasn’t there also groups within the concentration camps, groups of Jews, who were also informants? [These were known as Kapos – some Jews informed on other Jews in the concentration camps—some even acted as executioners; they carried out the will of the Nazi camp commandants and guards, and were often as brutal as their S.S. counterparts.]

Jehovahs Witnesses were one of the few groups who as a set of individuals who never informed, who never worked with the Nazis against any of the other prisoners Professor Zimbardo
“Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the few groups who as a set of individuals who never informed, who never worked with the Nazis against any of the other prisoners” – Professor Philip Zimbardo

Professor Zimbardo: Oh, sure. But one of the interesting things about the concentration camps is Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the few groups who as a set of individuals who never informed, who never worked with the Nazis against any of the other prisoners. So there’s a case you brought up earlier; that’s one case where a religious belief – but I think also a social bonding had them see each other as a unit within this mass extermination.

Patrick: But doesn’t that go against what you’ve just been telling me in the sense that these people were able to make conscious choices not to engage in either what’s morally wrong or what’s evil?

Professor Zimbardo: No, no, but that’s heroic. I’m saying the hero – heroism always involves a conscious choice because you see the evil and you say, “Do I give in or do I oppose it?” What I’m saying is for evil, it’s often not a conscious reflective choice. It’s a seduction, a seduction into evil. It’s being drawn in.

Patrick: Well, here’s the key question for you then. Based on 40 years of studies, what is it that gives the hero the power or the ability or what distinguishes him so he can make the conscious choice to not commit the evil and actually become the hero?

Professor Zimbardo: That is —

Patrick: Have you found the answer to that?

Professor Zimbardo: No, that’s the $64 question. And in the final chapter of “The Lucifer Effect” the book goes into great detail about the Stanford prison study, about Abu Ghraib, but the final chapter is a celebration of heroism and to write that I looked at all the research and psychology on heroes and heroism, and there’s very little. So I’m calling – we need research on heroes. We need research on what I call the “heroic imagination”. There is no answer to your question, what makes any particular individual take on the hero of action?

So this is the main thing I am now beginning to do. I’m arguing that most heroes are everyday, ordinary people. You know, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, they are extraordinary people because their whole life is organized around sacrifice. Most heroes are like this guy Joe Darby. Most heroes are ordinary people who happen to be in a situation where there’s an emergent; something emergent, and they take action.

But we don’t – “we” meaning psychologists , I mean, all of social-science – do not have the answer to your question; why this person does that and that one doesn’t.

Patrick: Well, you explained that there is the answer; it’s just that we haven’t found it yet, and as you continue your studies I expect you will.


Professor Zimbardo: No, I mean, literally starting next month, my whole professional focus is on trying to understand the heroic imagination and the heroic decisive moment. The moment at which somebody says, “I will do it. I will jump on this subway track to save this guy. I will blow the whistle against this fraudulent practice in my company. I will expose this immoral behavior.” That’s literally the main thing I am now going to do for the rest of my career.

Patrick: So here’s maybe my final question as a way to wrap up. We talked about the intoxication of power, the aphrodisiac of power, and yet, what you’re about to study which is the hero; the hero is about the other aspect. It’s also sympathy, compassion, empathy, rescuing, helping, supporting, lifting, praising, encouraging.

Professor Zimbardo: Right.

Patrick: Which one gives us greater satisfaction? We all have the capacity to do good or evil.

Professor Zimbardo: Right.

PatrickWe’ve said that every one of us can fall into the intoxication, the temptation of power, yet we also can commit amazing acts and deeds of sympathy, empathy, compassion, et cetera, as a human.

Professor Zimbardo: Sure, absolutely.

Patrick: Which one, as a human, will give us greater satisfaction?

Professor Zimbardo: Oh, over time being a hero. There’s no doubt about it. I mean most people who do evil feel bad after it. Most people who do evil regret it. The guards in our study who did terrible things to the prisoners, you know, afterwards felt guilt, were embarrassed by it. So a lot of the evil, it’s a turn on when you’re in that situation. Imagine the guys that are involved in a gang rape, you know, where it’s not planned; it just happens, and I’m sure – there’s no research on it – but I’m sure afterwards they all – many of them feel guilty that they know they did a terrible thing.

Patrick: Now obviously, when I asked you that question, I already had my own answer which is of course a good act, the act that helping humankind is what really fulfills and rewards us and gives us a sense of meaning and makes us innately feel good because I do believe within the human psyche there is a part of us that naturally knows this is what will satisfy my soul not the evil, not the harm, not hurting someone else.

Professor Zimbardo: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely you’re right on. I think there’s a bright, white line that we all know about. We know we shouldn’t cross that line, and when we don’t, when we defend a line, when we act heroically, at some very deep level we feel fulfilled and even if other people don’t know about it. You can’t be a hero in order to get the reward. You do a heroic deed and then rewards may follow, but you know for the rest of your life, “I made a difference. I helped somebody. I gave an organ. I helped a child who would have gone astray,” whatever the heroic deed is. That is enriching. That is what’s the best in the human condition.

My last argument is the antidote to evil is heroism. The more heroes that we can create among our children, among everyday people, then the less evil you’re going to have in the world.  [Read more about the latest work by Professor Zimbardo and the Heroic Imagination Project “Are you a hero or a coward?” ]

Patrick: And I agree with you 100 percent. I also believe and teach and promote that our greatest sense of satisfaction or reward comes from serving others. I believe that within the human psyche there is a hidden deep desire to express love more than there is to actually receive love.

Professor Zimbardo: Right.

Patrick: But I think that’s what rewards us the most. But once again, I am truly grateful for your insight, and I’m curious to see what your findings and results will be in your studies of heroism because I think there’s such an interesting link too between the human brain and the human psyche. And then there’s some aspects that to this day we can’t fully explain; why is it so much more rewarding for us to help rather than harm? But sometimes there are things we don’t have a concrete answer to.

I truly commend, honor and acknowledge and praise your work and thank you for your time.

Professor Zimbardo: Thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful interview.

[0:49:30]                    End of Audio

Click here for Part I – Good & evil and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Click here for Part II –  How jobs, titles and situations bring out the evil in people:

Click here for Part III – How bullied victims become mass murderers:

Click here for Part IV  – Losing your individuality, conforming and becoming dehumanized leads to evil acts:

Click here for Part V  – Who is more evil – men or women? The Stanley Milgram Experiment:

Click here for Part VI  – Power, cheating and sex – why we love powerful people even when they are mean:

Click here for Part VII:  Holocaust – Jews informing – “identification with the aggressor” & a love for power

Facebook Comments