Passover, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sigmund Freud, and the Psychology of Bigotry

On the Enduring Lessons of the Exodus Story

Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.
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Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.

By Austin Ratner

Published March 15, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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Reicher asked what he’d told his son about the liquidation of the ghetto. The father got angry and replied that Hitler had been right to exterminate the Jews because they were parasites.

Reicher asked, “But aren’t there both good and bad people in every nation?”

The peasant grudgingly conceded that perhaps some Jews somewhere, sometime in history, may have been good, “but the ones who died here in the ghetto were forgers and thieves.”

The man didn’t know that he was speaking to a Jew who’d escaped from the very same ghetto, and that Reicher was not a thief but an esteemed and rather selfless physician. The bigot was wrong in his bigotry, not least because it was delusional, and it’s perhaps the delusion of it that renders the bigotry a little bit accessible to insight.

The bigot’s words to Reicher by the ghetto wall remind me of a passage from Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad” that describes persecution not of Jews by Poles, but of Poles by Russians. Tolstoy writes of Czar Nicholas: “He had done much evil to the Poles. To justify that evil he had to feel certain that all Poles were rascals, and he considered them to be such and hated them in proportion to the evil he had done them.” Tolstoy’s inspiration for this idea may have come from the great Roman historian and psychologist Tacitus, who said, “Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris,” or, “It is characteristic of human nature to hate the man you have wronged.”

To Tacitus and Tolstoy’s point, there is probably not only ignorance and crudity to racism, but also a rather surprising element of misguided conscience; the Jews were slaughtered, so in the mind of that peasant, they must have deserved it. If they didn’t deserve it, that would mean an atrocity had occurred before God on Polish soil, and I suspect this Polish nationalist couldn’t countenance the idea of such a Polish sin.

Sigmund Freud would not have been surprised to see conscience behind bad behavior. He spent his career studying the ways that conscience causes us to avert our eyes from certain of our own thoughts, and the ways that this sort of “repression” can sometimes do more harm than good — not only to ourselves, but also to others. In his 1916 paper “Some Character-Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work,” Freud describes one type, to which he gives the name “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt.” While that short segment does not cover Tacitus’s or Tolstoy’s ground — it doesn’t touch on bigotry at all — it does supply a useful title to a general principle of psychology that’s highly relevant to bigotry: the notion that guilt can cause crime in addition to preventing it. What an idea!


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