CAT | The Abuse Scandals
I fully agree with what you write. There is no excuse, philosophical, ethical, pedagogical or political, for the poisonous educational tradition of “For Your Own Good,” nor for neglect, neither in the family nor at school. But the connection between education and mass murder is more complicated. I have now read Brigitte Hamann’s excellent book “Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship,” first published in German in 1996. Dr. Hamann has done original research on Hitler’s early years in Vienna until 1913, when he moved to Munich at the age of 24.
Hamann’s book not only shows that Alice Miller was empirically wrong to some extent in her own brief study of Hitler’s family background, but also that you have to address the cultural and political situation, if you want to explain how H. became what he was; in Vienna and later in Germany, of course. What I found most ironically disturbing: as a very young man, H. was only mildly anti-Semitic at most, probably not at all. His authoritarian and conservative father was clearly against anti-Semitism. The Jewish family physician, Dr. Bloch, liked Adolf as a boy and as an adolescent and considered his love for his mother exemplary. When H. was “down and out” in Vienna, and that was almost all of his time there, he had good and friendly business connections (very small business, at or below the existential minimum) with Jews, which he esteemed.
H. always had strong and somewhat manic political views and was always intolerant of other opinions, and he had strong inhibitions and was definitely femiphobic. So he was a bit strange, but he was no psychopath. To put it differently: his political and ideological environment was at least as “psychopathic” as he was. To be sure, Vienna was one of the early global cities and had a very modern multicultural side, where science and the arts flourished. Yet in her book, Brigitte Hamann deals with the other, the “dark side” of the city: the side of prejudice, anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism, and (racial) ethnocentrism, the side of the cranks who invented the strangest theories of the world’s origins or of the history of the “Aryan race”. It was mostly this side in which H. developed his world views. Certainly, World War I and the revolutionary upheavals towards and after its end were highly relevant formative experiences as well.
The political side of Vienna (and Austria-Hungary) before the Great War was one of permanent crisis:
– fast growth and industrialisation, large migrations, wide-spread poverty and other huge social problems, class war, and a political process almost completely stalled by competing nationalisms
– a (militarist) conservative-clerical elite who were anti-Semitic to a large extent (not the monarchy), with Dr. Karl Lueger, Vienna’s mayor, as a new type of Christian-Social popular tribune and one of Hitler’s most important “teachers”
– banal chauvinism and anti-Semitism of the masses, particularly the “Kleinbürger” (petty bourgeoisie), and the dilemma of the Jews between assimilation, new mass migration from Eastern Europe, and Zionism (it is often said that Theodor Herzl became a Zionist because of the Dreyfus affair in France; that is only part of the story, however: Vienna’s politics and its strong anti-Semitism were at least as important)
– several radical right-wing anti-Austrian and pro-German nationalist groups who were mostly even more racist and anti-Semitic than the Christian-Social conservatives
The dwindling Liberals and the growing Social Democrats were the only more rational and basically humanistic forces. It is very saddening to see how attractive radical nationalism and even racism were not only to the far right but in slightly moderated form also to large parts of the common men and women and to parts of the elite. It seemed so attractive at the time that even some Jews accepted it – Otto Weininger being the most obvious and tragic case: he became an ardent pro-Aryan anti-Semite and committed suicide. You can find traces of it even in early Zionism.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Here’s a summary of Alice Miller’s work in the obituary the New York Times ran last week:
“Unable to admit the rage they feel toward their tormentors, Dr. Miller contended, these damaged children limp along through life, weighed down by depression and insecurity, and pass the abuse along to the next generation, in an unending cycle. Some, in a pathetic effort to please their parents and serve their needs, distinguish themselves in the arts or professions. The Stalins and the Hitlers, Dr. Miller later wrote, inflict their childhood traumas on millions.“
Corporal punishment is one form of cruelty and I suppose, as you mentioned, it can be legislated. But there are other forms of cruelty that are less overt, difficult to legislate and equally damaging. For example, attachment to a primary caregiver is critical for a child to develop empathy and to form future relationships. During the first three years of life, the track is laid in the brain for future emotional, behavioral and social functioning.
“Children without touch, stimulation, and nurturing can literally lose the capacity to form any meaningful relationships for the rest of their lives,” writes Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. “…There are, however, many millions of children who have some degree of impaired bonding and attachment during early childhood.” How these experiences shape the individual, Perry says, depends upon how early in life, how prolonged, and how severe the emotional neglect has been. So neglect can be as damaging as abuse.
Dr. Perry scientifically explains what Alice Miller has identified. So much more is known now about the brain and its development than when Miller was writing. Dr. Perry’s and Dr. Miller’s observations support the idea that one person can save a child by providing a safe, loving relationship. If no one loves the child, he or she may become a sociopath.
That, too, fits in with the concept of secondary injury, where the damage to a child is compounded because his feelings and his reality are not verified by some adult. Since children have so little understanding of the world, they need to know that what they see or what they feel is valid.
But the question remains, can World War II and the Holocaust be explained by upbringing?
I believe it is only part of the reason, as your psychologist friend suggests. Maybe this question is simply unanswerable…but what seems obvious to me is that we must intervene in the lives of these children at a young age to protect future generations. One program in Harlem, New York has created a school for new parents so that they don’t perpetuate the abuse cycle and they replace cruelty with love for their children. In addition, I’m hoping schools will offer more social education, cultivating empathy and emotional intelligence, thereby inoculating individuals from insensitivity that can lead to crimes against humanity.
It is interesting that you read “For Your Own Good“ in reaction to my first page. The German original, “Am Anfang war Erziehung,” was one of my favorite books in my therapy years in the early eighties. The first chapter, on “Schwarze Pädagogik” (the official English translation is “poisonous pedagogy”), establishes a strong connection between German educational theories and practices since the mid-18th century and the ideas and values of major leading Nazi figures.
Alice Miller died in mid-April, at the age of 87. She died at a time when the first Catholic bishop who was ever forced to give up his position in the Federal Republic of Germany resigned, because he had severely beaten children many years ago and had lied about it. Surprisingly, in the recent debate nobody had mentioned her, who fought against child abuse much of her adult life and who had appealed in private letters to the Vatican long ago to do more for the protection of dependants. The first two obituaries I saw did not establish the connection you instinctively did, only the third one noted the omission.
Actually, one of the obituaries viciously attacked Alice Miller for her “misrepresentation” of classical psychoanalysis, her “unrestrained simplifications”, her “almost insane interpretative monism”, and her “pathologicalization” of childhood experiences and their repression, an approach which is said to develop “openly totalitarian features” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 24, 2010, p. 36, my translations).
Can World War II and the Holocaust be explained with details from Hitler’s family background and his upbringing? Not alone, of course, if at all: the dehumanizing effects of Word War I, general cultural practices, institutions, ideologies, political dynamics, they all have to come in. But our history books are full of these aspects. Everybody knows about the importance of “The Great Depression” for the rise of the Nazis. We don’t learn much, however, about the other “great depression”, the collective psychological wounds and the urge for compensating grandiosity resulting from common family structures and educational practices which were just as important.
The real challenge to Miller’s wider theory, my good friend and psychoanalyst Martin tells me, is the fact that the great majority of the chief Nazi perpetrators and of the active fellow travellers were relatively “normal” people with “normal” childhoods and family relations. This is even more disturbing, but we need to be careful not to put all the blame on child-rearing. Norms and institutions, e.g., i.e. “bad thinking” and its institutional backing are just as and perhaps even more important.
The current scandals certainly are a vindication of Miller’s “obsession”. The Catholic Church and the liberal elite reform school in the Odenwald now openly admit that they had not properly cared for the victims, the children. “Though Shalt Not Be Aware” (the title of another famous book by Alice Miller) had literally been social practice for many years, by the institutions involved, by friends and colleagues, by the media, and by parents who could have known and even a few who knew what was going on.
You seem to sense a strain of determinism in Alice Miller’s thinking; perhaps there is. Yet she always insisted that children with harsh or non-responsive parents often find alternative sources of love and understanding, and that we can later “repair” some of our unpleasant childhood experiences with knowing and helping witnesses – “repairing” meaning “reliving” them and feeling what we were not allowed to or could not feel then, such as sadness, pain or anger, and all that in an environment of fond support. She was convinced that we can break the cycle of violence between the generations. On a personal level, I cannot agree more. I believe there is a lot of overlap between Alice Miller’s thinking and transactional analysis the way I got to know it: In TA theory, “don’t feel what you feel” is considered one of the most important and most harmful “injunctions” against the “free child”.
On her website, Alice Miller writes: “Out of 192 members of the United Nations, only 19 have so far forbidden corporal punishment of children (Germany being one of them, GK). In the USA, there still remain 20 states that allow this cruel violence against children and teenagers. (…) When in Sweden legislation laws prohibiting corporal punishment were launched in 1978, 70% of the citizens, when asked for their opinion, were against them. In 1997, the figure had dropped to 10%. These statistics show that the mentality of the Swedish population has radically changed in the course of a mere 20 years.”
Fern Schumer Chapman
These scandals are deeply disturbing on many levels. Of course, I feel for those who live with the memory of these traumas. In addition, it raises fundamental questions of why an individual would engage in harsh and humiliating treatment of children. In turn, I worry about how these children will re-enact these experiences when they become adults, thereby perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
I have been reading Alice Miller’s work, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. She summarizes her observations in this statement: “The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore. Almost everywhere we find the effort.to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us –i.e. the weak, helpless, dependent creature – in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. When we reencounter this creature in our children, we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves. And this is what we are accustomed to call “child-rearing.”
She claims that this practice, which has been reinforced by the tenets of some churches, has broad ramifications, particularly if the abused individual doesn’t have a person in whom he could confide his true feelings. Miller believes that the repetition compulsion of this behavior can lead to horrific acts of cruelty such as what occurred in Nazi Germany.
“People with any sensitivity cannot be turned into mass murderers overnight,” Miller writes. “But the men and women who carried out ‘the final
solution’ did not let their feelings stand in their way for the simple reason that they had been raised from infancy not to have any feeling of their own but to experience their parents’ wishes as their own. These were people who, as children, had been proud of being tough and not crying, of carrying out all their duties ‘gladly’ of not being afraid – that is, at bottom of not having an inner life at all.”
While I certainly subscribe to some of her thinking, there is a frightening lack of free will in her beliefs. If our behavior is so psychologically driven and predetermined, there is little accommodation for individual experience and choice.
What do you think?
Germany has literally been swamped by reports about physical and sexual abuse in educational and other institutions for children. Most of the reports concern incidents from the 1950s up to the 1980s, with quite a few reaching into the 1990s and the new century. Most but by no means all of the offenders were Catholic priests and even a few nuns, but Protestant and non-religious institutions have their fair or rather unfair share in the scandals, which include boarding-schools for well-known choirs, even one famous very liberal and elitist reform school, orphanages or homes for “problem children”.
Many people, some about my age or older, now speak up. Once again we are confronted with a legacy from the Nazi era reaching further back into a dark past: Germany’s tradition of extremely harsh and humiliating treatment of children (see our blog “The White Ribbon”). The sexual abuse in a major liberal educational institution is particularly disappointing.
As in many other respects, 1945 was not the radical break with deeply ingrained mentalities and practices in Germany which it sometimes seemed to be. As late as 1988, one of our highest courts had declared corporal punishment permissible, even beating with a “stick-like device” should not be condemned in general! Only in 2000, a new law finally stated clearly that children had a right to an education free of violence. Sexual abuse is a different story; it has always been illegal, of course.
The Catholic Church has sinned in both areas, and it has great problems addressing its current crisis. To be sure, there are a few signs of genuine concern and goodwill, but many of the reactions from the hierarchy here in Germany and from Rome are seriously wanting in credibility or even highly misplaced. German bishops have attributed the failures of the Church to the “sexual revolution” in the media, compared the debate with the agitation by the Nazis against their religion, or accused victims who went public of detracting from the faith. In one particularly outrageous statement, a high-ranking priest in Rome compared recent criticism against his Church with anti-Semitism.
Will the Catholic Church, which has faced and is still facing similar revelations in the United States, in Ireland, in Australia or in Austria, address the structural causes of its debacle such as its completely out-dated and hypocritical sexual morals (many priests have long-standing relationships with women which the Church tolerates as long as they remain concealed and unofficial) including its outrageous position on homosexuality, compulsory celibacy for priests, male dominance, and secluded decision-making? Many experts doubt it.
In one of the revelations in Germany, six men and women have independently accused one bishop that he had repeatedly maltreated them when they were young inmates in a Catholic home for orphans run by nuns and he was the town’s priest responsible for them. He denies that he ever used violence against children, and offers his accusers “spiritual support”.
The secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference says he believes him and that it was a situation of “his word against hers”. He literally used the phrase “Aussage gegen Aussage”, which means one statement against one opposite statement. Did he have to take that position, implicating that the six other Catholics, who had made their statements in lieu of oaths, were liars? The least he could have done was to admit that it was one word against six.
I had met this man as a young priest in my peace research years, in a group discussing arms control issues for a commission of Justitia et Pax, a more liberal Catholic lay organization. I had thought he was a man of integrity then.