Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Reverberations of the Holocaust Fifty Years Later: Psychology's Contributions to Understanding Persecution and Genocide [Presidential Address]

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Reverberations of the Holocaust Fifty Years Later: Psychology's Contributions to Understanding Persecution and Genocide [Presidential Address]

Article excerpt

Presidential Address -- Allocution presidentielle


The Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people ended over 50 years ago, but both public and scholarly interest in the Holocaust remains intense and has a salient psychological component. The Holocaust continues to be the setting for many novels, plays, and films, and is also frequently invoked as a metaphor in policy debates such as in justification of the NATO air attacks against Yugoslavia. Holocaust-related psychological research can serve as a basis for better understanding of subsequent, and perhaps of future, ethnopolitical violence, the focus of the ongoing joint CPA-APA Ethnopolitical Warfare Initiative. This research includes theories of why people participate in genocide, the analysis of bystander and rescuer behaviour, and the development of interventions that may help to prevent or de-escalate ethnic conflicts and to ameliorate their effects. Psychological studies of Holocaust survivors have contributed to our knowledge of PTSD, the transmission of trauma to subsequent generations, and the possibility of coping and recovery after extreme stress.

In 1999, the Canadian Psychological Association celebrated its Sixtieth Anniversary convention. It is easy to think "sixtieth anniversary" without thinking back to what things were like at the time of the first CPA convention. It was 1939, a period marked by a surging tide of militant dictatorships in many parts of the world and by political confusion and economic distress in democratic nations. Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich, assuring Europe that the abandonment of Czecho-slovakia to the Nazis had guaranteed "peace in our time" Hitler and Stalin were about to carry out their joint destruction of Poland, the beginning of the most extensive and most destructive war the world had ever seen. Notwithstanding our national myth 50 years later, Canada was about to join, to a great extent willingly and even enthusiastically, in the just war to defeat a group of truly evil empires.

The upheaval that followed shook the world. For tens of millions of people, it meant the end of life. For those who lived through it, the war remains an indelible marker by and against which the rest of life is measured. Even those who were born after it was over are imbued with its impact and consequences, from the vast battles on the Eastern Front and the Pacific Ocean to nuclear weapons, the formation of the UN, and the Cold War.

One set of images we all carry from that war attracted little attention at the time: the Nazi attempt to annihilate all Jews within reach, now -- but not then -- called the Holocaust. The mass murder of some six million people, including one and a half million children, has left us with the memory of countless photographs, films, television shows, books, poems, and articles.

These images are so vivid in our individual and cultural memory that the Holocaust has become one of our most salient illustrations of Tversky and Kahneman's availability heuristic (1973). "The Holocaust" has been used as the metaphor for the Cambodian "classicide," the Chinese suppression of Tibet, and civil wars in Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. The word has been applied anachronistically to slavery and its aftermath in the United States and to the dispossession of aboriginal peoples by Europeans in Australia and the Americas. It has even been featured in the debate about legalized abortion, both in Canada and the United States. just as each of these events has been equated -- no matter how wrong-headedly -- with the Holocaust, so politicians have referred to the failure of the democracies to do anything about the real Holocaust as a justification for not ignoring similar happenings now. The most recent of many examples was President Clinton's argument for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as the refusal of current world leaders to stand by idly while another Holocaust occurs.

The Holocaust has left us with many psychological questions. …

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