Making Sense of the Brutality of the Holocaust: Critical Themes and New Perspectives

Eric D Miller. The Journal of Psychology Interdisciplinary and Applied. Volume 151, Issue 1. 2017.

The Holocaust can be an overwhelming area to examine for several academic and humanitarian reasons. Indeed, the Holocaust remains one of the darkest chapters in all of human history. The Holocaust as an event in human history demands an extensive examination of how it came to be, from historic roots of European anti-Semitism to Hitler’s rise to power and his aggressive, virulent and racist agenda to invasions of countries featuring mass segregation of Jewish populations to decisions to enact full-scale genocide. The Holocaust continues to be examined today not just from a historical lens but also from a broader social scientific and psychological perspective. Considerable research and scholarship has attempted to answer how individuals en masse could either wantonly or indirectly allow for the slaughter of millions of men, women, and children on account of their religious and ethnic identity. When we consider the atrocities committed during the Holocaust era, it is important to remember that millions of non-Jews were also murdered by the Nazis and their perpetrators. Naturally, these deaths are no less grievous than the ones committed against the Jews. However, this article aims to focus on the group that was unquestionably the focus of Nazi genocidal policies: the Jews (including the widely recognized failure to help European Jews during the Holocaust). In considering this topic, it is also important to add that the study of the Holocaust can almost seem like an unbearable topic to consider because it is illustrative of profoundly egregious human cruelty and suffering that will likely forever haunt the conscience of humanity.

This article first offers some general considerations and definitions of senseless violence with particular emphasis on the nature of the brutality displayed against Jews during the Holocaust. The latter goal is accomplished with an interdisciplinary analysis of psychological, historical, journalistic, and other social science sources. As is discussed in this article, a clear challenge for psychologists and social scientists has been to define precisely what constitutes “evil” behavior in the context of senseless violence. A particularly unique contribution of this article is its discussion of the value of online Holocaust imagery (such as photographic and video evidence from that era) in both a general sense and, specifically, to allow for a greater potential understanding of the social psychological roots of evil. Another critical aspect of this special issue is the consideration of how individuals and society-at-large tries to come to terms with senseless violence. In that respect, this article next explores some central themes in how Holocaust survivors (and their offspring) and the Jewish people (more generally) have tried to make sense of this cataclysmic genocide. In totality, these critical themes are so highlighted in that they may offer an important perspective on the meaning of senseless violence.

Recognizing and Defining Senseless Violence and Evil: General Considerations and its Relevance to the Holocaust

In some respects, defining senseless violence of any sort should almost seem like a very straight-forward proposition. Indeed, Lodewijkx, Wildschut, Nijstad, Savenije, and Smit (2001) offer experimental evidence that individuals are more apt to label senseless violence as such when a hypothetical victim is not blamed or involved with a given perpetrator; by doing so, these and other researchers (e.g., Van Zomeren & Lodewijkx, 2005) suggest that such views help to provide some semblance of a belief in a just world (e.g., Lerner, 1980). However, Duck (2009) cautions that behavior, such as murder, that the public would generally view as senseless or random violence is often not perceived that way by those who commit such acts; as an example, he notes that those involved with drug gang violence often consider “acts of murder…to be closely tied to local orders of expectation and practice” (p. 419).

Some of this controversy may be complicated by the point that some can argue about who is a “victim” and a “perpetrator.” From the perspective of an assumed perpetrator, such as a Nazi, he or she may not have necessarily viewed his or her actions as injurious and, in fact, they may have been perceived as being well justified (Baumeister, 1999). As Hannah Arendt (1963) famously concluded from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, many Nazis felt that they simply were akin to cogs in a machine where they followed orders from presupposed leaders. In fact, Arendt’s analysis of a so-called “banality of evil” had some impact on the classic work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s (1963, 1974) famous studies of obedience. While still acknowledging the tremendous impact that his work continues to have on the field, Milgram’s methods and conclusions have been severely criticized on many grounds (e.g., Reicher, Haslam, & Miller, 2014). Even those who have largely praised the work of Milgram (e.g., Blass, 1998), while admitting some general linkages between Milgram’s work and understanding the Holocaust, there has been an appreciation for its limitations as well:

…Milgram’s approach does not provide a fully adequate explanation of the Holocaust. While it may well account for the dutiful destructiveness of the dispassionate bureaucrat who may have shipped Jews to Auschwitz with the same degree of routinization as potatoes to Bremenhaven, it falls short when one tries to apply it to the more zealous, inventive, and hate-driven atrocities that also characterized the Holocaust. (p. 51)

Consistent with the aforesaid statement, distinguished social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz (1999)—using some of Arendt’s own words—makes the point that evil, particularly with respect to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, cannot be simply viewed as banal behavior:

No one had issued orders that infants should be thrown into the air as shooting targets, or hurled into the fire alive, or have their heads smashed against walls.…Innumerable individual crimes, one more horrible than the next, surrounded and created the atmosphere of the gigantic crime of extermination. (Arendt, as cited in Berkowitz, 1999, p. 250)

Arthur Miller (2014) further suggests that social psychology may be guilty of “glossing over the gratuitous brutality of the Holocaust…[in favor of focusing on a] preoccupation with the Milgram experiments” (p. 566). This brutality is indeed not pleasant to dwell upon but it is critical to emphasize the Holocaust’s multi-faceted aspects of cruelty, deception, and murder. The Holocaust Chronicle (Harran, Kuntz, Lemmons, Michael, Pickus, Roth, & Edelheit, 2000), among other sources, provides an extensive documentation of many of these many cruelties from (and even predating) Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 until the end of World War II in 1945 (and shortly thereafter). Some of these atrocities include (but certainly are not limited to): segregation of Jews from the larger society, the removal of all of one’s personal belongings, the forcible displacement and starvation of Jews in ghettos, constant humiliation and degrading behaviors (e.g, washing streets) to the ultimate “Final Solution” of mass genocide (Harran et al., 2000). As unpleasant as it is to consider, even the methods of death for the Jews and others varied considerably. For instance, Einsatzgruppen consisted of Nazi SS guards and local authorities, who gunned down entire Jewish populations within towns largely in Eastern Europe. Even though Auschwitz remains arguably the best known Concentration Camp, Nazis experimented with various methods of killing, such as gas vans at the Chelmno Concentration Camp, long before the mass manufacturing of genocide took place at the aforementioned site. Not only did Jews commonly have to pay for their own tickets under the guise of relocation but elaborate schemes (such as the construction of fake ticket/train stations) were concocted and devised in order to hide the true plans of the Nazis. To add to the perversity of this violence, some Jews (selected as Sonderkommandos) were even forced to aid the Nazis with the execution and aftermath of mass killings of fellow Jews only to be murdered later. Even with imminent Nazi defeat, Jews—already greatly suffering from Concentration Camp imprisonment—were commonly forced to go on “Death Marches.” Those who ultimately survived often waited for very uncertain futures as displaced persons—and, in some cases, still faced violence (or death) even if they attempted to return to their original hometowns. Opotow (2011) summarizes many of the antecedental acts that allowed for the Holocaust as being a form of extreme moral exclusion where concerns for fairness, sharing resources, and well-being of others are largely absent; some acts included exclusion within society (e.g., barred from professions, forcible relocation), exclusion from society (e.g., forcible deportation, slave labor), and exclusion as annihilation (e.g., starvation and murder). Recent research from the United States Holocaust Museum has buttressed the point that the Holocaust was not an act of isolated violence but rather mass murder that truly encompassed most of Nazi-occupied Europe: It is now estimated that over 42,500 Nazi ghettos, slave labor sites, and concentration camps—significantly more than previously believed—were in operation between 1933 and 1945 across Europe (Lichtblau, 2013).

The question of how and why the Holocaust occurred and why the Jews, in particular, were targeted is an incredibly complex issue. To offer a rather cursory explanation, McMillan (2014) suggests that Jews were a target across Europe because they were, in fact, living all across Europe. That is, because they were a minority across all of Europe, it was relatively easy to demonize Jews on account of their non-Christianity, perceived or fabricated sense of otherness, envy of success of select Jews, and alleged questionable political alliances and allegiances. McMillan (2014) adds though what may have been particularly virulent to German anti-Semitism was a belief that “the Jewish people constituted a race that was biologically distinct from the rest of all humanity and genetically predisposed to behave destructively” (p. 152). A related Nazi construct was Lebensraum (or “living space”) where Hitler decreed that Germany had a right and need to physically expand to meet its own needs for their own people; inherent in this ideology would be the removal of those from these lands who were not of ‘German blood’ per the dictates of Nazi ideology. Other scholars add that many of the early acts that Germans took against the Jews (such as Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass”) largely echoed previous acts of mob violence, or pogroms, taken against the Jews largely throughout their existence on the European continent; however, the sheer methods of killing on a mass scale (e.g., Bronner, 1999) and the indifference or inaction by many parties during the killings (such as the allies, including America, other European countries and citizenry, and the clergy; Fettweis, 2003) adds to this devastating historic record of genocide.

Many academics and non-academics alike have wrestled with the broader meaning of “evil.” Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (2004), the author of the classic Stanford Prison Study, suggests that “Evil is intentionally behaving—or causing others to act—in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people” (p. 23). Another esteemed social psychologist, Ervin Staub (1989, 1999, 2014) has outlined the basic conditions that allow for (or have allowed for) expressions of evil particularly in the context of genocide and the Holocaust. In short, Staub suggests that a conglomeration of social, cultural, and personal factors can foment evil including a desire to fulfill basic or personal needs, a desire for collective action (even if it is destructive towards others), a changing or acceptance of deviant norms, high respect and desire for authority, and bystander passivity. Haslam and Reicher (2007) add that perpetrators, or those who would harm (or encourage harm to others) typically do so with conviction and those who might adhere to destructive ideologies are particularly likely to possess certain personal-based qualities (such as social dominance and aggressive tendencies); once drawn to such ideology, consistent with the dynamics of group membership, such individuals often feel a greater investment in these groups and a potential desire to recruit others to the cause.

To offer a slightly different perspective, Berkowitz (1999) argues that “evil” should be thought of as a concept where there are certain differential grades of evil. With a consideration of the Holocaust as a backdrop, Berkowitz states: “Some acts are more evil than others. Thus, we might consider the brutal killing of a young child to be evil because our conception of this event resembles our prototype of evil but not think of a husband’s beating his wife as very evil because our understanding of this battering is far removed from this prototype” (p. 251). However, he concedes that evil may be construed as a somewhat fuzzy concept and that individuals may have varying ideas as to what constitutes evil. While more research should aim to flesh out these points, Berkowitz adds that: “for many people, the actions and policies we usually associate with Hitler have a close resemblance to their prototype of evil” (p. 251).

Berkowitz (1999) also makes it clear that he is not necessarily nominating the Holocaust, as the “most” evil event of all time. In fact, in addressing his focus on the mass killing of European Jews during the Holocaust, he expressly states: “This focus certainly does not mean that I believe the Nazis’ killing of Gypsies, homosexuals, and seriously handicapped persons was necessarily less evil than the Holocaust, or that Stalin or Pol Pot (or any others one might nominate) were not evil” (p. 252). And yet, his perspective forces us to consider that people may indeed view certain events as “evil”—however, depending on the situational context of these events or how certain events are juxtaposed, some “evil” acts may seem not quite as “evil” in relation to another event. For instance, in this formulation, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are widely acknowledged as being the single-most photographed and videoed war-related event in history and, arguably, the suffering inflicted upon thousands on that day would meet the criteria of what is evil. However, perhaps consistent with this logic, the events of 9/11—while still illustrating evil—may seem not quite as “evil” in comparison to sheer extent of devastating and devious behavior (including the loss of life) accompanying the Holocaust.

Consistent with the aforesaid argument, the case could be made that even in comparison to other genocides different gradients of evil could be considered. While a natural concern might be that such an analysis could be used to minimize or deny suffering (which surely should be avoided), such comparisons can serve to provide a different understanding of the qualities of evil. In fact, Flanzbaum (1999) notes that in American culture, the horrors of the Holocaust were far from being emphasized—or even fully known—in the immediate decades following the Holocaust. She notes that, for decades, Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust largely came from the relatively benign early publications of The Diary of Anne Frank which downplayed the horrors of this genocide; in later decades, with increased awareness of these horrors through both survivor accounts and high profile public events (such as the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the release of the 1993 film Schindler’s List), the American public began to appreciate these horrors from a deeper perspective.

A complicating factor in trying to consider meaningful analyses of different genocide-related events is that some scholars have argued over the precise meaning of an act of genocide (including from a legal sense). For instance, Schabas (2000) contends that though the acts of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s and the Milosevic forces in Kosovo in 1999 should be viewed as atrocities they should not necessarily be viewed as acts of genocide. In discussing the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, he suggests that these victims were largely identified by their social and economic standing—and not the intentional destruction of a national, religious, racial, or ethnic group as called for according to the legal definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Regarding the Kosovo conflicts, he argues for the importance of distinguishing genocide from ethnic cleaning such that the latter “generally involves killing, but with the intent to effect forced migration from a territory” (p. 295). With genocide, as shown in the Holocaust, mass murder is the ultimate goal.

Other scholars have made the case that the Holocaust represented a particularly unique and insidious form of genocide. For example, Heinsohn (2000) argues that Hitler’s (and the Third Reich’s) obsession against the Jews is fairly well-known, including the point that this genocide was viewed as having a higher importance than the general war effort. However, he contends that the Holocaust was not just a means to murder all Jews, but it was also a potential means to encourage and justify all future acts of genocide (to have been committed by the Nazis) after removing Judaism’s principles surrounding the sanctity of life from German society. Moshman (2001) offers many paradoxical views about how to conceptualize genocide vis-à-vis the Holocaust, such as: the Holocaust receives incredible attention yet its focus is clearly justified, the Holocaust obviously is a prototypical case of genocide yet its focus confuses our understanding of other acts of genocide, and while genocide is often appropriately viewed as the ultimate act of evil, it is inaccurate to assume that a non-genocidal event cannot also be evil. He suggests that “The Holocaust is both worse than we can ever imagine as well as a small part of a larger picture” (p. 448) of violations of human rights.

Friedrichs (2000) puts forth the somewhat conflicting notion that even if the Holocaust may not necessarily be the most evil event of all-time (though it may be), it nonetheless encompassed a truly grotesque form of violence. On one hand, he contends that: “No claim is made here, then, that the Holocaust was necessarily the worst case of genocide in history. Indeed, some have argued that other cases of genocide—for example, the genocide directed at Native Americans—were more enduring and resulted in much greater loss of life [and b]y some estimations, more people died in Mao’s People’s Republic of China…Is it really possible (or desirable) to have a comparative sociology of cruelty, or relative evil?” (p. 22). And yet, not only does he suggest that the Holocaust profoundly shaped Jewish and world history (in part, by giving a clear definition of genocide), but he contends it is effectively the “crime of the century” for showcasing how individuals, groups, nations, and governmental entities could (at so many vast levels) ensure the mass mistreatment, destruction, and ultimate murder of a group of individuals on account of their race or religion.

Friedrichs (2000) also offers some insightful comments as how to best understand and categorize evil. He suggests that homicides (and other crimes) are often viewed differently than genocides. Indeed, Welner’s (2009) Depravity Scale, a well-known measure of criminal evil, tends to focus on personal characteristics that make one predisposed to carry out violent crimes. Though he does not explicitly acknowledge this point, Friedrichs (2000) appears sympathetic to the idea that man-made mass causality events may particularly embody evil. For instance, in trying to imagine what the “crime of the century” may be when looking back from the year 2100, he suggests: “Arguably the single most disturbing possibility is a nuclear holocaust with a scope almost unimaginable to us” (p. 34).

In considering the totality of this analysis, it appears that certain factors may help to define an event as especially evil: greater loss of life, the methods used to cause death (including the degree to which others have conspired to produce it), death caused exclusively due to personal-based characteristics including (but not limited to) race, religion, ethnicity, or gender, and deaths committed against children. Clearly, the Holocaust contained all of these qualities. Future research should aim to clarify and quantify how individuals make distinctions about historic events (e.g., the Holocaust, the Cambodian atrocities, and 9/11) regarding their relative degree of evil as well as the more abstract characteristics of what constitutes evil behavior and actions. Such research may have the practical effect of allowing for greater awareness of past injustices as well as the hope for the prevention of future atrocities.

Utilizing Online Imagery to Study the Senseless Violence and Evil of the Holocaust

Hungarian film director László Nemes received much acclaim for his 2015 award- winning motion picture “Son of Saul.” Nemes suggested that people today still have not fully acknowledged the trauma of the Holocaust and may not necessarily be able to do so without having a full visual appreciation of it. To that end, he stated: “Since the end of the Second World War I’ve seen very clearly that many people more or less consider the Holocaust as a mythical story and approached it probably from a defensive mechanism, as a way to get away from it through survival stories…I don’t think Auschwitz and the extermination of the European Jews was about survival. It was about death. And how Europe killed itself, committed suicide… This generation, the next generations need to be presented with the visual experience that brings them back to the here and now of the concentration camp and have the point of view in the story applied to one human being” (Donadio, 2015, p. 2).

Nemes clearly argues not just for a more fuller acknowledgment of the widespread brutality perpetrated against the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s but also makes the case that visual images can and should be used as a means to depict the nature of this brutality. Indeed, the availability of photographic evidence of mass trauma and wartime carnage available for the larger public predates the Holocaust by almost a century. Photographer Alexander Gardner is widely credited for providing the first images of wartime during the 1862 Battle of Antietam that took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland; this critical Civil War battle is particularly notorious for being equated with the single-most bloodiest day in American history to date where over 3,600 soldiers were killed and thousands more were injured or went missing. Gardner’s photographs of Antietam, which were displayed in New York City, were critical in showing to the public that war should not be viewed as something that is glamorous but rather as an event that showcases war’s pure butchery (E. D. Miller, 2011).

To forge ahead some 80 years or so to the timeframe of the Holocaust, numerous photographic and even video evidence was taken to showcase and depict Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews. Indeed, much of the select photographic evidence that does exist were taken by Nazis themselves—some of which was purportedly to be used for Hitler’s twisted idea and notion of a “Museum of the Extinct Race” had they been ultimately victorious in World War II (Pavlát, 2008). Holocaust photography though did have a sort of unique historical duality though. Consistent with Hitler’s purposeful decision to not formally visit Concentration Camps, only select archival footage was taken at Auschwitz—the most well-known death camp (Kershaw, 2005).

While select news and images of the Holocaust were available during the killings, in the decades following the Holocaust, a growing body of scholarship has noted that both the Roosevelt administration (e.g., Wyman, 1984) and newspaper organizations (such as The New York Times; Leff, 2005) tended to actively discount or downplay these events. In brief, regarding the former point, many historians (e.g., Beir & Josepher, 2013) point to the fact that not only were strict immigrant quotas not expanded; many spots that should have been theoretically available to European Jews remained unfilled (perhaps, in part, due to the anti-Semitic views of Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who did not want to ensure that these quotas were maximized). One of the more infamous examples of Roosevelt’s apparent indifference to Jewish refugees occurred when in 1939 over 900 German Jews left on a chartered boat (the St. Louis, which was initially headed to Cuba and ultimately denied entry there) and unsuccessfully tried to gain admittance to the United States (where all were forced to return to Europe and at least a quarter of them were eventually murdered in the Holocaust). Beir and Josepher add that another ongoing debate is the question over why the Roosevelt administration did not more aggressively attack or bomb the death camps like Auschwitz. Although these historical debates remain, they conclude that—given the historical climate at that time—Roosevelt should be commended for realizing the threat of Nazi Germany and believed that the best method of saving European Jews was to win the war. They add that not only did Roosevelt enjoy wide support from the American Jewish community at that time but many foes—both domestic and foreign—viewed Roosevelt as sympathetic to Jewish causes. Indeed, although it certainly does not justify the lack of forceful action to help European Jews seeking refuge in the United States at the time, it is important to note that the pre-Civil Rights World War II era was marked by many xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist attitudes (perhaps exacerbated by the years of the Great Depression) such that large majorities of Americans did not support the loosening of immigration quotas to European Jewish refugees (and perhaps not unlike the Syrian refugee crisis of today; Zeitz, 2015). If anything, Beir and Josepher, like Leff (2005), seem to heap more culpability toward newspaper organizations, particularly The New York Times, for downplaying the atrocities of the Holocaust. They state:

The media kept Holocaust stories off the front pages. The New York Times, for instance, from the years 1939 through 1945, printed 1,186 Holocaust stories, or an average of 17 stories per month. And yet only 26 stories mentioning the ‘discrimination, deportation, and destruction’ of the Jews made the front pages. And of those stories, only six identified Jews as the primary victims. Six stories in 6 years. Six stories while six million died. (pp. 269-270)

Curiously, the then-owner of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, was Jewish; Sulzberger may have tacitly allowed for this minimal reporting due to his own views of Jews and Judaism and out of concern for not seeming impartial to the larger public (Leff, 2006). As another fascinating example as to the potential power of Internet-based archival materials, in April 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched an ambitious call for all citizens to search for and submit all Holocaust-related reports from local American newspapers during 1933 to 1945; this project, “History Unfolded” aims to shed additional light on what was reported and what Americans may have known about the Holocaust from that time (Hamill, 2016). The ability to cull through these records electronically will likely make this endeavor more feasible to successfully accomplish.

Once the Camps were ultimately liberated by Americans and the allies, there is also evidence that some Holocaust-related footage was even purposely suppressed after the war. A particularly prominent example of this was the footage delivered as part of Alfred Hitchcock’s powerful documentary “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” which showed the horrific aftermath of the Holocaust along with the extensive existence of Concentration Camps across Nazi-occupied Europe; with the recent 2014 documentary “Night Will Fall,” the story behind this film—including the decision to shelve it for fear of alienating Germany as a potential political ally following the war—was told (Hale, 2015).

An important question is what is new or different about online Holocaust imagery? First, and probably most obviously, with the Internet such imagery is no longer difficult to find and can be presented in unique and meaningful ways to a larger population. There are many Websites—such as those affiliated with Museums like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem and other sites like “Jewish Virtual Library”—that house thousands of pictures showing the plight of European Jews before, during, and immediately after the Holocaust. One can also very easily utilize Google Images or visit other online/social media sites or groups to find countless photographs as well. In fact, on January 27, 2015, as part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Google organized an extensive online exhibition detailing several facets about the Holocaust.

One might also want to consider what could we want to do with such images and why would we want to engage with them? Naturally, by having an awareness of these images, we inherently offer an act of critical remembrance. After all, in his classic work Night, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel (1958/2006) famously stated “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” To that point, Rassin, Rootselaar, Heiden, Ugahary, and Wagener (2005) demonstrated with experimental methods that those who could not clearly imagine World War II images—including those associated with the Holocaust—were more inclined to endorse beliefs indicative of exaggerations of Nazi cruelties.

Prior to the past decade or so, if one wanted to seek Holocaust footage, one had to actively seek it (e.g., in libraries) or perhaps found it difficult to fully comprehend and digest (e.g., in a school setting). With such online imagery, one can study, observe, and share these images at one’s own choosing and perhaps with others. In doing so, we can even imagine (or try to imagine) the plight of those pictured in these images. Arguably, some of the most haunting and distressing images do not necessarily involve images of grotesque brutality; and, indeed, may feature images of over the one million children murdered in the Holocaust. One such example are pictures of the children who were placed in hiding at an orphanage in the southeastern hamlet of Izieu, France; a number of these photographs show these children appearing to be relatively content and enjoying the spoils of childhood despite the dire conditions of genocide and war lurking nearby. Any semblance of tranquility for these 42 children (and 5 of their caregivers) ended on April 6, 1944 when Nazi troops—led by the leading Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie—raided the orphanage and forcibly loaded the children onto trucks that would ultimately take all of them to their deaths at Auschwitz or other death camps (Klarsfeld, 1985).

Film from this era also can produce a similar effect of allowing us to try to fathom the losses that occurred while also trying to provide us with a semblance of understanding regarding the incredible suffering that was endured during this time. For instance, the documentary “Jewish Life in Bialystok” shows the proud day-to-day happenings of the Jewish community in Bialystok, Poland as it existed in the summer of 1939, which was literally weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland. One can only surmise that most of those pictured in that film, like the social world depicted, simply vanished. But, it need not always be the case that European Jews pictured or filmed from the Holocaust era be forever unknown. Indeed, such media can even serve to answer some gaps in the historical record about the Holocaust as was accomplished with the release of Glenn Kurtz’s, 2014 book and related short film “Three Minutes in Poland.” In brief, while helping his parents clear out some personal belongings, Glenn Kurtz stumbled upon 70-year-old footage of his grandparents’ visit to their ancestral towns near Warsaw, Poland in the summer of 1938. Kurtz’s grandparents used a home video recorder that taped roughly 3 minutes of footage of a town that was decimated in the Holocaust. Upon realizing the importance of this film as a historical record of Polish Jewish life right before the onset of World War II and Holocaust, Kurtz worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to refurbish the film that was ultimately placed on its Website. A couple of years later, Kurtz received contacts suggesting that the identity of one of the individuals pictured in the film—a 13-year-old at the time—was positively identified by the granddaughter of this aforesaid individual. Amazingly, this individual, Morris Chandler was not just identified but also found living in the United States.

This case highlights that, particularly given the wide reach and availability of the Internet, the ability to further analyze and glean new information about the Holocaust—including about survivors and victims—still is quite possible. More generally, not only is there sometimes new information to be discovered about the Holocaust, but the potential for both academics and non-academics to gather new insights increases when historical archives and artifacts are placed online. For instance, the German organization The International Tracing Service—which houses over 30 million documents related to the Holocaust and Nazi persecution—recently began to publish its first 50,000 documents online. International Tracing Service archive department head Christian Groh aptly summarizes the importance of doing this by noting that: “Archives must not hide themselves from the digital world. Otherwise, one day they will be forgotten” (“Holocaust-era archive uploads,” 2015, p. 1)

Not only can widespread availability of this imagery online provide the potential to greater educate the public about the history and trauma associated with the Holocaust, it may also help to provide greater insight into what precisely constitutes “evil.” The use of such publicly available, archival sources may be particularly valuable given the inherent challenges of studying evil in terms of ethical and logistical constraints (e.g., Darley, 1999). Indeed, there is evidence that individuals can differentiate the underlying content found within traumatic events in an online context. For instance, an innovative content analysis of over 2,000 YouTube comments from four different YouTube videos related to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School and Aurora theater mass shootings and the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy showed that YouTube comments associated with the Sandy Hook shootings (particularly those from a memorial video) were especially likely to feature compassion and grief with lessened hostility. Given these results, this study highlighted that even in an online environment, powerful situational contexts greatly guide behavior, such as how individuals show grief and related emotions following man-made and natural calamities (E. D. Miller, 2015). Accordingly, it bears to reason that online comments could likewise be able to make similar differentiations amongst different events, including those featuring Holocaust imagery.

However, there may be some challenges to using online Holocaust imagery as a means to study senseless violence and evil. Consider the tragic case and photograph of three year-old Aylan Kurdi: A photograph of Aylan’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach was shown throughout the world (in September 2015) as it was believed to embody the Syrian refugee crisis, which is believed to be the one of the most serious humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II and the Holocaust (e.g., Peralta, 2014). To be clear, Aylan’s death is incredibly heartbreaking, and the picture of his death makes this point all the more. However, if evil is to be conceptualized in different grades (e.g., Berkowitz, 1999), there is a risk that we could (however inadvertent) minimize suffering. As noted earlier, the deaths of over 1 million children may be one of the most horrifying qualities of the Holocaust. By acknowledging this point, does this somehow minimize the tragedy of the death of one child, such as Aylan? Yet, we can also look at this issue from the opposite perspective. Given how horrific the death of one child is, should it not make the deaths of over a million children in the Holocaust all the more horrific? This question also raises the provocative consideration about the power of social media—and what if it would have existed during World War II. Avi Benlolo, president of Canada’s Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies suggests that it may have been used for the good. He suggests: “Had the digital age existed and had enough individuals been encouraged by mass social activism, one hopes the outcome would have been different” (Benlolo, 2012, p. 1).

Naturally, we can hope that would have been so; however, social media postings are sometimes known for their less than gracious comments. This brings another critical potential pitfall of the widespread availability of online Holocaust imagery: The ability of individuals to exploit such content as a means to denigrate the Holocaust and its victims or survivors. Moor, Heuvelman, and Verleur (2010) suggest that there are three major reasons why flaming (or extremely hostile or offensive language) may occur in social media, such as YouTube: (a) When we are online, we have a changed awareness of the self, including a perception of anonymity; (b) The prevalence of miscommunication and misunderstandings of both online material and conversations; and (c) An intentional act to state one’s views online, particularly if they are views that might not be readily acceptable to overtly acknowledge in face-to-face communication. Regardless of the motivation, Moor et al. (2010) also found that while most of their sample did not report engaging in flaming, most have indeed witnessed it online. One could argue that those who would disparage or deny the suffering from the Holocaust merely represent a fringe view. Yet, in the case of Adolf Hitler’s ideology, as highlighted throughout this article, both history and psychology have shown that even fringe views can reach a larger consensus under certain conditions. In a free and democratic society, ultimately, we may have to accept that the ability to abuse or misuse such images is a distinct possibility, although strident attempts can and should be undertaken to rally against such hateful expressions.

As noted earlier, online Holocaust imagery has the potential to allow researchers to better conceptualize the nature of evil and senseless violence both by studying the acts committed in archival footage and how individuals respond to such imagery (often in an online context). While Holocaust-era traditional photographs and related media still have the potential to convey powerful messages, there is growing evidence that individuals are increasingly utilizing online social imagery as a means to understand their sense of self (e.g., Davies, 2007). As such, there is the potential for individuals to draw more meaningful connections, insights, and compassion with regards to these images in an online format. A related set of questions might be whether it should be assumed that such images will necessarily produce a meaningful and positive effect in an individual and what fundamental purposes do these images even serve? Although greater research should further flesh out individual reasons for viewing such materials and their net effects on individuals, it is prudent to presume that there would likely be much variation in how individuals process such images. For instance, even among Jews, Wohl and Van Bavel (2011) found that post-traumatic symptoms were negatively correlated with having non-Holocaust descendants yet these symptoms were positively correlated with having Holocaust descendants (though these effects were lessened by the willingness of family members to discuss past family Holocaust-related history). Accordingly, consistent with the findings from the aforementioned study, a Jewish individual with Holocaust descendants might show heightened distress after viewing such imagery whereas a Jewish individual without such a family history might consider such imagery as a reminder of their proud collective identity.

The question of what is the fundamental purpose of Holocaust images and how they may differ from other traumatic images is arguably a much more challenging question to answer. Many have highlighted that Holocaust imagery may contain violent, traumatic injury but they also provide the viewer with a foreboding quality insomuch that we often imagine the victimization that the individual was experiencing in the image and would have likely experienced at a later point (including death). For instance, in contrasting Holocaust imagery with 9/11 imagery, Orbán (2007) suggests that while 9/11 images tend to be more focused on the immediate destruction of life (such as through the plane crashes and the tower collapses),

Holocaust images overwhelmingly capture a prolonged approach or aftermath (such as images of people known in retrospect to have died shortly after having been photographed or images of what was found upon liberation of the concentration camps), thereby arguably further emphasizing the void between approach and aftermath. (p. 59)

Łysak (2016) makes not only a similar point insomuch that imagery from the Warsaw Ghetto has a haunting quality in that those depicted were not only suffering at the time but were (in most cases) subsequently murdered but also regarding the point about how we view and understand such imagery can change over time. After all, the Nazis who filmed these images were doing so for propaganda-based reasons consistent with their anti-Semitic agenda; now, such images serve as testimony to wanton misery. In considering lynching photographs, largely of African-Americans from the Jim Crow era of American history, Campbell (2004) likewise notes how these images largely conveyed different messages at the time they were taken versus how they are viewed now in that these photographs “were produced as celebratory icons of white supremacy, but are now read as powerful evidence of a deplorable racist history” (p. 71). He adds that while such images can be incredibly difficult to view, it is important to be mindful that many of these images were instrumental in helping to raise awareness and change attitudes; a particularly potent example was the purposeful decision of Emmet Till’s mother to have her teenage son’s mangled body widely photographed after he was lynched in 1955 for supposedly showing interest in a white woman in Mississippi. Campbell (2004) adds that in terms of presenting violent historical imagery there is a dual concern that oversaturation can lead viewers to perhaps feeling overwhelmed or even fatigued by such imagery and, yet, there is a grave danger to completely trying to hide away such images (particularly in terms of how they are represented in the media). Ultimately, he suggests that:

…images do bring a particular kind of power to the portrayal of death and violence. Seeing the body and what has been done to it is important. Images alone might not be responsible for a narrative’s power, but narratives that are un-illustrated can struggle to convey the horror evident in many circumstances. (p. 71)

The question of whether an image from the Holocaust, 9/11, or a lynching is more horrifying to view (and for whom), and its larger psychological effects on an individual, largely returns us to the earlier discussion on the nature of evil and how to possibly codify and compare differing events.

Making Sense of the Holocaust

In the years since the Holocaust, many writings and accounts have been offered—by survivors and non-survivors alike—as to how both Jews and society-at-large can make sense of the horrors of the Shoah. Frankl’s (1959) highly celebrated “Man’s Search for Meaning” offers both insight into his own psychological experience as a Concentration Camp survivor but also his theories on the importance of searching for meaning in life; his analysis remains a particularly optimistic and hopeful suggestion that meaning can be found (and should be sought) even in the darkest of conditions. However, much of the subsequent literature and related accounts has found that survivors often have spoken of deep, personal pain related to their experiences during the Holocaust (e.g., Langer, 1991). The broad notion that Holocaust survivors, in comparison to peers who did not endure the Holocaust, have faced profound challenges to their psychological adjustment has been well-documented in the research literature; though such survivors frequently exhibit psychological resilience they also tend to exhibit significantly higher levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms (Barel, Van IJzendoorn, Sagi-Schwartz, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2010). At least part of what may fuel such posttraumatic stress in survivors pertains to lasting feelings of anger and hostility (Amir & Lev-Wiesel, 2003). Other studies have shown that survivors have used a variety of coping strategies that may have blends of both positive and negative emotions such as feelings of sadness, loss, and haunting memories but also trying to focus on the positive qualities of life (Mazor, Gampel, Enright, & Orenstein, 1990) and trying to detach oneself from the past trauma while also having a full realization of it (Ayalon, Perry, Arean, & Horowitz, 2007). However, it is generally believed that survivors have largely tried—and have found some success—in trying to make sense of their trauma by fundamentally focusing on beliefs and actions that are prosocial to themselves, their families, and the larger society (Armour, 2010).

In considering the meaning of the Holocaust, while survivors have naturally been emphasized, even amongst this group, there can be unique challenges faced by survivors depending on the specific circumstances related to their experience, such as whether one was a hidden child of the Holocaust (Fossion et al., 2014). Considerable attention has also been given to how survivors may transmit their experiences of Holocaust-related trauma to their offspring in both conscious and unconscious ways such that survivors and their offspring often have to work to understand and cope with the trauma that occurred to them and their lives which is also infused with their family and religious and cultural identity (e.g., Bar-On, 1998). More recent research has shown that such trauma may even be transmitted via biogenetic pathways that are, in part, influenced through epigenetic influences that change gene expression (e.g., Bowers & Yehuda, 2016); for instance, compared with controls, the offspring of Holocaust survivors showed a different pattern of gene encoding, which, in turn, was associated with a propensity for greater psychological vulnerability (Yehuda et al., 2016). Earlier research on the impact of the Holocaust for survivors primarily focused on the possible ill effects on internalizing parental and familial trauma (Solkoff, 1981); more recent work has suggested that such traumatic family histories may actually strengthen parent–child bonds (Mazor & Tal, 1996). Although the offspring of survivors may not necessarily show overt anger toward their parents, Holocaust-related frustrations and tensions often exist in both spoken and unspoken ways (Wiseman, Metzl, & Barber, 2006). To the degree that offspring of Holocaust survivors have shown difficulties with the expression of anger, it appears to be more focused on problems with inhibition and internalization of hostile feelings rather than lashing out at others per se (Gangi, Talamo, & Ferracuti, 2009).

Zahava Solomon (1995) offers an intriguing analysis as to why both the mental health of survivors and the larger psychological impact of the Holocaust largely was left unanswered for several decades since the end of World War II. Many of those reactions centered on how survivors perceived themselves and were perceived by others. To both Jewish survivors and non-survivors, there was an initial desire to not dwell on the trauma of the Holocaust, in part, due to a concern to not portray an image that Jews showed weakness or passivity during that time. However, other subsequent events helped to reestablish the urgency of examining the impact of the Holocaust including the 1961 Eichmann trial and the 1967 and 1973 Israeli Wars. Both of these events highlighted the past traumas and triumphs of the Jewish people particularly when facing existential threats of existence. And, yet, Solomon (1995) concludes her analysis with some degree of sorrow:

It seems that the fragmentation that exists in the scientific literature on this subject is yet another manifestation of the ambivalence and even denial of the trauma victims suffering and the universal human tendency of avoidance and alienation that survivors repeatedly experience. (p. 227)

Some of the challenges in understanding the larger meaning of the Holocaust become increasingly complex when seeking to understand its larger contemporary significance to society today, with particular attention to its significance to Jews today (E. D. Miller, 2014). The late historian Peter Novick (1999) argued in The Holocaust in American Life that American Jews, in particular, place too much emphasis on the Holocaust. He suggests that this is regrettable in two basic respects: First, it causes Jews to dwell too much on the negativity of the Holocaust as a central form of identity and also it does not really serve as an appropriate means for reflection insomuch that the Holocaust as an event was the result of a very unique combination of factors that produced this genocide. However, a 2013 Pew research survey (Pew Research Center, 2013) of American Jews found the single-most essential part of being Jewish was “remembering the Holocaust.” Furthermore, Vollhardt (2013) found experimental evidence for greater prosocial responses from Jewish participants in regards to outgroup victims when Holocaust-related themes were salient. Much greater research is needed to ascertain how larger populations may perceive or understand the Holocaust to be relevant today in both a general and personal sense. Likewise, much greater attention is needed with respect to how (if at all) Jews incorporate the Holocaust into their self-identity.


The Holocaust remains one of the most difficult yet important areas to study. Although psychology has and should continue to offer perspective into how one of history’s worst acts were able to be committed, the field of psychology can only offer limited insight insomuch that, as a historical and exceptionally complex event featuring grotesque violence, the study of the Holocaust may perhaps be best understood with an interdisciplinary perspective. Of course, we cannot go back in time and study precisely how individuals reacted to Hitler. Although we can, as one experiment did, ask whether individuals would personally kill Hitler if they could (Friesdorf, Conway, & Gawronski, 2015). More to the point, although we can ask individuals to categorize evil and senseless violence—particularly in the context of the Holocaust—individuals will invariably disagree as how to do so. For instance, when U.S. President Barack Obama lamented about the “senseless violence” of the Holocaust, a commentator from a conservative publication took issue with the term “senseless” given that the Nazis knew what they were doing (Johnson, 2013). Perhaps though this criticism could be considered from two equally reasonable views: That is, while there was a sensible logic to the Holocaust (from the perspective of Nazis and their sympathizers), when we consider the total brutality of the Holocaust today, the violence that ensued truly in so many ways remains profoundly challenging to comprehend today. We do know that the Holocaust still to this day has had a devastating impact on the worldwide Jewish population: Demographic estimates suggest that the worldwide Jewish population today could be twice as large if the Holocaust never occurred (Ilany, 2009). However, some counterfactual analyses of history have suggested that perhaps had the Holocaust had never occurred, American Jews (at least) may not have enjoyed as fruitful an existence as they do today; though such analyses are inherently speculative, it has been argued that the Holocaust fostered a sense of empowerment and activism in American Jews (which was the largest cohort of Jews in the world immediately following the Holocaust)—both within American society itself and support for Israel and Jewish causes—that might not have necessarily happened without the occurrence of the Holocaust (Ghert-Zand, 2015).

Perhaps what is so haunting—and horrific—to consider is what actually occurred to Jews during the Holocaust and the degree to which it occurred. At some level, suffering is suffering. Whether we consider America’s troubled history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and lynchings to terroristic or other (seemingly) random acts of violence, we cannot downplay such acts of suffering. Yet, the Holocaust clearly shows that individuals truly are capable of committing wanton acts of violence on a large, devious scale without any regard for the particulars of the victims as individuals. In that respect, it is also troubling that popular media culture often seeks to portray “Nazi Zombies” perhaps as a way to face previous and current anxieties (e.g., Webley, 2015). Such depictions likely serve to depict Nazis as monstrous boogeymen rather than seemingly ‘normal’ individuals who have had either ignored, grew indifferent, or encouraged violence, hatred, and genocide during the Nazi era; moreover, such images might allow us to erroneously conclude that individuals today are incapable of showing similar destructive behaviors under certain circumstances.

Another critical aspect of this article involved a consideration of the publicly available photographs and videos that have documented the destruction of the Holocaust with particular emphasis on their ever-greater prevalence on the Internet. This article has highlighted some of the potential benefits and challenges of this reality. If nothing else, these images allow us to remember that those who died in the Holocaust really did have vibrant lives and it also forces us to try to comprehend that they died under some of the most unimaginable conditions possible. If we examine these images, what might seem unimaginable can at least be somewhat better understood.