The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age

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Memoir and Study by Bruno Bettelheim, 1960

In The Informed Heart Bruno Bettelheim examines the interplay between two fundamental issues using his experiences during the Holocaust to highlight this interplay. First he explores changes in personality development and personality integration as a result of life during the machine age. Bettelheim then discusses the nature-versus-nurture debate, emphasizing the inborn internal mechanisms (organismic) from a psychoanalytic perspective as well as the impact of the environment on personality change and development. Bettelheim's experiences in Dachau and Buchenwald form the foundation for much of this argument. Organizationally The Informed Heart is structured such that Bettelheim's theoretical beliefs and ideas form the beginning and ending chapters, with the narrative of his time in the camps comprising the middle sections of the text.

It is difficult to describe Bettelheim's account of his experiences in Dachau and Buchenwald as typical memoir. Rather it reads as an extended research study based on personal descriptions and memories of camp life with accompanying analyses. Bettelheim describes his initiation into the concentration camp experience, including his original transport to Dachau. Faced with overwhelming brutality and personal disorientation, Bettelheim argues that each prisoner had to find ways to survive. Bettelheim states that he drew upon his psychoanalytic training and expertise to reframe his camp experiences as research and to maintain personality integration and provide a rationale for survival.

In 1943 Bettelheim published "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations," an article intended for a professional audience. The narrative chapters of The Informed Heart essentially represent a revision of this earlier work. Thus, psychoanalytic terminology and theoretical constructs are interspersed throughout. Individuals not familiar with these constructs may find parts of the narrative difficult to understand.

Bettelheim, in his analysis of concentration camp life, first discusses the impact of coercion. He focuses principally on the stages of adjustment to the daily life and difficulties in the camp, including an analysis of the social stratification of the camp, differentiation between old and new prisoners, and the Musselmen, or walking corpses. His essential premise is that life in the camps over time reduces the prisoners to the psychological equivalent of children. Behavior changes to infantile dependence on the aggressor or leads to a state of death in life. A chapter examining the psychological defenses to the camp experience follows this discussion. Bettelheim reexamines the role of social stratification in the camps, discusses the process of psychological identification of the prisoner with the SS and Gestapo, and addresses a variety of other defenses such as anonymity and work. Essentially he argues that the prisoner must be informed and aware of the choices being made or the prisoner risks personality disintegration.

As noted previously, Bettelheim claims to have based his analysis on professional expertise and research. It was later learned, however, that Bettelheim had no formal psychological or psychoanalytic training prior to his internment in the camps. Additionally it is highly improbable, considering the condition of concentration camp life, that Bettelheim could have conducted the type of interviews or questioned the number of prisoners at Buchenwald or Dachau that he claimed. Bettelheim may have also misinterpreted situations within the camp to provide evidence supportive of his own hypotheses. For example Bettelheim argues that prisoners begin to identify with and want to become like their captors. He uses as a main source of evidence the desire by prisoners to have old police uniforms. According to Bettelheim the desire to dress in police uniforms demonstrates that the prisoners wish to be like the SS. Survivors, however, reported that the desire to have these uniforms was based on the fact that the old police uniforms were warmer and more resistant to water than the striped prisoner uniform. Thus the acquisition of an old police uniform was motivated by survival needs and not identification with the SS. The motivations behind Bettelheim's exaggerations and misrepresentations are unclear, but they call into question the validity of much of what he has written.

Bettelheim has received much criticism for his argument that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter in the concentration and death camps. Bettelheim emphasizes that few resisted and that little organized active resistance by Jews took place during the Holocaust, both inside and outside of the camps. Unfortunately Bettelheim fails to acknowledge the resistance that took place, the military, political, economic, and physical problems associated with active resistance, the historical precedents of anti-Semitism affecting Jewish response, the limitations of some due to age or infirmity, and the role of passive resistance. His description and blame of the Frank family clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the conditions associated with resistance and rescue in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. In an apparent contradiction Bettelheim provides numerous arguments and rationales for lack of German resistance to Nazism.

—Linda M. Woolf

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The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age

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