Bettelheim’s ambivalence toward the helpfulness of his Freudian psychoanalytic outlook in the concentration camp

It is appropriate to begin with the ambivalent reflections of Bettelheim, the only psychoanalytic thinker/survivor that I am aware of who directly raises the issue under investigation in this chapter. Bettelheim struggles with the limitations of psychoanalysis in helping him and other inmates “survive as human beings” in the camps (1960, p. 16). Moreover, Bettelheim has been regarded by many as the embodiment of the “European intellectual.” He received a classical education at the University ofVienna and was well-versed in literature, history, sociology, mythology, and the humanities of Freud (Fischer, 1991, p. 163).11

In The Informed Heart, Bettelheim defines psychoanalysis before he indicates which aspects of his psychoanalytic framework were useful to him while incarcerated at Dachau and Buchenwald. He notes that technically

psychoanalysis is really at least three different things: a method of observation, a therapy, and a body of theories on human behavior and personality structure. They are valid in descending order, the theory of personality being the weakest link of a system quite in need of revision.

(1960, p. 19)

Bettelheim further points out that as a personal method of observation, psychoanalysis:

more than proved its value and was most helpful to me. It gave me a deeper understanding of what may have gone on in the unconscious of prisoners and guards, an understanding that on one occasion may have saved my life, and on other occasions let me be of help to some of my fellow prisoners, where it counted (ibid., pp. 19—20). Without the understanding gained from psychoanalysis I would not have been able to comprehend what the concentration camp did to people, nor why.

(1979, p. 107)

Such understanding was “psychologically reconstructive” for Bettelheim in the camps, in that part of his “old psychoanalytic system of mastery” was saved, his “belief in the value of rational examination” (1979, p. 13). For Bettelheim, the strength of psychoanalysis in the concentration camp was as an “instrument of understanding”: “The explanatory value of psychoanalysis is beyond question, always” (Fisher, 1991, p. 167).

In contrast, however, Bettelheim also has serious reservations about psychoanalysis as a body of theories explaining human behavior and a personality structure that could adequately comprehend inmate behavior in the camps. He makes the point that psychoanalytic theory and the views on personality that derive from it were “inadequate to explain fully what happened to the prisoners” (1960, pp. 18—19). Bettelheim reasons that “outside of its particular frame of reference”—the uniquely controlled context of the analysts consultation room—psychoanalysis cannot explain human behavior unless it is modified to take into consideration radically changing social environments. Thus, Bettelheim believes that psychoanalysis “distorted” the meaning of the ways in which individuals survived and maintained their humanity amidst the radically changing social environment of the concentration camps (ibid.).

In contrast to the aforementioned example of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were supposedly “extremely neurotic or plainly delusional,” those persons who, according to psychoanalytic theory, should have endured best under the severity of the camp experience were often the first to succumb to the extreme stress. Behavior in the camps could not be explained by an inmate’s personal history and his previous personality, by “those aspects of personality” that, at the time, seemed important in then-current “psychoanalytic thinking” (1960, p. 17). Bettelheim points out that this conclusion emanates from his own disappointment with psychoanalysis as a self-sustaining frame of reference in the camps. “Other aspects of psychoanalysis, the introspection, the self-criticism, are not very useful in an extreme situation” (Fisher, 1991, p. 167).

There seems to be a tension in Bettelheim’s relationship to his psychoanalytic framework, especially as it relates to the question of its usefulness to him in his struggle to survive and “remain human” in the camps, to make his suffering sufferable. On the one hand, as already quoted, Bettelheim says that psychoanalysis “proved its value and was most helpful” to him,“that on one occasion [it] may have saved” his life. On the other hand, he says that it offered “no suggestion or help toward the solution of how to survive and survive halfway decently in the camps.” Perhaps Bettelheim’s comments refer to his earlier distinction between psychoanalysis as a method of observation, as he calls it, and a theory of human behavior and personality structure. For example, Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic training and mode of understanding may have helped him maneuver effectively against an individual prison guard, but as a general theoretical framework for understanding his overall predicament and how to survive and “remain human” in the camps, it may have been largely unhelpful. Similarly, Bettelheim may have found aspects of his psychoanalytic framework helpful in observing the behavior of his fellow inmates, but the theory, as a master narrative, as the “key to all human problems,” as he described it, he found severely lacking.

One important reason Bettelheim felt that classical psychoanalysis was inadequate to explain what had happened to the camp inmates was that it did not give enough theoretical importance to the powerful influence of the social environment in changing the individual. Eventually, he did realize that psychoanalysis as a treatment modality is not the most potent influence in fostering personality change. Rather, an extreme environment, such as the camps, could more invasively and swiftly shape the person, for better or worse. Further, this realization dramatically altered his previous view that only personal changes in man, in his subjectivity, can effect changes in society. He explains:

My experience in the camps taught me, almost within days, that I had gone much too far in believing that only changes in man could create changes in society. I had to accept that the environment could, as it were, turn personality' upside down, and not just in the small child, but in the mature adult too. If I wanted to keep it from happening to me, I had to accept this potentiality of the environment to decide where and where not to adjust, and how far. Psychoanalysis, as I understood it, was of no help in this all important decision ...We should never again be satisfied to see personality' change as proceeding independent from the social context.

(1960, pp. 15,37)12

For Bettelheim, psychoanalysis could not adequately' address the dramatic influence of the environment on an inmates personality, and psychoanalytic theories were inadequate to explain what constituted a well-integrated personality within the camps. Nor was what would have been considered a well-integrated personality by psychoanalytic criteria be predictive of who could withstand or adapt to the onslaught of the camp environment and remain human.

Bettelheim believes that the main reason a psychoanalytic frame of reference was not helpful in his struggle to remain human in the camps was because of its emphasis on “what ... [goes] wrong in people s lives” and on “what can be done to correct the mishaps.” He further says that this has always been the domain of psychoanalysis and notes that this is entirely appropriate. However, psychoanalysis “does not offer a theory' of personality giving positive guidance toward the good life” (ibid.,p. 25).

Psychoanalysis emphasizes the pathological and tends to neglect the positive (after all, most people come to analysis and other forms of psychotherapy because they are experiencing mental distress). In the camps, the issue was not how to rid oneself of one’s distorted pathology, but rather how to identify and draw from one’s strengths in order to behave in a manner that enhanced physical and spiritual survival. If pathology is one’s frame of reference for human action, the camp inmate had little direction in helping him determine what to do. Bettelheim says:

Psychoanalysis is the best method for uncovering and understanding the hidden in man, but by no means an especially good tool for understanding man in his entirety, least of all for understanding what makes for “goodness” or “greatness” in him. The conclusion then seems warranted that while psychoanalysis can explain the psychological upheaval, the pathology that got something started, it is much less successful in explaining why and how, from such starts, positive developments take place.

(1960, p. 27)13

What this could have meant for a camp inmate is that if he were lodged in a psychoanalytic perspective, his ability to sustain himself as a person would have been strained, since his frame of reference offered very little helpful direction on how to behave. In the camps, the way a man acted, rather than why he acted a certain way, became of prime importance. It also altered how the inmate saw himself and acted throughout his ordeal. Bettelheim observes:

Only dimly at first, but with even greater clarity, did I also come to see that soon how a man acts can alter what he is.Those who stood up well in the camps became better men, those who acted badly soon became bad men; and this, or at least so it seemed, independent of their past life history and their former personality' make-up, or at least those aspects of personality that seemed significant in psychoanalytic thinking.

(ibid.,pp. 16—17)

Further, in the camps, the psychoanalytic view that the unconscious processes underlying an action were equal in importance to the overt behavior was not tenable. As Bettelheim indicates:

It just would not do under conditions prevailing in the camps to view courageous, life-endangering actions as an outgrowth of the death instinct, aggression turned against the self, testing the indestructibility of the body, megalomaniac denial of danger, histrionic feeding of one’s narcissism or whatever category the action would have to be viewed from in psychoanalysis. These and many other interpretations have validity in terms of depth psychology or the psychology of the unconscious, and they' certainly did apply'. Only' viewing courageous behavior by' a prisoner within the spectrum of depth analysis seemed ludicrously beside the point. So while psychoanalysis lost nothing as far as it went, it went unexpectedly, and in terms of my expectations, shockingly short of the mark.

(1960, p. 17)

Bettelheim thus highlights what he thinks are the deficiencies of Freudianbased psychoanalysis in terms of what it does not or cannot adequately take into account, chiefly the social world and the individuals strengths and positive attributes. In the next section, by contrasting the believers, mainly devout Jews, and the psychoanalytic intellectual, I hope to illuminate what individual and group resources, in particular, what resources rooted in believers used to remain human, especially strongly felt, flexibly and creatively applied, transcendentpointing moral beliefs and values that are primarily other-directed, other-regarding and other-serving, to make their suffering sufferable, resources that were in most instances not accessible to the psychoanalyst. Indeed, Buber and Marcel’s believing humanism resonates with much that is in the next section, including their stated and implied criticisms of psychoanalysis, qua symbolic world.

Some differences between the psychoanalytic intellectual and the believer in response to the Nazi assault14

Self-transcendence in the face of suffering and death

In his masterpiece, At the Mind’s Limits, subtitled “Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities,”Jean Amery writes:

Whoever is, in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself. He is not captive of his individuality; rather he is part of a spiritual continuity that is interrupted nowhere, not even in Auschwitz.

(1980, p. 14)

Primo Levi elaborated on this point when he described “the saving force” of the believers faith:

Their universe was vaster than ours, more extended in space and time, above all more comprehendible, they had a key and point of leverage, a millennial tomorrow so that there might be a sense to sacrificing themselves, a place in heaven or on earth where justice and compassion had won, or would win in a perhaps remote but certain future: Moscow, or the celestial or terrestrial Jerusalem. Their hunger was different from ours. It was a Divine punishment or expiation, or votive offering [consecrated in accomplishment of a vow], or the fruit of capitalist putrefaction. Sorrow, in them or around them, was decipherable and therefore did not overflow into despair.

(1986, p. 146)

As I will elaborate shortly, for the devout Jew, his self-transcending belief had a very specific form, as it was lodged in a passionately felt, direct relation to the eternal/Absolute Thou, to God (for Buber and Marcel, the symbol of the eternal/Absolute Thou respectively). His God evoked devotion and worship, and perhaps, most importantly, He commanded ethical conduct, responsibility for the other, as prescribed in the sacred texts. Moreover, the devout Jew’s suffering was to be understood and responded to in terms of his love and awe of God, who was characterized by inexhaustible mystery and sacredness, radical alterity, compassion, and justice. This point was expressed by the Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (cited in Buber, 1963, pp. 81—82), whose words convey this animating feature of the devout Jew’s capacity to make his suffering sufferable via his heartfelt, dialogic relation to the eternal/ Absolute Thou: “Master of the universe. I do not know what questions to ask. I do not expect You to reveal Your secrets to me. All I ask is that You show me one thing—what this moment means to me and what You demand of me. I do not ask why I suffer. I ask only this: Do I suffer for Your sake?” (Rabinowicz, 1982, p. 94).

For the devout Jew, at the deepest level of the self, God was an intimate presence, an exemplary other, a partner in the never-to-be finished work of creation and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Though at times the eternal/ Absolute Thou was experienced as enigmatic and ambiguous, the Holy and Blessed One participated in the pain and suffering of His creatures, of Israel and of individual Jews (Buber emphasized this point in his biblical studies, and Marcel also described divine empathy, the fact that the Absolute Thou suffers in human suffering, perhaps the most, as it says in Psalms 91:15: “I will be with him in trouble”).This dialogical partnership in suffering, in which God is concerned and implicated in the fate of His people, is injured by their pain and suffering and is liberated by their redemption, in part, constituted the divine pathos as Heschel called it, from which the devout Jew experienced, understood and, to some extent, transcended his particular suffering (Wolf, 2004, pp. 303-304). As Eigen noted, “God lacks us as we lack God. We seek each other, not only to fill up, but to live the lacks we are” (1998, p. 239).

Does the psychoanalytic intellectual have a similar ability to transcend the extreme situation by virtue of his psychoanalytic thinking and experience? First, it should be noted that Freudian psychoanalysis (and all other schools of thought) claims to be anti-ideological; it sees itself as not having its own distinct Weltanschauung (worldview). As Alan Bass has indicated, for Freud, to seek out or create a Weltanschauung is anti-psychoanalytic,15 it goes against the basic thrust of psychoanalysis, in that for Bass, following Freud, it cannot be systematic. Philosophers, theologians, and psychotics, according to Freud, strive towards systematicity, but psychoanalysis should not, in part because it fundamentally concerns itself with “unconscious energic processes” that by definition are contradictory, paradoxical and ambiguous, and therefore must challenge our habitual conscious patterns of organizing data. For Bass, like Freud, to seek out or create a Weltanschauung is to succumb to an “illusory wish fulfillment” (Bass, 1998, p. 412). Buber and Marcel’s belief that thematization and conceptualization suppress and possess the other, including the otherness of the eternal/ Absolute Thou, and their non-systematic philosophies that emphasize “situated involvement” (i.e.,“the human subject is a being-in-a-situation” (Sweetman, 2008, pp. 33,32)) and their highly personal writing styles, are to some extent in harmony with the anti-systematicity of psychoanalysis.

The implications of such a psychoanalytic viewpoint could be catastrophic for the camp inmate, for it rejects the very notion of the desirability of an “all-embracing,” coherent “fabric of meaning[s]” “that comprehends him and all of his experiences” and by its very nature involves “a transcendence of individuality” (Berger, 1967, p. 54).Without an ideologically informed overarching universe of meaning, including strongly felt, flexibly, and creatively applied, transcendent-pointing moral beliefs and values (that are primarily other-directed, other-regarding and other-serving) that are meant to guide a person and are believed by the individual to be absolute, psychoanalytic inmates were seriously limited in their ability to make sense of and endure their nightmarish situation. Amery remarks that, for the believer, “the grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or capitalist decay. A beating or death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom” (Amery, 1980, p. 13).

In contrast, psychoanalysts have no transcending concepts that can transport them to a different dimension of the spirit, or that can protect them from the extreme situation by radically altering the meaning of their suffering. To the psychoanalyst, religion and politics, at least the type that we are referring to as they relate to the camp inmates, are an “admirable and redeeming illusion, but an illusion nonetheless” (Hanly, 1993, p. 17).16 As Charles Hanly points out, “Psychoanalysis finds itself at odds with ideologies because they are governed by visionary ideas and values that are exempted from critical investigation” (ibid.). From the point of view of Buber and Marcel, this is a self-serving overstatement, for there are those that hold the aforementioned “illusions” and “visionary ideas and values,” such as religious ones, but do so in a non-ideological manner, as typically understood, that continually demand rigorous analysis and reasoned argumentation on the way to a leap to faith and a way of life linked to sacred realms and forces. Moreover, an ideology can be judged as bad or good, it is “a set of cultural beliefs, values and attitudes that underlie and thereby to some degree justify and legitimate either the status quo or movements to change” (e.g., White racism and gender oppression versus the

Green movement and radical feminism) (Johnson, 1995, p. 137).17 Finally, both Buber and Marcel would regard Hanly s comments as a questionable form of “psychologism,” for he does not deal with the ontic realm of human existence and therefore, reduces cosmic phenomena to purely psychic ones. This is based on Hanly believing that his perspective has epistemic superiority' on such matters.

While psychoanalysis has certain ideological aspects, such as its orthodoxies, dogmatic creeds, and worldviews that put forth a version of the human condition, Hanly’s view more closely approaches the core of psychoanalysis. For while there is greater tolerance for theoretical pluralism within psychoanalysis, there is distinct sense that the different theories or schools of thought represent radically different perspectives that have their staunch ideologues, in part, because as Greenberg and Mitchell noted, “Psychoanalytic models rest upon ... irreconcilable claims concerning the human condition” (and therefore psychopathology and treatment) (1983, p. 404).Thus, psychoanalysts could not generate their own enduring and enabling “illusions” by' drawing from the psychoanalytic framework. Not even the immortal unconscious could redeem them, for they were too tied to “reality” as they construed it.This particular way of constructing reality is one that is, according to Amery, decidedly' different from that of the believer. In the camps, he implies, this may' have made the difference between sustaining oneself as a person and surrendering to Nazi barbarism. Says Amery,

He [the believer] is both estranged from reality and closer to it than the unbelieving comrade. Further from reality' because in his Finalistic attitude he ignores the given contents of material phenomenon and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future; but he is also closer to reality because for just this reason he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him and thus can strongly influence them. For the unbelieving person, reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits; under favorable ones it is material for analysis. For the believer, reality is clay that molds, a problem that he solves.

(1980, p. 14)

As Geertz points out in another context (1973), in contrast to the believer the psychoanalytic intellectual “questions the realities of everyday' life out of an institutionalized skepticism which dissolves the worlds givenness into a swirl of probabilistic hypotheses” (p. 112). However, say's Geertz, the religious perspective questions everyday reality in terms of a “wider, non-hypothetical” truth (ibid.). “Detachment” and “analysis,” the watchwords of the psychoanalytic intellectual, are replaced by “commitment” and “encounter,” if you will, subjectivity (ibid.). It is “the imbuing of a certain specific complex of symibols—of the metaphysic they formulate and the style of life they recommend—with a persuasive authority which, from an analytic point of view, is the essence of religious action” (ibid.). In the camps, this meant that religious inmates had the symbolic capacity to transform their reality, at least to some extent and episodically, into something other than the dehumanizing reality. Through their faith, including the rituals that they participated in, frequently in a communal context, they had the ability to move beyond the realities of everyday life to more transcendent realities that, says Geertz, corrected and completed the painful realities of the camp.

In contrast, psychoanalytic intellectuals were lodged in a more commonsense mode of experiencing the world. This, says Geertz, involves “a simple acceptance of the world, its objects, and its processes as being just what they seem to be,” even after they are coated with a psychoanalytic gloss (ibid., p. 111). Such a view, with its “pragmatic motive,” that is, “the wish to act upon the world so as to bend it to one’s practical purposes, to master it, or when that proves impossible, to adjust to it,” does not allow psychoanalytic intellectuals to fuse together “the world as lived and the world as imagined” into one world under “a single set of symbolic forms” (as a religious person does by means of religious ritual), thus transforming their consciousness into another mode of existence (ibid., p. 112). Unlike religious inmates, the psychoanalytic intellectuals did not have the symbolic capacity to place the proximate acts in ultimate meaning-giving, affect-integrating, and action-guiding contexts and, in so doing, decisively alter the Nazi landscape. Devout Jews viewed Nazi brutality' against the background of The Fall of Jerusalem and other Jewish calamities which, though it does not adequately explain the brutality, at least places it in a moral, cognitive, and affective context. The devout Jews’ beliefs tended to render their experience intelligible and within cognitive understanding, at least to some degree. Indeed, Buber and Marcel would agree with Sartre, that “a lucid view of the darkest situation is already, in itself, an act of optimism,” for it suggests that the situation is thinkable (1965, p. 289).

For example, Amery notes that in the camps the believers and non-believers had very' little or nothing to do with one another. Religious and political comrades, says Amery,“paid no attention to us, be it in tolerance, in the willingness to help, or in anger.‘You must realize one thing,’ a practicing Jew once told me, ‘that here your intelligence and y'our education are worthless. But I have the certainty that our God will avenge us’” (1980, p. 14).The point is that such inmates, mainly through their meaning-giving, affect-integrating, and actionguiding relationship with the eternal/Absolute Thou, “transcended themselves and projected themselves into the future. They were no windowless monads; they' stood open, wide open onto a world that was not the world of Auschwitz” (ibid.). Psychoanalytic intellectuals could not derive a similar conceptual capacity from their psychoanalytic thinking and experience.

For the Freudian, and most other psychoanalysts lodged in different versions of psychoanalysis, life has a tragic dimension. Hostility, aggression, and self-destructiveness are inevitable, as is death. In fact, Freud indicates in his formulation of the death instinct that the purpose of life is death. For Freud, death is absolute. Since the individual knows for sure that he or she is going to die one day, the crucial question becomes how one relates to the inevitability of one’s death. Does one face up to it or does one seek cover inside a form from this existential fact? How that is to be accomplished is difficult to imagine, but I think that for the skeptical psychoanalytic intellectual, accepting the inevitability of one’s death entails recognizing that this world is all we have and that our only reasonable option is to make the best use of the time we do have. This results from viewing the world as a wall rather than a gate, which is the view of the devout Jew.

The approach has its obvious limitations within the context of the concentration camp in that it does not allow psychoanalytic intellectual inmates to “lose themselves” in a meaning-giving, affect-integrating and action-guiding transcending symbolic world. Thus, their terror can be overwhelming. That is, if the terrifying circumstances one is in are unthinkable, if we feel we are lost in a sudden, massive and decisive maze of grotesque happenings, and we cannot dissociate ourselves from it, at least in our mind, and maintain some kind of observational stance, we are not able to transcend the grotesque happenings and become resolute about how to respond, even if the decisions we face are desperate (Sartre, 1965,p. 289).

The situation was quite different for the devout Jew. For example, a religious Jew could draw comfort from the doctrine of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of the Divine Name, often through martyrdom. This notion and behavioral instruction acted as a guide for Jewish responses to crisis and catastrophe (Huberband, Gurock, & Hirt, 1987). In the camps, the belief that one’s death in some way sanctified God served to diminish the inmate’s death panic by giving an other-worldly meaning and focus to his or her death. The belief that he would be rewarded in the world-to-come for his sacrifice and that there would be some kind of Divine retribution against his enemies reassured and comforted the devout Jew in the face of his death. Such religious Jews did not feel that they were merely passive victims in the face of Nazi assault. They did not wish to die, but their capacity to interpret their death as a holy act of Kiddush Hashem, as the ultimate expression of their responsibility to their beloved God, indicates choice and action. They were able to will meaning into their suffering and death. By anchoring their identity in a cosmic reality, religious inmates were, to some extent, protected from the terror associated with anticipating and facing death. In contrast to psychoanalytic intellectuals, devout Jews and other religious inmates were better fortified against many of the dehumanizing Nazi realities. Buber and Marcel both had other-worldly aspects to their believing humanism, though the latter was always tied to a “situated involvement” (i.e., it is via an embodied context that the person is in contact with reality and enmeshed in it (Sweetman, 2008, pp. 33,32)) that calls to mind Amery’s description of the devout Jew’s relationship to reality, he was “both estranged from reality and closer to it than the unbelieving comrade” (Amery, 1980, p. 14).