The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it

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If the results of a recent public awareness survey are any indication, then we appear to be losing our collective knowledge of the Holocaust. Julie Zauzmer reports for the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

. . . Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted the study, which interviewed 1,350 American adults.

Granted, it’s only one poll. But if the results are even close to representative of the overall population, then we should be filled with alarm and despair. As I wrote in 2014:

Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. . . . As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read Night: We need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

Yes, to know about the Holocaust is to look into the darkest side of humanity. And if we don’t understand that side, then we cannot build a world that knowingly resists and opposes those instincts and behaviors and opts for something much better.

Relevance to the workplace

In previous articles I have made my case for why an understanding of the Holocaust can help us to comprehend the worst instances of bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. I have stitched together pieces of two past blog posts (here and here) to reiterate that position:

***

Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying? . . . I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. . . . Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

***

Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

***

Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

***

I subscribe to the theory that most cases of severe, repeated, targeted workplace bullying originate with a nasty individual. Whether that person can be clinically classified as a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist matters less than whether he possesses the simple capacities to treat someone abusively and to enlist others to be of assistance. More often than not, the abuser needs others to help with the dirty work. For example, if the intended coup de grâce is to eliminate the target from the workplace and perhaps to destroy her livelihood and career, the bully typically requires assistance to manipulate the employment record of a competent, even outstanding worker to make her look like a miscreant.

***

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target.

***

When, say, human resources officers and employment lawyers knowingly — or perhaps with a sort of deliberate ignorance — side with the abusers to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime. These professional handmaidens are more than simple bystanders looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target.

It’s about people and systems

In other words, we’re talking about a blend of individual actors and systems that enable them. The Holocaust may have been driven by Hitler and the smaller circle around him, but they needed the active cooperation of thousands of others to create a systematized killing machine, not to mention millions of others willing to look the other way.

The same applies to toxic workplaces. Here’s what I wrote last year:

***

. . . (W)orkplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

***

Let’s educate ourselves

The possibilities are many, but let me offer a few recommendations for those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust.

I just finished watching the 2005 BBC mini-series, “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’,” a six-episode mix of dramatizations, historical footage, and interviews. It masterfully pulls together the broader historical contexts and the often shocking, heartbreaking narrative details. It requires less than five hours of your time, and right now you can stream it on Netflix.

In terms of short memoirs, Wiesel’s Night comes out to less than 150 pages and can be finished during an evening or two. Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning also recounts his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and examines how they fueled his pioneering work as a psychiatrist.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both the epic novels and the lengthy mini-series adaptations, are compelling fictional portrayals of the WWII era, with a heavy emphasis on the Nazis and the Holocaust.

I confess that I’ve read only parts of these books, but for those who want to go deep into the details, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust are among the many favorably reviewed historical treatments of the era.

There are plenty of other good sources, but regardless of how we learn about this signature event in human history, the important thing is to comprehend and remember.

8 responses

  1. As it was happening, I researched workplace mobbing and found an article comparing it to the Holocaust. I was startled, and reflected upon the advise about getting out before you are killed. This settled in a very frightening way, that the mobbing really did feel like a group of people trying to destroy and kill you. It sounds so dramatic, unless you are going through it and realizing the shocking truth that indeed there is a group of folks that you see every day that are cruelly trying to eliminate you. I found an excellent counselor, published in the subject, who would not take me as a client until I left the mobbing. She said that there is no help as long as you are in it, but only help in the recovery after the escape. Like being in a concentration camp, the only recovery is if you make it out alive, then you have a chance to be whole and heal. All a very scary realization, yet perhaps only able to be considered if it is happening to you. Otherwise sounds overly dramatic or even incomprehensible. Yes, the connection of mobbing and the Holocaust is apt, yet both are largely ignored as not happening or not understanding or caring if it didn’t happen to you. P.S. The ADL is very good about teaching educators to talk to students about the Holocaust. Lots of good books and curriculum, etc. Another side note is that I requested to be transferred for a year to another area and I am here to confirm that bullying exists throughout the school district and bad behavior seems to be acceptable and the norm on many levels. Things are better for me because I do not see the same group of people every day, so the poor behavior, bullying, is not as intense, but it is there. With both adults and students. It’s true, in this college town and upper middle class area, that most students do not know much about the Holocaust, let alone be able to compare it to the way we treat one another. Educators and parents are not talking about it. Being a teacher for a long time, my guess would be that the trend is to protect children from evil, while another parenting trend is not addressing poor behavior. I’ve sat in meetings with parents as their was telling his father off, making paper airplanes and throwing them around, making snotty comments. The parents said nothing. I’ve seen children slap their parents for not answering their question quickly enough. I’ve heard a daughter say, hurry up mom, you are wasting my time, as the mom was talking to me, her teacher, and the parent said nothing. This goes on and on… A lot of parents are not correcting poor behavior let alone teaching their kids of evil in history. Parenting, teaching… people avoiding discomfort while shoveling it out to the people around them.

  2. David, I have often highlighted some of the similarities in the dynamics of hostile workplaces and certain situations during the Holocaust. One of the pages of my website addresses these similarities. Of course the gathering of Jews, the robbing, pillaging, degrees of abuses and, ultimately, the sadism in murdering them is unparalleled to any crime ever committed against humanity.
    My website with a segment on my case against Dana-Farber Cancer Institute : http://www.stopemployerbullying.org.
    My recent article in The Valley Patriot that touches on this topic:

    The Valley Patriot
    Tuesday, April 10, 2018

    The #MeToo Mob Scene – Movement Without A Cause
    By: Aliana Brodmann E. von Richthofen

    On the first day of my job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute I came across a woman clearing out her cubicle in observable humiliation as her co-workers stood by, straining to avoid eye-contact with her. A newcomer and unfamiliar with hostile work environments until my employment at the Cancer Institute, I offered my help. “That’s ok,” she said ” I’m outa here, Paresky is a sadistic psychopath and this place kills more people than it saves. Just hope she’ll find her match one day.”
    Susan Pareksy was VP of Dana-Farber’s Fundraising Department and had just hired me as Senior Writer. I knew enough about human interactions to not take one party’s words for fact without hearing the other side. However, this scenario of employees being ostracized, gas-lighted and isolated to the point of others fearing retribution for socializing with them was to repeat itself frequently. I often remembered Debbie’s parting words until I myself became the target of vicious assaults three years later. No. It wasn’t anything sexual as far as I can tell, though one never knows what really drives someone to relentless acts of depravity against another. But the onslaught of deliberately destructive actions, intended to humiliate and marginalize me were brutal.
    I still live with the aftermath, as do most victims of workplace psycho terror. That’s what I thought about when I read last month’s edition (02/2018) of the German magazine FOCUS, which featured an interview with Meryl Streep, prominent mouthpiece on the #MeToo Mob Scene. When asked by the interviewer:”Where does abuse begin?” Streep couldn’t answer. Finally she said: “I don’t believe that’s the question here.”
    That, however, precisely is and must be the question as the definition of abuse better be understood to aid real victims and before indicting someone of this crime. I for one can tell you exactly when the abuse at Dana-Farber started. The same time I developed heart palpitations in response to being wrongly accused, first for allegedly “snooping in company files,” then being unfairly warned about alleged “poor writing skills,” being excluded from departmental meetings, demoted from” Senior Writer” to “Writer” and generally marginalized, then totally avoided as though I was carrying the bubonic plague.
    No, the abuse wasn’t sexy like an unwanted kiss, slap on the tush or touching (whatever that is) my thigh. None of such vaguely suggestive acts could even come close to the unsettling, hurtful and debilitating assaults I was repeatedly harassed with over the nine months I managed to continue work after addressing Dana-Farber’s racism.
    Victims or those who truly care about real victims can tell you everything you would ever want to know about abuse. It’s deliberate, physical or psychological, meant to inflict pain, shame and harm to the point of destruction. Anything else is a misunderstanding, rudeness, arrogance or other behavior within the varying shades of grey in human discourse. But it is not abuse. And to obscure this reality is denying the crime of actual abuse and hindering the pursuit of it.
    The other question begging to be asked is: Why the #MeToo Mob scene is obsessed with only sexual abuse and not all criminally abusive behavior? Why the focus on this small segment within the large widespread and multipronged crime of capricious predatory conduct that kills the spirit and the body?
    The Hollywood induced limelight on the so-called forward coming brave is so enticing that it has coaxed out all kinds of opportunists with their dog and pony shows. Even Monica Lewinsky popped up again with a new shtick, just to be able to jump on the bimbo bandwagon. Until this moment I had always held great sympathy for this young woman enamored with the dashing President. Always truthfully admitting consent in the affair, which may have even been authentic for Clinton, at least at the onset. After all, he gave her Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the same book of poetry he had gifted Hillary when they were dating. Now Lewinsky claimed doubt whether their affair had been consensual.
    And that’s what’s wrong with this movement that Sean Penn called a “toddler’s crusade” during a recent interview. I can’t be that generous. The harm that psychopathic bosses routinely inflict on employees for no justifiable reason continues. Their victims shrink to remnants of their former selves. Their PTSD symptoms, loss of sleep, general fearfulness and increased lack of self-confidence invading every aspect of their lives as human beings, partners and parents. And yet claims of sexual abuse as colorful as the characters alleging them dominate the media for their salaciousness in our phony Puritan society, while real victims struggle to repair their ravaged lives.
    Recently the New York Times twittered: “In the #MeToo moment woman have spoken. Men have fallen. Corporations have grown nervous. But are workplaces really changing?”
    Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has scores of complaints lodged against it regularly for race-, gender-, whistleblower-, sexual- and disability abuses, while being featured among The most desirable places to work by the Boston Globe. One complainant, a scientist at the Institute, was targeted for questioning the sham of having to set up her lab to appear as though medical research was in progress for a visit of wealthy donors. Nothing sexual, at least not overtly so. But the retaliation was monstrous and she left, a talented scientist, Dana-Farber and medical research, forever.
    For my mother the precipitating event was simply refusal to avert her eyes from a capo who mercilessly beat a fellow victim in the Auschwitz Death Camp. The only thing my mother thought she could get away with to punish the perpetrator. To keep looking. But she had been wrong. You get punished for unflinching observation, as my mother found out when she herself was subsequently beaten for having stared. In fact, it was for staring that I was beaten at Dana-Farber, for refusing to look away. Nothing sexual, at least on the surface, but with plenty of deviant sadism.
    Staring, in fact, is the most harshly punished offense in hostile workplaces. It means you have seen and you know. You are a witness and perceived threat.
    I won’t stop staring until Dana-Farber makes amends with all the victims it abused and starts treating people with dignity. And until The Boston Magazine takes Susan Paresky off its “ 25 Most Influential People in Boston List ” unless it applies to predators, liars and thieves. Please let me know when that happens, – and most of all, when Streep has figured out what abuse is. Or has shut up.
    Copyright Aliana Brodmann E. von Richthofen/The Valley Patriot

  3. And, if you can get hold of it, view the movie Radical Evil, which is a documentary with commentary by expert psychologists and psychiatrists.
    There is a corollary to banal evil, which is banal heroism, for which people can be trained. See the recent HIP (Heroic Imagination Project) led by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, earlier the lead investigator of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment.

    Steve Moffic, M.D.

  4. All of my “targeted” research into the evil of workplace bullying, mobbing, character assassination, or whatever name you would like to pin on this hatred, led me to one German word……….zersetzung.

  5. David,

    On reading this insightful essay, I immediately thought of the work of Janice Harper on mobbing.  J//ust us Justice: The Gentle Genocide of Workplace Mobbing. //Harper compares mobbing to genocide and concludes that victims must flee to survive. While I find that Harper’s analysis of the nature of mobbing is compelling, I hold that society has an obligation to intervene to protect victims of mobbing. We know that such intervention through the legislative process is not easy, perhaps because bullying is such a widely practiced tactic in our society. Harper’s focus on the social dynamics is very important to our understanding of the roots of bullying and mobbing. /Just Us Justice/ is available as a free download: http://janice-harper.com/essays-on-mobbing/ ////

    *Jerry Halberstadt* Coordinator, Stop Bullying Coalition email: Jerry@StopBullyingCoalition.org StopBullyingCoalition.org

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