Death Camp Testimony and the Social Psychology of Genocide
Postdoctoral Grant Awarded to DIIS Researcher
The Danish Council for Independent Research | Humanities (FKK) recently awarded DIIS researcher Johannes Lang a postdoctoral scholarship. The grant, combined with funding from DIIS, will support a three-year inquiry into the social-psychological features of genocide.
On a theoretical level, the project seeks to probe the disciplinary tensions between history and social psychology and to determine the limits and possibilities of psychological explanation with regard to violent historical events. This will be explored empirically through an analysis of Holocaust testimony from survivors of the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps. Despite the death camps’ integral role in the Holocaust, they remain fairly unknown, often confused with the concentration camps. No social-psychological study and very few historical works have explored these institutions, and published survivor testimony is scarce. A comprehensive social-psychological analysis of accounts from these camps will therefore shed light on an aspect of the Holocaust which has not yet been sufficiently studied by any discipline. In these camps, prisoners were usually given enough food and were allowed to wear civilian clothes; the guards interacted closely with them, knew their names, and forced them to participate directly in the genocidal process.
In a forthcoming article in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Lang (2010) demonstrates why these interactions between prisoners and guards should urge scholars to examine the role of perpetrator-victim dynamics in the social psychology of genocide. Such an investigation, based on archival material located at Yale and the University of Southern California, promises to destabilize currently influential views of genocide as wholly mechanized and dehumanized processes. A study like this also represents a methodological alternative to social psychology’s predominantly experimental approach.