Exploring Holocaust Survivors’ Post Liberation Delinquency: An Analysis Through an Unexplored Theory of Neutralization of Crime

-By Sanjeet Aggarwal

The Nazi extermination camps of Central Europe, which used to murder over 2.7 million people during the Holocaust, were among the most brutal and barbarous manifestations of human malice and cruelty that anybody could persist through. On detainment by the SS(Schutzstaffel), the prisoners taken in by the Nazi’s went through a literal culling process, wherein young men in fine fettle were segregated from the general mass of children, women and aged men. These men were engaged to carry out forced labour for the Nazi’s, whereas the others were sent off to gas chambers where they were brutally put to death. Oftentimes, the queue in which families stood, waiting for a Nazi guard to determine if they were to be absorbed in the labour camps or be exterminated, was the final time many young men saw their wives, children and mothers. Not only were these men unmindful of the fate their family was to meet, they were also oblivious to the harrowing experiences and the indefinite torturous labour and conditions they were yet to live through. The sanitation and healthcare facilities were non-existent, with the sick being condemned to death to save resources. They were compelled to work 16 hours a day, without shoes or clothes in rough terrains and freezing temperatures, on a meagre piece of bread in the name of food. There was little time for any rest. They had swollen feet and malnutrition due to the exhaustion and were piled onto one another in a small enclosed place to sleep. The workers were also subjected to systematic torture and humiliation by the guards at these death camps. As a result of these conditions, most people selected for work in these camps died after a few weeks or months, and the death rate was extremely high. However, there were a few stout-hearted men who persevered through it all. They were rescued and liberated by the International Covenant of the Red Cross volunteers after the Soviet invasion of Hitler’s territory. This article aims to probe these survivors’ behaviour post-liberation and analyze their delinquent actions in the context of a distinct neutralization theory of crime recently propounded by researcher Emily Bryant, Emilie Brook Schimke, Hollie Nyseth Brehm and Christopher Uggen.

Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and writer, who outlived one of the many Nazi death camps, chronicled his life in these camps and his experience and struggle post-liberation in his seminal work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ He detailed and wrote in-depth about a few of these survivors’ behaviour after being released and set free. He writes, “Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behaviour by their own terrible experiences.”[1]

He recounted how on a walk at the ICMR’s rehabilitation camp he was staying at, one of his compatriots stepped on young stalks and damaged crops, for which Viktor rebuked him[2]. Far from accepting his mistake and apologizing, his friend retorted back with a narration of the misery and harm he had been put through- the gassing of his wife, taking away of his children and the unmerciful labour he had to carry out. After going through such harrowing experiences, the offender claimed that damaging a few stalks is inconsequential, and to be censured for his behaviour is not called for. Viktor recounts another episode where a comrade of his revealed how he craved for blood in his hands and how he desired to mete out vigilante justice to persons he deemed to have wronged him in his lifetime. His defence was based along similar lines; If we had to go through all of this, for no fault of ours, then it is only reasonable that criminals and immoral persons are dealt with likewise. Numerous Yizkor books, written by the Holocaust survivors, also describe such incidents of delinquency by liberated prisoners and their subsequent justification; the injustices and suffering they lived through were so intense that they were morally justified in committing a few minor violations of laws and crimes, without consequent punishment.

It is essential to analyze these justifications and instances of crime in light of well-established neutralization theories of crime before applying them to a recent theory.

Techniques of neutralization are methods by which people who commit illegitimate or illegal acts temporarily neutralize specific values within themselves, which would generally prohibit them from carrying out these acts, such as morality, obligation to abide by the law and so on. This theory was first postulated in the 1950s by David Matza and Gresham Skyes and had five components. In our analysis of the behaviour of Holocaust survivor’s delinquency, the following existing techniques of neutralization are witnessed- 

  1. Relativizing the Norm Violation (Reference to the Sin of Others)– People utilize the technique of relativizing the norm violation when they accept that they have breached a norm but that it is not “that” bad. They compare their actions with those of the others to show that they are not as bad as the others, so their actions can be justified to a certain extent. This accurately depicts the freed survivors’ actions who narrated the atrocities that the Nazi’s committed instead of justifying their unethical activities when apprehended by law enforcement agencies or their peers.
  2. Blaming the Limited Options: The survivors also blamed years of deprivation and loss of family, housing, employment and social life for their helplessness, which led to them committing petty crimes. This is one of the most widespread sociological reasons used by criminals to neutralize their offences and is perceptible in the instances we have detailed in our article.

While these theories help ascertain some of the rationalizations and inner justifications that led to the survivors engaging in violation of laws, they do not do complete justice to these crimes’ peculiar circumstances and psychology. The theory of relativizing the crimes has a general application to many instances. However, the circumstances herein are divergent. The crimes cited as appalling and barbarous to make their violations appear petty were not just general crimes against a third person or entity. They were crimes and atrocities of the highest order, committed against the Holocaust survivors themselves. While a robber might reference the crimes of a murderer against the common public to justify and palliate his wrongdoings, the Nazi’s referenced crimes committed against their own beings to attenuate their subsequent violations of certain laws. This leads us to an atypical scenario where survivors of horrid crimes use their victimhood and suffering as a rationalization for their wrongdoings, stressing how their activities and their consequences pale in comparison to the trauma that they have been through. Researchers Emily Bryant, Emilie Brook Schimke, Hollie Nyseth Brehm and Christopher Uggen theorized a new theory of neutralization of crime, that they apply to the propagators of genoicide. However, the rational and logic applied aptly fits the specific circumstances we have detailed, however with a response not as grave as genocidal perpetration, but petty delinquency. While the Hutus justified their own victimisation an suffering in response to the crimes they committed against the Hutus, the holocaust survivors did the very same, in response to the petty crimes and thievery they engaged in. The nature of targeted discrimination in both these cases and its distinctness from everyday crime is noteworthy. We conclude this article by explaining and theorizing how this modern neuralization theory of crime can be applied to the Nazi survivor’s post-liberation behaviour and provide us with a new perspective to justify their behaviour.

The paper titled ‘Techniques of Neutralization and Identity Work Among Accused Genocide Perpetrators‘ analyses the Hutu war criminals’ statements in defence of committing war crimes against the Tutsis. The statements made by them portrayed themselves as having suffered losses of some kind (e.g., family, friends, or property) or discuss their own victimization or that of their ethnic group when asked about the reasons behind their crimes. This is remarkably analogous to the justifications given by the Holocaust survivors when admonished for their own petty crimes and violations of law. The situations of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the Death Camps of the Nazis in the 1940s are both comparable in certain respects, with the survivors being subject to extensive trauma and deprivations. 

As a result of this, we believe that the extension of the Victimisation Theory of Neutralization to the behaviour of the Holocaust survivors post-war can help better contextualize and understand their behaviour. Their belief and ideas that their petty crimes can be forgiven since the injustices meted out to them have been so gruesome is also of interest to criminal psychology. It can be extended and used to theorize and research the post- abuse crime of many victims of childhood trauma and sexual abuse and how they continue the cycle of oppression and violence by becoming the perpetrators of crime themselves. Moreover, while post the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, the knowledge about criminal psychology and reintegration of victims into the society was not widespread, leading to victims turning to violation of laws, in modern times, there is advanced research about the same. The victimization theory of neutralization can be better applied to different cases of delinquency, especially in the context of survivors of extensive trauma and injustice. Subsequently, psychology and counselling should be utilized to re-integrate these survivors back into society, making sure they do not tread the paths of crime and continue the cycle of oppression instead of becoming valuable and contributing members of their social communities. 

[1] Frankl, Viktor E. Essay. In Man’s Search for Meaning, 84–87. London: Rider Books, 2020.

[2] Frankl, Viktor E. Essay. In Man’s Search for Meaning, 86-88. London: Rider Books, 2020.

[The author is a first year student at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s