Josh Dunigan |||

Legacies of the Third Reich: Concentration Camps and Out-group Intolerance

Jonathan Homola, Miguel M. Periera, and Margit Tavits published a fanastic paper about out-group intolerance and cognitive dissonance. The goal of the paper is to explore some of the down stream consequences that happened to people who were in close proximity to Nazi concentration camps. They argue that there is an increase in out-group intolerance that can only be attributed to this factor. Here are the opening remarks

Why are some individuals and communities less tolerant of out-groups, more xenophobic, and more supportive of radical right-wing parties? Prior work has considered contemporaneous factors when looking for answers to these questions: exclusionary attitudes have been linked to deteriorating economic conditions, globalization, cultural and identity based fears, security threats, and personal characteristics and attributes.

They argue that part of the out-group introlerance has to be partially explained by these coercive institutions.

Concentration camps and cognitive dissonance

The concentration camps in Germany were the manifestation of the state sanctioned racism and hatred. The prisoners at these camps were forced to work, were mistreated, were starved, disease ridden, and we all know of the other horrors that were done including things like medical testing. Most either died or were executed.

Inside of Germany’s borders, there were also concentration camps. A lot of camps were also in conquered territory, but this paper’s focus is on the German ones. The concentration camps were integrated into the local economies and lifestyle. The citizens in these areas were forced to mentally deal with the sight of these extreme violations of human dignity. Due to this, humans usually have to confront prior beliefs and rationalize them with the reality at hand in order to avoid the mental discomfort of your belief’s not matching up with what is going on.

cognitive dissonance : the process by which an individual rationalizes new information that is incosistent with his or her prior beliefs to reduce psychological discomfort stemming from the inconsistency

For example, if you are a person who does not believe we should torture humans and starve them and then you see this happening, you have to reconcile this somehow. Most people are weak and will rationalize it by thinking that they deserve it for reasons such as they’re inferior” or they’re not really human”. If you do not dehumanize and strip them away of their dignity and rights, then you have to live with the discomfort of knowing you are complicit in this atrocity in some way.

In the German concentration camps, these were not hidden from the people. The location of these sights were chosen primarily due to economic reasons, such as proximity to mines and factories. Here is a longer excerpt explaining the nature of the interactions between locals and prisoners.

Most prisoners worked outside the camps in factories, construction projects, farms, or coal mines, and often had to walk to their workplace or use public transport to ge there. This progressive interconnectedness made the camps and their conditions visible to locals. Fro example, Wladimir Ostapenko, a survivor of the Neuengamme concentration camp, explained that a local farmer would regularly pick up the ashes from the crematorium to use as fertilizer. There are also photos that show locals going on family walks naer the camp grounds. Sofsky refers to the fact that locals were often involved in helping capturing escaped prisoners, which suggests further knowledge and contact. Furthermore, local papers were used to spread Nazi propaganda about the camps displaying pictures of typical” subhumans of other races with deformities, and calling for more camps for those with hydrocephalous, cross-eyed, deformed half-Jews, and a whole series of racially inferior types”.

The locals did not still compete or live with the people of the camps after they were gone. The explanation offered for the persistence of this out-group intolerance over time is due to the parents passing on beliefs to the children.

Controlling for other variables

It could be argued that there are other reasons for the fact that the generations of locals after the Nazi regime fell were more intolerant than other Germans, which the authors control for. The authors studied the areas of 10 concentration camps in German territory. These camps were chosen not because of proximity to Jewish populations. Furthermore, these camps were not death camps or transit camps. Death camps were used primarily for the mass slaughter of people, maximizing for amount of people and minimizing time it takes. These camps are the ones primarly known for the horrors of the Nazi party. There was also another type of camp that was called a transit camp. These camps had locations close to rail lines and the large Jewish populations to send the prisoners to other camps. Additionally, these work camps consisted of a large system of subcamps. The subcamps were controlled by the main camp and were in close proximity to them. These subcamps were more closely mixed with local towns. This allowed more mixing of prisoners and locals that would not be seen at other camps.

Another variable they look at is preexisting attitudes about things of locals. The reason is the authors want to make sure that the reason the camps were chosen was not because these people were already the most fervent Nazi supporters, were poor, or close to large Jewish populations which could affect the theory. The results found that the only important factor was proximity for labor and the prior beliefs of the locals had no bearing on the decision making of choosing camp locations. In other words, the people were average German citizens at the time.

How to test the affects of living by concentration camps

Using survey data and historical records such as a census, the authors want to test that as you get closer in distane to these camps, political intolerance, xenophobia, and political behavior can be tested for signs of increased out-group intolerance. The authors accounted for things such as voting records, urbanity (how urban an area is), education level, employment status, unemployment rate, level of support for Nazis, and share of Jewish population in the area.

Some of the the things that were asked to modern day German citizens are

  • Out-group intolerance : How supportive people are of difference races, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and gypsis.
  • Immigrant resentment : Modern Germany has a lot of anger at immigrants, even though the Nazis were not angry at immigrants necessarily.
  • Support for far-right parties : People were asked what political party would you vote for or what one appeals the most to you.

Another survey used asks some more questions related to out-group intolerance

  • Intolerance towards foreigners : some topics were how people felt about foreigners in Germany”, foreigners should have the same rights to social welfare transfers”, is the presence of foreigners an overall advantage or disadvantage for Germany”
  • Intolerance towards Jews : some examples of topics were Jews have too much influence in the world”, the Jews are not fully innocent for their persecution”, and how comfortable would you be with Jewish neighbor”
  • Intolerance towards Muslims : some topics were Islam fits into German society”, Islamic associations/groups should be under state surveilance”, practicing the Islamic faith in Germany should be limited”.


Using all this survey and historical data, they found that people who live closer to former concentration camps were more likely to have more negative views than others about out-groups and support far-right parties.

Relation to American slavery

This, along with other variables such as the economy and whatnot stated above, could explain why the South saw a lot more violent acts of racism during the pre-civil rights era and post-13th amendment. Even post-civil rights, the South continues to be extremely more racist in their politics and society. Additionally, unlike in Germany, black people still live with and compete for jobs in the South, unlike in Germany or at least in those areas around the German camps. However, acts of racism still occur in areas that were not interwoven with slavery. This theory may show, however, why the South still seems to be stuck in pre-civil rights era ways.

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