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Doctoral Thesis on Psychologists in Concentration Camps

In mid-May, Frank Wiedemann came to persue research in the archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen for his dissertation. For three years the historian has been investigating the subject of “Psychologists in concentration camps – Methods and Strategies of Survival”. “As I can find documents here on all concentration camps, the ITS plays a pivotal role in my research work”, said the 29-year-old.

In his doctoral thesis, Wiedemann concerns himself with the question whether psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists – subsumed under the umbrella term of psychologists – were able to develop profession-specific strategies of survival in the concentration camp. “It is my understanding that their profession allowed psychologists to look through and grasp the methodology of the principle “substituting men by numbers” as it was forced on the inmates of concentration camps”, Wiedemann explains his thesis. Did their knowledge of the mechanism behind that dehumanization and “numeralization” process enable them to protect or shield themselves better than the camp’s “laity”? The second question he raises follows from his first one, i.e. he wonders whether therapists trained to deal with unscrupulous persons prone to violence were capable of developing forms of conduct and behaviour different from those of non-psychologists in dealing with notoriously difficult “Kapos” or SS guard-men.

At the ITS, 29-year-old Wiedemann did name checks for Jewish and non-Jewish psychologists – among them the well-known psychoanalysts Viktor Frankl, Ernst Federn and Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim, born in Vienna in 1903, was incarcerated in concentration camp Dachau and deported to concentration camp Buchenwald later on because he was a Jew. Here he met another Viennese, Ernst Federn, who had been sent to concentration camp Buchenwald for being a member of the Communists’ party. After the end of the National Socialists’ persecution regime, the two analysed their experience of the inmates’ excessive strain condition in the concentration camps and made it public in essays proving to be indispensable source material for Wiedemann’s dissertation today.

“So far I have not been able to find the clear trace of any common academic education-specific strategy of survival“, Wiedemann summarises his findings. “What can be proved without doubt, though, is that the single psychologists did apply individual strategies of survival which were, in fact, rooted in their profession or could be derived from their specific academic education.”