Proximity to Nazi concentration camps in World War II made people more likely to conform to the Reich’s beliefs — and this effect is still fostering xenophobia, political intolerance and radicalisation today, study claims
- US psychologists studied archive, survey and election data from across Europe
- More xenophobia and intolerance was found near concentration camp sites
- Experts believe some citizens near the camps became more intolerant to match
- This shift reduced a form of psychological stress called ‘cognitive dissonance’
- Such values then passed down the generations by parental and peer influence
Proximity to Nazi concentration camps during World War II made people more likely to conform to the Third Reich’s racist and intolerant philosophies, a study claims.
Moreover, these values may be being passed down the generations by parental and peer influence, experts concluded after studying archive, survey and election data.
According to the researchers, the values of individuals near the camps could have been affected via a form of psychological stress known as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
This is the mental discomfort that occurs when one’s beliefs are challenged by contradictory information or values.
For example, someone committed to the values of multiculturalism will experience psychological stress when placed in a xenophobic society.
The researchers argue that those living near concentration camps may have ended up adopting more intolerant beliefs to minimise this mental distress.
The findings may help to explain the resurgence of xenophobia, political intolerance and radical political parties seen today, the team conclude.
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Proximity to Nazi concentration camps during World War II made people more likely to conform to the Third Reich’s racist and intolerant philosophies, a study claims. Pictured, the main gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland (stock image)
In their study, political scientist Jonathan Homola of Rice University in the US and his colleagues analysed recent and historical election results, census data, social surveys and information on the location of Nazi concentration camps.
The researchers were particularly interested in explaining intolerance toward Jews, Muslims and foreigners as well as support for radical right-wing parties.
Although the team focused mainly on Germany, they also considered other parts of Europe — studying, for example, both responses from the German General Social Survey and the European Values Study.
The team found consistent evidence that present-day Germans who live closer to the sites of concentration camps are more likely to exhibit higher levels of xenophobia and be less tolerant of Jews, Muslims and immigrants.
Similarly, they were more likely to support extreme right-wing political parties.
The researchers also found signs of similar associations between such views and concentration camp proximity elsewhere in Europe.
The findings may help to explain the resurgence of xenophobia, political intolerance and radical political parties seen today, the team conclude. Pictured, supporters of the far-right and neo-Nazi party ‘Der Dritte Weg’ (The Third Way) march in Plauen, Germany, on May 1, 2019
‘We believe that individuals living near concentration camps during World War II were more likely to conform to the beliefs system of the regime,’ Professor Homola said, noting that the Nazis increasingly integrated the camps into local economies.
‘We think this was because of cognitive dissonance,’ he added.
This term refers to the mental discomfort people experience when exposed to information and beliefs that conflict with their own understanding or values.
To address this psychological stress, individuals with cognitive dissonance typically act to change, rationalise or ignore the conflicting concepts.
This principle, the team argue, incentivised citizens living near active concentration camps to reconcile their own personal attitudes with the reality of what was occurring in their surroundings.
This was specifically achieved, they added, by adopting more negative attitudes towards so-called social ‘out-groups’ — as to match the racist philosophies espoused by the Third Reich and realised in the form of the concentration camps.
‘These newly acquired values and beliefs were then transmitted across generations through parental and peer influence — a prominent mechanism for long-term persistence of attitudes,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.
‘While the causes of the Holocaust have attracted ample scholarly attention, its long-term sociopolitical consequences are less understood,’ Professor Homola said. ‘Our evidence proves that when it comes to political attitudes, these consequences are real and measurable even today.’ Pictured, far-right demonstrators march in Magdeburg, Germany, on January 17
‘While the causes of the Holocaust have attracted ample scholarly attention, its long-term sociopolitical consequences are less understood,’ Professor Homola said.
‘Our evidence proves that when it comes to political attitudes, these consequences are real and measurable even today.’
‘The prejudice that this racist and inhumane institution instilled in the local population is hard to erase even after the institution itself is long gone.’
Previous studies focused on the United States have similarly demonstrated links between both racism and extreme political beliefs and proximity to areas in which large numbers of slaves were once kept, Professor Homola noted.
‘It is important to understand both contemporary factors and historical legacies that make exclusionary political appeals attractive,’ he added.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal American Political Science Review.
WHAT WAS THE AUSCHWITZ CONCENTRATION CAMP?
Auschwitz was a concentration and extermination camp used by the Nazis during World War Two.
The camp, which is located in Poland, was made up of three main sites. Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a combined concentration/extermination camp and Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labour camp, with a further 45 satellite sites.
Birkenau became a major part of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’, whereby they sought to rid Europe of Jews.
An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died – around 90 percent of which were Jews.
Since 1947, it has operated as Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which in 1979 was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
Auschwitz was an extermination camp used by the Nazis in Poland to murder more than 1.1 million Jews
Since 1947, it has operated as Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which in 1979 was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco
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