THERE IS something fantastic happening in our world. A man is no longer punished only for crimes he has committed. Today he may be compelled to confess to sins that have been conjured up by his judges. It is not enough for us to damn as evil those who sit in judgment. We must understand what impels these false admissions of guilt; we must take another look at the human mind in all its frailty and vulnerability.
During the Korean War an officer of the United States Marine Corps, Colonel Frank H. Schwable, was taken prisoner by the Chinese Communists. After months of intense psychological pressure and physical degradation, he signed a well-documented “confession” that the United States was carrying on bacteriological warfare against the enemy. It was a tremendously valuable propaganda tool for the Communists.
YOU, TOO, WOULD CONFESS
After his repatriation Schwable issued a sworn statement repudiating his confession and describing his long months of imprisonment. Later, he was brought before a military court of enquiry. He testified in his own defense before that court:
I was never convinced in my own mind that we in the first Marine Air Wing had used bug warfare. I knew we hadn’t, but the rest of it was real to me— the conferences, the planes, and how they would go about their missions.
"The words were mine,” the colonel continued, "but the thoughts were theirs. That is the hardest thing I have to explain: how a man can sit down and write something he knows is false, and yet, to sense it, to feel it, to make it seem real.”
Here is how Dr. Charles W. Mayo, a leading American psychiatrist, explained it, in an official statement before the United Nations:
“ . . . The tortures used . . . although they include many brutal physical injuries, are not like the medieval tortures of the rack and the thumbscrew. They are subtler . . . They are calculated to disintegrate the mind of an intelligent victim to a point where he will not simply cry out ‘I did it!’ but will become a seemingly willing accomplice to the complete disintegration of his integrity and the production of an elaborate fiction.”
The Schwable case is but one example of a defenseless prisoner being compelled to tell a big lie. If we are to survive as free men, we must face up to this problem of politically inspired mental coercion, with all its ramifications.
It was more than twenty years ago that psychologists first began to suspect that the human mind can easily fall prey to dictatorial powers. In 1933 the German parliament building was burned to the ground in Berlin. The Nazis arrested a Dutchman, Marinus Van der Lubbe, and accused him of the crime.
Van der Lubbe had been a patient in a mental institution in Holland, and his lack of mental balance became apparent when he appeared before the court. He was at first evasive, dull and apathetic but on the forty-second day of the trial his behavior changed dramatically. His apathy disappeared, he criticized the slow course of the trial and he demanded punishment—either by imprisonment or death. He spoke about his “inner voices.” Then he fell back into apathy. We now recognize these symptoms as a combination of behavior forms which we can call a “confession syndrome.” In 1933 this type of behavior was unknown to psychiatrists. Unfortunately, it is very familiar today, and is frequently met in cases of extreme mental coercion.
After Van der Lubbe was executed the world began to realize that he had merely been a scapegoat. The Nazis themselves had staged the crime and the trial so that they could take over Germany. Still later we realized that Van der Lubbe was the victim of a diabolically clever misuse of medical knowledge and psychiatric technique, that had transformed him into a passive, meek automaton, who replied merely “yes” or “no” to his interrogates during most of the court sessions.
In 1936 and 1937 the world became more conscious of the very real danger of systematized mental coercion in the field of politics. This was the period of the well-remembered Moscow purge trials. It was almost impossible to believe that dedicated old Bolsheviks had suddenly turned traitor; the general world reaction was that this was just a propaganda move to deceive the non-Communist world. But gradually it became apparent that a much worse tragedy was being enacted. The men on trial had once been human beings Now the world saw them being changed into puppets.
In recent years the spectacle of confession to uncommitted crimes has become more and more common. The list ranges from Communist through non-Communist to anti-Communist, and includes such different types as the Czech Bolshevik Rudolf Slansky and the Hungarian Cardinal, Joseph Mindszenty.
Even Narcotics Won’t Help
Those of us who lived in the Nazi-occupied countries during the Second World War learned to understand only too well how people could be forced into false confessions, and into betrayals of those they loved. I myself was born in the Netherlands and lived there until the Nazi occupation forced me to flee. During the early days of the occupation, when the first eyewitness stories got out describing what happened during Nazi interrogations of captured resistance workers, we were frightened and alarmed.
The first aim of the Gestapo was to force prisoners under torture to betray their friends. They demanded names and more names, not bothering to ascertain whether or not they were given falsely under the stress of fear.
I remember very clearly one meeting held by a small group of resisters, all of whom could expect to be picked up by the Gestapo at some time. Would we be able to stand the Nazi treatment, or would we also be forced to become informers? This question was being asked by anti-Nazis in all the occupied countries.
During the second year of the occupation we realized that it was better not to know one another. More than two contacts were unsafe. We tried to find medical and psychiatric preventives to harden us against the Nazi torture we expected. As a matter of fact, I myself conducted some experiments on friends to determine whether or not narcotics would harden us against pain. However, the result was paradoxical. Narcotics can create insensitivity to pain, but at the same time they make people more vulnerable to mental pressure. But even at that time we knew, as did the Nazis themselves, that it was not the direct physical pain that broke people and caused them to talk and confess. It was the continuous humiliation and mental torture they were forced to undergo.
One of my patients, who was subjected to such an interrogation, managed to remain silent. He refused to answer a single question and finally the Nazis dismissed him. But he was never able to overcome this terrifying experience. He did not speak even when he returned home. He simply sat —bitter, full of indignation—and in a few weeks he wasted away and died.
We held many discussions about ways of strengthening our captured underground workers. Should some of our people be given suicide capsules? That could be only a last resort. Narcotics like morphine give only a temporary anaesthesia and relief; moreover the enemy would certainly find the capsules and take them away. We also tried systematic exercises in relaxation and autohypnosis (comparable to yoga exercises) to make the body more insensitive to hunger and pain. If an individual’s attention is fixed on the development of conscious awareness of automatic body functions such as breathing, the alert functioning of the brain cortex can be reduced, and the individual will become less aware of pain. This state of pain insensitivity can sometimes be achieved through exercises. But very few people were able to bring themselves into such anaesthesia.
Finally we evolved the simple psychological advice that, when one can no longer resist talking, the best thing to do is to talk too much. The idea was: keep yourself sullen and act as if you are crazy; play the coward and confess more than there is to confess. Later we were able to verify that this method was successful in several cases. Scatterbrained fools confused the enemy much more than silent heroes whose stamina was finally undermined in spite of everything.
I had to flee Holland after a policeman warned me that my name had been mentioned in an interrogation. I had twice been questioned by the Nazis on minor matters and without bodily torture. When they later caught up with me in Belgium, probably as the result of a betrayal, I had to undergo a long initial examination in which I was beaten, fortunately not too severely.
The interview had started pleasantly enough. Apparently the Nazi officer in charge thought he would be able to get information out of me through friendly methods. Indeed we even had a discussion (since I am a psychiatrist) about the methods used in interrogations. But when he found that the friendly approach was getting him nowhere, the officer’s mood changed and he behaved with all the sadistic characteristics we had come to expect from his type. Happily I managed to escape from Belgium that very night, before a more systematic and more torturous investigation could begin.
Arriving in London after an adventurous trip through France and Spain, I became chief of the psychological department of the Netherlands forces in England. It was in this official position that I was able to gather more and better data on what was happening to the thousands and millions of victims of Nazi terror and torture. My government gave me the power to investigate a group of traitors and I also interrogated imprisoned Nazis. Later on I questioned and treated several escapees from internment and concentration camps. These people had become real experts in suffering.
A Highly Refined Perversion
When I review all these wartime experiences, all the confusion about courage and cowardice, treason, morale, and mental fortitude, I must confess that my eyes were only really opened after a study of the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders. These trials gave us the real story of the systematic and coercive methods used by the Nazis. At about the same time we began to learn more about the newly perverted psychological strategy Russia and her satellites were using to ensure the enforced mental breakdown of their victims.
The specific techniques used in the modern world to break man’s mind and will and to extort confessions from innocents for political propaganda purposes are new and highly refined. Yet enforced confession itself is nothing new. From time immemorial tyrants and dictators have needed these “voluntary” confessions to justify their own evil deeds. The knowledge that the human mind can be influenced, tamed, and broken down into servility is much older than the modern dictatorial concept of enforced indoctrination. The primitive native on whom a spell of doom has been cast by the medicine man may become so hypnotized by his fear that he simply sits down, accepts his fate, and dies.
In order better to understand modern mental torture, we must constantly keep in mind the fact that from the earliest days bodily anguish and the rack were never meant merely to inflict pain on the victim. They may not have expressed their understanding in sophisticated terms, but the medieval judge and hangman were nevertheless aware that there is a peculiar spiritual relationship and mental interplay between the victim and his accusers. After suffering the most intense pain, the witch would not only confess to shocking sexual debaucheries with the devil, but she would gradually come to believe the stories she had invented, and would die convinced of her guilt.
These same judges and hangmen realized, too, that their witch trials were intended not only to torture and burn the witches, but even more to torture the sympathy and empathy of the bystanders, who, albeit unconsciously, identified themselves with the victims. This is one of the reasons burnings and hangings were held in public. Psychologically we can see this entire device as a blackmailing of human sympathy. And psychology has in recent years delivered up to man new means of torture and intrusion into the mind.
What we call brainwashing (a word derived from the Chinese) or menticide (a word coined by me and derived from mens, the mind, and caedere, to kill) is a perverted refinement of the rack. It is a thousand times worse and a thousand times more useful to the inquisitor.
Menticide is a new crime against the human mind and spirit. It is a systematic method of controlling the minds and bodies of human beings to make them unconditional slaves. It is an organized system of psychological intervention and judicial perversion through which a powerful tyrant can imprint his own synthetic thoughts on the minds of the victims he plans to use and destroy. The victims finally find themselves compelled to express complete conformity to the tyrant’s wishes.
Through court procedures—at which the victim mechanically reels off an inner record which has been prepared by his inquisitors during a preceding period—public opinion is thrown off guard. “A real traitor has been punished,” people think. “The man has confessed!” His confession can be used for propaganda, for the cold war, to instill fear and terror, to accuse the enemy falsely, or to exercise a constant mental pressure on others.
One important result of this procedure is the great confusion it creates in the mind of every observer, friend or foe. In the end no one knows how to distinguish truth from falsehood. The totalitarian potentate needs widespread mental chaos and verbal confusion because both paralyze his opposition and cause the morale of the enemy to deteriorate—unless his adversaries are aware of the dictator’s real aim.
In both the Mindszenty and the Schwable cases we have documented reports of the techniques of menticide as it has been used to break the minds and wills of courageous men.
In his exposé on Cardinal Mindszenty’s imprisonment, Stephen M. Swift graphically describes three typical phases in the psychological “processing” of political prisoners. The first phase is directed toward extorting confession. The victim is bombarded with questions day and night. He is inadequately and irregularly fed. He is allowed almost no rest and remains in the interrogation chambers for hours on end while his modern inquisitors take turns with him. Hungry, exhausted, his eyes blurred and aching under unshaded lamps, the prisoner becomes little more than a hounded animal. Swift reported:
. . . When the Cardinal had been standing for sixty-six hours, he closed his eyes and remained silent. He did not even reply to questions with denials. The colonel in charge of the shift tapped the Cardinal’s shoulder and asked why he did not respond. The Cardinal answered:
“End it all. Kill me! I am ready to die!” He was told that no harm would come to him; that he could end it all simply by answering certain questions.
To the horrors the victim suffers from without must be added the horrors from within. He is pursued by the unsteadiness of his own mind, which cannot always produce the same answer to a repeated question. As a human being with a conscience he is pursued by possible hidden guilt feelings that undermine his rational awareness of innocence. As a social being, he is pursued by the need for companionship. The constantly reiterated suggestion of his guilt urges him towards confession. As a suffering individual he is blackmailed by an inner need to be left alone and undisturbed, if only for a few minutes. From within and without he is inexorably driven towards signing the confession prepared by his persecutors. Why should he resist any longer? There are no witnesses to his heroism. He cannot prove his moral right after his death. He is utterly alone.
If the prisoner’s mind proves too resistant, narcotics are given to confuse it; if his body collapses before his mind capitulates, he receives stimulants. Many of the narcotics and stimuli that ultimately help to induce confession also create an amnesia for the torture itself. The torture techniques achieve the desired effect, but the victim forgets what has actually happened during the interrogation period.
Next the victim is trained to accept his own confession, much as an animal is trained to perform tricks. False admissions are reread, repeated, hammered into his brain. He is forced to reproduce fantasied offenses, fictitious details which ultimately convince him of his criminality. In the first stage he is hypnotized by others. In the second stage he has entered a state of autohypnosis, convincing himself of fabricated crimes. According to Swift:
The questions during the interrogations now dealt with details of the Cardinal’s “confession.” First his own statements were read to him; then statements of other prisoners accused of complicity with him; then elaborations of these statements. Sometimes the Cardinal was morose, sometimes greatly disturbed and excited. But he answered all questions willingly, repeated all sentences— once, twice, or even three times when he was told to do so.
In the third and final phase of interrogation and menticide the victim, now completely conditioned and accepting his own guilt, is trained to bear false witness against himself and others. He is prepared for trial, softened completely; he becomes remorseful and willing to be sentenced. The core of the strategy of menticide is the taking away of all hope, all anticipation, all belief in a future. It destroys the very elements that keep the mind alive.
No Washing, No Shaving
The Schwable case is similar to the Mindszenty story. A U. S. officer is taken prisoner. He expects to be protected by international regulations regarding prisoners, accepted by all countries. However, it slowly dawns on him that he is being subjected to a kind of treatment very different from what he expected. The enemy looks on him not as a prisoner but as a hostage for propaganda purposes. Slow but constant pressures are devised to break him down mentally. Humiliation, rough inhuman treatment, degradation, intimidation, hunger, exposure to extreme cold—all are used to crumble his will. He feels completely alone. He is surrounded by filth and vermin. For hours on end he has to stand up and answer the questions his interrogators hurl at him. He develops arthritic backache and diarrhea. He is not allowed to wash or shave. He doesn’t know what will happen to him next.
This treatment goes on for weeks. Then the hours of interrogation and oppression increase. He no longer dares to trust his own memory. New teams of investigators point out his increasing errors and mistakes. He cannot sleep any more. Daily his interrogators tell him they have plenty of time, and he realizes that in this respect at least they are telling the truth. He begins to doubt whether he can resist them. If he will just unburden himself of his guilt, they tell him, he will be better treated.
The inquisitor is treacherously kind and knows exactly what he wants. He wants the victim captured and under the influence of a slowly induced hypnosis. He wants a well-documented confession that the U. S. Army used bacteriological warfare, that the captive himself took part in such germ warfare. The inquisitor wants this confession in writing, because it will make a convincing impression and will shock the world.
China is plagued by hunger and epidemics; such a confession will explain the high disease rate and exculpate the Chinese government, whose popularity is at a low ebb. So Schwable has to be prepared for a systematic confession, made before an international group of Communist experts. Mentally and physically he is weakened, and every day the communist “truths” are imprinted on his mind. It is a well-known scientific fact that the passive memory often remembers facts learned under hypnosis better than those learned in a state of alert consciousness.
Schwable has in fact become hypnotized; he is now able to reproduce for his jailers bits and pieces of the confession they want from him. He is even able to write some of it down. Eventually all the little pieces form part of a document that was in fact prepared beforehand by his captors. This document is placed in Schwable’s hands and he is even allowed to make some minor changes in the phrasing before he signs it.
By now the victim has been completely broken. He has given in. All sense of reality is gone; identification with the enemy is complete. For weeks after signing the “confession” he is in a state of depression. His only wish is the wish to sleep, to have a rest from it all.
A man will often try to hold out beyond the limits of his endurance because he continues to believe that his tormentors have some basic morality and that they will finally realize the enormity of their crimes and leave him alone. But this is a delusion. The only way to strengthen one’s defenses against an organized attack on the mind and will is to understand what the enemy is trying to do. Of course, one can vow to hold out until death. But even the relief of death is in the hands of the inquisitor. People can be brought to the threshold of death and then be stimulated into life again so that the torments can be renewed. Attempts at suicide are foreseen and can be forestalled.
Ultimately nobody can resist such treatment. Each man has his own limit of endurance, but that this limit can be reached and even surpassed is a nearly universal certainty. Time, fear, and the continual pressure are known to create a menticidal hypnosis. But fortunately this, too, is known: as soon as the victim returns to normal circumstances, the panicky and hypnotic spell will disappear, and he will again awake into reality.
This is what happened to Colonel Schwable. True, he confessed to crimes he did not commit, but he repudiated his confession as soon as he was returned to a familiar environment. When I was called upon to testify in the Schwable case I told the military court of my deep conviction that anybody subjected to the treatment meted out to the colonel could be forced to write and sign a similar confession.
“Anyone in this room, for instance?” the colonel’s attorney asked me, looking in turn at each of the officers sitting in judgment on this new and difficult case. And in good conscience I could reply, firmly:
“Anyone in this room.”
For it is now technically possible to bring the human mind into a condition of enslavement and submission. The Schwable case and that of other prisoners of war are tragic examples of this, made even more tragic by our lack of understanding of the limits of heroism. We are just beginning to understand what these limits are, and how they are used, both politically and psychologically, by the totalitarians. But let us not believe that there is danger only for those luckless men and women who find themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. True, the totalitarian governments have made this intervention a policy and a staple of actions, but the dangers of mental intervention exist in free governments, too.
Most middle-aged North Americans remember very clearly that frightening day in 1938 when Orson Welles’ broadcast of the “invasion from Mars” sent hundreds of people running from their homes like panicky animals trying to escape a forest fire. This broadcast remains one of the clearest examples of the enormous suggestive power of the various means of mass communication, and of the tremendous impact that authoritatively uttered nonsense can have on intelligent normal people.
But we see less dramatic examples of this fact every day. When I get up in the morning I turn on my radio to hear the news and the weather forecast. And then comes the pontifical voice telling me to take tablets for my headache. I have headaches occasionally (so does the world), and my headaches, like everyone else’s, come from the many conflicts that life imposes on me. But my radio tells me not to think about either the conflicts or the headaches. It suggests, instead, that I should retreat into that old magic action of swallowing a pill. Although I laugh as I listen to this long-distance prescription by an amateur who does not know either me or my headaches, and meditate for a moment on man’s servility to the magic of chemistry, my hand has already begun to reach out for the pill bottle. After all, I do have a headache!
It is extremely difficult to escape the mechanically repeated suggestions of everyday life. Even when our critical mind rejects them, they seduce us into doing what our intellect tells us is stupid. We can be infected by suggestion. just as we are infected by a germ, and mental infection can be as contagious as physical infection.
This is the age of conformity and mass hypnosis. The technization of modern life has already influenced people to become more passive and to adjust themselves to the values brought to them by the mass media. The headlines in the morning paper, the radio blasts and the television ooze their suggestions into his system. When all the means of mass communication are completely in the hands of the government, man’s capacity to evaluate for himself can disappear altogether, as was horrifyingly evident in Nazi Germany. The six million innocent victims burned in the gas ovens have become a myth of horror to us. But for the Germans they were not a reality at all.
A daily barrage of official suggestions, orders, changes, panics, emotions, prevents the ego from maturing. People cannot argue against overwhelming voices. When there is no silence in which to meditate and deliberate about the things that are told us, we can easily be caught in the officially allowed opinions of the state. There is no intrinsic difference between individual and mass hypnosis. The more the individual feels himself to be part of the group, the more easily can he be hypnotized. Crowds, too, are rather easy to hypnotize because common longings and yearnings increase the suggestibility of each member of the group.
The Lure of the Macabre
There is nothing mysterious in this. Hypnosis is comparable to the cataleptic trance. Such hypnotic states give man the illusion of being part of the outside world, part of the great formless anonymity. Sudden fright, fear and terror are the old-fashioned hypnotic method and are still utilized by dictators and demagogues. Certain noises fascinate men and keep them enthralled— the tom-tom, jazz rhythms, military marches, even long speeches and boredom may overwhelm the mind.
An easy mass technique is to work with the special suggestive words, repeating them over and over. From time to time the hypnotizer has to add a few jokes. People like to laugh. But they also like to be horrified, and the macabre, especially, attracts them. Tell them gory tales and let them huddle together in sensational tension. They will probably develop an enormous awe for the man who frightens them, and will be willing to give him the chance to lead them out of their emotional terror. In their yearning to be freed from one fear they may be willing to surrender completely to another.
The modern mind is continually molded by television, radio, advertising, and the slogans that are constantly reiterated and drummed into our ears. Mass meetings exert a magic influence and increase our hypnophilia. Music, noises, applause, speeches, all these cast a spell over people. Many people are hypnophiles, anxious to daydream and daysleep through their lives. That is why they easily fall prey to mass suggestion.
Recent happenings in the U. S. indicate clearly that the methods used to satisfy a quest for power show a universal pattern. The ancient magic masks used to frighten the people may have been replaced by an overconfident show of physical strength by a “hero” artificially shaped as an object of admiration and identification for infantile minds. But the loud noises of propaganda are still with us, now artificially magnified by the radio and television and serving to intimidate and hypnotize our less alert contemporaries.
The demagogue also uses the more tricky manoeuvre of attacking anil vituperating citizens who are usually considered to be beyond suspicion. This manoeuvre is often combined with the appeal to self pity. “Fourteen years of disgrace and shame” was the slogan Hitler used to slander the period between the armistice in 1918 and the year be seized power. “Twenty years of treason,” a slogan used in the U. S. not too long ago, sounds suspiciously like* it, and is all too familiar to anyone who watched Hitler’s rise and fall.
What the U. S. has recently experienced is the first phase of a totalitarian attack on the mind by words, slogans, suspicions, and wild random accusations. Violent raucous noise provokes violent emotional reactions and destroys mental control. When the demagogue starts to rant and rave his violent outbursts tend to be interpreted by the public as proof of his sincerity and dedication. But for the most part such declarations are proof of just the opposite motivation, and are merely part of the demagogue’s power-seeking strategy.
The Strategy of Accusation
We must learn to treat the demagogue in our midst just as we should treat our external enemies, with the weapon of ridicule. Dictatorial inquisitors and demagogues are not blessed with a sense of humor. In their defense against psychological attacks on their freedom, the people need humor and good sense first.
It is equally necessary, to promote a greater psychological understanding of their intimidating effect on the public, for our people to have a thorough awareness of the way trials and investigations, for example, can be used as a tool of tyranny. Dictatorial personalities are obsessed with a morbid need to investigate. Everybody who does not agree with them, who does not how low and submit, is suspect. This strategy of wild accusation has an effect on the public too. It causes a sense of panic in everyone who is exposed to it. Even in a democracy, a minority that spreads hidden panics can paralyze mental defenses and make people passive in the face of real dangers.
There is a horrifying fascination in the idea that our mental resistance is relatively weak, that the very quality which distinguishes one man from another can be profoundly altered by psychological pressures. All men share certain qualities that make them vulnerable to mental manipulation. We are not the rational creatures we think we are.
In all cases of menticide—whether they be of soldiers in North Korean POW camps, imprisoned “traitors” in Iron Curtain countries, or victims of the Nazi terror—we are dealing with people whose ways of life have been suddenly and dramatically altered. They have been torn from their homes, their families, their friends, and thrown into a frightening, abnormal atmosphere. When the dictator exploits his victim’s psychological needs in a threatening, hostile and unfamiliar world, breakdown is almost sure to follow.
What are some of the factors that can turn a man into a traitor to his own convictions, an informer, a confessor to heinous crimes, or an apparent collaborator in the enemy’s plans?
Several victims of the Nazi inquisition have told me that the moment of surrender occurred suddenly and against their will. For days they had faced the fury of their interrogators, and then suddenly they fell apart. “All right—all right—you can have anything you want.” This sudden surrender often happened after an unexpected accusation, a shock, a humiliation that hit, a punishment that burned, a sudden logic in the inquisitor’s question that could not be counter-argued.
Every individual has two opposing needs which operate simultaneously— the need to be independent, to be himself; and the need not to be himself, not to be anybody at all, not to resist mental pressure. The need to be inconspicuous is a common one, in its simplest form we can see it all around us as a tendency to conform. But the frightening situation in which the victims of menticidal terror find themselves—the wish to collapse, to be not there, becomes irresistible. There are tragic stories of concentration camp victims who fixed all their expectations on the idea that liberation would come at Christmas 1944 and aimed their entire existence towards that date. When it passed and they were still imprisoned, many of them simply collapsed and died.
I interrogated many people who went through the tortures of Nazi prison and concentration camps. Only those who were willing to accept danger and challenge, and who understood, even faintly, how bestial man can be, were able to stand the harrowing experience.
Not enough attention has been given to the psychology of loneliness, especially to the implications of the enforced isolation of prisoners. As soon as man is alone, closed off from the world and from the news of what is going on, his mental activity is replaced by quite different processes. I remember very clearly my own fantasies during the time I was in a Nazi prison. It was almost impossible for me to control my depressive thoughts of hopelessness. I had to tell myself over and over again: “Think, think, keep your senses alert, don’t give in.” I tried to use all my psychiatric knowledge to keep my mind in a state of relaxed mobilization, and on many days I felt it was a losing battle.
Experiments at McGill University have shown that people who are deprived for even a short time, of all sensory stimuli—no touch, no hearing, no smell, no sight—quickly fall into a kind of hallucinatory hypnotic state. (These experiments were reported in Maclean’s in the May 15, 1954, issue.) The prisoner kept in isolation similarly undergoes a severe mental change. His guards and inquisitors become more and more his only source of contact with reality. No wonder that he gradually develops a peculiar submissive relationship to them.
What then made it possible for so many thousands to survive the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and Communist POW camps? The answer is simple. Those who survived never felt that they were alone. As long as they could think of their loved ones at home, as long as they could look forward to seeing them again, as long as they knew their families were faithfully waiting for them, they could maintain their strength. A recent enquiry into the emotional factors underlying a man’s attitude toward his job shows that the greatest single factor in a man’s work morale is his wife’s approval of what he is doing and her pride in his accomplishments.
Deep within all of us lie hidden feelings of guilt. We may tell ourselves that we enjoy reading detective stories because we identify with the keen and clever sleuth, but the repressed criminal in all of us is also at work—and he identifies with the conscienceless killer. The method of systematic exploitation of unconscious guilt to create submission was used by the Nazis to convert courageous resistance fighters into meek collaborators. Often it was not torture, but the threat of reprisal against bis family that made a man give in. The sudden acute confrontation with a long-buried childhood problem creates confusion and doubt. All of a sudden the enemy puts before you a clash of loyalties: your father or your friends, your brother or your fatherland, your wife or your honor. The inquisitor makes use of such inner conflicts to force you into surrender.
When a man has to choose between hunger, death and torture or a temporary yielding to the illusions of the enemy, his self-preservative mechanisms help him to find a thousand justifications and exculpations for giving in to the psychological pressure. Colonel C. L. Fleming, court-martialed for collaborating with the enemy in a Korean POW camp, justified his conduct by saying that he followed this course of action in order to keep himself and his men alive. Is that not a perfectly valid argument? It serves to point up the fact that the self-preservative mechanism is usually much stronger than ideological loyalty. No one who has not faced this same hitter problem can have an objective opinion as to what he himself would do under the circumstances. As a psychiatrist, I can say that more than ninety percent of people would yield, when threat and mental pressure become strong enough.
Unfortunately, our soldiers have not been educated and trained to stand up against constant indoctrination with a hostile ideology. On the contrary, they grew up in a society where the emphasis on conformity has been increasing. The newspapers constantly propagandize them against dissent. Army training and discipline fortify the tendency to conform and the feeling that individual verification and criticism of rules is usually wrong. When boys with this kind of training are suddenly thrown into the hands of an enemy with a technique of mental persuasion and coercion such as has never been known before, many will not have enough spiritual and mental stamina to withstand the word barrage the enemy throws at them.
Psychiatric examination of returned POWs from Korea showed that many of the men who resisted enemy propaganda most strongly were those with a history of lifelong rebellion against all authority, from parents through teachers to army superiors.
Experience has shown too that the husky robust athletes could not withstand the camp experience any better than their weaker brothers. Nor is intellect alone any real help. On the contrary it usually provides useful rationalizations for surrender. Mental backbone sits deeper than the intellect, and becomes increasingly rare in a world of changing values and little faith. Men with no strong inner principles, who depend on others for approval and support, fall easy prey to menticide. The man with the strong ego, with strong precepts and faith, will be less vulnerable. The enemy has to use special techniques to break him down. If pressure doesn’t help, he tries flattery.
I remember one artist patient of mine in Holland who was fervently anti-Nazi before the invasion of the Lowlands. At first he was shattered and confused by the impact of the occupation. Then the Nazis started to pay attention to his work, something that had never been done before. From that time on he gave up his critical attitude and became a will-less justifier and supporter of the enemy system.
Among the anti-Nazi underground in the Second World War there were strong boys who thought they could resist all torture and would never betray their comrades. However they could not even begin to imagine the perfidious technique of menticide. Worse than physical torture is the technique of repeated pestering. The foe doesn’t let you die, but drags you back from the very edge of oblivion. The anticipation of renewed torture increases the internal anxieties. “Who am I to stand all this? Why must I be a hero?” Gradually the resistance breaks down. Only a few people are able to immunize themselves against such repetition—whether of physical or mental torture.
Most people are confused about what j courage really is. The hero, the man who offers himself up to death for the sake of others, is found more in myth- ology than reality. We need the myth for the inspiration it offers us. But we know little of the real motive of heroism. No one can really tell how he will behave in time of danger. And many men who face danger with stalwart courage can be brought to colIapse by apparent trivia that touch them in a vulnerable spot.
Personal courage can turn the tide of battle in a hand-to-hand encounter. But it is no defense against bombs and machine guns. Today, reckless courage, as we have glorified it, is less important than personal morale, faith, conviction, knowledge, and adequate preparation.
Consider this actual ease. A boy of seventeen is drafted into the army. He has spent his entire life in a small town. He receives training in the routine of army life and the use of his weapons. Soon thereafter he is sent to Korea, and almost immediately he is taken prisoner. Now this child has to defend himself against the propaganda barrage which well-trained Communist theoreticians daily hurl at him. His education is limited, his background narrow, his political training inadequate. He tries to escape from his prison camp and is caught. The enemy’s hold on him increases. His great disappointment makes him feel utterly trapped. How can a military court hold him responsible for the fact that he finally gave in to enemy propaganda?
This is the bare outline of the story of Claude Batchelor, a U. S. Army corporal, recently sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment for collaboration with the enemy. I would venture to guess that it could have been the story of nearly any North American boy.
We badly need a better understanding of mental manipulation in all its aspects—of its most extreme form, menticide, and of the many ways in which human dignity and freedom can be made to disintegrate. The mind of modern man, no matter where he lives, is subjected to a constant verbal assault and to more subtle psychological influences. We must learn how to strengthen ourselves against this, how to protect our integrity and our freedom, if we are to become mature people.
This article is part of Dr. Meerloo’s new book, The Rape of the Mind, which will be published later by the J. B. Lippincott Company.