For the last 45 years, I have been thinking about my five years in concentration camps. I wanted to know why prisoners in these camps, including myself, behaved the way they did. From my first day in Auschwitz, I was conditioned to behave - instinctively behave - like a hunted animal. I avoided predators by hiding in the "middle of the herd," thus exposing those around me to immediate danger. I became insensitive to human misery and looked with indifference at the death of my colleagues. I was not in the position of predator myself, but witnessing remorseless killings by SS men and kapos, I no longer made judgements about who was a "good" man and who was a "bad" man.
There have been several books written by former prisoners of concentration camps who attempted to analyze the behaviour of men in the camps: Bruno Bettleheim(1), Miklos Nyiszly(2), Primo Levi(3), V.E. Frankl(4). All of these books have one important aspect in common: they were written by Jewish authors about the Holocaust - the extermination and suffering of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. They did not fumish me with satisfactory answers to the reasons for general human behaviour. Thus after 45 years, I am trying to provide my own answers.
A new academic discipline, sociobiology, emerged in the 1970s. One proponent, David Barash(5), makes a very convincing argument that behaviour relating to sex, love, and violence is governed by the demands of our genes for self-replication. We love our mate because our genes wish to reproduce themselves; we love our children because they contain half of our genes; we love our grandchildren a little less because they possess only a quarter of our genes, and so on. We are violent and declare war on our enemies because their genes are in competition with our genes.
According to the theory of genetic behaviour, we are basically selfish. Modem society deals with this problem by creating laws to protect the members of a society against the selfish behaviour of individuals and by treating certain forms of selfishness as a punishable crime. The sociobiologist would argue that an individual increases the probability of replication of his or her genes by avoiding punishment. Barash's argument that "human genes seem to do best if they give their carrier a great deal of freedom of action" contradicts the very principle of genetic theory: that genes do not give any freedom to their carriers. Assuming, however, that this is true, then human behaviour is governed by two separate activities of the brain - the one independent and rational, and the other, often irrational, but aimed at forwarding the programmed purpose of the genes.
Freud argued that instinctual behaviour is repressed by society - that "our social behaviour is greatly constrained and is actually a complex web of lies and deceptions." More recently the psychologist S. Maddie elaborated on instinctual behaviour, dividing it into core and peripheral elements. Core elements are a result of evolution and peripheral elements are developed as a result of experience.
The division of the human mind into the conscious and unconscious is generally accepted by modern psychology. However, what constitutes the unconscious mind is difficult to conceptualize because one cannot relate to it consciously. Thus it is desirable to sort out the activity of our brains into clearer concepts. Undeniably, we have the ability to think rationally and logically, independent of the needs of our genes, our unconscious mind or our instincts. We can also recognize that the mind often works involuntarily, creating emotions which sometimes lead to irrational instinctual behaviour, which may be prompted by our genes, or our unconscious mind; it functions independent of and often contrary to our rational expectations. Perhaps the most important observation one can make is that the rational side of our brain generally does not recognize our instinctual drives. Simply stated, if the rational side were stronger than the instinctual, we would not have wars.
For the purpose of understanding the drives of the unconscious mind or (perhaps more descriptively) of our genes, I prefer to use the term "instinctual behaviour" because we have observed it long enough in the animal kingdom. We are well aware that our brains are almost never silent. But the thoughts which flow through our brain are often uninvited and not useful. We often perceive them as an insignificant and annoying interference with the rational functioning of our brain. In most cases, this activity is related to our various emotions. Love, hate, compassion, jealousy, anger, worry, fear, joy, sexual desire, or the urge for violence create images in our minds and we often act as a result of such images. It is not surprising, then, that most of our actions are emotionally-based. These are instinctive responses. Emotional whispering (chattering) in our brains is instinctively based.
Who has not seen a well-fed domestic cat stalking a bird or some other prey? We can quite understand; the cat cannot help doing it because it is behaving instinctively. Yet humans share the exact same instinct - even to the extreme of hunting. There is no need to document the existence of instinctual behaviour, particularly in regard to sex and violence. One need merely turn on the television to find ample documentation.
Instinctive behaviour is generally understood as a natural, unacquired mode of response to stimuli or an inborn tendency to behave in a way characteristic to our species. Clearly, fear and anxiety stem from insecurity and are reflections of our instinct for self-preservation. Sexual desires and fantasies (as well as love and jealousy) are the result of our sexual instinct, necessary for the survival of our species. The ugliest of our instincts, also related to survival and developed during the millennia of evolution, is that which triggers a violent response.
In retrospect, I believe that my life in the concentration camps was governed mostly by my instincts. There were, of course, rational decisions to be made, but they were also related to the basic instinct for survival. Sensitivity to injustice and cruelty were strong during my early days in the camps. I still remember vividly today the incidence of a Jew being beaten, but not killed, by kapos in the showers. Later, I witnessed starvation of hundreds of men or deaths from cruel beatings, but I think the details of these later deaths were blotted out of my mind by that one instinct. I was determined to survive and nothing should distract me from it. During my last months in Camp Rose I hardly noticed the misery of other non-privileged prisoners. The instinctive conditioning was equally strong in my colleagues who were in the camps for more than four years.
The most surprising discovery for me was that all of our instinctive responses have nothing to do with what we can rationally justify. It is easy to understand that all cats and other animals have similar instincts. It is, however, extremely difficult to admit to ourselves that we also have similar instincts. The instinctive response is generally not an individual one but common to all humanity.
The next obvious question is what is our real self? Each one of us can recognize the dual activity in our minds. One is reasonable deployed rationally when it is needed, and the other, often irrational and emotionally-based, occurs in our brain and is called by Krishnamurti "chatter"(6). The former is rational, the latter instinctual. The instinctual activity is acquired during evolution and is often called the effect of the environment; the rational activity is the ability of our brain to think independently. This independent, individual thought must be the real 'T"
The human race is very much governed by its instincts. I witnessed extreme violence in the concentration camps and became impervious to it, just as my captors did. Fortunately, instincts do not manifest themselves with the same degree of intensity in all people; not everyone in the camps was violent. In extreme situations, like imprisonment in a concentration camp, the instinctual behaviour dominates the rational behaviour and the instinctual drives become prominent. The rational, the aspect of the human brain which makes man distinctive, recedes. Our only hope in preventing recurrences of experiences similar to mine between 1940 and 1945 is to work towards asserting the role of the rational in man's psychological make-up.
1. The Informed Heart. Peregrine Books, 1986.
2. Eichmann's Inferno - Auschwitz. Fawcett, 1960.
3. The Drowned and The Saved. Simon & Schuster, 1988.
4. Man's Search for Meaning. Simon& Schuster, 1984.
5. D. P. Barash.The Whispering Within, Evolution and Origin of Human Nature. Penguin, 1979.
6. J. Krishnamurti. The Collected Works of Krishnamurti. Harper and Row, 1980.