Economic Despair Doesn’t Magically Create Abusive People

What people get wrong about Nazi Germany and income inequality today

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I just watched Netflix’s documentary Capital in the 21st Century. I hope my addiction to upsetting documentaries ends sometime soon, but in the meantime, I think there’s something important to discuss. In the film, Western economic experts explained how we acquired money (capital) in the last few centuries and how that related to the way we ran society.

SparkNotes: income inequality has been the norm except for a handful of decades the Baby Boomers enjoyed in early life.

This historical account, of course, included discussion about the development of Nazi Germany, WWII, and the largest wealth distribution that followed in ally countries who won the war. The storyline is that violence and human rights abuses happened before WWII in countries dealing with abject poverty, but suddenly stopped after WWII when they were lifted out of the Great Depression. Yes, I am simplifying.

Since these experts were all economists of sorts, I don’t blame them for thinking everything has to do with the economy, including human rights abuses. What bothers me is the common line of thinking in our whole society that economic stress is the main cause for abusive behavior. I constantly witness journalists making this mistake when they report on the connection between economic slumps and increased domestic abuse reports. I’ve heard community members say we need to solve domestic abuse by ensuring more jobs.

Why do we think that a person who finds themselves in poverty is suddenly okay abusing their spouse, children, neighbors, and people from other countries? Is there a switch that turns on when our wallets are empty and turns off when they are full? Is economic stress really the best explanation we have for destructive behavior?

I don’t know if anything has been more heavily studied in the West than World War II and why concentration camps happened. Two pivotal thinkers after WWII on why atrocious human rights abuses happen were both Holocaust survivors. One was Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who wrote the Origins of Totalitarianism. She often focused on social and economic elements that led to both world wars and scapegoating of Jewish people. The other was Alice Miller who wrote The Drama of a Gifted Child. She substantially changed how the mental health field began to take child abuse seriously. Miller linked how we raise our kids to what they are willing to do in times of war. She experienced both child abuse and abuse by Nazis and didn’t find them to be that different.

Arendt focused on larger dynamics at work that could pit populations against each other and Miller focused on individual and family dynamics that would pave the way for the acceptance of cruel behavior in personal experiences. They can both be right. However, in our society, we seem unaware or unwilling to consider how Miller’s philosophy on individually abusive behavior fits into events.

Even in the highly educated society of America today, we are quite dumb when it comes to human needs, development and behavior because most of us will never learn these key pieces of ourselves in school. For some reason, at least in my Millennial generation, you’ve had to get a Master’s degree to do that. Otherwise, you are left to learn these things through therapy and a bunch of reading (especially for new parents).

The thing about human beings that is simple to understand is that our social relationships are heavily linked to our survival. All social animals have this in common. (You don’t have to be “social”, you just have to rely on other people for your survival, like if someone else built your house, or gave you tools to build your house, or provided knowledge on how to build a house, etc.). How we are raised by the adults around us teaches us the relationship skills we will use for our lifetimes unless we put forth a lot of conscious effort to change them. These relationship skills are essential to human existence.

Recently, research shows that nurturing parenting can reduce and even overcome the trauma of poverty. In contrast, the combination of poverty and lack of nurturing has severe consequences for children. This idea has led to community-based education in nurturing parenting skills in impoverished areas, not to avoid combating poverty, but to help families in the meantime while we work on it.

When it came to Nazi Germany, Germany was certainly suffering from terrible poverty before World War II. But they also held dear a philosophy on raising children that continues impacting how people living today are able to feel connected to other people. The blame falls on one book written by Dr. Johanna Haarer called The German Mother and Her First Child. In it, Dr. Haarer describes raising strong children by ignoring them when they cry and to not touch them. It was wildly popular during Nazi Germany, with the possibility that generations have continued passing it down unknowingly. Attachment therapy is a huge industry today because it is well understood that to have healthy, functioning relationships, it is vital for a child to attach to a safe, nurturing adult early on.

I’m skeptical that Dr. Haarer’s book was a new idea at that time, since historians who study parenting practices have found terribly abusive behavior throughout human history. However, it may have solidified a culture-wide parenting phenomenon of emotional blankness and lack of empathy.

If both Hannah Arendt and Alice Miller are right, poverty didn’t magically turn perfectly healthy and happy people into Death Eaters. Poverty became a reason to harness already abusive behaviors in families and communities to expel on the surrounding world as a way to get out of poverty. Nazi Germany thought of war as a necessity for strength. It’s easy to connect that broader idea to how German parents thought of abuse and neglect as a necessity for strong children.

Flash forward to today. The documentary comes full circle when it shows our current global income inequality is similar to the feudal economies of aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries. It then discusses the rise in political unrest we’ve been witnessing, which has traditionally been linked to times of economic inequality.

We are left wondering, is the rise in autocratic leaders who support the use of violence and human rights abuses, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, a prediction that the Holocaust could happen all over again? Is violence always a companion of income inequality because it is in our nature as human beings? Will this be our future unless we solve income inequality quickly enough?

Well, that depends. Do these countries already have a large population that grew up in abusive households without healing this trauma? Do these populations largely support abusive behaviors in all kinds of relationships because they are thought of as signs of strength? Do popular parenting and school practices endorse forms of abuse and neglect to make children obedient, self-sufficient, and emotionally vacant?

Abusive behavior doesn’t magically appear. It’s taught first when we are kids. During times of stress, job loss and poverty included, abusive behaviors will be relied upon if that’s what people were taught to do when stress happens. We need to stop blaming our economy to excuse or explain violent behavior. It doesn’t at all. You have to first have the abusive or neglectful or violent behavior taught as a relationship skill and then couple it with something stressful for it to be acted out. Poverty is very stressful.

If we want to prevent acts of violence and horrible events like the Holocaust from being in our future, we should, of course, think about all kinds of elements that are important in human life. There’s no doubt that reducing income inequality and abolishing poverty raises standards for quality of life.

But we cannot forget that we must look at ourselves and our families when it comes to passing down abusive behaviors that lead to the atrocities we are willing to commit. Poverty is not an excuse nor an explanation for abuse that will happen with or without it. We must consider the role nurturing relationships and emotional development have in our personal lives and how we treat the world at large.

Healing fiction and the fantasy land to thrive when you’re an ACE kid.

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