The Political Consequences of Child Abuse

The abusive quackery being dished out as advice to parents in this country has at least one precedent: in pre-nazi germany.  It illustrates how devastating such early cruelty can be to an entire culture, and it seems to me male circumcision goes a long way toward achieving what the prussian doctors were trying to achieve in germany, in a more covert  but brutal way.

Although centuries of novels and autobiographies have dealt with the subject of child abuse in all its forms, society has been slow in recognizing the frequency with which this assault is committed. Only in the last twenty years has there been any real progress in this respect, and most of it is due to the efforts of a small number of researchers and above all to the media. Still underestimated and sometimes contested are the consequences very early abuse will have for the victims in their adult lives. The issues involved have been largely ignored, and there is correspondingly little mention of them in historical and anthropological studies. Thus sociologist Wolfgang Sovsky is able to write an otherwise impressive work on forms of violence without making one single reference to the childhood dimension. He gives very considerable space to the willful infliction of suffering, calling it “mysterious,” although it is readily explicable once we countenance the idea that the bodies of the executioners, torturers and the orchestrators of organized manhunts may have learned their fateful lessons very early and thus very effectively.

Also Goldhagen restricts himself to a phenomenological discussion of the people who volunteered to torture and humiliate others, without giving any consideration to their childhood. He does devote much attention to the emotions of the perpetrators, a subject hitherto largely ignored, but without the background of their early upbringing their behavior still remains mysterious. The reader seeks in vain for an explanation. What made respected members of society suddenly act like monsters? How could a former teacher like Klaus Barbie, and other men described by their daughters as kind, caring fathers, have innocent people tortured or indeed do the torturing themselves? Goldhagen does not address this question. He is obviously convinced that references to traditional anti–Semitism in Germany provide a satisfactory answer. They do not.

The hypothesis that German anti–Semitism was the real reason for the Holocaust has been rightly criticized by urging a comparison with the First World War. At that time anti–Semitism was just as strong in Germany but no organized genocide resulted. And why no Holocaust in the other anti–Semitic countries‹Poland, Russia and other parts of Europe? The argument that in the Weimar Republic unemployment and poverty caused immense general frustration that was discharged via the mass murder of the Jews is hardly convincing, given that Hitler was quickly successful in getting unemployment under control.

There must have been other factors at play which have hitherto been ignored, factors going some way to explaining why the Holocaust happened in Germany and why it happened at this particular time rather than another. In my view, one possible operative factor is the destructive child–rearing style practiced widely on infants around the turn of the century in Germany, a style I have no hesitation in referring to as a universal abuse of infants.

Of course children in other countries have been and still are mistreated in the name of upbringing or caregiving, but hardly already as babies and hardly with the systematic thoroughness characteristic of the Prussian pedagogy. In the two generations before Hitler’s rise to power, the implementation of this method was brought to a high degree of perfection in Germany. With this foundation to build on, Hitler finally achieved what he wanted: “My ideal of education is hard. Whatever is weak must be hammered away. In the fortresses of my militant order a generation of young people will grow to strike fear into the heart of the world. Violent, masterful, unafraid, cruel youth is what I want. Young people must be all that. They must withstand pain. There must be nothing weak or tender about them. The free–magnificent predator must flash from their eyes again. I want them strong and beautiful…That way I can fashion things anew.” This education program revolving on the extermination of everything life–giving was the forerunner of Hitler’s plans for the extermination of an entire nation. Indeed it was the prerequisite for the ultimate success of his designs.

The numerous and widely–read tracts by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, the inventor of the Schrebergärten (the German world for small allotments) are of major interest here. Some of them ran to as many as 40 editions, and their central concern was to instruct parents in the systematic upbringing of infants from the very first day of life. Many people motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children if they wanted to make them into model subjects of the German Reich. They did this without even remotely suspecting that they were exposing their children to a systematic form of torture with long–term effects. Germany sayings and catch–phrases like “Praise be to the things that make us tough” and “What doesn’t kill us will strengthen us,” still to be heard from educationists of the old school, probably originated in this period.

Morton Schatzman, who quotes highly enlightening passages from Schreber’s writings, is of the opinion that here we are in the presence not of child–raising methods but of systematic instruction in child persecution. One of Schreber’s convictions is that when babies cry they should be made to desist by the use of “physically perceptible admonitions,” assuring his readers that “such a procedure is only necessary one, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single threatening gesture will suffice to subjugate the child.” Above all, the newborn child should be drilled from the very first day to obey and to refrain from crying.

Today, people who have been brought up in anything even remotely approaching a humane way will hardly be able to imagine the rigor and tenacity with which Schreber himself implemented this program. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm G. Niederland quotes examples that cast light on the everyday practical conduct of child–rearing in those decades‹for example, recipes for inculcating the “art of self–denial” into infants. “The method should be simple and effective: the child is placed on the lap of its nanny while the latter is eating or drinking whatever takes her fancy. However urgent the infant’s oral needs may become in this situation, they must not be gratified.”

Niederland quotes an account by Schreber from his own family life. A nanny eating pears while holding one of his children on her lap was unable to resist the temptation of giving the infant a slice. She was immediately dismissed. The news of this draconian measure quickly spread to all the other nannies in Leipzig, and from that time on, writes Schreber, he “never again encountered such insubordination, neither with that child nor with any of the others that came later.”

Contrary to received opinion prevalent as recently as 15 years ago, the human brain at birth is not fully developed. The abilities a person’s brain develops depend on experiences in the first three years of life. Studies on abandoned and severely mistreated Romanian children revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain and marked emotional and cognitive insufficiencies in later life. According to very recent neurobiological findings, repeated traumatization leads to an increased release of stress hormones that attack the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroy existing neurons. Other studies of mistreated children have revealed that the areas of the brain responsible for the “management” of emotions are 20 to 30 percent smaller than in normal persons.

The children systematically subjected to obedience drill around the turn of the century were not only exposed to corporal “correction” but also to severe emotional deprivation. The upbringing manuals of the day described physical demonstrations of affection such as stroking, cuddling and kissing as indications of a doting, mollycoddling attitude. Parents were warned of the disastrous effects of spoiling their children, a form of indulgence entirely incompatible with the prevalent ideal of rigor and severity. As a result, infants suffered from the absence of direct loving contact with the parents. The best they could hope for was to find some kind of substitute from the servants, who in numerous cases used and exploited them as objects of pleasure, thus frequently adding to the children’s emotional confusion.

Since the experiments conducted on monkeys by Dr. Harlow in the Fifties, we know that animals raised by artificial “robot” mothers later turned aggressive and showed no interest in their own offspring. New research on macaque monkeys revealed that they kill even members of their own species if they were brought up without appropriate care. John Bowlby’s studies on the absence of early attachment in delinquents and René Spitz’ descriptions of small children dying of hospitalism following emotional neglect during hospitalization under extremely hygienic conditions are indications that not only animal but also human babies require reassuring sensory contact with their parents if socialization is to take a normal course.

These findings presented by Bowlby and Spitz almost 40 years ago are corroborated by recent neurobiological research. The studies in question suggest that not only active battering but also the absence of loving physical contact between child and parent will cause certain areas of the brain, notably those responsible for the emotions, to remain underdeveloped. Hence the children “subjugated by looks” suffered emotional harm that was only to develop its full destructive potential in the next generation….

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