Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Schadenfreude:Can a Word Explain a Holocaust?

Some posts ago, I noted that the ideas or feelings that get expressed in each language may differ, and those ideas are unconsciously internalized in people. They don't have to be taught expressly whether it's good or bad to feel a certain way.  Just learning certain words in their language justifies certain feelings.  The example I gave was the Yiddish word kvellen 'feeling joy in another's accomplishment or happiness.'  Just knowing that word taught me to be happy for others' good fortune when I was a child.  I contrasted it with German Schadenfreude 'the feeling of glee at another's misfortune.'  I made the point that I, and probably everyone else, has had that feeling even though there is no counterpart to the word in English. 

As an American--and as a Jew--when I feel Schadenfreude, and I'm ashamed to say that I have, I feel a little guilty.  It's not nice in our culture to rejoice in another's misfortune.  The most we say is, "They  had it coming to them." as if it is Divine retribution for something that they've done.  Americans even showed remorse at the bombing of Hiroshima as they rejoiced in the end of World War II.

If Schadenfreude  were a negative word in German, like the English word jealousy, then it wouldn't be legitimizing that feeling. However, there is no shame in feeling Schadenfreude.  It is merely a common human feeling and has no particular stigma attached to it, so far as I know--and I admit I haven't spoken German in years, so I don't know how younger Germans feel about it. 

Why do I bring this up again? Well, to my surprise, the current issue of Scientific American Mind has an article on Schadenfreude.  Unbeknownst to me, the word has been the subject of scholarly examination.  Actually, not the word, but the emotion.They all state, with truth, that most people do feel Schadenfreude whether or not their language has a name for it.

Emily Anthes, the author of "Their Pain, Our Gain" in the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind cites interesting studies that show where in the brain the feeling of Schadenfreude is actually activated: the striatum, a brain region involved in processing rewards. This contrasts with envy which activates the anterior cingulate, a region that processes pain.  So, subjects from different cultures feel good when they rejoice in others' bad fortune, but they feel bad when they are envious.

Anthes goes on to say that one can explain horrible events like Rwanda, terrorist activity, and even the Holocaust on Schadenfreude. People stand by and watch others suffer because it makes them feel good, especially if they feel envy to those who are being murdered or tortured.  Recall the news clips of Palestinians dancing in the streets when they saw videos of 9/11?  Americans were horrified that Palestinians would rejoice in the killing and wounding of ordinary Americans.  Well, they  envy Americans for their supposed wealth and for their cultural hegemony.  They also hate Americans, not only  because of Israel, but because of American power.  However, the Palestinians were expressing an unfortunately all too human emotion, whether or not they have a word for it.

But, the Germans did have a word for it.   Research has made it clear that the Geman populace stood by and actively helped brutality against Jews, and we're not talking about uneducated Germans, but a citizenry that prided itself upon its civilization, its music, art, poetry, books, science, and knowledge.  With all the storms it engendered, Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners does show that the Holocaust could not have happened without the complicity of huge numbers of ordinary Germans over the course of several years. 

Could that word in their vocabulary explain this?  It seems to me that it can.  German anti-Jewishness was nothing new.  Nor is it anything new throughout the Christian world, including America.  Jews in Germany were actually well assimilated into the German culture as they are in the USA today.  Still, the Christian mythology about Jews is far from dead--in either place in the 1930's or today. 

One bit of mythology is that all Jews are rich. As one American friend said to me, "Jews have more money than God."  A  German friend, a few years ago,  asked me in German, "You say your great-grandparents were blacksmiths and tailors, but how about the bankers?"  And, he was serious.  (This was elicited because he was looking at the portraits of my family in the hallway of my obviously non-wealthy home.)

Besides being rich, Jews are supposed to wield power internationally.  A second of rational reflection shows the absurdity of this.  If they were so powerful, for over 2000 years, would they have been massacred, tortured, thrown out of the countries they lived in, and finally annihilated in death camps ?  Would President Roosevelt have refused to open America's doors to Jewish refugees before and during World War II? Would he and the Armed Forces refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz which carried victims to their deaths?  The secret of what was happening to Jews in Europe was well-kept by the US government. Not until soldiers liberating Poland and Germany found the camps did anybody here know what happened.  I guess Roosevelt, not being able to rely on Schadenfreude, was afraid that Americans would want to help the Jews.

In any event, it's not what is, but what is believed that prompts envy.  When Germans saw Jews beaten in the streets, they felt Schadenfreude.  When civilian German women and men pushed Jews into the gas chambers, they felt Schadenfreude. Jews were perceived as being rich and powerful.  They were objects of envy.  Added to that, they didn't believe in Christianity.  That alone made them objects of hatred.  Of course, few Christians ever bothered to find out why.  In any event, yes, I think Schadenfreude helped the Holocaust s along.  It legitimized it because the feeling was legitimized in their language. And it explains to me how such a cultured and educated people did what they did.
One note: Germans had and have no monopoly on anti-Jewishness. (I don't use the term anti-Semitic because most of the Jews of Europe were not Semitic,  and calling them "Semites" perpetuates the notion that they are not like other people in Western countries). In the USA in the 1930's, Nazi Bundt's marched in the Midwest and even in New York,  Father Coughlin was on national radio every week calling Jews "Christ killers" and devils. Because I don't look "Jewish" nor do my husband and kids, (whatever looking Jewish is supposed to be), people have often said nasty things about Jews to me.  When I tell tell them I'm Jewish, I get remarks like, "I never would have guessed...", "You can't be Jewish, you're nice,"  "You can't be Jewish, you're friendly," "But you're like everyone else.." One of my sons was actually asked, "Where are your horns?"  I'm glad that Schadenfreude is not a word in English.

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