“We suffered too”: Nazi Children's Inability to Relate to the Suffering of the Victims of the Holocaust

Dan Bar-On, Amalia Gaon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Genuine and explicit empathy for the victims of one's predecessors' wrongdoings could be a psychological mechanism for preventing future similar atrocities. However, such empathy requires a lot of personal and societal working through that did not take place in Germany during the first 40 years after WWII. “We suffered too” was a major moral argument and normalization strategy found among descendants of Nazis in West Germany. This strategy kept them from relating to the outcomes of their parents' direct or indirect involvement in the Holocaust. In the present study, 31 interviews were content analyzed: 15 children of “perpetrators,” 7 children of “witnesses,” of the Holocaust, and 9 “children of war,” whose parents were not involved in Nazi atrocities. In the search for verbal expressions of empathy for the victims of Nazism, the direct narration of events was analyzed according to three factors: Distinctiveness of the description (remote, proximal, and specific), the Target of the events (“done to us,” “done to them”) and Distance from the describer (“myself,” “our family,” “community,” and “nation”). On the average, only 45% of the descriptions were direct, and out of these the vast majority were remote, relating to events that had happened to the interviewees and their families. Only in the very few specific and proximate descriptions did subjects relate also to the events that were inflicted by the Nazis on their victims. This was found significantly more among children of witnesses of the Holocaust, when compared to both children of war and children of perpetrators. Although lack of verbal expression of empathy, one generation after victimization, does not necessarily imply emotional indifference, we argue that the inability to empathize with the suffering of others may reinforce those people in today's society who promote discrimination and persecution of minorities. “As a child, one tends to see the parents in a positive light. It is the drive for self-preservation. And then to find out that this person had some really terrible convictions, expressed some terrible views, and held onto them… how can one grasp it? How can you take him for a father?” -One of the interviewees

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-95
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Humanistic Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jan 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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