How to Make Biomass Out of Individuals

I have long been looking for words to describe the behaviour of Latvian journalists who did not respond to the detentions and persecution of their Russian colleagues. I knew it was called social anemia, dehumanisation, but I couldn’t find the right words. And then I found on the Internet a suitable description of this kind of behaviour by a professional. I share it with those of my readers who want to understand what is happening around them and oppose the policy of dehumanisation.

I warn you, these are very powerful words.

A step-by-step diagram of how to make biomass out of individuals.
The modern powers that be are partly envious of the Nazis. They really succeeded in creating a slave society…

“The Nazi system in 1938-1939 – the time of Bettelheim’s stay in Dachau and Buchenwald – was not yet aimed at total extermination, although lives were also not considered at that time. It was focused on the ‘education’ of the slave force: ideal and obedient, not thinking of anything but mercy from the master, which won’t evoke pity having become expenditure. Accordingly, it was necessary to make a frightened child out of a resisting adult personality, to infantilise a person by force, to achieve his regression — to a child or even to an animal, a living biomass without personality, will or feelings. Biomass is easy to manage, it does not cause sympathy, it is easier to despise and it will obediently go to the slaughter. I.e., it is convenient for the masters.

Summarising the main psychological strategies for suppressing and breaking the personality described in Bettelheim’s work, I have identified and formulated a number of key strategies that are, in general, universal. And in different variations they were repeated and are repeated at almost all levels of society: from the family to the state. The Nazis only gathered it all into a single concentrate of violence and horror. What are these ways of turning a person into a biomass?

Rule #1: Make a person do meaningless work.

One of the SS’ favourite activities is to force people to do completely meaningless work, and the prisoners understood that it did not make sense. Dragging rocks from one place to another, digging holes with your bare hands when the shovels were nearby. What for? ‘Because I said so, you Yiddish mug!’.

(How does this differ from ‘because you need to’ or ‘your job is to do, not think’?)

Rule #2: Introduce mutually exclusive rules, violations of which are inevitable.

This rule created an atmosphere of constant fear of being caught. People were forced to negotiate with the overseers or ‘Kapos’ (SS assistants from among the prisoners), falling into complete dependence on them. There was a large field for blackmail: overseers and ‘kapos’ could pay attention to violations, or they could not pay attention — in exchange for certain services.

(The absurdity and inconsistency of parental requirements or state laws is a complete analog).

Rule #3: Introduce collective responsibility.

Collective responsibility erodes personal responsibility — this is a well-known rule. But when the price of error is too high, collective responsibility turns all members of the group into supervisors for each other. The collective itself becomes an unwitting ally of the SS and the camp administration.

Often, obeying a momentary whim, the SS man gave another meaningless order. The desire for obedience was so ingrained in the psyche that there were always prisoners who followed this order for a long time (even when the SS man forgot about it after five minutes) and forced others to do it. For example, an overseer once ordered a group of prisoners to wash their shoes inside and out with soap and water. Their boots were hard as stone, and they chafed their feet. The order was never repeated. However, many long-term prisoners in the camp continued to wash the inside of their shoes every day and scolded everyone who did not do it for carelessness and dirt.

(The principle of group responsibility… When ‘everyone is to blame’, or when a particular person is seen only as a representative of a stereotypical group, and not as an exponent of their own opinion).

These are the three ‘preliminary rules’. The next three act as a strike team, crushing the already prepared personality into biomass.

Rule #4: Make people believe that nothing depends on them.

To do this: create an unpredictable environment in which it is impossible to plan anything and make people live according to the instructions, stopping any initiative.

A group of Czech prisoners were destroyed like this. For a while, they were singled out as ‘noble’, entitled to certain privileges, and allowed to live in relative comfort without work or deprivation. Then the Czechs were suddenly thrown to work in the quarry, where there were the worst working conditions and the highest mortality rate, while cutting the food ration. Then back to a good home and easy work, a few months later – back to the quarry, etc. There were no survivors. Complete lack of control over your own life, the inability to predict what you are encouraged or punished for, knocks the carpet out from under your feet. The person simply does not have time to develop adaptation strategies, they are completely disorganised.

‘A person’s survival depends on their ability to maintain a certain area of free behaviour, to maintain control over some important aspects of life, despite conditions that seem unbearable… Even a small, symbolic opportunity to act or not to act, but of their own free will, allowed me and others like me to survive.’

The most severe daily routine constantly drove people. If you delay washing for one or two minutes — you will be late for the toilet. If you delay cleaning your bed (there were still beds in Dachau at that time), you will not have breakfast, which is already scanty. Hurry, fear of being late, not a second to think and stop… You are constantly driven by excellent overseers: time and fear. You don’t plan the day. You don’t choose what you do. And you don’t know what will happen to you afterwards.

Punishments and rewards went without any system. If at first the prisoners thought that good work would save them from punishment, then later they realised that nothing guarantees that they will not be sent to extract stones in the quarry (the most deadly occupation). And awarded just like that. It’s just a matter of the SS man’s whim.

This rule is very beneficial to the authorities, because it ensures the lack of activity and initiative on the part of the recipients of messages like ‘nothing depends on you’, ‘well, what have you achieved’, ‘it was and will always be so’.

Rule #5: Make people pretend they don’t see or hear anything.

Bettelheim describes this situation. An SS man beats up another man. A column of slaves passes by, which, noticing the beating, turns their heads in unison and accelerates sharply, showing with all its appearance that it ‘did not notice’ what was happening. The SS man, without looking up from his work, shouts ‘well done!’, because the prisoners have demonstrated that they have learned the rule ‘not to know and not to see what is not allowed’. And the prisoners’ shame and sense of powerlessness increases, and at the same time they unwittingly become accomplices of the SS man, playing his game.

In totalitarian states, the rule ‘we know everything, but we pretend…’ is the most important condition for their existence

Rule #6: Make people cross the last internal line.

‘In order not to become a walking corpse, but to remain a human being, even if humiliated and degraded, it was necessary to always be aware of where the point of no return is, the line beyond which you can not retreat under any circumstances, even if it threatens one’s life. To know that if you survive at the cost of crossing this line, you will continue to live a life that has lost all meaning.’

Bettelheim gives a very graphic story about the ‘last line’. One day an SS man noticed two Jews who were ‘skulking’. He forced them to lie down in a muddy ditch, called a Polish prisoner from a nearby brigade, and ordered them to bury those who had fallen out of favour alive. The Pole refused. The SS man began to beat him, but the Pole continued to refuse. The overseer then ordered them to switch places, and the two were ordered to bury the Pole. And they began to bury their fellow sufferer without the slightest hesitation. When the Pole was almost buried, the SS ordered them to stop, dig him back up, and then lie down in the ditch themselves. And again ordered the Pole to bury them. This time he obeyed, either out of a sense of revenge, or thinking that the SS man would spare them at the last minute, too. But the overseer did not pardon: he stamped the ground over the heads of the victims with his boots. Five minutes later, they were sent to the crematorium, one dead and the other dying.

The result of implementing all the rules:

‘The prisoners who assimilated the idea constantly inspired by the SS that they had nothing to hope for, who believed that they could not influence their position in any way – such prisoners became, literally, walking corpses…’

The process of turning into such zombies was simple and clear. At first, the person stopped acting on their own will: they had no internal source of movement, everything they did was determined by pressure from the overseers. They automatically followed orders, without any selectivity. Then they stopped lifting their legs when walking, and began to shuffle very characteristically. Then they would start looking only in front of them. And then death would come.

People turned into zombies when they gave up any attempt to make sense of their own behaviour and came to a state where they could accept anything, everything that came from outside. ‘Those who have survived have realised what they did not realise before: they have the last, but perhaps most important, human freedom — to choose their own attitude to what is happening in any circumstances.’ Where there is no self-relation, the zombie begins.”

Ilya Latypov, candidate of psychological sciences, associate professor of the Department of Psychology of the Far Eastern State Humanitarian University (Khabarovsk)

Aleksandr Gaponenko

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