The Price We Pay for Shaming Little Boys

By Mary Armstrong

"It is quite natural for the child's soul to want to have a will of its own, and things that are not done correctly in the first two years will be difficult to rectify thereafter. One of the advantages of these early years is that then force and compulsion can be used. Over the years children forget everything that happened to them in early childhood. If their wills can be broken at this time, they will never remember afterwards that they had a will, and for this very reason the severity that is required will not have any serious consequences."
-- J. Sulper - Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children (1748)
Quoted in Alice Miller's For Your Own Good

The American psychiatrist, James Gilligan, works with the most violent men in U.S. maximum security settings. Gilligan tells us:

One cannot fail to see that the men who occupy the extreme end of the continuum of violent behaviour in adulthood occupied an equally extreme end of the continuum of violent abuse earlier in life. The violent criminals I have known have been objects of violence from early childhood (Gilligan, 1997, p. 45).

For Gilligan the connection between childhood abuse and adult violence is as clear - and as preventable as the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Violent men, says Gilligan, are motivated by shame, an inevitable legacy of child abuse (p. 49).

Michael Lewis (1992) has proposed that severe and frequent child abuse accompanied by debasement results in shame which is so aversive that it is masked by rage. This shame-rage response is activated in conflict situations. Rage and violence are serious consequences of suffering prolonged shame experiences.

Dutton (1998) summarizes his study of "cyclically/emotionally volatile batterers" by concluding that boyhood shaming, primarily by fathers, is the most powerful factor contributing to wife abuse. When physical abuse in childhood was factored out, shaming experiences still were strongly related to adult rage and abusiveness. But the opposite did not hold: physical abuse by the father did not, on its own, predict the sons' anger or abuse. "The lethal combination of shaming and physical abuse was required. Unfortunately, that combination was the rule rather than the exception (p.84)."

This paper is about the connection between childhood shame and adult violence, as witnessed in German history. German children were traditionally raised with a pedagogy which was thorough and exact in its instructions on how to raise an abused child from babyhood. I am not naive about the history of child abuse in my own and other countries. I know the terrible history of child rearing in England, France and the rest of the world throughout the centuries. We have our own horror stories in Canada. My point is that intense shaming of children is built into the schwarze pedagogic of German child rearing. German children were reared according to detailed rules, designed to produce children who were cut off from their own ability to think things through and come to a satisfactory personal decision.

Sulzer, in 1748, explains that humiliation of children is key to producing obedient citizens who are willing to submit to the laws and rules of reason once they are their own masters, since they are already accustomed not to act in accordance with their own will (Miller, 1990, p. 10). Dependence on authority plus the intense shaming of children produced the generation of Germans who obediently followed Hitler into the second World War and found their emotional release in carrying out its atrocities.

I first became aware of how profoundly shamed Germans are when I read James Bacque's account of what was done to the German people by the Allies between 1944 and 1950, after the fighting was over. Briefly, Bacque describes how between half a million and a million Germans starved to death because of Allied policies of revenge. Conditions for German Prisoners of War in American camps were intolerable - far below the standards set by the Geneva Convention.

These camps were described by Lt. Col. Henry W. Allard, who was in charge of the US camps in France in 1945. He said: "The standards of PW (prisoner of war) camps in the ComZ (the US army's rear zone) in Europe compares as only slightly better or even with the living conditions of the Japanese PW camps our men tell us about, and unfavorably with the Germans." To maintain such camps was a crime punishable by death, according to the Americans after the war.

The Allies shot Japanese General Masaharu Homma in 1946 for maintaining camps in approximately the conditions described by Allard. After the German surrender on 8 May, 1945, the American camps grew steadily worse (Bacque, 1997).

Alfred deZayas, human rights expert trained in law at Harvard and in history at Göttingen and Tubingen, specializes in the rights of refugees and minorities. His book, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of East European Germans, 1944-50, (1986) documents the personal accounts of survivors among German settlers who had lived for generations in the eastern provinces such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary. Two million died and fifteen million were displaced in what amounted to horrific ethnic cleansing. The Potsdam Conference of 1945 decided their fate.

First person accounts tell of civilian men, women and children being ordered to leave their home, with only twenty-four hours notice, to make their way back to a shrunken Germany, a land they did not even know. The women were raped repeatedly and often killed by their perpetrators. The children starved, their small bodies unable to withstand the deprivation. Poles struck back at these helpless refugees, remembering how cruel German soldiers had been. Czechs, Poles, Hungarians - all looted the German settlers. People who, before the war, had been neighbours and on good terms, now saw these German settlers not as people, but as "the enemy."

What surprised me most, though, was that the German people I have spoken with about this deliberate and immoral cruelty either do not know these facts or have only a hazy awareness of this period in German history. When I first attempted to discuss this with German colleagues and friends, I was bewildered by their reaction. These well educated and knowledgeable people knew nothing of these chapters in their own history. Generally, they expressed amazement, a hazy familiarity with the details or simply uncomfortable refusal to talk with me about what was clearly a forbidden subject.

What is one to make of the fact that few Germans know about this? Why was Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hiltler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust, a best seller in Germany? Why would German readers rather read about the terrible things they did than what was done to them?

My understanding is that no German writers have published books on what was done to Germans by the Allies, at least not through major publishing houses. As far as I know, only two people have written extensively about this period in German history: James Bacque, a Canadian, and Alfred deZayas, an American. I am also told that in Germany anyone who talks about these crimes against the German people is branded a neo-Nazi. As a non-German and a non-Jew I was bewildered by this.

The reluctance of Germans to "know about" what was done to them after the fighting was over reminds me of those three little monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil. In my twenty years as a psychotherapist treating survivors of childhood trauma, I am familiar with this tendency of those who were once helpless to minimize the impact abuse has had on their lives. It is the same with my abused clients who trivialize the beatings of their childhood, saying they deserved to be hit, that they were very bad children. People who have been traumatized tend to normalize their traumatic situations.

It is hard for humans to accept that they were powerless to protect themselves from deliberate mistreatment. They are much more likely to take the blame for having been abused. For example, people who have been sexually abused as children tend to blame themselves, at least unconsciously, for somehow causing the abuse by being too sexy or too bad. Part of therapy is to help them realistically assess what was done to them and to what degree they are responsible for the shame they feel. (Of course, children bear no actual responsibility for being abused.) A first step in healing, then, is to accept that you were hurt by the trauma.

What is shame? Gilligan describes it as the absence of a healthy sense of self-esteem self-respect, and self-love which are necessary to survive the inevitable rejections and humiliations which no one can avoid in life. Children who fail to receive sufficient love from others do not build those reserves of self-love. Without feelings of self-love, the self feels numb, empty, and dead. It may be paradoxical to refer to shame as a "feeling," says Gilligan, for while shame is initially painful, constant shaming leads to a deadening of feeling. Shame is like cold. At first it is intensely painful, but when it reaches an intolerable extreme, it results in complete numbness and in the death of the self. The person whose soul has been killed by shame goes through life with an automatic, unconscious reflex for self­anaesthetization which is self-deadening.

How, Gilligan asks, can a person who does not experience any feelings himself know that others have feelings or be moved by the feelings of others (pp. 47-52)? Shame leads to later violence. To illustrate the shame/violence cycle I will tell you about the clinical work and research carried out by Dr. Ralph Bierman (1996). Ralph Bierman is a psychologist who has implemented a program for men who are in Canadian jails because they have been violent with their family members, particularly their wives and their children. These men have been screened for their readiness to look inside themselves, following treatment in he correctional center's milieu therapy programme. Inevitably their tough exteriors cover shamed identities.

Shame, says Bierman, involves the fearful anticipation of others' contempt. Shamed identity arises from globally attributing badness to oneself. It arises from thinking about one's self as bad, which may include imagining what others are thinking. Shame contrasts with guilt which focuses on specific performances or behaviors. Bierman differentiates between anger and rage. Anger is a response to the blockage of a goal. Rage is a response to an attack on the self, a response to shaming. Rage and violence are serious consequences of suffering prolonged shame experience.

All Bierman's men suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Naturally, the results of PTSD deepen their shame as adults. Imagine how difficult it is for a tough guy to be having nightmares he cannot control; to be haunted by fear which threatens to break through if he feels any emotions; to not be able to function as well as he thinks he should in the world. Alice Miller provides a dramatic description of Hitler's night terrors as witnessed by his followers when der Führer would wake at night with convulsive screams, yelling for help like a frightened child, hallucinating that "he" was there in the room (p. 174).

Fathers' contempt for their sons produces men who believe they are worthless, who are hyper-vigilant to signs of disdain, who are defensively ready to attribute negative intent to others, and who find a quick fix for making themselves worthwhile by degrading those less powerful than themselves, such as their wives. They believe they can make themselves feel some worth by making someone else lower than themselves.

In Bierman's programme, therapeutic procedures based on Eugene Gendlin's Focusing enable the participants to work through their own remembered physical or emotional abuse. The men are encouraged to let their feelings happen, to resist telling themselves what they should feel and to stop judging their feelings. They are taught to quietly put their attention into the part of their body where they usually have their feelings.They are instructed to let go controlling and to simply follow what is happening inside. For most of us the physical sensation connected to a feeling occurs as a tight knot in the stomach, a choking in the throat or a heaviness in the chest. Bierman trains the men to pay attention to these physical body signals which provide a way into unconscious knowing (Gendlin, 1996).

Gilligan refers to Nazi Germany's collective violence as a "pure culture of violence." He says:
That is why it is so relevant to note the centrality of shame as the main motive force, behind one of the most lethal forms of collective violence in this century or any other. Hitler came to power on the campaign promise to undo "the shame of Versailles" - and clearly that promise, and the sensitivity to shame from which it derived its power, struck a responsive chord in the German people as a whole. . .Hitler offered them a way of re-establishing their status and sense of power (p..67).

Germany's people have been severely traumatized by two world wars, by the humiliating and bloody defeat of 1918 and the subsequent shame of Versailles, by the horrors of the Second World War and the revenge the Allies took once the fighting was over. Add to this the traditional harshness and humiliation of child rearing in Germany! Besides, Hitler had told them that if they lost the war it was their own fault for not fighting bravely enough, and that they deserved whatever punishment came to them.

In the methods of schwarze pedagogik, the child never experiences hatred for the father. When it is not possible to admit and express hatred for a parent, the rage gets projected onto others. As with Ralph Bierman's battering men, those who are weak and vulnerable (the way the batterer was as a child) become targets for this pent up rage. The adult who is filled with rage and shame becomes the perpetrator making others feel the way he felt when he was helpless.

This shame/violence cycle clearly played itself out when Germans who had been traumatized in childhood took out their rage on Jews and others who reminded them of themselves when they were helpless children. They projected onto others all their own "bad" qualities which they had never been able to accept in themselves. Jews became dirty, greedy schemers, plotting to overthrow the rightful authorities. Concentration camp guards had the perfect opportunity to restage their own childhood traumas. Prisoners were helpless to defend themselves or to escape.

Their captors, urged on by the state, indulged in humiliating defenseless Jews. In fact, every German's repetition compulsion seems to have found a place in the hierarchy of terror which characterized the Nazi period. Men who had once been shamed as children now had the opportunity to demand from others, the cadaver-like obedience their fathers had exacted. They, in turn, gave automatic, unthinking obedience to their masters in The Third Reich's hierarchy of terror.

Dissociation helps people forget what is too horrible to remember. Has the traumatization of the German nation resulted in nationwide dissociation? Perhaps that is why they did not recall the terrible chapter of their history between 1944 and 1950. In the 1990's, Johannes Heising published a book about his experience as a prisoner in the US camp at Remagen. After the book was published, Heising was talking with another former Remagen prisoner, Franz-Josef Plemper, who reminded him of something Heising had left out of the book. One night the Americans bulldozed living men under the earth in their foxholes. Plemper described this scene to him.

One night in April 1945 I was startled out of my stupor in the rain and mud by piercing screams and loud groans. I jumped up and saw in the distance (about 30-50 meters) the searchlight of a bulldozer. Then I saw this bulldozer was moving forwards through the crowd of prisoners who lay there. In the front it had a blade making a path­ way. How many of the prisoners were buried alive in their earth holes I do not know. It is no longer possible to ascertain. I heard clearly cries of "you murderer."(Bacque, p.63)

And then Heising remembered.

Clearly, not only Germans were playing out their violent fantasies on helpless prisoners.

This paper deals with shaming in the childhood of Germans. But this is not specifically a German problem. It is a problem throughout the world. It is my hope that once we better understand the underlying causes of violence, we will be able to find some solutions.

How do we protect little boys from being shamed and abused by their fathers? This is a generational problem. It is self-perpetuating. Men who have been abused and shamed by their fathers tend to shame and abuse their small boys. As a society, we must find ways of cutting into this cycle of abuse where fathers humiliate their boys and passive mothers stand by without interfering on behalf of the children. But before we will be able to do this, we will have to accept whatever we ourselves experienced as children, as well as the ways in which we act out of our own traumatic experience.

Mary Katherine Armstrong is a social work psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. She specializes in treating adults and children suffering from childhood trauma. She teaches and presents her work in Canada, the United States and Europe.

This article is from the Spring, 2000, issue of Lloyd deMause's Journal of Psychohistory. Reproduced with permission.


Bacque, J. (1997). Crimes arid Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation 1944-1950. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.
Bierman, R. and Cheston, J. (1996). Relating Without Violence: A Manual for a Treatment Program for Domestically Abusive Men. Ontario Correctional Institute.
DeZayas, A. (1986). A Terrible Revenge: The ethnic cleansing of the East European Germans: 1944-1950. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Dutton, D. (1998). The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships. New York: Guilford Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1996), Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. New York: Vintage Books.
Goldhagen, D. (1997). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Toronto: Random House of Canada.
Lewis, M. (1992). Shatne: The Exposed Self. New York: Free Press.
Miller, A. (1990). For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. Toronto: Harper Collins Canada.

Psychohistorian Lloyd deMause recently made a micro review of the book below which I thought was germane to Mary Armstrong's article. It appeared in Psychohistory News, Fall, 2006
-- John A. Speyrer - Webmeister of the PPP

James Bowman, Honor: A History. New York: Encounter Books, 2006.

Want a well-written history of honor and war that takes the side of those who think going to war for "honor" is great? A book that thinks we should have continued to fight in Vietnam in order to save American "honor"? A book that sees honor as feeling shame and is in favor of killing millions rather than feel shameful and humiliated? Bowman provides that book.

It is really worth reading, since most of the books we read are liberal and don't really understand and defend reactionary values like honor. He is best at showing how Muslim terrorists are "defending their honor" by killing anyone from the West, not because of our politics, but solely because we all do dishonorable things like dancing with women who have naked arms and necks. (Bin Laden's favorite, Qutb, found this out when he visited the U.S.) The author considers it his task to defend honor and fighting in order to avoid feeling shamed by others. In so doing, he reviews all the societies in the past and present that fight for honor, who kill rather than feel shamed.

That we do not openly defend wars today as being rightly fought for "honor" he blames on psychotherapists. And "the breakdown of discipline in the schools" by prohibiting them from hitting children with canes, as they should do if we are to have societies that respect honor (Honest: see page 251.)

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