Recently, Islamic militants under the ISIS banner have conquered vast parts of Syria and Iraq, ruthlessly persecuting non-Muslims and members of other sects. Thousands of European-born Muslims have flocked to the Middle East to support their cause. Radical beliefs and violent hatred are not new phenomena; from the days of the Crusades to 20th century genocides, human societies have witnessed conflict on a vast scale, often based on preaching extreme hatred of ‘other’ groups.
Schooling and radicalisation
How much can schooling and the environment in which children grow up contribute to radicalisation? One case that provides lessons for today is Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.
Children were influenced by schools, films, newspapers, books, and the (compulsory) extracurricular activities in the ‘Hitler Youth’ (Evans 2006). Nazi schooling was extreme in its emphasis on the alleged racial superiority of Aryans, and the ‘evil character’ of Jews. Children were taught that Jews and other races were inferior to Aryans, and such beliefs infected the curriculum from math to biology.
One mathematics exercise read "The Jews are aliens in Germany – in 1933 there were 66,060,000 inhabitants in the German Reich, of whom 499,682 were Jews. What is the per cent of aliens?”
Figure 1 shows a classroom where the teacher points to the hand-written memento “The Jew is our greatest enemy. Beware of the Jews”, while two Jewish pupils are standing in front of their classmates, looking down.
Figure 1. Nazi school lesson – “The Jews are our greatest enemy”
Source: Yad Vashem
New research on long-term effects
That the media and schooling had some effect while the Nazi regime was in power is not controversial. What is unclear is how long-lasting and effective indoctrination was (Schein 1956, Scheflin and Opton 1978). Does being exposed to radical indoctrination shape peoples’ beliefs for the rest of their lives – even if they live in a pluralistic, democratic society afterwards?
In a new study, we examine this question by turning to the German Social Survey (ALLBUS), which asked individuals in 1996 and 2006 about their attitudes towards Jews (Voigtländer ans Voth 2015). It included questions such as “Are Jews trying to exploit their victim status for financial gain?” Table 1 provides an overview:
Source: Voigtländer and Voth, “Nazi Indoctrination and Anti-Semitic Beliefs in Germany”, PNAS 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112 (2015).
Interestingly, there is also substantial regional variation. As figure 2 shows, some regions in Germany are much more anti-Jewish than others. On average, 17% of Germans answer with strongly anti-Semitic views to the question “Do you think that Jews partly brought persecution in the 20th century on themselves?” However, in some areas the share is more than twice as high, reaching 38% in the most extreme case.
Figure 2. Distribution of extreme anti-Semitic views.
Source: Allbus 1996 and 2006.
The figure shows responses to the question “Do you think that Jews partly brought persecution in the 20th century on themselves?” Answers range from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). We map the share of the population giving a score of 5, 6, or 7.
Beliefs over space and time
We examine differences in beliefs over time and space to learn more about how indoctrination happened, and when it was particularly effective.
- We find that Germans born in the 1920s and 1930s are today still much more anti-Semitic than earlier or later cohorts.
- Figure 3 shows the share of extremists – Germans who answered 6 or more on a scale from 1 to 7 for three Jew-specific questions.
- In the cohorts born after 1950, the share of extremists thus defined is around 3%.
- For those born in the 1930s, the proportion is fully three times higher – close to 10%.
The effects of indoctrination are not confined to extremists. In general, we find that levels of anti-Semitism are much higher for those born in the 1920s and 1930s – average negativity towards Jews is markedly higher in these cohorts.
Figure 3. Share of committed anti-Semites by birth decade.
Source: Voigtländer and Voth (2015).
The figure shows the proportion of respondents who answer with 6 or more (on a scale of 7) on each of three Jew-specific questions asked in ALLBUS: “Do Jews have too much influence in the world?”; “Are Jews partly responsible for their own persecution?”; and “Are Jews trying to exploit their victim status for financial gain?”
Determinants of anti-Semitism
Where was exposure of young minds to Nazi schooling particularly corrosive? To examine factors that may have amplified or dampened the effects of indoctrination, we look at voting results from the late Imperial period. Back then, several parties with a strong anti-Semitic agenda competed for votes. Where they proved popular, children born in the 1920s and 1930s are markedly more anti-Semitic – and the higher the level of historical anti-Semitism, the greater the increase relative to pre-1933 levels of Jew-hatred.
This suggests that indoctrination was at its most effective where it could build on a basis of pre-existing prejudice. Conversely, in areas where people were not visibly anti-Semitic in the 1890s and 1910s, Nazi schooling created much less of a surge in anti-Jewish beliefs.
Nazi indoctrination proved extraordinarily powerful.
In contrast to studies using small-scale interventions, subjecting an entire population to the full power of a totalitarian state was extremely effective.
As one member of the Hitler Youth recalled – “We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children. There were few of those,” (Heck 1988). At the same time, as our evidence shows – and the quote suggests – family and the social environment can isolate young minds from the effects of indoctrination at least to some extent.
Evans, R (2005), The Third Reich in power, New York: Penguin.
Heck, A (1988), The burden of Hitler’s legacy, Phoenix: American Traveler Press.
Hirsch, H (1995), Genocide and the politics of memory, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press.
Schein, E (1956), “The Chinese indoctrination program for prisoners of war; a study of attempted brainwashing”, Psychiatry, 19(2): 149-172.
Scheflin, A and E Opton (1978), The mind manipulators: A non-fiction account, New York: Paddington Press.
Voigtländer, N and H J Voth (2015), “Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany”, PNAS, June 15, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112.