The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim

by stephenpalmersf

In 1938, Bruno Bettelheim, along with a number of other Jewish-born Austrians, was sent by the Nazi regime to Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. There he began a process of analysing his own reactions to the camps, along with those of other victims, anti-Nazi German prisoners, and also the various types of officer. The result was two decades later written as The Informed Heart, which sought to explain and understand the meaning of such extreme situations.

Bettelheim is a controversial figure. Since his death in 1990 a number of controversies have developed – his explosive rages which sometimes fell upon his students, possible plagiarism in his excellent study of the deeper meanings of fairy stories The Uses Of Enchantment, misrepresentation of his own credentials when escaping to America in 1939, and more. He was greatly interested in autism, but became enamoured of a theory which blamed the mothers of such children, a theory now entirely discredited. But despite these major defects he did produce remarkable work, of which The Informed Heart is one of the best.

Bettelheim opens with a couple of introductory chapters before heading off into a discussion of freedom, in which he observes: It is not so much that modern man is so much quicker to surrender his freedom to society, nor that man was so much more autonomous in the good old days. It is rather that scientific and technological progress has relieved him of having to solve so many problems that he once had to solve by himself if he meant to survive…

Bettelheim saw a specific situation developing through the 20th century where: … [there is] less need to develop autonomy… and more need for it if he prefers not to have others making decisions for him.

This double whammy is one of Bettelheim’s central concerns. The rest of the book deals with the experiences themselves: methods of coercion in the camps, the defences used by victims, and what he called ‘the fluctuating price of life,’ in which a few of the more extraordinary and horrific situations are observed.

The book concludes by remarking that ‘men are not ants.’ The success or failure of any mass society, Bettelheim thinks, is dependent upon whether or not a humane society can be created by people who have ‘reshaped their personality.’ In this regard Bettelheim was close to Erich Fromm’s view that a humane society cannot possibly be created by inhumane individuals; he wanted to understand, as Fromm did. And Bettelheim states the dangers of people being coerced by technology, seeing that tyranny has its own momentum. I don’t think the various Bettelheim controversies reduce the impact and relevance of this book.

Perhaps our 21st century problem is that tyranny has become almost invisible.

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