University program focuses on psychology of genocide

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / May 16, 2010

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WORCESTER — As a clinical psychologist, Cristina Andriani counseled victims of physical and sexual abuse, Vietnam War veterans, and cult survivors. As a doctoral candidate, her understanding of trauma is expanding globally as she tries to unravel the psychological underpinnings of genocide.

The first student in what Clark University in Worcester calls the first postgraduate program of its kind in the world, Andriani is researching the deeper mysteries behind some of mankind’s most horrifying atrocities of the last century, from the perspectives of both the tormentor and the tormented.

While the political and historical aspects of the Holocaust and other mass killings have been extensively researched, scholars still ask: What ultimately leads one group of humans to so thoroughly and so brutally annihilate another group of humans? And what are the consequences for the survivors — not only for the generation that experienced genocide, but for their descendants?

“I look at some of the psychology work and it lacks history, and I look at some of the history work done on genocide and it lacks the psychological backing,’’ said Andriani, 34, a US citizen who grew up in Switzerland. “So I think the marriage of the two really makes a lot of sense.’’

It’s a potentially useful field of study, said John Prendergast, cochair of the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project, an organization focused on ending genocide and other human rights crimes. He points to the psychological profiles the US government already does on potential terrorists.

“It’s equally important, even more important, to do profiles of those who would go to the length of committing genocide to maintain power,’’ Prendergast said. “Studying the psychological profile of a perpetrator would enhance the understanding of the tools necessary to stop him.’’

A liberal arts university of about 3,100 undergraduate and graduate students, Clark in the 1990s created the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, one of the nation’s first academic centers devoted exclusively to those topics.

Deborah Dwork, a former Yale University professor who helped create the Strassler Center and remains its director, said she was worried about what would happen when Holocaust survivors died.

“When memory dies, history must create a bridge to the past,’’ she said.

Dwork’s 1991 book, “Children With a Star,’’ chronicled the experiences of Jewish children during the Holocaust era. It was dedicated in part to an aunt who was the only member of the family still in Europe at the time who survived the Holocaust.

The Holocaust describes the World War II murders of an estimated 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany. The center also studies events such as the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people in Rwanda, and the ethnic violence in Sudan’s Darfur region that the UN estimates has left some 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.7 million others since 2003.

The center became the first in the world to offer postgraduate degrees in Holocaust and genocide studies, Dwork said. The psychology behind genocide seemed a natural extension of students’ curiosity.

“Our graduate students became increasingly interested in questions about the psychology of genocide, like ‘what’s up with these perpetrators? What’s with their psychology?’ ’’

Andriani plans a dissertation on how Holocaust trauma — the raw memories of the Holocaust among Jews — have influenced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That choice was somewhat personal. As a graduate student at Syracuse University, her favorite professor was Israeli and her best friend Palestinian.

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