I've seen footage of the holocaust where parents and their children were shot, with the parents just standing there, doing nothing to protect their children.

I have enormous difficulty in understanding the mindset/attitude/reason for this, fatalistic?, conduct. Being a parent myself, I know I would just go berserk.

What would make parents act like those in the footage?


2 Answers 2


Sounds like you have had a distressing encounter with "learned helplessness" as madsun also described. Learned helplessness is a well-studied psychological phenomenon and reaction that explains the terrible situation that you have described. It is situational and explains the "fatalism" that is so difficult to understand. The simplest explanation I can find seems to be

a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it (Ackerman blog, 2019)

Chris describes the different types of learned helplessness in an another question


Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure). PositivePsychology.com blog (2018, March 24).

  • $\begingroup$ thx. The Chris Rogers' answer is good, but does not satisfy the difficulty I have for the 'in the moment' situational attitude those victims exhibited. Conditioning through humiliation, bad treatment, assaults, ..., does not compare with imminent killing of your child... $\endgroup$
    – slashmais
    Aug 25, 2019 at 14:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Remember it is also their own imminent death too. Not just the child's. $\endgroup$
    – Poidah
    Aug 25, 2019 at 16:45

Gas chambers were decorated as normal showers and massacres as a morning walk. They were simply not told that they are going to be executed. However, once they realized what was about to happen, their instincts typically kicked in and chaos broke out. A lot of people tried to run away and they got shot. Mothers tried to protect their children, but there was simply nothing they could do at this point. Resisting the order to stand in the line would have ended deadly - not only for the mother but also for the children. The only thing they could have done at that moment was to beg and pray for mercy.

Furthermore, there was a huge food shortage in 1944 and 1945. Staatsfeinde des Deutschen Reichs were the last priority at the food chain so most of them were extremely low on energy. This is dreadful for any kind of instinct.


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