Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

Joint Ph.D. Program in Study of Religion

First Advisor

Sandra Lee Dixon

Second Advisor

Carrie Doehring

Third Advisor

Adam Rovner


Death drive, Dehumanization, Holocaust, Nazi era


Dehumanization can be defined in part as a process by which a powerful individual or group (the victimizers) actively denies or withdraws a second individual’s or group’s (the victim’s) sense of human worth or personal value. Dehumanization is an especially virulent form of denigration of the Other and is known to have harmful psychological consequences on victims.

The thesis of this dissertation is: Dehumanization, applied in an increasingly severe manner to demean, subjugate and control Jews in Nazi dominated territories during the Nazi era (1933-1945), activated a “death instinct/drive” (Freud 1920; 1923/1960; 1930) that was used to resolve an extreme power struggle that existed in the minds of Adolph Hitler, other Nazi leaders and some German people between the Aryan people and Jews. The result was a horrific genocide.

Dehumanization of the Jews in the Nazi era resulting in genocide was implemented across several domains: social, economic, educational, professional, personal. As shown in this dissertation, increasingly severe dehumanization may activate a virulent expression of the death drive resulting in murder and even genocide. Freud described the death drive as a universal tendency in human beings that involves dynamics of aggression and destruction that may lead to the death and negation of others. According to Freud, murder is the ultimate expression of the death drive and a means to establish dominance, control, subjugation or retaliation against the victim. The death drive is in constant tension with and balanced by what Freud called Eros or the life force that prohibits people from perpetrating harm, especially killing.

This dissertation proposes a modified form of Freud’s death drive and uses a case study method to explore how increasingly severe dehumanizating tactics in Nazi Germany activated a death drive resulting in genocide. Increasingly severe dehumanization of Jewish people and other persecuted groups in the Nazi era gained traction through the following tactics: socially isolating the victim (e.g., in ghettos and then concentration camps), distracting bystanders through social upheaval and war and targeting victims with physical and psychological disabilities. This dissertation argues that the common denominator of these tactics involves the desire and ability of the victimizer to establish dominance and control over victims by making them weak and helpless. Those individuals who are weak and helpless are more easily killed. This case study may be used to explore how a modified form of Freud’s death drive may be relevant to the study of other genocides. This case study may have implications for the psychological study of what is termed “evil” and the apparent tendency of human beings to harm and potentially kill one another under the guise of reprisal or self-justification, as occurred in the Nazi era when Adolf Hitler argued that Jews were the greatest existing threat to the Aryan race.

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Copyright is held by the author. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Rights Holder

Stewart Gabel


Received from ProQuest

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301 pgs


Holocaust studies, Psychology