Victimhood Recognition

By Vicky Fouka, Elias Dinas, and Alain Schläpfer

In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League commissioned a survey to measure anti-Semitism in 100 countries around the globe. One interesting result were the observed differences between three neighboring countries: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. In the first two, 32 and 38% of respondents, respectively, were found to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. In Armenia, the equivalent figure was 58%. This may be surprising, as Armenians share a defining historical experience with Jews: being the target of mass violence and ethnic cleansing. Why does this similarity of the past not appear to evoke feelings of sympathy and solidarity?

Experiences of victimhood leave intergenerational scars. Descendants of Holocaust survivors often exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, attributed to vicarious or secondary victimization.[1] Descendants of Crimean Tatars deported under Stalin develop stronger victim identity.[2] As Bar-Tal and Halperin put it: …past […] traumas greatly contribute to the definition of group identity and are therefore maintained in the culture and transmitted to new generations, while also occupying a central place in the collective memory of a society involved in intractable conflict.[3]

In recent work, we show that a family history of forced relocation not only shapes group identity, but also attitudes toward other groups undergoing a similar experience. We study descendants of Asia Minor refugees, Christians who fled from Anatolia to Greece in 1922-23, and descendants of German Heimatvertriebene, expellees from Germany’s Eastern territories after the end of WWII. Both groups place great importance on the historical experience of forced migration their ancestors underwent, as evidenced by their priorities for historical events to be included in school curricula (Figure 1). When we experimentally prime this experience and its parallels to Syrian forced migration into Europe we find that refugee descendants become more likely to express sympathy for Syrians and donate money in support of refugees than respondents without a background of forced migration.

Figure 1. Difference between descendants of refugees and other respondents on curriculum priorities.

What then makes the Armenian case different from our two case studies? Put more generally, what factors render some groups with a legacy of collective victimhood more empathetic toward the victimhood of other populations, while others more hostile? In a followup paper, we argue that one such factor is the group’s perception of how acknowledged their ancestors’ trauma is by the broader public. When groups believe that their family history is sufficiently recognized, they become more likely to empathize with the victimhood of others. Lack of acknowledgement leads to lower levels of empathy, and even a sense of competition with other groups claiming victimhood status. As an example, Algerians opposed the introduction of a discussion on the Holocaust in the secondary education curriculum, highlighting the absence of a subject dedicated to French atrocities during the Algerian war.[4] Recognition not only restores moral order for victims[5], but also confers a form of status[6], increasing a group’s confidence and facilitating an emphathetic stance.

We asked descendants of Heimatvetriebene if they agree that the suffering of German expellees had been ignored outside of Germany. Those who agreed, expressed lower sympathy towards Syrian refugees in our survey, and were less likely to donate money to the UNHCR.

Figure 2.  Differences between expellee descendants who agree or disagree that the suffering of expellees is not recognized outside Germany.

To understand whether this correlation is causal, we added an experimental intervention to our survey. We asked respondents to guess what share of the German population would consider the experience of the Heimatvertriebene an important part of German history. We then informed a random subset of respondents on the actual share, estimated from a nationally representative survey.

Respondents who received a positive signal about recognition of their family’s historical experience – those who had initially underestimated the true share of Germans considering the Heimatvertriebe experience important – became more sympathetic towards Syrian refugees. They also became less likely to think that German expellees suffered more than Syrians today, a proxy of victimhood competition.

Figure 4: Impact of the recognition treatment on perceptions of victimhood recognition (left panel) and on sympathy for refugees (right panel).

There is no symmetric effect for those who initially overestimated recognition. Learning that a lower share of Germans than initially estimated considers the experience of Heimatvertriebene an important part of German history does not affect empathy for asylum seekers. One potential explanation for this asymmetry is that people trade levels with variance: a lower but less noisy estimate might be preferable to one that is higher but more uncertain.

These findings suggest that recognition is an important factor for moderating mutual sympathy among victimized minorities. Returning to anti-Semitism in Armenia, an Armenian American participant in social psychologist Johanna Vollhardt’s focus groups states: “Everyone talks about the Holocaust, but nobody talks about the [Armenian] genocide, and I guess […] we kind of resent that a little. Even though I said we are similar, and I like the Jewish people, but, we are not recognized …”[7]

Yet other work shows that Jews as well are significantly less likely to support other victimized groups when the Holocaust is cast as a crime against humanity than when it is cast as a crime against Jews.[8]

What this all points to is the importance of the politics of history. Public remembrance is a highly contentious topic. When debating its effects, it is useful to remember that recognition of a group’s victimization may have broad implications for intergroup relations and social cohesion.

[1] Wohl, Michael JA, and Jay J Van Bavel. 2011. Is Identifying with a Historically Victimized Group Good or Bad for your Health? Transgenerational Post-Traumatic Stress and Collective Victimization. European Journal of Social Psychology 41(7): 818 824.

[2] Lupu, Noam, and Leonid Peisakhin. 2017. The Legacy of Political Violence Across Generations. American Journal of Political Science 61(4): 836 851.

[3] Bar-Tal, Daniel, and Eran Halperin. 2013. The Psychology of Intractable Conflicts: Eruption, Escalation, and Peacemaking. In L. Huddy, D. O. Sears, & J. S. Levy (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of political psychology (pp. 923–956). Oxford University Press.

[4] Corbel, Laurence, Jean-Pierre Costet, Benoît Falaize, Alexander Mérickskay and Krystel Mut. 2004. Entre Mémoire et Savoir: L’Enseignement de la Shoah et des Guerres de Décolonisation. Tech. rep. L’Académie de Versailles.

[5] Noor, Masi, Johanna Ray Vollhardt, Silvia Mari and Arie Nadler. 2017. The Social Psychology of Collective Victimhood. European Journal of Social Psychology 47(2): 121 134.

Shnabel, Nurit, and Arie Nadler. 2008. A Needs-Based Model of Reconciliation: Satisfying the Differential Emotional Needs of Victim and Perpetrator as a Key to Promoting Reconciliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94(1): 116.

[6] Fassin, Didier, and Richard Rechtman. 2009. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

[7] Vollhardt, Johanna Ray. 2015. Inclusive Victim Consciousness in Advocacy, Social Movements, and Intergroup Relations: Promises and Pitfalls. Social Issues and Policy Review 9(1): 89 120.

[8] Vollhardt, Johanna Ray. 2012. Collective Victimization. Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict: 136 157.


  • Vicky Fouka

    Vicky Fouka is an assistant professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Her research is at the intersection of history, political economy and political behavior, with a focus on group identity, intergroup relations and immigrant integration. Her work is published or forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, Review of Economic Studies, the Journal of Politics and Economic Journal. She received a PhD in Economics from Pompeu Fabra University in 2015.

  • Elias Dinas

    Elias Dinas holds the Swiss Chair in Federalism, Democracy and International Governance (joint SPS/RSC chair) – while on leave from the University of Oxford, where he is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics and a Tutorial Fellow at Brasenose College. Elias holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the European University Institute (2010) and his research interests include the dynamics of political socialization, the downstream effects of institutional interventions and the legacy of authoritarian rule on the ideological predispositions of citizens in new democracies. He has also a keen interest in research methodology. His work has been published, among others, in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and Political Analysis and mentioned in The Economist, The Atlantic and <i<The New York Times.

  • Alain Schläpfer

    Alain Schläpfer is a Lecturer in Political Science and Economics and the Director of the Data Science track in Political Science. His research examines the evolution of cooperation among individuals and groups, with a particular emphasis on the role of reputational concerns. He also investigates the formation of preferences and of cultural norms, as well as their effects on behavior and long term outcomes. Alain's research has been published in journals in political science, economics and biology, and makes use of formal modelling, causal identification and computer simulations. Originally from Switzerland, Alain received his PhD from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

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