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. Descendants of Crimean Tatars deported under Stalin develop stronger victim identity. 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.
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.
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. Recognition not only restores moral order for victims, but also confers a form of status, 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.
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.
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 …”
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.
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.
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