Did shame lead to the Holocaust?

Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp for Jews between 1940 and 1945. According to Wikipedia, “The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied.”

I did NOT want to go to a concentration camp memorial while on vacation in Germany in early August.

But my wife Daphne insisted. My cousin’s daughter Stephanie said it was a good idea. Onkel Udo especially agreed.

So on Thursday, August 6, 2015, we all drove from Hanover to the memorialized concentration camp in Germany called Bergen-Belsen—all seven of us in my cousin’s VW minivan.

I did much research about honor and shame my book The Global Gospel. One of the insights I gained concerns the pathology of shame. Here’s the principle I learned:

Guilt tends to lead to healing behavior,
whereas shame tends to lead to hurtful

It is one thing to see the effect of shame on a personal level. But when the pathology of shame impacts whole societies and nations, it becomes truly horrendous. James W. Jones writes,

The two greatest group humiliations of the modern age produced the two greatest movements of genocide and terrorism in the modern world: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire along with the imposition of European colonialism on the Arab world leading to the rise of the jihad; and the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War and the appeal of Nazism in Germany.[2]

So let’s look at the second of these “two greatest group humiliations” in a little more detail. For it is a fact of history that a shamed Germany after the First World War contributed to the rise the Hitler and the Nazi party, which led to the horrors of the Second World War and the Jewish holocaust.

“Hier Ruhen 5000 Tote” — “Here Lie 5000 Dead”, April 1945
Shame as fuel for genocide in Nazi Germany

Concerning the humiliation—the shaming—of Germany following World War One, Jones writes:

The Treaty of Versailles removed all of Germany’s colonies from its control, laid on Germany the worst sanctions that decimated the economy, and demanded its disarmament. All of these had been sources of pride and their loss was a total humiliation for the Germans. These humiliations along with the virtual collapse of the weak Weimar government and the German economy laid the groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power. German veterans returning to a defeated and destabilized nation reported “as a Front-fighter, the collapse of the Fatherland in November 1918 was to me completely incomprehensible,” or “I had believed adamantly in Germany’s invincibility and now I only saw the country in its deepest humiliation—the entire world fell to the ground.”[3]

Jones continues, describing the longing of the German people to regain their honor:

People holding such sentiments became the core of the Nazi movement. National humiliation caused by military defeat, internal political weakness, and economic collapse had at least two disastrous results for Germany and for the rest of the world: it set off a furious search for scapegoats, for someone or some group to blame and to punish for all this suffering; and it unleashed a ferocious drive to undo the humiliation by defeating those who had humiliated Germany. Many citizens were vulnerable to someone who could explain which group was to blame and could offer a way to Bergen-Belsen3overcome the humiliation. That person was obviously Adolf Hitler who pointed the finger of responsibility at Jews and other “non-Aryans” and had a plan to restore German prominence through military conquest.[4]

It is ironic that the national shame that fueled World War Two and the Holocaust ended up giving Germany the reputation as the most barbaric of civilized nations—shaming the German people for generations for their descent into such horrible evil.

My father was a soldier in the German army. He only survived because he was captured by the Allied Forces. He became a prisoner of war in Poland for four-and-a-half years. After he was freed, he came to America with his father, mother and two brothers. I am therefore a second-generation American from a German family. The ‘German guilt and shame’ of which I have written above has touched my life and other members of my extended family in deep and enduring ways.

Of course, what my family experienced is nothing compared to the mammoth, murderous humiliation and shame suffered by the Jews of Germany and Europe—at the hands of the nationalistic honor-seeking Nazis and Germans.

Oh, how we need to understand and overcome the dark and devilish side of honor and shame.


  1. What can we learn from the anemic response of the German church to the horrors of the nationalistic Nazi political machine? To explore the relationship between so-called “German Christian movement” and the Nazi party, see Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.
  2. Consider the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. To what extent does this reflect the longing to recover our national honor in America’s current political climate? How might this be healthy or unhealthy, godly or ungodly?
  3. Does the gospel of Christ cover our sin and shame, and answer the human longing for honor? For a gospel presentation that speaks to these concerns, see The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet. Or, see a more comprehensive treatment of the subject in THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World.

Note: Portions of this post have been excerpted
from my book,
The Global Gospel.


1. See June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002).

2. James W. Jones, “Shame, Humiliation, and Religious Violence: A Self-Psychological Investigation,” in Jewett, Robert, Wayne L. Alloway, and John G. Lacey, eds. The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 41.

3. Jones quotes an article by David Redles, “Ordering Chaos: Nazi Millennialism and the Quest for Meaning,” in The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History, ed. Charles B. Strozier et al., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 156–74.

4. Jones, 41.

Leave a Reply