Should “What Happened to You?” Apply to Nazis?

Posted on August 18, 2017

Should “What Happened to You?” Apply to Nazis?

One of the best ways to demonstrate the power of the trauma-informed paradigm is to challenge people to think differently about the behaviors and thoughts of individuals who have an unresolved trauma history. The traditional paradigm is to understand actions as a reflection of the value of the person. Bad behaviors = bad person. Disorganized and illogical ways of thinking about the world = crazy person. Racist, heterosexist, anti-Semitic, nationalist thinking + violent behavior = Nazi.

The trauma-informed paradigm challenges us to look deeper. It shifts the questions from “What did you do?” or “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” As the trauma research expands our deeper scientific understanding, it shows that violent, hurtful, criminal, and other “bad” behaviors result from childhoods dominated by traumatic experiences and dysregulated family systems. Illogical thinking and harmful actions are seen not as a reflection on the person’s real self. Instead, they are symptoms of adverse childhood experiences and trauma.

Which brings us to Nazis, White Nationalist, and the Ku Klux Klan, these people make it very easy to view them as the “them” or “enemy” that “us” must fight. It is easy to see “them” as evil, stupid, rednecks who need to be removed from any society for it to be safe and civilized. Do these self-proclaimed Nazis desire us to step back from our anger and hate and ask, “What happened to you?”

I just want to yell: Hell No!

Forget empathy, compassion, and understanding. We must organize and fight these racists whose beliefs are the worst mix of hate and stupidity (who glorifies and identifies with the greatest losers of history!). Under the old paradigm, I can quickly judge behavior and belief while knowing that I am on the right side morally and logically.

What if I could regulate my anger and sadness for the dead and injured long enough to ask, “What happened to these Nazis that lead them to their violent behaviors?” Pulling back, I can start to see hundreds of years of cultural influences, I see poverty, I see them growing up in cities who thought it was okay to put up monuments to those who fought for slavery, I see communities that never racially integrate in meaningful ways, and I assume I would find that many participating in the violence in Charlottesville were victims of violence in their childhoods.

Pulling back further, I can see why these people feel empowered by our current political environment. The nationalists of the Republican Party have become a powerful influence across the country. How far of a leap is it from nationalist populism to white nationalism? Even if the “mainstreamed alt-right” claims not to promote racism, bigotry, or heterosexism; in the last few weeks the White House has gone after transgendered people servicing in the military, encouraged police to be “rough” with suspects, launched an effort to fight “white racism” and affirmative action, all this before Trump’s comments this week supporting many of the racists in Charlottesville. If it is easy for me to associate this language and policies with the racism and bigotry of white nationalism, of course, those who subscribe to this ideology feel like their moment is now?

Combine a history of traumatic experience, a historically bigoted and racist cultural experience, permission to come out of the shadows, and the fight response that broke out during the protest and the result is a person using their car to murder and hurt. One struggle we are very familiar with in our work is finding value in the individual even as we disapprove and even hate some of the behaviors our clients and students are exhibiting. I don’t expect the Nazis or Klan to spend their next blog post on how they need to learn to have a deeper understanding to act more compassionately towards people of color, Jew, Catholics, and anti-fascist counter demonstrators.

However, isn’t this the call of our work? Can we despise the behavior and label it evil and also ask, “What happened to these people that make them so racist and hateful?” Our calling to understand does not prevent us from marching and working against this hate, but we can’t let our ignorance get in the way of real solutions that only come when one side is regulated enough to step out of their emotional reaction and address larger societal causes.

I must admit, this post was nearly impossible to write. I want to sit in my anger, I want to judge, I will march, and yet I know my reaction is not constructive. Those Civil Rights Heroes of decades past held back their anger and found the courage to confront ignorance and violence with regulated and peaceful action. Can we find the strength to follow their example?

What are your thoughts? Should the “What happened to you?” question and the trauma paradigm apply to Nazis?

21 responses to “Should “What Happened to You?” Apply to Nazis?”

  1. Steve Jacksopn says:

    Matt, it was difficult to read this, but I understand. I find it hard to step back and ask the questions that you suggest while feeling a need to hold these people accountable for their actions. As a Black, gay man who grew up in the South, I have a history of trauma on the other side. And while I feel compassionate about many things, racism and bigotry, even sexism, aren’t the easiest to feel compassionate about – or towards those who perpetuate those ideologies.

    I agree that within the scope of our work that I must uphold the ethics of my field. I have looked past racism to address client needs. I try to educate by being a professional and not stooping to the level of hatred, bigotry and racism displayed towards me, but that does not reduce the trauma to my own soul. The issue then becomes how do I mitigate that trauma and heal myself, while being compassionate to those who I deem guilty as perpetrators? How do I nopt judge, or harbor ill will? I admit, it is difficult not to and sometimes I lose that battle.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      We all lose it from time and time and our past (especially ones as powerful as yours) make it incredibly difficult. We attempt what is almost impossible, helping those or finding compassion for those who have hurt us (or hold similar beliefs to those who hurt us). Few appreciate the emotional energy this requires. However, if we permanently lose our ability to regulate then opportunities for change will be lost. Thanks so much for your insight!

      • Jay Levy says:

        In response to Matt and Steve,

        Self care is such an important part of a trauma informed approach and can not be overstated. Along with this, safe spaces for reflective practice is equally important so that we can stay centered thru support and sharing w/others, while also integrating psychological models and new strategies to help guide our work. We are in an emotionally challenging field that can benefit from supportive learning environments and a sense of being on a team, rather than alone.

        Steve’s comments remind me of my involvement with a counter-transference group that met weekly to help us connect, discuss and evaluate our feelings and thoughts that would arise thru our process of helping others.

  2. Sara Carrillo says:

    I live in the ‘boonies’ in Kansas, so I probably will not have an opportunity to march, but I have daily opportunities to speak out against racism, bigotry, and prejudice.

    From my experiences here, I would like to add to your commentary – ‘what happened to you’ is not always a trauma. What I have seen in this small town is a desperate bid to hold onto power. It is greed, more than anything else, that fuels the racism. White people, specifically older white males, have always held the political and financial power here, and they are not about to let any upstarts of any other color have any share of that power. I was once on a committee of all-white people who were supposed to be discussing ways to improve our children’s futures. I pointed out that, although our school system is 86% ‘brown’, there was not a single non-anglo on the committee. So, what, they asked, needed to happen to make our city a better place. I sealed my spot in infamy when I informed them that “all the old, white people need to die”. It’s true, though. Change will not come until my generation dies out and someone else takes the reins.

    The future of our country is multi-racial and multi-cultural. I think we are seeing a sort of ‘Custer’s last stand’ as a group of morons disregard all pertinent information and go plunging into battle against an opponent who greatly outnumbers them. Should that opponent ever effectively unite, as the Native Americans did at Little Big Horn, change will come quickly to the US. I don’t know, however, if we will ever be able to unify all the factions involved in the opposition. The alt-right, just as the Nazis, are very effective at dividing us and using our differences to spread dissension among us. I do know, however, that I will continue to do my little bit, which is all any of us can realistically do.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Wow, powerful stuff Sara! Thanks for fighting the good fight in a place that needs more warriors like yourself. Your comment in shifting dynamics is a little scary to me from a historical perspective. History is loaded with examples of how minorities with power become even more tyrannical than when they were when in the majority. In many ways, this might be what stops meaningful change in your community and nationally as well!

  3. karen says:


    thank you Matt for this courageous post!

    The answers to these questions you have asked point us toward the roots of these painful dynamics. Responding to hatred and intolerance with outrage and more intolerance may temporarily remove a few particularly egregiously wounded leaves off of the tree, but unless the roots are addressed, the tree will simply produce many more in their place.

    It seems to me that if we want to facilitate a meaningful change, we need to transform the conditions that create and foster hatred and intolerance. No doubt there are many ways to do this as there are those of us who want to make a difference.

    When I think about how I personally want to contribute, it’s by engaging parents, teachers and other caregivers with connection, compassion and empathy. And then, if they are interested, teaching and supporting them to offer connection, compassion and empathy to the children under their care.

    Just my two cents. Thank you for all you do, Matt, and providing the opportunity for me to think this through today!

  4. Mollie says:

    Thank you for this Matt! It is exactly what I, and I’m sure many others, have been wrestling with. It is easy to say “love trumps hate” and “we will not let hate win” but it is much harder to find the love and compassion to actually help change the hearts and minds of people who have so much hate inside them.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Thanks Mollie, in some ways this mirrors our work with clients. Compassion and empathy are emotionally exhausting tasks at times and yet necessary for individual or system change!

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Matt! Yes, we need greater compassion in this world. And yes, we need to channel our anger and frustration in constructive ways that are consistent with our values. Finally, using a trauma-informed approach helps all of us maintain balance, clarity, and peace in our own hearts and minds.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Well said, my friend! One great result of all of this mess: removal of Confederate memorials in Baltimore!

  6. Patsi Maroney says:

    Yowzer, what a powerful picture!! Thanks for a reasoned & thoughtful post; nobody said that compassion is easy, and this is a perfect case in point.

  7. Terry says:

    It is possible to hate behaviors without hating people. Not common, but possible. There are, and need to be, moral absolutes for without them there are actions that could and would become acceptable, based upon the trauma a person has experienced that has set them on a particular path. And now a group of trauma-inflicted individuals reigns trauma over another group of people. But there are other variables involved in a mindset such as Nazism (as an example I note Nazism based upon the blog but we know there are hundreds of ideologies and behaviors that could fill in the blank). There is a group or crowd mentality that often takes precedence over individual decisions. A team wins the Super Bowl and a frenzied crowd gathers and turns vehicles over and bashes in store windows. Some of these same people, possibly a small number but based on sociological statistics, a number of these individuals were raised without trauma and were at their jobs last week and dropping their kids off at day care. I do believe that informed care would go miles but I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface of trauma informed care’s effect on society OR ideologies. It seems we need to take not just a psychological/physiological approach in trauma informed care, but also a sociological approach. I would be interested to learn more about what effect informed care would have on someone who would be labeled a sociopath or a psychopath. Is if physiologically possible for that person to modify behavior? (I’m all over the map and should take some time to be more cohesive but it’s a busy day so I may have to reread and revisit over the weekend.)

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Thanks, Terry! This brings up so much for all of us. We need to start scratching! Delivering trauma-informed care in communities and system that are not trauma informed, limits the effectiveness of our work. We can’t sit on our knowledge and the science behind it. It is time we stand up as advocates not only for those we serve but as change agents in our community. It might seem like we are a small voice in the wilderness but think about how many teachers, medical professions, justice workers, etc exist in every community. One voice screaming will not be heard over the din, one voice organizing and teaching can change entire communities and eventually our nation!

  8. Cathy says:

    Can anger ever be a good thing?

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Anger is natural. I worry about anyone who watched last weekend’s events and didn’t feel angry. Our challenge is what we do with our anger. If we go into fight mode we are likely to anger others and then any opportunity for meaningful dialogue or understanding is lost. My challenge to myself is to let my anger fuel my advocacy. Sometimes this energy leads me to the street other times it drives me to find a deeper understanding of the root causes. Springsteen as a great lyric: “Hold on to your anger but don’t fall to your fears.”

  9. Adrienne says:

    When considering epigenetics, is there a possibility that the ancestors of today’s racists were slave masters? To beat another being on a regular basis, the body-brain connection would have to be at least a little shut down to numb any empathy. Because the population during the time of slavery did not think slavery was wrong there was certainly no healing done for these folks and this inability to feel empathy was surely passed down through the generations, right? Any thoughts on how far fetched this idea might be? I don’t really know much about epigenetics but to be clear, I’m certainly not suggesting that racism is hereditary… merely that the internal wound someone suffers when inflicting a wound on another could have generational impact

  10. Heather Lassard says:

    This was difficult for me to process. The idea reminds me somewhat of restorative justice – at least I think that they can somehow intertwine. I am terrified of the current political climate. I am a Jew with a transgender step-daughter and many GLBT friends. I struggle with the fear of how far will this go. At the same time I have gone back to working in the mental health field after working as a nurse. I work far an Assertive Community Treatment Program in a not so large, midwest,city. I work with individuals who have difficulty with the very basics due to their mental health issues. Your book is assisting me in transitioning into my role. I hope that I can also move into a place where I can have compassion for the people identifying with racism and Nazi beliefs. I know part of this is allowing myself to address my own trauma. Surprisingly the place that I have been stuck is in being unable to forgive and holding onto anger. So much to think about.

  11. Deborah Borne says:

    Thank you Matt and those who made comments. This post is so important, challenging and courageous. It blew me away. What an amazing perspective.
    I know sometimes when I go to ‘pull out for a google view’ of intense issues like this, I can’t find the mouse of my computer… meaning I don’t even know where to start to begin the process of getting perspective. I am so in my shock/trauma/anger and outrage, I see nothing else beyond how wrong ‘they are’. Then I realize I can’t get to the bigger view so easily because I too am a product of a culture that does not teach mindfulness, self care, forgiveness and compassion in parallel with the alphabet.

    The image you showed is so simple, and reminds us that we were all once children.

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