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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


Updated: Mar 4, 2021

January 6, 2021 is a day we will all remember. Just as many of us can immediately relate where we were and what we were doing when the news of President Kennedy's assassination broke, so too, January 6th of this year will be imprinted on our brains, probably forever. Since most of us were at home due to the pandemic lockdown, many of us were watching television because of the certification of the Biden presidency scheduled for that day.

A cousin of mine (a child of Holocaust survivors) will never attend any kind of rally or protest, even if she supports the cause involved. She has a fear of being in a large crowd. She traces this fear to her mother's story of walking home with her mother (my cousin's grandmother) in Vienna and getting caught in a Nazi rally on the way to their apartment building. Her mother told her of how they had to pretend to be part of the rally to get to their building and how they sang the Nazi songs along with the others.

My cousin's fear is understandable, and is quite common among Holocaust survivors and their children. The survivors have seen for themselves how individuals are no longer themselves when they are part of a mob. They often spotted people they knew, people they considered friends, in such a mob, shouting slogans those people would never say and urging or participating in violence, which they would normally never do. These stories, and the fear of what happens to someone when he or she becomes part of a mob have definitely been passed down to the children of these survivors. It is obvious to people who have experienced first or second-hand the terror a mob can generate that people lose their ability to reason when part of a crowd.

Psychologists, I have learned, call this "deindividuation." Whatever beliefs the rioters on January 6th espoused is, I believe, immaterial. What interests me about the events of that day, and what I consider significant, is the importance of understanding mob mentality.

Deindividuation consists of an individual's loss of self-awareness and his or her sense of individua

l identity. While part of a crowd, the person loses his or her normal inhibitions and could easily do things he or she would never normally do or condone. This can obviously lead to dangerous acts. The members of the mob copy one another's behavior. For them, reality outside the mob fades away. They do not feel personally accountable for anything they do; it is the group doing these things.

In addition, I have noticed a strong emotional component to mob behavior. Being part of the mob leads to a sense of excitement. The rush of adrenaline so many of the rioters displayed makes this clear. It doesn't seem to matter what is being said. The goal is to get everyone there riled up. The people in the crowd are not evaluating the words they hear; they just want to let their emotional pitch carry them forward so they can feel the joy of being part of the mob and feel the freedom to act out.

Children of Holocaust survivors, and survivors themselves, while watching the events of January 6th on their screens, expressed the frightening feeling that they'd been catapulted in time back to the Nazi era. Many of them had seen firsthand in Europe what a hateful Nazi mob can do, and they were forced to re-live that terror on January 6th, and recall how the government then urged on the rioters. The violence -- and the belief that this violence was justified -- is beyond frightening.

Then came the prominent appearance of one of the rioters in a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt. As if that were not horrific enough, that shirt was later sold on the internet. Supposedly, due to complaints, that was stopped. I cannot express what any survivor or child of a survivor felt seeing that.

When an individual becomes part of a mob, he or she is no longer a reasoning individual. Anyone who has been victimized by a mob, or witnessed the effects of mob mentality, knows this. Yet people seem to crave the comfort and camaraderie of being part of a mob. Perhaps the attraction of gang membership is the same thing. The adrenaline rush of inflicting physical violence alongside others must be such an amazing experience that people cannot resist the temptation to participate.

I cannot help but see the comparison with other historical events that relied on mob me

ntality. These include Nazi book burnings, Salem witch burnings, the Spanish Inquisition's burning of 'heretics' (Jews) at the stake, the gladiator games of ancient Rome. These activities all included an audience. Clearly, many people have the need for this group dynamic, and it so often involves the harming of others. This, in addition to the group camaraderie participants enjoy, bestows a sense of power. They can harm another, or they can cheer on the act of harming. They might also feel relief that they are not the ones being victimized.

If this urge is part of human nature, at least for many humans, what is the answer? How can episodes of mob behavior be avoided? I am not talking about police presence or harsh punishments. I am thinking of preventive measures.

Let us begin by recognizing that there is such a thing as an individual losing his or herself when part of a mob. We can do the work of identifying that need, and stopping ourselves before we join in to do something we would not do as individuals. We can teach children to recognize deindividuation and to guard against it in themselves. This involves being strong and secure enough to withstand the lure of the mob. Not an easy matter!

Another option is to channel that energy to something that is not harmful to anyone. Cheering for one's team at a football game, for example, while sitting in the stands along with other fans, might satisfy that craving. Of course, violence does occasionally break out among fans at sporting events, which only proves that the football game serves the same purpose as the events cited above. Normally, however, it's a harmless expenditure of emotion. A musical concert, for many, provides the outlet for being part of a crowd of people who are excited by the same music, and one feels part of a crowd then and can experience the emotional high.

I am sure there are numerous other means of directing that mob problem. I have noticed that in some religious services, a group dynamic and emotional connection are

present. Spin classes, with the attendant loud music and shouting, might fulfill this need for some. If those of us who desire that emotional connection with a crowd, there are ways to find it that do not result in the pain or death of another, that do not instill terror and fear in others. There are ways. Are we strong enough to find them?

John Steinbeck has said:: "Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts: perhaps the fear of a loss of power." If this applies to those rioters on January 6th, it is a sad and pitiable picture of them. Don't we wish to be better than that?


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