Sarah Rosenberg

Originally published in July 2003, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in August, 2017

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

This essay talks about the sense of victimhood among people outside the United States: Ukranians (vis-a-vis Russians), Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Muslims, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.  It doesn't talk about Blacks or Native Americans in the United States--though it certainly could have.  And it certainly doesn't talk about non-college educated white men in the United States.More...

In the early 1930s, millions of Ukranians died under Stalin's violent policy of forced collectivization. The depths of pain, fear, and hatred that continued to characterize the Ukrainian attitude toward Russians in the 1990s is typical of all victimized people and groups. Montville, a prominent scholar of victimhood and its effect on conflict resolution, described the relationship between Ukrainians and Soviet Russians as a "gaping, unhealed wound."[1] The same could be said of the relationship between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in the former Yugoslavian states, between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. Due to the enormous psychological impact of conflict on people who live with ongoing violence or who have experienced major trauma in their past, the issue of victimhood is critical to any attempt at conflict resolution or peacebuilding.

Defining Victimhood

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Montville defines victimhood as

...a state of individual and collective ethnic mind that occurs when the traditional structures that provide an individual sense of security and self-worth through membership in a group are shattered by aggressive, violent political outsiders. Victimhood can be characterized by either an extreme or persistent sense of mortal vulnerability.[2]

Following and expanding on the above, one can say that the main components of "victimhood" include:

  • A history of violent traumatic aggression and loss.
  • A belief that the aggression and violence suffered at the hands of the enemy is not justifiable by any standard.
  • A constant fear that the aggressor could strike again at any time.
  • A perception that the world is indifferent to the victim group's plight.[3]

Symmetrical Psychologies of Victimhood

A complicating aspect of victimhood is that sometimes both groups in a conflict see themselves as the "victim" and their opponent as the aggressor. In dialogues, they may even compete over who has suffered more and who has been more victimized by the other. Each side will try to persuade third parties that the other group has been the obvious oppressor or aggressor. Many Israelis and Palestinians currently exhibit this mentality, due to their fear of the other and the memory of past encounters between the two groups. Both Israelis and Palestinians see themselves as having been "the victim" in their conflict since before Israel became a state. Other examples of this phenomenon include the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia, and the Armenians and the Turks in Azerbaijan.

In order to move beyond these deep-rooted conflicts, each group must recognize that it has been living in a psychological state of victimhood and acknowledge its great fear of becoming a victim once again. Moreover, each will need to accept that their "enemies" may feel victimized as well. Getting groups to come to the realization that each side feels as though its people have been victimized by the other is an especially difficult obstacle in peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Residual Victimhood and Displaced Aggression

One occurrence that commonly leads to a sense of victimhood is the withdrawal of a colonial power from a country. There are a number of cases in which colonial or foreign powers have been responsible for destabilizing an area and creating ethnic tensions during the colonization period. When these colonial rulers eventually withdrew, they left ethnic tension and/or violence in their wake. In such situations, each of the remaining parties have usually been victims of a larger power, but because that power can no longer be confronted, the native peoples fight one other instead. V. Volkan, a political psychologist, emphasizes how psychologically important it is for these superpowers to acknowledge the role they played in creating these conflicts as one of the steps toward healing and reconciliation.[4]

Dennis Sandole

says that the coercive peacemaking force is necessary for parties to break out of conflict-habituated systems.

Victimhood and Fundamental Human Needs

A number of conflict theorists, among them Edward Azar and John Burton, stress the importance of fundamental human needs in the development and resolution of deep-rooted or intractable conflicts.[5] This theory states that "individuals and groups have undeniable needs and rights for security, dignity, respect in both physical and psychological terms, that is, involving identity, recognition, participation, and control over their own destiny."[6] If a group is suffering from the effects of victimhood, these human needs are clearly threatened or absent. Human needs theorists contend that correcting this problem is essential for successful conflict management or resolution.

Another key concept in social psychology and group identity theory is that perception, cognition, communication, motivation, valuing, and emotion are all subjective. This means that even if parties are not really victims by the standards of outside observers, they may believe themselves to be such, and that belief will affect the way they think, communicate, and interact with others. If one party sees itself as a continual victim of the aggressive whims of the other party, there can be no solution until that relationship is transformed and both parties feel more empowered and less likely to be victimized again.

Group Identity and Victimhood

In Volkan's work on the formation of group identities, he argues that identity groups have "chosen traumas" and "chosen glories."[7] Identifying these traumas is crucial because in most cases, groups have never properly mourned their losses or healed from their experiences. It has been found that a sense of victimization actually gets passed down from generation to generation, regardless of whether a person has physically experienced any trauma themselves. So, whether or not members of a group have suffered personally from specific instances of victimhood, certain traumas nonetheless become the "chosen traumas" of the group. These mental representations serve to connect the group while simultaneously creating hatred toward the aggressor. In order to move beyond conflict to peacebuilding, the group needs to properly mourn these past crimes and learn to see themselves in a new light and in a new relationship with the other.

Victimhood's Dual Effect

An interesting aspect of "victimhood" is the dual nature of the relationship victimized groups have with their role as victims. On the one hand, there seems to be a general unwillingness or inability to get past feelings of victimhood. Groups sometimes even glorify the self-righteousness of victimhood by identifying strongly with the groups' "chosen trauma," allowing the group's history as a victim to become an ironic rallying point and chosen group identity marker.

Beneath the surface of group solidarity, however, is a remaining sense of shame and a desperate desire to be rid of the stigma of "victim." After the Holocaust, for instance, Israeli Jews were so ashamed of how easy it was for Hitler to slaughter so many of their people that they wanted to distance themselves from those "weak, victimized" Jews as much as possible. Rather than being supported, survivors were disparaged. Many survivors tried to hide their experiences, speaking of them only to close family members, if at all.

An Israeli researcher on this topic, Daniel Bar-Tal, explains that Israelis use the Holocaust to legitimize excessive security measures and to continually remind the world about Jewish victimhood through the ages. However, the aggressive methods used in meeting perceived security needs are an explicit demonstration to the same world that they refuse to be helpless victims ever again.[8]

Victimhood and Self-Esteem

The connection between victimhood and self-esteem should be obvious. When a people feels victimized, group self-esteem declines. There is a good amount of research on the effects of low self-esteem in relation to conflict and peacebuilding that can be applied to the understanding of victimhood.

Basically, self-esteem is a prerequisite to mental health. Researchers seem to be in agreement, according to Fisher, that low self-esteem creates a higher level of distortion of that group's perception of others. When a group perceives a large distinction between itself and others, the "others" can be made to seem less human, making it morally acceptable to humiliate and even kill them. It is widely acknowledged that the hatred and violence of Nazi Germany followed directly from the humiliation Germany suffered after losing World War I. Similarly, according to a recent poll, more than 50 percent of the population of West Bank and Gaza are currently at least somewhat supportive of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.[9] This mentality can be attributed to the fact that Palestinians feel humiliated and victimized by the Israelis. Unfortunately, many Israelis also stereotype Palestinians as being "less than human" in response to their own victimization by Palestinian acts of terror.

From Victimhood to Healing

Victimhood is a state from which all groups (or individuals) need to recover in order to lead normal lives. Victimhood is not only a perception of self, but of self in a system of relationships. Acknowledging victimhood as a problem is the first step toward recovery. Part of the healing process for victims is regaining self-esteem and relearning that the "other" is also human and that this "other" has suffered as well. This process allows the groups to begin to transform the system in which victimization was made possible into something much more positive.

Necessary elements for healing from the trauma of victimhood include safety, space, and time for the group to go through a process of mourning, empowerment, and eventual reconciliation with the enemy. In order to heal, the group must begin to feel safe from the possibility of any further unjustified aggression. Without establishing such safety, healing cannot even start. Once safety becomes less of a concern, victims can begin to heal through a remembrance and mourning process.[10]

It is also crucial that any victimized group receive acknowledgment from the international community of their suffering. However, a victimized group may not always want the world at large to take responsibility in a meaningful way for the group's suffering or for remedying the situation. Israel, for example, consistently refuses international military presence within its borders because it wants to retain control over its own affairs.

A process of empowerment is important in addressing people's desire for some degree of control. Trauma causes its victims to feel a loss of control over their destinies as well as an inability to change their situations. Therefore, as Herman and others indicate, in order to recover from victimhood, victimized individuals or groups must feel that they have regained power and control over themselves.[11] This is necessary to enable better functioning and also to make dialogue and eventual coexistence with the enemy possible. Survivors of victimhood and trauma have a deep need to feel as though they are in complete control of their lives and future.

Recovery from victimhood also seems to depend on forgiving the enemy, as well as recognizing one's own wrongdoings and accepting responsibility for them. Ideally these processes should be mutual and reciprocal. It should also be understood that certain steps in the process may need to be repeated.

The following points are some of the generally agreed-upon benchmarks needed for a successful healing process:

  • Safety from violence and humiliation.
  • A general agreement on the history of the conflict.
  • Mutual acceptance of responsibility, contrition, and finally, forgiveness.
  • Public expressions by respected representatives of each group that voice or demonstrate the new relationship and understanding.[12]

L.A. Pearlman has gone more into depth in designing a healing process for victims. The following requirements parallel those above but add some extra dimensions to the process:[13]

  • Respect, which is gained through some or all of the following: acknowledgment, justice, atonement, mutual forgiveness.
  • Information or the truth about relevant events, about mass genocide and killing, and about the reality of traumatic stress and how to recover from it.
  • To regain a sense of connection with oneself and with others.
  • Hope in God (or something spiritual), for the community, for other people, or a positive vision of the future.[14]

Current Implications

This essay talks about the sense of victimhood among people outside the United States: Ukranians (vis-a-vis Russians), Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Muslims, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.  It doesn't talk about Blacks or Native Americans in the United States--though it certainly could have.  And it certainly doesn't talk about non-college educated white men in the United States.

Yet many observers believe that it was a sense of victimhood among that group that generated the widespread support for Donald Trump in the months leading up to, and even following his election. Indeed, Trump himself constantly frames himself as the victim--even though he is one of the richest men alive, getting richer all the time, and sitting in what used to be (maybe is no longer) the most powerful seat in the world.

As is evidenced by the political dynamics in the United States today, the sense of victimhood is very strong, and it warps the way people see themselves, others, and their place in the world.  It leads to constantly escalating conflict, lack of empathy for the other, and an unwillingness to cooperate or work with the other (framed as "the oppressor") in any way.  

Look at what Rosenberg says is necessary to heal the sense of victimhood:

"Necessary elements for healing from the trauma of victimhood include safety, space, and time for the group to go through a process of mourning, empowerment, and eventual reconciliation with the enemy."

Can you imagine Trump himself or his supporters reconciling with the U.S. liberals?

Rosenberg continues: "In order to heal, the group must begin to feel safe from the possibility of any further unjustified aggression. Without establishing such safety, healing cannot even start." 

Neither side in the current U.S. political conflict is doing anything at all to promote healing on either side.  Trump and his supporters are still threatening "his enemies," almost daily; Trump's opponents are not only threatening him, but his supporters as well, maintaining as they had through the election that Trump supporters are "haters," with deplorable ideas which must be stamped out.  

As long as we see and treat each other that way, this conflict is only going to get worse, not better. Any healing--which always takes a long time anyway--will not even begin.

So then what happens? Is that what anybody wants?

-- Heidi Burgess. August, 2017.

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[1] Joseph V. Montville, "The Healing Function in Political Conflict Resolution," in Sandole and Van der Merwe, Conflict resolution Theory and Practice: Integration and Application (New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), 112. Montville actually took these words from James Mace, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, who made these comments at the Foreign Service Institute in June 1991.

[2] Joseph V. Montville, 'The Psychological Roots of Ethnic and Sectarian Terrorism" in the Psychodynamics of International Relationships. Vol. 1, Eds. Montville Volkan and Julius (Lexington Books, 1990)

[3] These points were paraphrased and slightly expanded upon from Joseph V. Montville, "Psychoanalytic Enlightenment and the Greening of Diplomacy" in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 37, reprinted in Volkan, Psychodynamics and from Healing Function p.113.

[4] Vamik Volkan, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies, From Clinical Practice to International Relationships (Jason Aronson Publications, 1994)

[5] Ronald J. Fisher, The Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and International Conflict Resolution (Spring-Verlag New York, 1990)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Volkan, Enemies

[8] Daniel Bar-Tal and Antebi Dikla, "Siege Mentality in Israel," in The Journal of Intercultural Relations Vol 16, No 3 (Summer 1992)

[9] . The Potential for a Non-Violent Intifada II. A Study of Palestinian and Israeli Jewish Public Attitudes Dec. 9, 2002. Program on International Policy Attitudes. Steven Kull, Principal Investigator. 70 percent of Palestinians polled support suicide bombings of Israeli civilians as a method for supporting the Intifada. p.7 in the Findings section.

[10] Herman, Montville and Volkan all talk about this part of the healing process.

[11] Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (Basis Books NY, 1992)

[12] These points have been gathered from Montville, Herman, and others.

[13] Laurie Anne Pearlman, "Creating Paths to Healing" Copyright 2002 by Trauma, Research, Education and Training Institute, Inc. or Trauma Research Education and Training Institute at the University of Massachussettes - Amherst. There is more on healing at this Web site.

[14] John Paul Lederach puts much emphasis on "envisioning a future" as an important part of the peacebuilding process. John P. Lederach, Building Peace Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, (USIP, 1997)

Use the following to cite this article:
Rosenberg, Sarah. "Victimhood." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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