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What Can We Learn From the Mass Trauma of Dictatorships?

The impact of a repressive regime can span generations.

Key points

  • Dictatorships maintain power through internalized oppression.
  • Internalized oppression and the trauma incurred from dictatorships are intergenerational and transmitted from survivors to future generations.
  • Breaking the silence and talking about what happened during a dictatorship can be curative and healing for the first generation and beyond.
Source: dimitrisvetsikas1969/Pixabay

by Charissa D. Pizarro, PsyD, RPT Clinical Psychologist in the public and private sectors, and Member at Large for Task Force and Diversity Initiatives of APA’s Division 37

At present, there are 52 nations with authoritarian forms of government or dictatorships. Dictatorships are a form of government where an individual or one entity has complete control over a country and its people.

Typically, power for a dictatorship is attained through political violence, intimidation, and methods such as torture, mass killings, unfair incarceration, concentration camps, and even genocide. Although circumstances differ, there are typically limited personal liberties, resulting in violation of basic human rights. Once an environment of terror is created, people are forced into compliance.

Eventually, people internalize external repression. This becomes internalized oppression. Internalized oppression is when marginalized individuals or groups take on the view of the oppressor, or in this case, the regime, and their behavior leads to further oppression (Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996). Internalized oppression is how a dictatorship maintains its power most effectively. The subjugation of one group over another is associated with mass trauma (Heberle, Obus, & Gray, 2020).

The dictatorship of Rafael L. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (1930-1961) is a useful example. The “Era of Trujillo” in the Dominican Republic was one of the most violent and destructive dictatorships in modern history. This era witnessed the torture and mass killing of countless Dominicans, appropriation of the country’s wealth, and idiosyncratic demands such as keeping a clean home and portraying the dictator’s picture in every household. There was also the Haitian genocide. Throughout the dictatorship, an atmosphere of terror and enforced silence was created. Nonetheless, very few people have even heard about Trujillo. This is puzzling, considering that there is much information on other repressive regimes around the world.

In this post, the role of internalized oppression and silence propagated across generations and its role in this phenomenon will be discussed.

What is internalized oppression?

Internalized oppression is when individuals come to believe their own inferiority and inability to bring about change in a system. Once an individual or a collective internalizes oppression, they come to believe the message an oppressor has been predicating. For example, in the Dominican Republic's dictatorship, individuals were urged to obey idiosyncratic rules such as carrying a voting card for fixed elections, paving the roads as community service, and doing military exercises regardless of age. Defying any of these laws resulted in consequences such as jail time and other harsh or lethal punishments. Individuals who internalized the oppression not only accepted and obeyed these rules but also encouraged others to do the same. In doing so, they supported the dictator even if they did not necessarily agree with his tyranny.

A seminal model on internalized oppression by Ruth (1988) describes internalized oppression as a system of concentric circles of control with the outermost circle being physical control (i.e., coercion). Inside that circle is psychological control (i.e., control of what’s deemed normal such as the economy and the media). Finally, the innermost circle is internalized oppression, which culminates in the individual accepting the dominion imposed upon them.

Joel Fulgencio/Unsplash
Source: Joel Fulgencio/Unsplash

In this model, the dictator begins by restricting the individual one sphere at a time, starting with the physical. Individuals’ physical safety is threatened through threats of bodily harm and other forms of political violence. In the case of the Dominican Republic, there was the mass killing of Dominican citizens. Dead bodies were left in prominent locations to serve as a warning to others. In 1937, there was also the Haitian Genocide where 20,000 to 30,000 Haitian men, women, and children were massacred in a period of five days in Trujillo’s attempt at ethnic cleansing.

In Ruth’s model, psychological control follows. In the Dominican Republic, psychological control was achieved gradually. Trujillo obtained economic control by taking over the country’s many sugar mills and other national financial assets. Trujillo proceeded to rename the country's cities after himself and his family. The country became his playground and personal property. Likewise, the media was censored, and Dominicans only learned what the dictator wanted them to know. Children and other students learned from books and educational materials curated by Trujillo and his puppets. Implicit and explicit messages to stay quiet were disseminated to the Dominican people. In this way, psychological control was obtained.

Internalized oppression leads the collective to mistrust their own thinking and intelligence. The group attends to the dominant group to determine what to say and how to act. Oppressed groups learn to behave in ways that do not provoke attention or retaliation from the dominant group. These are called survival behaviors and over time become part of the culture even after the real need for them is gone. Silence and lack of assertiveness are types of survival behaviors.

In my own research with a Dominican sample, interviewees seemed to be highly respectful and deferential. The sample defined respect as having an element of fear. Although the dictator is long gone, fear and silence seem to remain more than 60 years post-dictatorship. Apparently, the collective internalized the external oppression forced upon them along with the new survival behaviors.

The horrific experiences of the Dominican people during the 31-year dictatorship led to a mass trauma response that affected the people in every way including physically, psychologically, and socially. It is of note that survival of the ongoing 31 years of terror for the individual and the collective did not only depend on compliance but also on silence. Later, this trauma response from the first generation who experienced the trauma firsthand is passed on to other generations through environmental, psychosocial, and epigenetic factors.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma

The descendants of individuals who have experienced mass traumas such as dictatorships show the symptoms of the first-generation survivors even if they have not been exposed to the trauma themselves. Children and grandchildren of trauma survivors may exhibit post-trauma effects such as mistrust of people, increased anxiety, fear, higher paranoia scores on objective tests, guilt, aggressive tendencies, PTSD symptoms, and other psychopathology (Lev-Wiesel, 2007).

The severity of the trauma in the first-generation survivor influences the symptoms that will be transmitted to future generations. Also, having only one parent survivor tempers the intergenerational transmission of trauma symptoms, as opposed to both parents being trauma survivors. Even though future generations may be functioning adaptively, they may be psychologically vulnerable to future stressors.

Trauma becomes a legacy for future generations whether or not the first-generation survivors kept silent. Despite silence, traumas are intergenerationally transmitted through a variety of forms but primarily through the parent-child relationship or attachment. These parents are described as more overprotective. In an attempt to protect their children and keep them safe, survivors often convey messages of imminent danger and transmit restrictive imperatives which have the opposite effect. Unresolved trauma in first-generation survivors is indelibly passed along to future generations. The more severe the parents’ trauma is, the greater the cumulative trauma affecting their children (Zerach, Levin, Aloni, & Solomon, 2017). Anyone who has experienced mass trauma may well suffer from prolonged unresolved trauma even after more than 50 years post-trauma.

Breaking the silence more than half of a century later

Trauma usually silences victims. For those traumatized, silence may have served the adaptive purpose of avoiding death, torture, or other serious consequences. The fear that becomes part of daily living in countries with totalitarian governments enforces the silence. Aside from fear, trauma survivors may remain silent because the trauma is too difficult or painful to be discussed. Often, the trauma is unspeakable and there are no words that can describe or encompass the traumatic experience. Even when silence no longer serves a purpose, it can continue becoming entrenched in the culture.

It is important to break the silence and call the atrocities of the regime by the name they deserve. Disclosure of traumatic events has salubrious effects on the individual or group. Though breaking the silence about a traumatic event is distressing at first, disclosing traumatic events has salutary effects on psychological and physical health. Not only does breaking the silence have benefits for the first-generation trauma survivor it also benefits the subsequent generations. Talking about traumatic events allows survivors of mass trauma to process their experiences (Stanton & Danoff- Burg, 2002). Disclosure also seems to play a major role in the coping process because it is a form of acknowledgment and decreases avoidance which diminishes psychopathological symptoms (e.g., PTSD) and distress (Hemenover, 2003). Through disclosure, traumatic experiences and their associated feelings can be processed and integrated, and the discloser can then find meaning and understanding.

Source: CDD20/Pixabay

In my own research with first-generation survivors of the Trujillo regime, participants disclosed half of a century later. When asked how they felt about disclosing their stories, participants conveyed feeling fear at first but relief afterward. Messages to remain silent during the dictatorship propagated more than half of a century later. The participants only spoke because the utmost confidentiality was promised and because this was for the author’s “school.”

Given research supporting disclosure regardless of time, breaking the silence is not only healing but also the beginning of voicing decades of silenced trauma and internalized oppression which may stifle our very core. Breaking the silence liberates the trauma survivor and generations to come.

Edited by Ashley M. Votruba, J.D., Ph.D., SPSSI Blog Editor, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Heberle, A. E., Obus, E. A., Gray, S. A., (2020). An intersectional perspective on the intergenerational transmission of trauma and state-perpetrated violence. Journal of Social Issues, 76, 814-834. DOI:10.1111/josi.12404

Hemenover, S. H. (2003). The good, the bad, and the healthy: Impacts of emotional disclosure of trauma on resilient self-concept and psychological distress. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29 (10), 1236-1244. DOI: 10.1177/0146167203255228

Lev-Wiesel, R. (2007). Intergenerational transmission of trauma across three generations: A preliminary study. Qualitative Social Work, 6 (1), 75-94. DOI:10.1177/1473325007074167

Pizarro, C.D. (2011). Breaking the silence of Trujillo’s dictatorship: The unheard voices (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Yeshiva University, Bronx, NY.

Pizarro, C.D. & Auerbach, C. F. (August, 2012). Political and internalized oppression during Trujillo’s dictatorship: The unheard voices. Poster session presented at the American Psychological Association Convention, Orlando, FL.

Prilleltensky, I., & Gonick, L. (1996). Polities change, oppression remains: On the psychology of oppression. Political Psychology, 17 (1), 127-148.

Stanton, A. L., & Danoff- Burg, S. (2002). Emotional expression, expressive writing, and cancer. In S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smith (Ed.), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (pp. 31-51). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zerach, G., Levin, Y., Aloni, R, & Solomon, Z. (2017). Intergenerational Transmission of captivity trauma and posttraumatic stress symptoms: A twenty-three-year longitudinal year triadic study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Theory, 9 (1), 114-121.

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