Social-Psychology in the Service of Peace

An Obituary for Herbert C. Kelman: 18 March 1927 – 1 March 2022

Written by Professor Werner Wintersteiner

A life for peace

A great Austrian passed away on March 1, 2022, just short of his 95th birthday. A great Austrian? More precisely, a great person who was expelled from Austria. Herbert Chanoch Kelman, born in Vienna on March 18, 1927, was forced to flee with his family as a child from the Nazis’ anti-Semitic persecution. His Jewish parents had immigrated after the First World War from Galicia, which was then under Habsburg rule. His father, a textile merchant, was a Social Democrat, and Kelman’s youth was marked by increasing anti-Semitism and finally by the persecution that began in 1938: Flight from Vienna (1939), Belgium as an uncertain stopover (1939-1940), before finally arriving in the United States in 1940, an unfamiliar country with a foreign language. Kelman, however, never wanted his Jewishness to be reduced to the experience of the Holocaust. Rather, he emphasized the influence of Jewish culture, the Hebrew and Yiddish languages, and the Zionist and socialist ideas with which he grew up. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies in New York in addition to a degree in psychology. But the Holocaust had a lasting impact on his choice of career and his political as well as scholarly engagement. Kelman had experienced exclusion and persecution firsthand, became involved in the American anti-war and Civil Rights movement at an early age. He is now considered a pioneer and one of the great founders of modern peace studies. Kelman eventually received the highly prestigious Richard Clarke Cabot Professorship of Social Psychology and Ethics at Harvard University in Cambridge, which he held until his retirement.

A characteristic of Kelman’s work, is that he never saw himself merely as a detached researcher, but as a academically trained conflict mediator and peace broker – a scholar-practitioner. After works on the social psychology of peace (International Behavior. A Social-Psychological Analysis 1965) and the psychology of war criminals (Crimes of Obedience 1989) in the aftermath of the American My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he turned to the method of interactive conflict resolution.

Interactive Problem Solving

Kelman took the “controlled dialogue” approach of his mentor John Burton and developed the approach into the “interactive problem solving workshop method”, with his wife Rose Brousman Kelman tirelessly assisting him and making important contributions. This method involves informal “pre-negotiations” in which solution perspectives are worked out by key persons from the conflict parties, one or two steps removed from the top decisions makers.

Kelman used this method in the context of the Middle East conflict, where he organized so-called track-two workshops with high-ranking and influential representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian sides for decades. He understood early on that it was necessary to start a dialogue with the PLO, originally classified as terrorist by Israel and the United States. He met with Yasser Arafat and helped establish unofficial contacts between the PLO and Israel. His more than 50 Interactive Problem-Solving Workshops of the 1970s and 1980s in the Middle East undoubtedly helped prepare the ground for the Oslo Accords. In this respect, Kelman helped write a piece of world history.

Herbert Kelman received numerous awards for his work, including the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art 1st Class (1998) and the Medal of Honor of the City of Vienna in Gold (2012), and on his 90th birthday, the National Order of Merit of the Republic of Austria (2017).

His work lives on

Kelman has inspired generations of scholars and practitioners in the course of his long career. In Austria, his legacy is carried out by the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation (HKI), which organizes dialogue projects in crisis regions (Sri Lanka, Israel-Palestine), but also deals with latent memory conflicts (Carinthia and the Alps-Adriatic region).

Asked about his philosophy of life, he repeatedly came back to the biblical quotation “Forsake evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it!” (Psalm 34). This active ethical attitude, supported by the unshakable hope for a better future, is his lasting legacy, from which we will all draw for a long time to come.