With the Senate Torture report in the news, one of the arguments against torture is that it is ineffective: torturing someone just makes them tell you anything they think will make the torture stop, leading to a lot of unreliable information that must now be investigated to find any, if, useful information.

Do we know of any historical assessments of the effectiveness of torture? What were the Gestapo's views on torture, or those of the KGB? I read about Hanns Scharff the other day, a successful German interrogator during WW2 who expressly opposed the use of physical torture, but then on the other hand torture has been and is widely used.

It's maybe also worth to specify that this is about the effectiveness of torture for extracting reliable information one couldn't get without it, not whether torture is effective for punishing people or deterring others.

  • 1
    Please clarify- are you asking if there has been scientific research in the past on effectiveness of torture? Or are you asking about "gestapo's views", "KGB's views"? These cannot be a single unified view. Or are you asking if these agencies had official documents stating effectiveness of torture?
    – Rajib
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 9:05
  • I think both scientific assessments and "views" or unofficial/semi-official would be interesting, official documents maybe less so since they probably also reflect bureaucratic and political concerns.
    – andybega
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 9:16
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    It is unclear. Gestapo, KGB cannot have unified view. They are agencies. people in them would think differently from each other. Only official document can be called unified (declared) viewpoint. Else what is the basis of saying "KGB thought so". Some people within KGB thought "a" while others thought "b".
    – Rajib
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 9:36
  • 3
    Even earlier than WWII: "The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. it has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know." - Napoleon. Actually even earlier en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user45891
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 10:46
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    IThis arguably misses the point that, historically, torture is - or has been - used, not to obtain "reliable" information, but also - and frequently - to obtain fraudulent "confessions" e.g "Yes, I did sleep with Queen Anne Boleyn." Torturers are not always interested in the "truth".
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 13:06

3 Answers 3


As noted in the comments, torture has been used for several reasons, including but not limited to, eliciting false confessions, punishment, humiliation, hegemony and political control, and as a political theology doctrine, also a sacrifice. Large swathes of the torture landscape in the twentieth century seems to be guided by the last mentioned motivation.

However, even for extraction of information, the method has been advocated long ago.

Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it. Aristotle favored the use of torture in extracting evidence, speaking of its absolute credibility, and St. Augustine also defended the practice. Torture was routine in ancient Greece and Rome, and although methods have changed in the intervening centuries, the goals of the torturer- to gain information, to punish, to force an individual to change his beliefs or loyalties, to intimidate a community- have not changed at all.

On the question of effectiveness of torture as means of eliciting information- the methods used were not seen as torture. They were seen as effective "pressures". These were "scientific" methods that could provide results. These were a part of "Verschärfte Vernehmung" and directives to that effect were in fact given.

In June 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, authorized the use of limited physical abuse during interrogations, ‘where preliminary investigation had indicated that the person could give information on important matters such as subversive activities’.

The methods employed to make the victims talk were always the same. They were forced to kneel on a triangular bench while a torturer climbed on their shoulders; they were suspended with the arms tied behind their backs until they fainted; they were kicked, thrashed with knouts, or struck with the fist; they were revived by flinging a bucket of water over them when they fainted. Their teeth were filed, their nails torn out, and they were burned with cigarette stubs and on occasions with a soldering lamp. The electric torture was also practiced: a wire was attached to the ankles while a second wire was run over the most sensitive parts of the anatomy. The soles of the feet were slashed with a razor and the wounded man was then forced to walk on salt. Pieces of cotton wool soaked in petrol were placed between the toes and fingers and lit. The torture of the bathtub consisted in plunging the patient into a bath of icy water, his hands handcuffed behind his back, and keeping his head under water until he was on the point of drowning. He was dragged to the surface by the hair and, if he still refused to speak, was immediately plunged under water again.

So definite methods existed, which means that a "science", however ill-formed, was developing. In fact, the later methods of the US and other countries in what was termed Enhanced interrogation techniques seem to be an extension of these methods.

Some of these "refined" methods were developed by French collaborator, Frederic Martin, known as Rudy de Mérode, and Georges Delfane, alias Masuy, whose offices were at 101 avenue Henri Martin. He is reputed to have invented the torture of the bathtub. (Later developed further by the US).

Kalus Barbie became a member of the Nazi Party in 1937 and joined the SD (Security Service), a branch of the SS in 1935. After German forces overran Western Europe, Barbie served in the Netherlands, and, in 1942, was made chief of the Gestapo Department IV in Lyon – which was then a stronghold and hiding place of the French resistance. In this position, he was active in chasing French resistants, promoting the torture and execution of thousands of prisoners. He personally tortured prisoners whom he interrogated.

However, only much later did "confession models" come to be studied, as psychoanalysis came into play. These included :

Reid Model
Decision-Making model
Psychoanalytic Model
Interaction Process Model
Cognitive-Behavioral Model, etc.

The KGB possibly had more refined techniques. In any case absolutist states have unbelievably good homework on every area, community, family and individual. It is the rare exception that needs to be questioned. However, Hinkle's above mentioned report provides a detailed analysis of the structure and practices of the Russian KGB and the state police in Communist China in the 1950s. On the basis of input from experts, and former Communist prisoners, Wolff and Hinkle detail out Communist arrest and interrogation systems from investigation to “trial.”

Some of the methods used by KGB:

Night Interrogation- Prisoners interrogated at night
Sensory Deprivation- use of blackout goggles, earmuffs, hooding
Persuasion- “Futility,” “emotional love” approach
Foul Language - Prisoners cursed during interrogation
Psychological Contrast- “Fear up, harsh,” “Mutt and Jeff” approach
Preliminary Humiliation

On November 16 1971, the Belfast tortures and the "five techniques" came to light. The British government detained for 9 days and tortured fourteen Northern Irish men. During the time of their detention they were subjected to "five techniques" – food deprivation, sleep deprivation, hooding, noise bombardment, and forced standing. The government tried to defend their position by claiming these men were criminals.

The refinement of many "methods" seem to have attained fruition by the time of KUBARK where all these interrogation methods have been discussed. See also this.

These methods include (but are not limited to):

Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli
Threats and Fear
Heightened Suggestibility and Hypnosis

There have always been supporters as well as detractors of such methods within agencies. Individual views vary widely.

As mentioned earlier, the support for torture has come in many forms.

  1. It's not torture until it's very painful (causes death) or causes injury to internal organs. By using this logic the supporters of torture want to give a greater area of freedom to torture.

  2. It's okay because it it is for a greater good and saves more lives in the long run by extracting crucial information. (Logical).

In fact there is a formula:

W x L x P / T x O


W = whether the agent is the wrongdoer
L = the number of lives that will be lost if the information is not provided
P = the probability that the agent has the relevant knowledge
T = the time available before the disaster will occur (“immediacy of the harm”)
O = the likelihood that other inquiries will forestall the risk

Torture can be justified in this mathematical equation.

Ref: Torture: When the Unthinkable Is Morally Permissible

As always, there are opposite views.

The criticism that torture does not work has been advanced by many. The most persuasive paper on the issue is that written by Philip N. S. Rumney. The paper is well measured in its analysis and well researched in its scope. Rumney concludes that torture suspects often do not divulge the information that is sought from them.

To clarify- this was cited not as the sole research that says torture is ineffective. It is simply the "backstory" that the counterview can effectively counter:

There is no relevant evidence that torture cannot work in the circumstances we outline. The “evidence” to the contrary that is proffered by the critics has been overstated in terms of its relevance to our proposal. The empirical data cited by the critics regarding the outcome of other incidents of torture can be dismissed on the basis that it occurred in a different setting to that we propose.

And then:

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has claimed that rendition has “prevented attacks in Europe” and “saved innocent lives.” Former President Clinton in October 2006 also stated that in extreme cases the president should be able to sanction the use of torture.

  • Thanks for your very thorough answer. The last part starts getting at the gist of what I asked.
    – andybega
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 10:41

This is purely anecdotal, but in her autobiography "The Past is Myself", Christine Bielenberg, an upper-class English woman married to a German doctor during the Third Reich, narrates her busband's experience of torture. Being on the fringes of the German resistance to Hitler, she says that they noted that when some activists were arrested, a slew of further arrests almost always followed, leading to great contempt for those who had apparently betrayed their fellow resistance workers. Her husband, Dr Pieter Bielenberg, was eventually arrested himself; as it was near the end of the war, with Germany facing certain defeat, Bielenberg was able to "name-drop" members of the British Establishment known to her to engineer his release. On his return, Dr Bielenberg confided to his wife that he would never again criticise anyone who "cracked" under torture, saying, (I quote from memory) - "You don't know what they can do to you!"

As stated, this is anecdotal, but suggests that torture can be effective.



This question is better phrased than is often the case, where 'does torture work' is often asked.

It seems without doubt that torture worked in the case of the kidnap and subequent torture of CIA station chief William Francis Buckley.

Information that the torturers wanted was given.

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