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The Holocaust Experiment
Embedded in the heart of human knowledge, somewhere deep down is a grasping at commonality. Not uniformity, but solidarity; a common essence that unites the vastly varied facets of the human race. From religion and philosophy to physics and sociology, underneath the acknowledgment of how different we are is the burning desire to find something that makes us the same.
These are the questions that have driven artists and philosophers for centuries. We strive to diagnose the human condition, without and within. With science and technology, we delve into the world we experience. With philosophy, with religion and spirituality, and with sociology, we delve within. The endless debate rages on: does man have a nature, or is he driven by what he learns?
Sadly, there is no definitive answer to that question. All we can reasonably do is observe and analyze, recognize that we can’t know the “right” answer and instead craft a theory out of the ideas that compel us. We look for patterns in the chaos and draw correlations from the experience.
In the wake of an atrocity with the terrifying scope of the Holocaust, seeking the answers seems evermore important. What drives a population to support the harassment, imprisonment, and ultimately, the extermination of an entire race? On both sides of the debate, the implications are astounding. If we do indeed have a nature, genocide is part of it. How does one view the world bearing the notion that evil is in our blood?
If, on the other hand, we are driven by nurturing, the indoctrination of dogma and culture, we then have a responsibility to the world to discover what it is about civilization that brings out the animal in us? What is it about our minds that have historically buckled in the face of tyrrany? The thought of a confining essence can never be confirmed, and its implications rob us of the chance of change. This side of the debate is the one that offers hope, that provides the possibility of evolving out of our misguided conflicts. So, we must pursue it with vigilence, and rediagnose the human condition from fatally flawed to a state of recovery.
To grasp once more at commonality, we start with the mind. If we’re driven by nurture, then the mind is in fact programmable, at least to an extent. Free will is starkly opposed by subconscious reaction, and the dynamic contrast between the two lies at the root of the human condition. In analyzing the Holocaust and the minds that let it happen, perhaps we can learn to better bridge the gap between conscious choice and unconscious kneejerk reaction.
I. Programming the Mind
One cannot observe any group of humans from an anthropological standpoint without recognizing the overwhelming influence of culture on the behavior of its members. Culture is, in a very real way, our operating system. The world of modern day human interaction is governed by a set of unspoken agreements, on language and meaning, on hierarchies and roles, on death and spirituality. These varied sets of beliefs and customs combine to form the juggernaught of culture, the framework through which the rational mind perceives.
Note that this is not an indictment of free will, but rather recognizing the forces that cloud the judgment it exercises. If our worldviews allow for the possibility for something so horrible as genocide, we are morally obligated to learn our weaknesses and avoid succumbing to them. If we’re to overcome ethical flaws coded into our subconscious, we must first know how deeply we are grasped by them.
Consider Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience. Milgram devised an experiment wherein a volunteer “teacher” would administer memory tests to an unseen “learner” who, upon answering wrongly, would be given electric shocks in increasing potency. Secretly, the learner was a confederate and did not receive any actual shocks. However, he would play the part convincingly, and the experimenter would continue prompting the “teacher” to give him stronger shocks (Helm and Morelli, 1979).
Shockingly, an unsettling percentage of people were willing to administer a potentially lethal electric shock after repeated prompting from the experimenter, a “figure of authority” in a white jacket. One correlation that can be drawn is that there exists in many humans a tendency to submit to authority, to occupy an “‘agentic state’ viewing himself as the mere instrument of an authority and lacking any responsibility for the acts he performs.” (Helm and Morelli, 1979)
The implications are crucial in understanding how average human beings become perpetrators of genocide. Authorities are the official representatives of a culture and its philosophies. If we have a tendency, for whatever reason, to obey authority unconditionally, we could be led by that authority to commit horrible crimes without considering ourselves responsible. If a rational human being is provided with the role of murderer, how deeply does it drive him?
For a deeper perspective on the power of roles, we turn to Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University. He devised the now-infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. The basement of Stanford’s psychology department was converted into a mock prison, down to barred cells and a solitary confinement closet referred to as “the Hole”. Zimbardo selected a group of volunteers for the experiment, and randomly assigned them the roles of guard and prisoner. (Zimbardo, 1999-2009)
Painstaking measures were taken to emphasize the identity implied by the role. The prisoners were dressed in ugly, ill-fitting clothing and assigned numbers to replace their names. Guards were outfitted in khaki military uniforms with mirrored sunglasses and nightsticks. The illusion of a prison was maintained at all levels, down to the stripping and delousing of the prisoners at their booking.
The experimented was projected at two weeks, but in fact didn’t even make it through the first. The power of the roles was so deep that within the first couple of days, the guards were physically and psychologically abusing the prisoners. Even Zimbardo, acting as superintendent of the prison as well as experimenter, was dominated by his role; he worked to maintain the illusory prison even when the experiment became decidedly inhumane. It wasn’t until a coworker directly intervened, six days later, that Zimbardo recognized how far out of hand the situation had gotten.
The experiment was conducted in the backdrop of the nineteen sixties, typified by the anti-war movement and the systemic questioning of authority. The volunteers were all young, white, middle-class students, the prototypical idea of the “everyman” in our society. And they, along with an expert in psychology, had their identities entirely supplanted by the roles offered by the experiment in a matter of days.
The juxtaposition of these two experiments could shed some light on the malleable characteristics of the mind. If accepting a role from an authority has such potent influence on human behavior, we must be very wary of those who are considered authorities. And, if stressed circumstances strengthen an already-present tendency to surrender our sovereignty to authoritarianism, we can understand the Holocaust a little more clearly.
II. Corrupted Psychology and the Holocaust
A full analysis of German culture preceding the Holocaust is well beyond the scope of this paper. The fluid nature of culture makes it impossible to isolate every factor and explore every possibility. However, there are some key factors that set the stage for the Holocaust take place. We shall examine a few of those to draw corollaries to the transformation of a culture into a murder machine.
One of the foremost factors is the long-standing tradition of anti-Semitism across Europe. Jews have a lengthy history of persecution, and Germany was no exception. Jews were depicted by the media as less than human, as disease carriers and the harbingers of impurity. This inherent derogation of Jews went hand in hand with the advent of eugenics and the concept of a “pure Aryan race” to introduce the idea of “cleansing” Jews from the populace. (Newman and Erber, 2002)
Also crucial is Germany’s historical context. Still struggling through the wreckage of the First World War with an economy in shambles and national identity compromised, Germany was a hotbed of fear. The certainty of a stable society had broken down and left in its wake a sense of fearful desperation for some sense of safety. With the seduction of safety in numbers, even a totalitarian authority could become supremely powerful in German culture that already had a historically demonstrated predisposition towards authoritarianism.
The last ingredient, of course, is the authority itself: Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, will live forever in infamy, but it’s important to realize that his role was only a small part of the atrocity of ethnic cleansing. His was the voice for an idea that already held great power; the proverbial devil on our shoulder, as it were. In impoverished, war-torn Germany, the people grasped desperately for a sense of identity in solidarity in the face of a national crisis. Hitler, whether his ideology was genuine or manipulative, gave the people what they wanted: a group to be a part of and a scapegoat for all their problems.
And so the murder machine assembled itself, supplanting the identity of an entire people with the obligation to cleanse and purge races and ideas that were inconsistent with their values from the world. The people stowed their terror out of sight, in the vast locker of their collective culture, and in return became unquestioning thralls to that culture. The few heroic helpers aside, the apathy and even enthusiasm towards genocide permeated the flaws of culture and gripped an entire nation.
III. Learning the Lesson
The lesson the Holocaust can teach us about human interaction has two frontiers: the collective and the individual. If the human mind is vulnerable to poisonous authority, then we must keep our authorities, our governments and our institutes in check assiduously on principle alone. Our obligation to the human race is to ensure that the prejudices of one group do not spiral out of control and gain momentum. The price is always steep; in Germany, it cost the lives of six million Jews, not even counting the casualties of war and the absolute degradation of human life.
For the individual, it poses perhaps an even deeper conundrum. Our susceptibility to cultural program makes the delving into our own personal psychology more and more necessary. The only way to overcome unconscious reaction is to become conscious of it, to know the weaknesses within both one’s own character and one’s culture. To prevent the usurpation of our minds, we must cultivate consciousness and awareness with unyielding perseverance.
It’s important to recognize that the Holocaust is not the only atrocity of its kind, nor is it the most recent. Ethnic cleansing and mass killing has occurred across the world in the years since World War II, in Sudan, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, just to name a few. Each of these places and their corresponding atrocities are their own beast, governed by unique cultural and situational circumstances. However, in grasping for commonality, we can theorize
that whatever the catalysts are, the underlying mechanism for genocide is the same.
In order to create more humane societies, we must constantly redefine our cultural values to include the broad range of human existence. If we want to purge genocide from our cultural vocabulary, we must mold a new culture that is inclusive rather than exclusive. We must minimize fear-mongering and propaganda, the tools that drive a population into the arms of fascism.
As the age-old adage goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The lesson of the Holocaust is one of those crucial concepts that must be understood in the coming age; a lesson not of the details of the atrocities, but the themes and concepts that made such atrocities possible. Tyrrany takes many forms, shapeshifting from culture to culture to plant its seeds, which, if they are sown, threaten to rob us of all the lofty ideals we claim to represent. Only through analyzing, questioning, and eventually dismantling the poisonous forces present in all cultures can we transcend the possibility of genocide.
Discussion: Psychoanalysis in Germany 1933-1945: Are There Lessons for the Nuclear Age?
John E. Mack
Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 53-61
Published by: International Society of Political Psychology
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791587
Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust
William I. Brustein and Ryan D. King
International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique
Vol. 25, No. 1, Religion and Politics. Religion et politique (Jan., 2004), pp. 35-53
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1601621
Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment: Authority, Legitimacy, and Human Action
Charles Helm and Mario Morelli
Vol. 7, No. 3 (Aug., 1979), pp. 321-345
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/190944
Newman, Leonard S., and Ralph Erber. Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/42
Germany, Establishment of the Nazi Dictatorship,http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005204