In 1961, in the wake of the recent horrors and atrocities of the Second World War, a researcher at Yale University proposed a scientific experiment.
He wanted to investigate how the appalling and inhumane actions performed and ordered by Adolf Hitler and members of the Third Reich could have been possible, in anyone not severely impaired by some kind of sociopathic personality disorder.
He ended up demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, ordinary people can be persuaded into acts of barbaric cruelty. Specifically, he created a situation in which two-thirds of participants administered what they believed to be a massive, potentially fatal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure.
This has become known, after the psychologist who conducted it, as the Milgram experiment. Today, it’s considered a landmark in its field, and provided genuinely shocking and revolutionary insight into mankind’s capacity to perform unconscionable acts.
It’s not hard to understand why people might have sought some kind of explanation based in errant psychology as to how something as evil as the Holocaust could take place. Six million Jews were killed, as part of a systematic genocide that included many other “inferior” minority groups.
The regime of the Third Reich was filled with dehumanising tactics, not least in propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. The cartoonish depictions of Jewish people that the Nazis attempted to popularise all served to place these millions of people in the category of an “other”, of a comical stereotype, of someone not really the same as a proper human, of someone who the rest of us might be better off without, and whose suffering certainly needn’t concern us.
By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.
It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.
Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Milgram’s research was, not the original experiment, but the variations on the same theme which followed it. For they suggested, not simply that man has an inherent tendency toward atrocities, but that certain particular facts of the situation can strongly influence our capacity or likelihood to act with either compassion or indifference. A closer physical connection to their “victim” lessened the subjects’ tendencies to act cruelly toward them. A greater distance between themselves and the authority figure urging them on had a similar effect. The presence of a stooge, ostensibly in the same role as them, and either refusing to administer the electric shocks or pressing on with it to the bitter end, also greatly influenced people’s decisions about how to behave. Seeing someone else defy their instructions gave them the courage to do the same; but they were even less likely to resist committing a terrible act if their peer had already gone through with it.
The Nazis who committed the worst atrocities of the war provided themselves with circumstances which allowed them to justify their actions, and let them avoid any negative mental repercussions. Their propaganda discouraged any thought in others which saw their enemies as fully realised humans. Their goals required the deliberate clouding of rational thought and the silencing of compassion.
Here’s a lesson to be learnt: Let’s try not to have goals like that.
That the Nazis acted with appalling cruelty is no revelation. What matters is what we can learn about how not to behave like that. We don’t just need to do anything easy like not hate a particular racial or religious demographic. We have to learn how “the enemy” has often been stereotyped as a uniformly antagonistic mass of “others”, and be able to recognise any hint of such thinking in our own interactions with the world. Such tribalism is, without exception, destructive and harmful.
Not even the Nazis were less than human. There are no “others”.