We were standing on the parade grounds in Nuremberg where Hitler once addressed throngs of enthralled Germans. It was the scene of Leni Riefenstahl’s awe-inspiring propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Our guide for that morning told us that she was born in 1968 and that when she was old enough to learn about what happened in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s she said, pointing at the reviewing stand, that she would ask her mother and grandmother and others how it could happen that so many people followed “that crazy person,” and no one answered her.
That turns out to be a common phenomenon in post-war Germany, whether out of shame, denial, or a simple reluctance to talk about it. In a video of a group of children and grandchildren of Nazis visiting concentration camps in Poland Marcus Demah, one of the participants, says: “We cannot continue to be silent like our grandparents and parents.” This is especially true of people immediately related to the worst of the Nazi war criminals. In the astonishing biography My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege, a note by Nikola Sellmair quotes psychoanalyst Peter Bruendl, who treated several such people, including Teege, “There is an unholy conspiracy of silence in perpetrator families, often spanning generations.” (p. 17)
It was not just the perpetrator families that did not want to talk about it. Many of the lower ranking members of the Nazi apparatus, and even some who were more prominent, silently took post-war positions in the government. “A generation of criminals was ruling society after the war and no one talked about what they had done. Discussing their crimes was not even a part of our school lessons,” said journalist Gunter Wallraff.
To most Americans, Hitler in the 1930s with his silly moustache and hysterical-sounding speeches was an almost comic figure. Charlie Chaplin captured that in The Great Dictator. Yet, to the mass of Germans he was mesmerizing. How could that be?
Germany didn’t simply lose World War I, it was humiliated. The national pride people felt after Bismarck had united the country carried it into the war. That pride, which had graduated to arrogance, dictated that outside forces could not defeat the German nation; only Germans could do that so defeat must have come from within. It was blamed first of all on a betrayal by the military high command which, seeing the situation in the field, demanded first a truce and then an armistice. “[Hitler] could bear even less the disaster which befell his beloved Fatherland in November 1918. To him, as to almost all Germans, it was ‘monstrous’ and undeserved. The German Army had not been defeated in the field. It had been stabbed in the back by the traitors at home.” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer, 1960, p. 431)
Hitler’s obsessive pride in his Germanic heritage (perhaps goaded by the fact that he did not look like the stereotypical Aryan) was bolstered by the eugenics movement popular in the 1920s. Proponents believed that certain “races,” principally German and Anglo-Saxon, were superior to others. Therefore, interbreeding with other “races” would dilute the Aryan gene pool; the disabled, either physically or mentally, sick people, homosexuals, criminals, etc., even if Aryan, would pollute it. As explained by Professor Beth Griech-Polelle in a talk at Pacific Lutheran University, this led in two directions: positive euthanasia or selective breeding, and negative euthanasia: isolation, sterilization, and elimination. In the United States twenty-four states legalized sterilization of criminals and the insane. In Germany, where the program was known as “Race and Hygiene,” it led to the gas chambers.
According to Hitler, it was not only the generals who betrayed the country; they were brought to that sorry state by the Jews and the Social Democrats, two overlapping groups. Furthermore, the defeat in World War I was only part of the Jewish-Marxist plan for world conquest. “And this work [Das Kapital]was not written for the great masses, but exclusively for the intellectual leadership of that Jewish machine for world conquest…” (Mein Kampf, p. 472).
Into this pit of despair stepped two major movements: Marxism and the National Socialism or Nazi Party. Marxism, as Hitler noted, appealed more to the better educated and well off members of German society, and that left the masses to Hitler and National Socialism. The division became increasingly more acute and engendered bitterness. “Poverty and frequent unemployment began to play havoc with people, leaving behind them a memory of discontent and embitterment.” (p. 234) People in such a state can be easily manipulated. “…the great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one…” (p.231)
To appeal to these great masses Hitler transformed himself “into a speaker for mass meetings…practiced in the pathos and the gestures which a great hall, with its thousands of people, demands.” (p. 468) And the simpler and more emotional the better. Hitler admired British Prime Minister Lloyd George for that ability. “Precisely in the primitiveness of his language, the primordiality of its forms of expression, and the use of easily intelligible examples of the simplest sort lies the proof of the towering political ability of this Englishman. For I must not measure the speech of a statesman to his people by the impression which it leaves in a university professor, but by the effect it exerts on the people.” (p. 477, ital in original)
Battered by hyperinflation and the disillusionment that followed the war, the German people were ready for change. Only the socialist and communist parties and Hitler’s deceptively named National Socialist German Workers Party (NDSP in German) promised that. Propelled by Hitler’s spellbinding speeches, scapegoating, and the strong-arming of his opponents, Hitler’s party slowly gained acceptance. In 1928 it received only 2.6% of the vote. In 1930 it was up to 18.3, and in July, 1932 it led all other parties with 37.3%; and in a run-off in November, 1932 it dropped to 33.1% but still led all other parties and was in a position to form a government with Hitler as chancellor.
The result was not the change people voted for, but how was it that so many decent, ordinary, often well-educated people continued to support him through a succession of increasingly horrific human rights abuses ranging from discrimination to mass murder? Part of the answer was given in a piece by Paul E. Marek, a Canadian whose grandparents fled Czechoslovakia just prior to the Nazi takeover.
I used to know a man whose family were German aristocracy prior to World War Two….I asked him how many German people were true Nazis …
“Very few people were true Nazis,” he said, “but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it all happen…’”
This is essentially the boiling frog idea, that if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually raise the temperature it will adapt to each increase in heat until it boils. That is surely part of the answer. It is similar to Pastor Niemoller’s statement on how he wound up in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi views: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen addressed the question in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf, New York, 1996). He first considers the five most common explanations: 1, The perpetrators were coerced; 2, they were just following orders exaggerated by “a peculiarly German reverence for and propensity to obey authority”; 3, group pressure; 4, the actual culprits were careerists pursuing their self-interest; 5, the annihilation programs were so fragmented that an individual had no idea of the overall horror. (pp. 11-12).
Goldhagen believes that these explanations contain some truths, but faults them because they leave out motivation. His explanation is that” the perpetrators, ‘ordinary Germans,’ were animated by antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die.” (p. 14) That of course does not account for the treatment of Gypsies, dissidents, the disabled, etc. but Goldhagen argues that the Jews were singled out for the harshest treatment. “The Germans’ treatment of Jews—who were seen as the secular incarnation of the Devil—was so horrific that it can hardly be compared to that of other peoples.” (p. 175)
No doubt anti-Semitism was rampant in Germany, whipped up by Hitler who blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s troubles, real and imagined. First he classified them as the Other: “The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew.” (Mein Kampf, pp. 300 ff ) Then he blamed them for Germany’s defeat and the tribulations that followed: “The annihilation of Germany was not an English interest, but primarily a Jewish one… While England sweats to maintain her position in the world, the Jew organized his attack for its conquest.” (p. 638)
Anti-Semitism exists to some degree in many countries. How did it escalate to the Holocaust in Germany?
Group pressure has to do with the psychology of crowds. In 1951 Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College assembled several groups of people who were told that they were to judge which of three lines on one chart matched in length a line on another chart. There were eight people in each group but only one was the real subject; the other seven had agreed to pick a line that did not match. The real subject was always placed to answer last or next to last. In fifteen trials, including the first two, the accomplices and the real subject all gave the correct answer. In the other twelve trials, the accomplices all gave an obviously incorrect response, and 36.8% of the subject responses agreed. Of the seven real subjects in the twelve trials, 5% always went along with the accomplices; 25% never did; and the rest did sometimes. In a control group of all real subjects, the error rate was less than 1%. The experiment has been repeated with variations numerous times with similar results. Interviews with subjects revealed that many had doubts but went along with the group in a desire to conform.
A subject in Asch’s experiment is not unlike a curious German attending a rally where thousands of frenzied people are saluting a mesmerizing speaker and agreeing that yes they are part of a superior race and all their troubles are caused by Jews and Marxists. It is easy to get caught up in the fervor and enjoy the comfort of the crowd.
Or, as Hitler put it in Mein Kampf, “In the crowd [an individual] always feels somewhat sheltered, even if a thousand reasons actually argue against it.” (p. 478)
These were not cruel or bloodthirsty people. The crowds were made up mostly of middle and lower middle class people, not very well educated, and unhappy with their present situation. Even many of the leaders, or soon-to-be leaders, thought of themselves as decent, civilized citizens doing the right thing for their beloved country. Himmler, who was in charge of the SS, who oversaw the concentration camps, and created the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing battalions, and who can be seen on a video (“The Decent One,” Vanessa Lapa, Kino Lorber Films, 2015) personally shooting a firing squad victim who was apparently still alive, insisted that any recruit to the SS “…must be a good and decent person.” He wrote over a hundred love letters to his wife, though he also cheated on her.
Of Amon Goeth, who for sport shot at prisoners in the exercise yard of the Plaszów concentration camp he oversaw, Jennifer Teege’s grandmother, Goeth’s wife, said “He was a real gentleman,” (Teege, p.28)
What made good and decent people take part in the mass murder of innocents? Why did a real gentleman derive pleasure from regarding prisoners in an exercise yard as objects in a shooting gallery?
Another famous experiment in psychology gives us part of the answer. In 1961, Stanley Milgram of Yale devised an experiment to determine how much pain a person was willing to inflict on another if ordered to do so. His experiment involved three people in each trial, one of whom was the naïve subject. One participant, dubbed the learner, was strapped in a chair and attached to electrodes. He was supposed to learn to match pairs of words. The actual subject of the experiment, dubbed the teacher, read the first word of a pair and then four possible answers. Whenever the learner gave the wrong answer, the teacher administered an electric shock, with increasing voltage as the experiment went on. No actual shock took place, but the learner responded as if it had, accompanied by fake cries of pain and even at some point clutching his heart and asking to be relieved of the experiment. The third participant, dubbed the experimenter, was in charge and presented as an authority figure. If the teacher protested, the experimenter said such things as “Please continue,” and “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” If the teacher wanted to quit and protested that the learner was clearly in pain and perhaps physical harm, the experimenter said, “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on!”
In Milgram’s initial trials, 65% of the “teachers” administered what they thought were increasingly painful shocks right up to a final 450-volt lethal dose. They expressed reservations and a few even asked to be excused, but the majority obeyed the demands of the “experimenter.” This experiment, sometimes with variations, has been repeated numerous times with similar results. It has often been used to explain the “just following orders” excuse given by many of the Nazi perpetrators including Eichmann. There is a difference, however, between those who just followed orders because of intimidation and those, like Eichmann, who believed in the program.
Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is often criticized because she appears to show more sympathy for Eichmann than for his Jewish victims. Eichmann, she concludes, was essentially a bureaucrat, his atrocities, therefore, banal. There is ample evidence that he was in fact virulently anti-Semitic but the outraged tone of those who believe that Arendt diminishes the horror of his crimes by calling them banal is a recognition of the fact that if evil, even some evil, is in fact banal, then many of us are capable of it, and that’s what the Asch and Milgram experiments demonstrate.