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Psychology of the Holocaust

Today I’m not writing an original post. Instead, I’d like to share an essay I wrote for a history course about a year and a half ago. World War II has long fascinated me (and my grandfather–who wrote a book on it), as has psychology (this was before I changed my major to psychology). It has been previously edited to be more blog-friendly (mainly, I added an introductory two paragraphs), and I am not inclined to edit it further, but you will enjoy it–P.S. see the first comment to this post.

We all know that the Holocaust was one of the most terrible things in the history of ever, right? Haven’t you ever wondered about it? I have, and my questions as I investigated it included wondering how human beings could participate in at all, or why we didn’t do more to stop it, either the Allied forces or local bystanders, if we knew (and I tried to verify if indeed we knew). I’ve wondered what it says about human nature, and if something like it could happen again.

It’s chilling to realize that it is explicable according to principles of social psychology permeating all of our lives. Let me point out that doesn’t mean everything: often an event has multiple causes, any one of which is necessary but not sufficient. Yet it was perpetrated by humans: let that sink in. The essay that follows, modified from a course paper, explores some of the psychology (and history) behind it all.

~ ~ ~

How did the Holocaust come about? The Nazis rose to power in 1933 as politics became polarized after the Crash of 1929. Many Germans were grated by the perceived unfairness of the Versailles Treaty, and blamed Jews for Germany’s troubles, epitomized with the infamous ‘stab-in-the-back’ conspiracy spread among disenchanted German soldiers. (This can partly be seen as the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism.)

Yet the events leading up to the concentration camps and slave labor that took twelve million lives was gradual. That figure includes six million Jews (forty percent of all the Jews in the world). The first sign was the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 depriving Jews of full citizenship; over the next three years, rights were deprived further and many Jews fled.

Here are two surprising facts: in 1935 the Nazis established an agency to facilitate Jewish emigration, and there was a bizarre plan to deal with the ‘Jewish question’ was to seize French Madagascar and make it a permanent Jewish homeland. But surprisingly, only 150,000 of over half a million Jews in Germany emigrated. It seems that more Jews didn’t emigrate because of reasons such as lacking the means, a natural inertia or resistance to leaving the country one grows up in, and the belief that the extreme persecution would be temporary. This last belief was shown to be terribly wrong as millions were later gassed or burned as part of the ‘Final Solution’, another and earlier part of which was the einsatzgruppen. The what-now?

The einsatzgruppen, the term for the few thousand German men who went around killing hundreds of thousands in cold blood. And what in the hell is one supposed to make of them? Michael Bess in his book Choices Under Fire examined this and essentially concluded that they ‘got used to it, after a while’.

This is one of the keys to the psychology behind the Holocaust, and can be applied to those who acted courageously, in complete opposition to such men, in saving fleeing Jews; it can be applied to the civilians who let such atrocities happen, and to the Jewish population who must have known the danger they faced living in the German empire. I’m reminded of the story of the frog who perishes because he doesn’t perceive an emergency while sitting in his pot of heating water. In my opinion, the idea that people ‘get used to their’ predicament or behavior — their lives — is so obvious that it’s enormous power to facilitate change is neglected.

Bess reveals more of these ‘keys’ by sharing two famous (or infamous) experiments in psychology, the first conducted by Milgram (the shock experiment) and the second by Zimbardo (the prison experiment), two classical psychology experiments that everyone should know about.

The goal of Milgram’s experiment was to see how far people would be willing to go in blind obedience to authority. The subject would be instructed by ‘The Scientist’ to administer shocks (which became stronger over time) to ‘The Learner’ whenever said fellow subject (actually an actor, and confederate) made a mistake in some simple task.

Two thirds of all subjects went to the maximum amount of voltage, to the astonishment of Milgram. This figure became over 90 percent when fellow subjects (actually confederates) applied the maximum voltage, which shows in addition the power of peer pressure. Interestingly, subjects almost never went beyond a voltage much lower than the maximum when they were allowed to choose it, implying that we humans in general are more willing to transgress our own scruples if we’re merely instructed to do something, as our instructions, however abhorrent, become the new ‘norm’ for acceptability. I believe this is another key to the psychology behind the Holocaust, another one being the implication that peer pressure exacerbates this effect. (Since writing this, I’ve realized more of the pertinent facts and implications of Milgram’s experiment, as well as Zimbardo’s, through reading books such as Influence, but frankly I don’t want to add any more.)

The goal of Zimbardo’s experiment was to study “the extent to which ordinary individuals would prove capable of inhumane behavior if they were placed in an institutional setting that gave them complete power over other people”. Students (subjects) were arbitrarily divided into either prisoners or guards and placed in a mock prison.

While at first the students treated it as a game, they came to be caught up in their roles, and after less than six days, Zimbardo was forced to cut it far short as ‘prisoners’ had emotional breakdowns and ‘guards’ exacted all manner of sadistic abuses of power. A surprising preliminary to the experiment was that Zimbardo actually weeded out subjects who weren’t ‘normal’ or ‘well-adjusted’. This experiment suggests that when one group of people has power over another group that they see as inferior, subhuman, that our inhibitions regarding what is permissible to do to them melt away, and again, that seeing our peers engage in something abominable makes it seem less so, in some perverse way perhaps even good in demonstrating loyalty to our own group.

Now that I’ve examined several of the ‘keys’ to understanding the Holocaust, I’ll re-examine one of the reasons Jews didn’t emigrate in larger numbers: belief that persecution was temporary. But is this true? Certainly it seems most Jews docilely accepted their fate. But I don’t think that tells the whole story: Keegan, an important historian, asserts that the “whole continent knew” of the systematic massacre underlying Nazi authority, and also offers that “in a profound sense, the machinery of the Final Solution and the Nazi empire were one and the same” regarding the centrality (and thus undeniability) of what we would call the Holocaust to the new German Reich.

What does this mean? The answer reveals a shameful aspect of human nature. Essentially, it suggests that many Jews were paralyzed with fear, felt helpless, and figuratively buried their heads in the sand. This meshes well with the fact that under the right circumstances we are capable, as Milgram and Zimbardo demonstrated, of simply ignoring the reality that what we are doing is wrong.

This ability to compartmentalize, to try to live in two worlds at once, can be seen in the rationalization of a member of the einsatzgruppen who justified his killing of children as an act of ‘mercy’ (as they ‘couldn’t live’ with their mother dead). It is also shown in the short story of Tadeusz Borowski, from the perspective of an imprisoned laborer, based off of his own experiences. Borowski himself, born in 1922, was shipped between concentration camps as slave labor. In a story told from a similar perspective, a worker cleans the trains that Jews were packed into to be shipped to Auschwitz of dead infants, trampled in the tight quarters, which is juxtaposed to the character’s comments on the ‘normal’ aspects of his life. The literary effect is to arouse terror in the reader that such juxtaposition is possible, that it is possible to live in two worlds. But it’s just the point that it is possible to compartmentalize, to ignore, and this is another key that unlocks the mystery.

Now I’ll turn to the issue of whether we Americans knew of the Holocaust. The uneasy answer is that we definitely did. Although times are different, and ubiquitous instant communication (like social networking sites) did not exist then, the mainstream media started getting reports in 1941 which by 1942 painted an undeniable picture of annihilation. On the twenty-eight of October of 1941, the New York Times ran an article entitled ‘Nazis seek to rid Europe of all Jews’ in which the first paragraph read “Complete elimination of Jews from European life now appears to be fixed German policy”.

In other words, many people did know, and there were even protesters years before this article was published. Rabbi Wise, for one, president of the American Jewish Congress, started protesting against Nazism as early as 1933. Many years later in 1942, he sent a letter to a Justice of the Supreme Court, Frankfurter (a fellow Jew), asking for his help in getting the U.S. government to act in response to the cables Wise received indicating that one hundred thousand Warsaw Jews were killed and their bodies turned to soap. And what was the U.S. response? To hold a conference in Bermuda in April of 1943 with the British and other governments in order to “give enough of the appearance of action to quiet the pressures” in both nations. Disgusting. Furthermore, according to one critical historian, at this conference “both delegations strained to find reasons that the rescue proposals submitted to the conference were not workable. And they almost always managed to find such reasons.”

The consensus among the American and British governments seemed to be to repress information about the Holocaust in order to decrease fear, ultimately so that more would not be demanded. This is shown in a memorandum from a Mr. Reams, a member of the State Department, to a Mr. Hickerson and Mr. Atherton, sent on the tenth of December of 1942, concerning a planned statement by the British government on the Jewish extermination. It read “[T]he statement proposed by the British Government was extremely strong and definite”, lamenting that Jews around the world would see it as complete proof of what was going on and that “In addition the various Governments of the United Nations would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific to aid these people.” In other words, politicians were also playing the game of burying their head in the sands.

Another letter illustrates this. This one is from an Adolf Berle, a US diplomat, to a Breckinridge Long, US assistant secretary of state. The last paragraph reads: “Care should be taken not to unduly excite hopes”, and these excerpts seem representative of the governments’ stance. Many historians of the Second World War have claimed that the Allies had to focus solely on the military defeat of the Axis to bring it all to an end, and so focused on military and industrial targets. This would seem to exonerate the behavior of bureaucrats such as Reams and Berle, but Lyons, another historian, doesn’t think so. The Allies could have done much more to disrupt the machinery of the Holocaust if they had really wanted to, for example by bombing railway lines leading to Auschwitz.

The initial hesitancy of the governments to even acknowledge the Holocaust, other than pretending that reality will not eventually catch up, may have been to preserve the image of the governments — meaning the functionaries of government — the bureaucracy. Ultimately, even if little could have been done to save the Jews directly, the fact remains that little was attempted.

As a reminder of the reality of the Holocaust, I will end with an excerpt by Elie Wiesel, from his book Night, pages 41-42 of the 1960 edition, on his experience (at just fourteen) in Auschwitz. The surreal horror is recounted thusly: “They were burning something. […] Babies! Yes, I saw it–saw it with my own eyes… those children in the flames… I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? […] Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books.”

This account reminds us why we sometimes compartmentalize, in order to cope psychologically with something we aren’t prepared to deal with. In the Holocaust, as in all human events, human psychology played a part, and the Holocaust illustrates everything that can go wrong with the human psyche. We’re more apt to listen to authority than we know and when told to do something are more likely to deem it acceptable, abdicating our moral conscience; when given power over people we lose our inhibitions regarding what is acceptable, surely exacerbated if we’re told they’re subhuman; are more likely to do something, anything, if those around us are doing it; seek to remain loyal to what we define as our own group; and over time, ‘get used to it’, whether it’s murdering innocents or saving those same innocents from getting murdered.

All of these psychological elements which enabled the Holocaust still exist today, and that is why the Holocaust is a lesson in history that cannot be forgotten–so that it cannot happen again, and we can build a world of people more likely to save innocents than to kill them.

What thoughts did this essay prompt in you? Share in the comments!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Here are two excellent comments I received on it (on an earlier, now-defunct blog I had):

    This is a fantastic essay and it’s beautifully written. I’m a student of both English and History; I appreciate these things. I agree with everything you’ve written, however, you’ve forgotten one important piece of the pie. The Jews did accept their fate for all the reasons you mentioned. But they were also very used to this treatment. Historically, Jews were persecuted by gangs of soldiers all over Europe (a prime example of this is the Russian pogroms). Soldiers would beat them up, vandalize their homes and businesses, and do just about anything to terrorize them. Sound familiar? Well, there’s one big difference between this an what the Nazis did: pogroms only lasted a short time. They’d be tortured and terrorized and were powerless to do anything to defend themselves, so they learned to lie low an take it until it died down. Except the Nazi attack never died down. So they took abuse and ghettoization and terrorism from Nazis because they believed it would pass quickly and life would return to normal as it always did in the past.

    David B Hayes—
    Interesting stuff. This post caught my eye because I’ve been slowly working through Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men about one of the killing squads you mention. It’s interesting to hear about how much turmoil there was within the groups as they began, but how a sense of routinized (dare I say) comfort inevitably returned even with the new, distasteful responsibilities. I think of this as the bad side of hedonic adaptation.

    I would challenge you a little on a couple points. First, you seem to read the Holocaust as the most terrible thing people ever did to each other, maybe even the epitome of evil. Have no doubt that I agree that it was a terrible event, and made all the more shocking by the modernity that drove its efficiency. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Consider, for example, the American extermination and ceaseless double crossing of those native people who happened to be in the way of their God given right to an unoccupied continent. (If you have interest, I recommend the American Experience series We Shall Remain, which is excellent.)

    The other thing I’d push on is the idea that everyone (European Jews, the Americans, the British) knew that either the Final Solution was likely to come or was truly underway. Surely there’s such a thing as personal and collective intransigence in the face of things we’d rather not have to deal with, but I’m not convinced that these groups are as guilty as you portray.

    What seems obvious in hindsight rarely is at the time. Many of the Jews doubtless thought the Nazis were serious about Madagascar. I believe I’ve seen more than a few survivor interviews in which people have said they believed their trips to the camps were the beginning of their journey to resettlement.

    On the international front, I think it’s worth acknowledging that scattered reports in a few places doesn’t constitute unmistakable evidence of anything. Surely there is some greater credibility in a report in the NYT than many sources, but it’s hardly true that the Times has never made a mistake. The evidence necessary to convince people far away of anything usually needs to be overwhelming, not a few scattered reports. And there simply weren’t thousands of people making unquestionable testament to the killing that was going on because there were hardly 1000 people outside of the Nazi power structure who were even sure what was going on. I’ve certainly seen copious records of people living in towns near camps testifying to their ignorance of what was unfolding there.

    (As a tangential point, it’s also worth noting that even had they known, no one in the international community was in much of a position to stop the killings until 1944. How close the Nazi’s came to conquering Britain is easy to understate, how hard it would have been to launch a campaign within the occupied countries of Eastern Europe specifically to stop the killing is hard for Americans with their Delta Forces and Navy SEALs to fathom.)

    Those things said, I do certainly agree with your overall point: we must look closely at the Holocaust and understand how it was as bad as it was if we are to honestly reckon with what it means about our species’s psychological faults. And so I’ll close with a line from Solzhenitsyn:

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

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