On this International Holocaust Memorial Day, I was musing to myself about what turns normal people into the perpetrators of genocide, not just in Nazi Germany, but in Bosnia, Rwanda, and many other places. It seems to me that one fundamental flaw in the human personality is obedience to authority.
In 1963, the psychologist Stanley Milgram published the findings from his now-famous experiments, which were designed to push subjects to the limits of obedience. A disturbingly-high fraction of the subjects carried on, even when they believed that they were inflicting serious pain, perhaps lethally, on the “victim”.
It’s all to easy to believe that our own behaviour would have been different. We would have been one of the rebels, surely. Maybe so. For myself, I know that I am inherently contemptuous of authority but my life has been safe and uneventful. If my courage was put to the test, would I belong to the Righteous, or would I be a tacit accomplice?
Milgram was actually inspired to probe compliance the year that Adolf Eichmann was tried for his war crimes, and the atrocities of the Holocaust came to mind again. But I don’t think that the sin of obedience explains everything. For one thing, Milgram’s subjects were under immediate pressure to comply, unlike the majority of participants in genocide. And they didn’t hate and despise the people who were suffering (they thought).
In the Nazi Holocaust, people had already been educated to see the victims as “Üntermenschen”, subhumans; and this relates to another major flaw in human nature. We all have an instinct to identify “our” group and fear outsiders. Research has shown both that this xenophobia is completely inherent to the human psyche, and trivially easy to manipulate. Test subjects assigned randomly to a “team” always demonstrate an unconsious bias that their random team-mates are better people than those on other teams.
In fact, that’s exactly what fascists use to persuade people to do their dirty work: they use the random fact of your nationality to make you think that you’re part of their team. Are you “proud” of being whatever nationality you think of as yours? It makes you fascist-fodder.
These then are my two resolutions for International Holocaust Memorial Day: I will refuse to obey authority; and I will have allegiance only to one group, all of humanity.