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How do you define evil when ordinary citizens can so readily become murderers (#71)

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Nonjabulo Mlangeni
November 10, 2023
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What did it take to make ordinary Germans into killers? Were there unusual circumstances, or could this still happen?

The notion of conspiracy has always been a most salient aspect of the Holocaust. This is because it has significant implications for how we understand human nature. When we hear about truly terrible acts, a part of us often wonders how someone could do such a thing; how could anybody let it go so far? Then we remember that people can and people do, and that we are people. The question of how ordinary people become monsters is what keeps us both disturbed and captivated by the Holocaust nearly a lifetime later. It is also the subject of this article.

Collective action is always complex, especially when it produces horrific results. From war to genocide, the most fascinating and troubling aspect is that these are not moments but movements. Unlike singular mistakes or moments of weakness, they are born from millions of micro decisions that build on each other to create enormous consequences. For every act as brazen and sure as murder were others are as murky as pretending one didn’t see what they saw or didn’t know what they knew.

woman with a flowing blindfold on

Those at the helm of this shameful time are easy to read as blatantly evil. But behind every notorious Nazi was an army of everyday people whose names we will never know. Tucked away in offices and secret rooms, they performed an array of duties that kept the Third Reich running like a well-oiled machine. To us, it is not question of whether these persons facilitated the Holocaust, but to what extent.

This is a critical issue to consider. Indeed, the privilege of being born in a different time and place comes with a duty to learn from others’ mistakes. And if we want to achieve this, we cannot afford to jump to easy conclusions. Writing people off as simply wicked or weak leaves little room to really study the nature of complicity.

When the stakes were so high and the consequences so dire, it surely came down to more than just personal character or a fondness for war. How does the Schutzstaffel (SS) officer’s outright torture, starvation, and murder of Jews (and many other “undesirables”) differ from any indirect, white-collar form of disregard for human life? Are those differences smaller than we would like to believe?

Laying the foundation

These provocative questions confirm the value of continued discussions about the Holocaust. They help us train ourselves to think critically so as to keep our empathy and morals in check. In my opinion, we are most vigilant when we remember just how fine the line may be between those who actively engage in evil and those who are willing to let it slide.

This was my takeaway from a panel held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2017.1 Extremely well-versed in this history, Christopher R. Browning (former professor at UNC, Chapel Hill) and Wendy Lower (acting director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies led the discussion about Holocaust perpetrators and shades of responsibility. Under the guidance of Ralph Blumenthal (author and former New York Times reporter), Browning and Lower began by parsing perpetrators into various categories.

Most were ordinary citizens who bought into the rhetoric spewed by their leaders:

“we are in trouble and the Jews are to blame; they are vermin that we must exterminate; help us do this; tell us where they are; do your patriotic duty.”

In this way, the Holocaust was built on a solid foundation laid carefully over time. By the time that many were first confronted with the atrocities, they had years of antisemitic socialization informing their worldview. The moral choice had long disappeared under a tidal wave of propaganda.

This issue of indoctrination is particularly difficult to grapple with because it is sometimes what truly happened, but it is also an easy excuse. It doesn’t help that there is no single answer for why some people internalize messages while others don’t. What we do know for certain is that people are in 2017 willing to go to extremes over what they believe.

Even now, Americans grow increasingly restless, resentful, and divided over issues that have been either verified or refuted by hard data. Yet whatever the proof (or the lack thereof), there are always people standing on either side and unwilling to cross over.

man with hands behind back standing in front of armed officer

Adding to this, research about implicit bias has long demonstrated that human beings have a remarkable ability to hold beliefs that are not firmly grounded in reality.2 Such views tend to be incredibly stubborn because they are so deep-seated. They can survive even when we encounter evidence that contradicts them, and being made aware of them is not enough to change them.3 I am, of course, not trying to blame the Holocaust on implicit bias. I am saying that if we mean to understand how people end up doing things that perhaps even they never imagined possible, we must consider that psychology, biology, and history show that people can create, accept, and completely surrender to worldviews that are simply not based on rational thinking.4

The usual suspects

This knowledge may help us understand how those who gleefully participated in the Holocaust came to be that way. These zealots – what panelists call the “true believers” – were deeply invested in the Nazi ideology. They went to the killing fields because they were convinced of the merits of the cause. Is it possible that some of the most bloodthirsty devotees may have begun as seemingly ordinary people?

Blumenthal: “These men were not recruited as professional killers. In a way, that's the most disturbing part of the whole story. These really were ordinary Germans. They came from Hamburg … which was notably anti-Hitler … and more liberal … so didn't the Nazi leadership take a big chance using these people as their murder squads? … What gave them the confidence that these ordinary, unprofessional killers would turn into killers?”

Lower: “I think it was that every step of the way in fact they did find compliance … and, in some cases, [they even saw] growing adaptation to it. [So] that they could, by ’42 [1942], count on even a randomly selected unit like reserve police battalion 101 [to become killers]. [When] these people came, they'd been raised for [the last] six years … seven years in a Nazi atmosphere … they had, by [then], accepted the fact that Jews were not German; the Jews were the Other.”

Many of us feel that no amount of manipulation or misinformation could make us such fervent believers that we could harm others in our efforts to support a cause. Yet even as I write this, we have seen pro- and anti- maskers/-vaxxers come to blows in the street over their views on the way things are and ought to be.

It is not unusual for people who feel they serve a greater good to be willing to go to extremes. Some of the ordinary men who became killers would speak of the bloody expectations placed on them as if they were a higher calling; some standard they had to rise up and meet. Ultimately, anecdotes from the panelists show that there is no single answer as to why we become so beguiled by certain narratives that we completely lose ourselves in them. Rather, as they explain, this is a complex phenomenon.

Of course, one can unreasonably object that getting swept up in a great lie can only go so far. In this sense, we think that whatever brainwashing has taken place must have faltered when perpetrators witnessed the grit and gore first-hand. I mean, how could you not be moved as you steered children toward certain death? Or when you watched black clouds rise from smokehouses that smelled of burning flesh? How could your stomach not turn and wake you from your delusions?

lone hand reaching out of murky water

As the panelists note, SS agencies regularly came face-to-face with victims. To me, this proximity is the most troubling part. It means there were many opportunities for those on the front lines to see that their victims felt pain, hunger, misery, and any other human need or emotion. But even this logic is flawed because it is assumes that seeing suffering up close will humanize victims and arouse natural feelings of sympathy or empathy in perpetrators. This is not always true.

Panelists point out that seeing prisoners in their debased state actually reinforced perpetrators’ sense of superiority. In this way, watching them suffer “proved” the stereotypes about their weakness and subhuman status to be true. This important point reminds us that people who are strongly committed to an ideology can interpret what they see in a way that helps confirm that belief to be true. Their motivation to see what they already believe and want to see (motivated social cognition),5 influences the way they process new information.

Modern societies are also full of evidence that suffering does not always tug at our heartstrings. Whether it be a homeless person on the sidewalk, an utterance of hate speech from a friend, or police brutality caught on video, we are routinely guilty of seeing something and doing nothing or not enough. Yet, if you were to ask us, we would claim to despise injustice and tell you that apathy is a form of violence. Again, this only troubles the boundaries between the aggressor and those who stood by and watched – those who stopped to feel bad for a moment, then went about with the rest of their day.

Lessons in the banal

Opportunities to make the moral choice do not always announce themselves loudly. Often, they come as a whisper. We often expect that complicity will come down to one life-changing moment where we must stand up for what we believe in. We think we will recognize that moment when it happens and be ready to risk everything to do the right thing.

In reality, these moments are often much smaller and hidden in the processes and routines of everyday life. This is what Franz Kafka, the novelist, would describe as “the banal,” visceral moments that sometimes disappear amidst the mundane matters of daily living, then sometimes reappear – heightened by the contrast.

In a particularly poignant moment, the panel notes that initial feelings of horror came to pass as the brutality of the Holocaust was normalized:

“You get a process of brutalization, a process of numbing as they go along. For instance, the men will describe the first massacre and they're very distraught, very traumatized. And then with these successive massacres the descriptions become much less graphic because it becomes routine … they lose the ability to be shocked by what they are doing.”

Yet this normalization poses the greatest danger to society, because it whittles violence down to nothing more than a process. When all the guilt, shame, or inner turmoil has subsided, you are left with a system of brutality that has been sanitized by the state. The panel notes that this transition from novel to normal is what allows people from all corners of society to be recruited into the process. What was once unimaginable has now become unremarkable.6

Everyday people

One of the most striking lines I have ever heard came from a movie. In a tone of disgust, one character asks another how he can stand to live the way he does. The latter responds: “you can get used to anything if you’re around it long enough.”

This might be the most succinct way to describe the process of desensitization. Things that were once shocking and grotesque become not so. In some cases, we help this process along by convincing ourselves that the circumstances are not as bad as we once thought. More specifically, we often want to believe that we are not so bad for tolerating them.

This is not surprising, since human beings are wired to defend our own honor. Most of us want to believe we are fundamentally good people, and our brains have an array of defenses that help us protect our ego at all costs. Denial, rationalization, and projection are just a few of the many psychological defense mechanisms that make it incredibly easy for us to get rid of discomfort by shifting the blame.7

When coupled with extensive propaganda claiming Jews were the source of all evil, it is easy to see how many who facilitated the Holocaust may have thought “it’s not my fault; they brought this on themselves” (blaming the victim), “I don’t want to do this, but I need this job to survive” (rationalization), or “they must want to be here, otherwise they would find a way to escape” (projection). Challenging injustice is hard and rectifying it is even harder. It is often much easier to simply manipulate the way we see it so that we can feel less bad about ourselves while we continue to place our own interests above those of others.

“I think that many of the witnesses … just tried to, you know, remove themselves from the scene as much as possible, and find other diversions … they weren't really thinking so much about the Jews … [not] in an empathetic way [or] in the in the way that we might hope … they were … concerned about their own safety, about their colleagues … about their next meal…”

The moments of the discussion that truly shine are those that reflect on everyday people and their motivations for either joining or remaining loyal to the cause. The mass recruitment of women is particularly fascinating, because the majority held this facilitator status that sits in the grey area of culpability.

“[W]omen who went east and saw conditions there for themselves for the first time

… in general they went through a period of adaptation … [It was] initially [a] shock because … they had been socialized in Nazi Germany and they [were the] first generation to be… born right after the first world war. So, they've been schooled in antisemitism but they didn't quite grasp the horrors of what war was all about. So, they were very happy to put on their nurse uniforms and were proud to be [a] part … [they were] patriotic, idealist, ambitious, adventurous … the pay was [also] better in the east, so they had all different reasons for going ….”

In their memoirs, some claimed to not fully grasp the gravity of what was taking place. Whatever they did or didn’t know, it is worth considering how institutional or gendered power dynamics may dictate what people choose to dismiss or overlook. The panelists talk about the ways in which superiors would downplay acts of violence to nurses and secretaries. In these moments, doing and saying nothing in response was the path of least resistance.

“[T]hey're told, you know, [they] are secretaries and they're just told by this Nazi official, ‘now ladies … don't be alarmed if you hear a little gunfire. It's just that a few Jews are being shot’ … They were …on the train going to Ukraine and these SS men get into the train compartment and just start talking to them about how they had shot this Jewish woman and her disabled daughter … and [in retrospect, say] ‘we were horrified but we didn't know what to do. We were just horrified…’”

Ironically, for all the implied and stated fear of resisting the SS, the panel notes that punishment for refusing a command to kill was not met with severe consequences. Thus, the fear of what could happen if one said no was worse than what actually happened if one followed through.

“No German defense attorney has been able to find one documentable case when someone who refused to shoot unarmed civilians suffered any significant punishment. It just didn't happen. The problem was people testing the system … they were afraid to test [it].”

Interestingly, corporal punishment was not in the women’s war assignment. They were not compelled to engage in it. But they had the option of rising in the ranks and taking on the more brutal tasks. When they did, the evidence indicates that they were often more violent than the men. This is incredibly compelling and makes me wonder how many saw this as a rare opportunity to treat others as the second-class citizens they may have felt like in the world beyond the war.

In a larger sense this point nods to the sad but certain truth that the experience of oppression does not always breed empathy. History is full of victims who become victimizers because they wanted to or because they simply weren’t paying enough attention.

The end of the road

In October 2021, the alleged former secretary at a Nazi death camp made international news for attempting to flee in a taxi hours before the first day of her trial. Widely identified as Irmgard Furchner by the German press, the 96-year-old is thought to have been a stenographer and typist in the commandant’s (commander’s) office at Stutthof camp. Twenty-one at the time of the war crimes, she now faces over 11,000 charges of accessory to murder for “aiding and abetting those in charge of the camp in the systematic killing of those imprisoned there between June 1943 and April 1945."8

If convicted, Furchner will be one of the last to fall. It has been 76 years since Hitler died and soon there will be no co-conspirators to find. And while justice has no expiration date, what is justice when both victim and perpetrator are long gone? I imagine it becomes a more abstract concept, in which we honor the past by trying our hardest to do better.

We all think we know how we would react to in a moment where the moral choice could cost us everything. I hope this article can trouble that assumption: making us more vigilant by making us less sure. It is not pleasant to understand perpetrators, it is not a joy to see the world through their eyes or to feel like we may be giving them the empathy that they denied so many others. Still, it is not about sympathizing with acts of evil, but recognizing that evil people are still just people and harmful choices are still just choices.

While you or I may never be on the killer’s side of a trigger, we must weigh the cumulative effect of our daily decisions to do nothing or not enough. Indeed, history itself has shown us that it only takes a moment to end up on the wrong side of history.

Nonjabulo Mlangeni

Nonjabulo has an MA in African American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She began her career as a journalist and now works as a technical writer and editor, primarily in the areas of public health; psychology; and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

She is also a contributing writer of Maniloff, Jamie, Understanding and Navigating Discrimination in America, Omnigraphics (2021).

The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Think again about the millions of people who supported the Nazi regime either directly or indirectly. What do you now know about them that you didn’t know before, if anything?
  2. When have you seen immoral acts or even evil and failed to act?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post

  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • Identify and manage your stereotyping tendencies and biases
    • Sustain chronic unease toward exclusionary behaviors
  • Conscious use of self
    • Accept responsibility for own contributions
    • Maintain integrity
  • Initiating change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Emphaszie change in systems, not just individuals
    • Surface undiscussables
    • Cultivate radical patience
    • Seek to understand others' perspectives
    • Focus on others' strengths
    • Build resilience through self-affirmation

#OrdinaryMurderers #BanalityOfEvil #Holocaust #CouldItHappenHere #USHMM

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[1] How did ordinary citizens become murderers? Panel discussion at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sept. 18, 2017.

[2] Cherry, K. (2021, January 20). List of Common Cognitive Biases. Verywellmind.

[3] Forscher, P. S., Lai, C. K., Axt, J. R., et al. (2019). A meta-analysis of procedures to change implicit measures.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(3), 522–559.

Kim, D.-Y. (2003). Voluntary Controllability of the Implicit Association Test (IAT).Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(1), 83–96.

[4] Lazarus, C. N. (2020, October 30). Why Some People Dig in Instead of Admit They're Wrong. Psychology Today.

[5] Mooney, C. (2011, May 5). What is Motivated Reasoning? How Does It Work? Dan Kahan Answers. Discover Magazine.

[6] Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). Explaining Away: A Model of Affective Adaptation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 370-386.

[7] Kramer, U. (2010). Coping and defence mechanisms: What's the difference? Second act. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 83(2), 207-221.

[8]Kingsley, Thomas. Nazi concentration camp secretary, 96, who skipped trial is released from custody. Independent, UK