Why were people collaborating with the Nazis? - Memory makes us free

Why were people collaborating with the Nazis?

“The actions were terrifying, but those who did them were almost normal, neither demonic nor monstrous. Eichmann always acted within the narrow limits permitted by law, doing nothing but obeying orders with a deep sense of duty”.

(Hannah Arendt)

If a mind like Hitler’s developed such a horrible thought, what convinced so many people to follow him?

 In the Jerusalem Trial of 1961, the hierarch Adolf Eichmann set his defensive line by declaring that he was “just a grey bureaucrat who followed the orders of his superiors”.

So, had hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and officers physically carried out the extermination of 6 million Jews without a breath and only as a direct consequence of the orders given?

It has to be said that the evil deeds carried out were not always accepted and perpetrated by all the Germans indiscriminately: just think that Hitler was the target of 15 attacks, to understand how controversial was his management of power and the choice to annihilate an entire ethnic group.

Foto dell'uomo che rifiutò il saluto ad Hitler
1936 – in the photo above August Landmesser refuses to say goodbye to Adolf Hitler after being expelled from the Nazi Party as the boyfriend of a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler, who later died in an extermination camp.

However, these were minorities who were unable to influence the outcome of the “final solution”, most of the Germans actively and enthusiastically supported the Nazi regime – which legitimately came to power in 1932 following free elections – and its decisions.

The Jerusalem Trial and Eichmann’s words made the psychologist Stanley Milgram very curious and encouraged him to conduct an experiment to study the psychological dynamics of obedience.

Esperimento di Stanley Milgram
Stanley Milgram’s experiment

The experiment involved three subjects, the experimenter (the authority), the teacher (under the orders of the experimenter) and the pupil (subject to the will of the teacher).

The teacher and the pupil were placed in different rooms, the first was equipped with a series of buttons, while the second was connected to a machine capable of delivering an electric shock.

When the experimenter started the experiment, the teacher read a series of pairs of words.

He was then asked to repeat the first word of each pair, to which the pupil had to answer by remembering the second; in the event of an error, the experimenter instructed the teacher to administer an electric shock to the pupil, of increasing intensity as the latter made mistakes, until it reached voltages that were clearly unbearable by a human being.

Obviously, the experiment was based on a fiction unknown to the teacher: the pupil was an accomplice of the experimenter and the screams of pain had been pre-recorded.

The fact is that most of the “teachers” also pressed the buttons corresponding to the lethal voltages, pushed and supported by the experimenter, who was depriving them of responsibility, assuring them absolute impunity.

Stanley Milgram’s real objective was to assess the extent to which men were inclined to put aside their moral conscience in the face of orders from a higher authority, thus feeling free from any guilt.

This experiment and its surprising results, far from justifying anyone and in any way relieving Germany and the Nazis of their objective horrors, can somehow show how the execution of ignoble and inhuman orders has found officers and soldiers’ arms and hands ready to carry them out without asking too many questions.

“Ordinary people who simply do a job, without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible process of destruction. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become apparent, and they are asked to perform actions incompatible with the basic foundations of morality, relatively few people have the necessary resources to resist authority.”

(Milgram, 1974)


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