Obedience in the Holocaust

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The Holocaust is known as one of the most devastating, or perhaps even the most devastating incident in human history. On paper, the dizzying statistics are hard to believe. The mass executions, the terrible conditions, the ruthlessness, and the passivity of the majority of witnesses to the traumatic events all seem like a giant, twisted story blown out of proportion to scare children. But the stories are true, the terror really happened, and ordinary citizens were convinced into doing savage deeds against innocent people. How, one must ask? How could anyone be so pitiless towards their neighbors, their friends? In a time of desperation, when a country was on its knees to the rest of the world, one man not only united Germans against a scapegoat, but also manipulated them into committing almost unspeakable crimes against their ‘enemies'. From Kristallnacht, when German citizens destroyed millions of dollars worth of Jews' possessions, synagogues, and stores; to the ghettos where residents were thrust together into too-small living spaces; to the concentration camps themselves where medical experiments, starvation, forced labor, gassings, beatings, and mass shootings occurred, seemingly ordinary people were capable of terrible deeds. Whether they acted under recklessness, fear, hate, ignorance, or were simply ‘following orders' is what one must ask about every participant of the Holocaust, and through experiments like Milgram's, we can understand the psychology of their obedience well enough to ensure that such atrocities never happen again. One extremely famous exploration into how someone could acquiesce to such evil is the Milgram Experiment. Performed by Stanley Milgram at Yale University, it explored how participants would react under the command of an authority figure. The experiment was simple enough; it involved forty men between the ages of twenty and fifty, of all educational backgrounds and lifestyles. They were recruited by taking out ads which said that the experiment would last one hour, and participants would be paid $4.50 at the end of it, whether they completed it or not. The experiment was set up as follows: there was an ‘experimenter', a ‘teacher' and a ‘learner'. A stern fellow dressed in a white lab coat played the ‘experimenter'. An actor played the victim, or ‘learner', and the participant played the ‘teacher'. The two were then put into separate rooms so they couldn't see each other but still communicate, with the experimenter and an electro-shock generator in the room with the teacher. The teacher was then given word pairs he was to teach the learner. After this, the teacher read aloud one word, then four choices for the paired word. If the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher administered a 45-voltage shock, which increased with each wrong answer. The sounds of the machine were pre-recorded, and the actor screamed without actually being affected, but the teacher did not know this. As the experiment continued and the learner appeared to be undergoing more and more agony, the teacher became more and more uncomfortable with the situation and wanted to stop. However, every time the teacher voiced his wishes to discontinue, he was ordered by the experimenter to go on with increasingly stern phrases. After four phrases in a row, the experiment halted. Otherwise it stopped after three 450-volt shocks were administered. The results were startling. A majority of 65% administered the final 450-volt shock, although most were very reluctant in doing so and needed reassurance that they would not be held accountable. (1) These reactions are hauntingly reminiscent of the time of the Holocaust. Not just the Nazis, but regular citizens of Europe acted horrendously towards the Jews, simply because they were given permission to. Agnes Hoffman, an Auschwitz survivor, says of her tormentors, "Their only claim to power was authority granted to them by the Nazis, so they embraced the Nazi methods of persecuting...
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