How could ‘ordinary men’ become genocidal killers in the Holocaust? Memories of the Holocaust are littered with acts of such inhumane cruelty and barbarity that they are almost unbelievable, Hermann Patschmann’s memories are no different. “One time the German authorities were short of SS matrons, so they recruited them by force from the factories without even giving them enough time to inform their families. They were taken to the camp where they were divided into groups of 50. One day they were put to the test. An internee, chosen at random, was brought before them and they were told – all 50 of them – to hit her. I remember that out of all of them, only three women asked the reason why, and only one woman refused to do it, which caused her to be thrown into prison herself. All the others quickly got into the swing of things as if they had been warming up all their lives to do it.” How could such acts be committed? Were these people distinctly different to us? If not, how could ‘ordinary men’ and women become genocidal killers in the Holocaust? Two explanations have been put forward to explain how perpetrators were able to complete the acts of the Holocaust. The first argument has been that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were ideological killers. That is to say that the perpetrators were different to other people from different nations at the time and from people today. They were able to carry out genocidal acts against the Jews because of their intense anti-Semitism. This argument is put forward most famously by Daniel Goldhagen. The second argument posits that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not fundamentally different to any human being, that is to say any human is capable of carrying out genocidal acts. This argument does acknowledge the role of anti-Semitism and dehumanisation of the victims in affecting perpetrators actions during the Holocaust. However there were many situational and social psychological forces acting upon the perpetrators of the genocide causing and enabling them to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust. This argument is most famously put forward by Christopher Browning. This essay will investigate the social psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram, Phillip Zimbardo and Solomon Asch, and their bearing on an explanation of perpetrator behaviour. This essay will then examine the arguments of Goldhagen and Browning. This essay will focus on the perpetrators that carried out the direct physical killing, their beliefs and cognitions, and the situational pressures placed on them. It will be argued that while anti-Semitism did play a role in perpetrator behaviour, however there were a multitude of other situational and social psychological processes going on that impacted on the behaviours of the perpetrators. Anti-Semitism did play a part in the killing of the Jews and in part allowed the perpetrators to justify their actions and continue living everyday life. However, it will be shown, in the physical moment of the act there were many psychological processes that were present that pushed perpetrators to commit genocide. These psychological processes provided the basis of the justifications that enabled the perpetrators to live with their actions, and continue to function in everyday life. In the 1950s the social psychologist Solomon E Asch, carried out a series of experiments looking at group conformity. These experiments placed a subjects in a group and asked them to compare a series of lines and indicate which lines were the same length. However in each group eight of the nine participants were in on the experiment and purposely told to select an incorrect answer. The startling findings of this experiment was that approximately 1/3 of the time subjects made an incorrect response, a response that they knew was incorrect, to conform to the group response. These results, however, did vary across participants. Some subjects remained entirely independent of the group, while others conformed...
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[ 3 ]. Solomon E. Asch, "Group Forces in the Modification and Distortion of Judgments," in Social Psychology, ed. Solomon E. Asch (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1952), 451-57.
[ 7 ]. Michael D. Bess, "Deep Evil and Deep Good: The Concept of Human Nature Confronts the Holocaust," The Yale Review 94, no. 3 (2008): 58.
[ 8 ]. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority an Experimental View (London: Tavistock, 1974) 3-4.
[ 16 ]. Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney, and Curtis Banks, "Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison," International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1 (1973): 71.
[ 23 ]. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler 's Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, 1 ed. (New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1996) 375.
[ 37 ]. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (London: Penguin, 2001) 101.
[ 38 ]. Ervin Staub, "The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Heroic Helpers," in Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust, ed. Leonard S. Newman and Ralph Erber (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13-21.
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