Can and Should Psychology Be Used to Explain the Holocaust.
A Brief Look at The Literature.
Upon watching a Holocaust documentary or hearing from a holocaust survivor, one of the many questions that will no doubt be on people’s minds is “how could it happen? How could people sanction and carry out the systematic murder of 6 million people?” The truth is that there are many observations, studies and experiments that attempt to answer that question, but I question whether we study this enough in mainstream Holocaust education. The most common explanations look at societal factors such as the rigorous Nazi propaganda machine that slowly dehumanized the Jews and allowed for the escalation of violence in the years to come, but I don’t believe that this definitively answers the question. Surely mere posters and speeches cannot fill the void between disliking someone because of their religion, which is a common phenomenon in human history, and being able to shoot them dead at point-blank range or lead them into a gas chamber. I Want to explore psychology’s take on the Holocaust and how those closest to the violence and brutality not only went along with it, but actively participated.
I’ll start with perhaps the most relevant “experiment’ which is that of Milgram. In the 1950’s there was a growing stigma that the Holocaust and genocide in general was only something German people were capable of doing, that in a way it was an exclusive trait of being a German. At around the same time the American psychologist Stanley Milgram and his team of researchers were looking at how humans adapt and behave differently according to social influences. When Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, was captured in hiding and brought to trial he famously remarked in his defense that he was “only following orders.” Milgram took great interest in this particular statement and decided to test how ordinary people would act when they believed that responsibility had been taken away from them. He devised a cunning experiment, which remains controversial to this day. Essentially volunteers were given a teacher role and had to ask a series of questions to another participant (who was actually an actor and part of the experiment) in another room. The catch was that every time the “learner” got a question wrong, the teacher had to deliver an electric shock that was to be increased by 15 volts for every incorrect answer. The participants were told that the aim of the experiment was to see what effects pain and punishment had on people’s memory. As the experiment went on, and more and more questions were answered incorrectly, the electric shocks produced increased protest from the learner, screams of pain could be heard by the teachers and eventually, when the voltage was set to its highest level, there was silence, and the teacher believed they had either killed or incapacitated the learner. In reality, it was all a hoax, the electric shocks weren’t real and the screams of pain were merely voice recordings. However, the results Milgram found were astonishing. Over 60% of participants gave the full shock of 450 volts, meaning that even after the apparent learner begged to be released and eventually went silent, they still followed the orders of the researcher in the room to proceed with the shocks.
We would all like to believe that if we had played the role of teacher, we would have protested and stopped administering the shocks early in the experiment, but these volunteers were just ordinary American citizens, yet they still carried out the orders against their assumed moral code. By no means were they all completely passive and many became very distressed and argumentative, but after being consoled by the researcher that they would take full responsibility for the well-being of the learner, most of them continued. It was because they deemed that they were no longer responsible for their own actions that they allowed their moral compass to be ignored. This mirrors the mindset of Eichmann, they were simply following orders, what was happening wasn’t their fault and so they didn’t have to take responsibility for the consequences. The reason this was so shocking in 1950’s America is because it appeared to disproved the initial theory that the Holocaust and wide scale bureaucratic murder was a “German Thing” and that it couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else. There was much discomfort among ordinary people and the academic elite, as it opened up the possibility that this could happen again outside of Europe.
In subsequent follow-up studies other factors were identified that changed how likely someone was to follow the orders and continue delivering the shocks. The first of which is known as the Legitimation of Authority, essentially how much the participant deemed the researcher to be in control and a true figure of authority. If the location of the study took place in a run-down office block, or the researcher wore more casual clothes, then the percentage of participants who followed the shocks through to full voltage decreased. They were highest when it took place in Yale university and the researcher wore a white lab coat, because it gave the appearance of genuine authority. It’s not hard to imagine how this is magnified further in a military or governmental environment.
The other key factor was proximity. In the initial test teacher and learner were in two different rooms and could only hear each other. When the teacher was forced to watch the learner being electrocuted in the same room, they were much less likely to deliver the full shock. This can be problematic when relating the study to the Holocaust as a huge proportion of the killing was done at point-blank range, but it is useful in explaining how SS soldiers were able to lead victims into gas chambers, as they did not actually have to physically watch them die. Their sense of agency and responsibility was taken away from them and it allowed them to follow orders without acknowledging the grim reality of the consequences of their actions. Take for example the assembly line nature of a train arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, each small job was given to a different person. One soldier would open the gates for the train, another would be responsible for emptying the victims out of the carriages, another would make sure the correct people went either right or left and so on. Every man was involved in the mass murder, but if you ask them individually “did you kill prisoners who entered the camp?” they would say no, and justify their small actions as ‘just’ following orders, perhaps unaware that they had a choice and could still be held to account for their part in the Holocaust. But it is important to realise that they did have a choice, there is no evidence to suggest that people were at risk if they did not participate in murder.
If Psychology is to hope to have a place in explaining the past, it must provide a more rounded and comprehensive view of just how ordinary men and women could adapt and excel in being so brutal towards the Jews. In this case, the Stanford Prison experiment certainly provides another angle. Another highly controversial study, this time conducted by Phillip Zimbardo, illustrated just how susceptible we all are to being influenced by the environment. Rapidly altering our behavior depending on what situation we find ourselves in, sometimes to the point where we are unable to recognize ourselves.
Essentially, Zimbardo was trying to establish whether our behavior is purely as a result of our individual personalities (dispositional factor) or if it is caused by the environment we are in (situational factor). To test this, he converted the basement of Stanford university into a mock prison and selected 24 applicants who had volunteered to take part in the study (they were selected as they were found to have the least psychological problems which could impact on their behavior). They were then divided into the roles of either prisoner or prison guard. It was kept as true to life as possible. Guards rotated in 8 hour shifts, prisoners were kept 3 to a room and there was even a solitary confinement cell for anyone who misbehaved. Guards all wore the same uniform, including sunglasses that made eye contact impossible and prisoners were assigned numbers instead of names. Very quickly the guards settled into their roles, and as time went on the situational factor mentioned above took effect. Guards began harassing prisoners, giving them punishments like sit ups, and making them do pointless and boring tasks. As a result of the constant harassment, after only 36 hours, one of the prisoners broke down into bouts of screaming and uncontrollable crying. It took some time but eventually the researchers let him out. Over the next couple of days, several other prisoners experienced the same breakdowns and had to be let go. The guards became more and more sadistic until the experiment, which was supposed to last a fortnight, was terminated on just the sixth day.
So, what can be learnt? Firstly, as all the participants were screened for psychological disturbances and sadistic personalities before the experiment began, it can be concluded that it was the environment, as opposed to the personality of the guards that mainly contributed to their behaviour. Whilst it sounds as if free will is being challenged with this argument, what has actually been suggested is that most people will readily conform to social norms. Ultimately, they did have a choice, and some guards were nicer than others to the prisoners, but simply put, in certain situations it is just easier to conform to what you know and understand in certain situations. Another key observation made was that as time went on not only did the guards become more controlling, but the prisoners became more passive and submissive, resigned to their reliance on the guards for survival e.g. access to food, wash facilities etc. This is due to several factors. Firstly, after a prisoner rebellion on the morning of the second day, the guards responded with harsher punishments and ruthlessly broke up the troublemakers, which was severely demoralizing. Secondly, some prisoners (who played a lesser role in the rebellion) were given ‘rewards’ such as better food, and were allowed to clean themselves more regularly. This weakened the sense of solidarity amongst prisoners and made them more likely to try to get on the good side of the guards, rather than rebel. Again, it is much easier to conform to the perceived norms of the situation rather than fight it.
By this point, I do not wish to de-value what happened in the Holocaust by making continued comparisons with a controlled experiment, but for the benefit of the title question I think it is necessary to try to learn from the evidence we can access from such studies. This experiment serves as a good, but by no means representative, indicator of the mindset of the SS guards. Their rigorous training and exposure to anti-Semitic propaganda clearly sets them apart from the American students. However, it is always important to remember that the majority of the SS were not clinically psychopathic, and would therefore, for the most part, have the same moral code as the rest of us. Similar to the outcome of Milgram’s experiment, it is worrying to think that, given the right situation, your friends, neighbours, classmates etc., could turn on you. This bares testament to the experiences of the Jews in Europe even before the horrors of the camps and gas chambers, when they were spat at, beaten and humiliated in the street by people they had lived next to all of their lives.
The effects of the experiment weren’t limited to the participants either, even Zimbardo later admitted that during the study he was thinking more like a prison superintendent than a research psychologist. This study sparked debate and controversy regarding the ethics and the potential physical and psychological harm done to the participants, but it is arguably one of the most important pieces of research that social psychology has contributed to our understanding of group behavior and social pressures effect on our actions.
Another factor that absolutely deserves a mention is the bystander effect. A useful explanation for many crimes today, it explains how a large group of people can actually observe a crime or action, and do nothing. Essentially, the bystander effect can be easily identified when witnesses to a crime explain their inactivity by saying “I thought someone else would do something.” It is another example of people absolving themselves of responsibility, so as to remove blame from themselves without having to get involved, which would require them to stand out from the crowd. This can be used to explain the passive nature of German citizens who claimed to oppose the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nazis. Why should you have to bother challenging such a huge regime, there’s nothing I can do, there will be loads of other people doing it already, and so on. When enough of the population gives up its responsibility to speak out against what they know is wrong, perhaps that is when it is too late. This is a lesson which is perhaps still extremely relevant for us today.
so, can and should psychology be used to explain the Holocaust? The simple answer is yes, it should be used, and it already has been used for many years since the liberation of the camps and the downfall of Nazism. So, if it’s that simple, what is the point of this article? Well, if anything, I think it is still relevant to discuss psychology’s relevance because (and if you didn’t know about any of the research above it goes to prove my point) it simply isn’t taught enough. The only place in the national curriculum it has is a small segment of Psychology A-level. This makes the proportion of the population with knowledge of this research incredibly slim. It’s not a matter of questioning how it happened anymore, we have the tools and resources readily available, it’s about implementing it and providing everyone with the chance to better understand themselves and those around them. However small and inadvertent they may be, actions, in one way or another, matter. It’s a cliché, but for a reason, silence only ever benefits the oppressor, that is guaranteed. If we are to have any hope of changing our behavior, it is imperative that we first understand it. As the Zimbardo study especially shows, it is so easy to subconsciously conform to group norms, even when this goes against our moral compass. Therefore, the only way to stop this blind obedience from occurring is to educate people about it, in the hope that if confronted with scenarios of prejudice or violence, they will be able to consciously object and not only refuse to participate, but speak up and against intolerance.
With the latest rise of anti-Semitism coinciding with the rapid decline of first hand witnesses to the Holocaust, measures to protect the memory of the Holocaust and fight intolerance must be taken at a more grass-roots level. It’s important to recognize that progress has been made in the UK, for example in 1991 the holocaust was made a compulsory part of the Year Nine syllabus for history, and we are lucky to have individuals in government who want to ensure that Holocaust education is always in discussion in parliament. A publication by the education committee in 2016 highlights in great detail what efforts have been and are being made to combat anti-Semitism and educate people about the Holocaust. It was noted that “At its best, Holocaust education can lead students towards being active and informed citizens” The enquiry also acknowledged that more efforts must be made to reach students who study subjects other than history.
Psychology is still a young and ever-growing addition to science. Having only really become its own individual field of study in the late 19th century, it is not yet as well established as other fields of science. In fact, many people still hold the misconception that psychology is an abstract subject based on all of Freud’s ideas in the subconscious, when nowadays it prides itself in being as methodological and scientific as possible. This is largely due to the fact that psychology does not have a universal paradigm, that is, no shared system to studying a subject. There are many different approaches, some more tangible than others, for example the learning approach, which assumes we are born a blank slate and we all learn through association and consequence; Whilst the biological approach discusses how some human behaviours are innate and influenced by genes. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages, and together can, in theory, help to explain a huge variety of human behaviours. The difficulty is that so many interpretations of the same piece of evidence weighs heavily against the reliability of psychology as a science. This is not necessarily a fault of its own, human behaviour, and all of its wide spectrums, is a hugely complex phenomenon. Rarely does a study have a 100% concordance rate, and so very rarely can a conclusion be deemed objective and true to everyone, whereas other sciences like biology, chemistry and physics can verify facts through tests, for example, water will always boil at 100 degrees Celsius.
However, from the studies and examples mentioned at the start of this piece, psychology clearly has a role to play in helping us to better understand human behaviour and how we react to situations in a society built on a degree of obedience and peer pressure. By accompanying this with knowledge of the holocaust and how racism and prejudice manifests itself in contemporary society, we may be better equipped to educate our young people and give them the confidence to resist, and speak up when they know something is wrong, even when everyone around them is silent. Only then, will positive changes arise. Only then will lessons of history truly have been learnt.