by Rainee Denham
I am fascinated with all things WWII. I watched a Netflix movie called “Experimenter.” All I knew was it featured Peter Sarsgaard, who is an intense and always interesting actor.
It focused on social psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram, who like much of the world, was transfixed with the 1960 televised trial of Nazi SS Officer, Adolph Eichmann, the architect of “The Final Solution’ – the transport and murder of six million Jews in extermination camps in WWII.
Behind the bullet proof witness stand, Eichmann did not appear to be the monster he was accused of being. He did not deny his gruesome deeds either, he softly stated that he was only carrying out his orders, “my heart was light and joyful in my work, because the decisions were not mine.”
As the world watched in shock and confusion, Dr. Stanley Milgram became obsessed with the question, “could it be that Eichmann and his millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”
Just three months into the trial, Dr. Milgram developed and conducted a series of behavioral experiments at Yale University. They were designed to test the willingness of ordinary humans to obey an authority figure while having to administer electric shocks to strangers.
Before his experiment started, Milgram asked contemporary academics to try to predict the outcome. These behavioral ‘experts’ believed that only 1-3 % of the participants would not stop giving shocks, because to do so shows the pathology of a psychopath. They believed that 97-99% of participants would have the backbone and strength to stop giving shocks when it was clear the test subjects were showing signs of distress or pain.
The results revealed a horrific truth about human beings. 65% of the participants diligently took direct orders from the authority figure in the room, and took the test to its maximum power, which, as far as they knew was administering deadly amounts of electricity to a fellow human being.
In other words, the essence of obedience exists when a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. His results were detailed in Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience To Authority.
Which brings us back to Eichmann, who left us with this gem of a quote, “whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me. It was really none of my business.” Taking all responsibility off his shoulders, he could remain dispassionate about his acts of genocide.
And if this is how most people behave, how do we prevent another holocaust from happening? Let’s learn from history and end with Dr. Stanley Milgrams’ own words: “I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not…Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
In our heart of hearts, we do not want to think we could be evil like Eichmann. But Milgram proved otherwise.
It can happen here.
PS. Judges in the Eichmann Trial concluded that he had not merely been following orders and he was guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to hang. He did in 1962.