Jewish Perpetrators of the Holocaust

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.

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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 only slightly and others conformed very highly.

Still it is shocking to think that many participants in this experiment knew that they were making the incorrect answer yet continued to do so because of pressure to conform to the group. This experiment can be extended to the actions of some perpetrators of the Holocaust. That is to say, some perpetrators knew what they were doing was wrong but the pressure to conform to the group to their battalion was too strong to overcome. The pressure to conform was not just about fitting in but about showing loyalty to Germany as well as showing ones strength as a man.

This is evident in the memory of Patschmann, when three German women asked the reason behind giving the Jewish woman a beating. This questioning indicates a moral concern about the wrongness of the proposed action, however two of the three concerned women gave the beating any way. They conformed to group expectations despite knowing what they were doing was wrong. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram, another social psychologist, was also carrying out a number of experiments that have had great effect on explaining the behaviour of perpetrators during the Holocaust.

In his experiments Milgram instructed a ‘teacher’ (the subject of the experiment) to teach a ‘learner’ (a confederate who was in on the experiment). The ‘learner’, who was in another room to the ‘teacher’ while the experiment was undertaken, was told that they had to learn a list of word pairs and for each incorrect response they would receive an electric shock, the ‘teacher’ was told to teach by increasing the shock level for each incorrect response. The essence of this experiment is the same to the Holocaust, however the scale is different. “How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual? The fact that around two thirds of participants went all the way to the limit delivering the maximum shock available to them is horrifying. Many subjects did this despite experiencing immense stress and protesting to the experimenter.

How were these subjects able to carry out such acts and how were they able to justify these acts to themselves once they had been carried out? Milgram argues that, “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. The subjects of these experiments were also able to justify their actions to themselves by saying that the ‘learner’ was deserving of the experiment, they were the ones that kept on getting the answers wrong. That is to say they devalued the ‘learners’. How far does this experiment go in explaining the obedience of the perpetrators during the Holocaust? Does it offer an explanation of how these perpetrators justified their actions? Does it explain how these perpetrators were able to overcome their own moral objections to the actions that they were undertaking?

This experiment demonstrates that perpetrators of the Holocaust were pressured by authority figures to commit genocidal acts. Even if the order was never actually given, never actually written down, as long as they were made to believe that it was given by an authority figure up the chain of command then there would have been pressure to carry it out. This experiment also demonstrates a means for psychological justification by the perpetrators for their actions.

They were carrying out the wishes of another person against a deserving victim, they were not morally responsible for the decision they were just carrying it out. Once again this behaviour is evident in the actions of the German women in Patschmanns testimony. It is highly unlikely that these women would have behaved in such a brutal way at the request of a non-authority figure. Another social psychological experiment that has great bearing on explaining perpetrator actions during the Holocaust is ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ conducted by Phillip Zimbardo.

This experiment demonstrates that ordinary people are capable of doing evil things to other ordinary people. In this experiment ordinary male college students were selected as participants on the criteria that they represented ordinary people, half were then selected at random to be guards and the other half selected to be prisoners. The participants were then placed in a mock prison environment complete with normal cells, an isolation cell, uniforms and identification numbers. Guards were relatively free to enforce discipline as they saw fit, and to ensure the functioning of the prison.

The experiment was interested in recording the types of behaviour that would be adopted by the guards and prisoners, to do this video and audio recording was undertaken. The recordings of this experiment demonstrate the ease at which ordinary humans adopt given roles of a social situation. The nature of the interaction between guards and prisoners on the whole tended to be “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanising. ” The guards treatment of the prisoners was sadistic. They tortured the prisoners in a variety of ways. They were stripped naked, put in solitary confinement for hours on end, deprived of meals and blankets or pillows, and forced to do push-ups, jumping jacks, and meaningless activities. ” Prisoners were also deprived of sleep for hours in the form of night counts. The actions of the guards, and the effect that they were having on the psychological well being of the prisoners, became so shocking that the experiment had to be called off after 6 days. This experiment demonstrates that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things if the situation allows and suggests that they do so.

It demonstrates that any ordinary person would not only be easily able to adopt the role of genocidal killer and to go beyond what was expected of them in their official capacity. What role, if any, do these experiments have in explaining how ordinary men and women were able to commit extraordinary acts of cruelty and barbarity in the Holocaust? Daniel Goldhagen argues that they provide little to no explanation. Goldhagen argues that the Holocaust is a result of the evolution of a long history of German anti-Semitism, it is this history of anti-Semitism that is “necessary nd sufficient” to explain the perpetrators actions in the Holocaust. Goldhagen would therefore have us believe that the perpetrators of the genocide were not ‘ordinary men’ or women, an intense anti-Semitism distinguished them from the rest of human society at the time and today, and it was this anti-Semitism that explains their genocidal behaviour during the Holocaust. Goldhagen argues against the situational and social psychological explanations of perpetrator behaviour for a number of key reasons.

He firstly puts forward that perpetrators had a choice to kill, that there is no record of someone having refused to kill being punished. Goldhagen also argues against the notion that perpetrators were just obeying orders. He cites examples of orders being broken frequently, why then he asks were the orders to kill Jews not broken also. Goldhagen, however, does acknowledge the pressure to conform may have influenced the behaviour of some perpetrators. He argues that this influence can only account for some actions of some perpetrators as it requires a majority who were ready and willing to commit geoncidal acts.

Goldhagen’s argument that intense anti-Semitism alone can explain the acts of the Holocaust is flawed for a number of reasons. Firstly it has been argued that Goldhagen was not up to date with psychological research when he wrote his theory on perpetrator behaviour. This is evident in Goldhagen’s failure to examine Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and the bearing that this has on an explanation of the Holocaust. A second major criticism that has been put to the argument made by Goldhagen is that he pitted the personal motivations of the perpetrators against the situational motivations in explaining perpetrator action.

He argued that it was the personal beliefs, ideas and perceptions rather than the social pressures of the situation that caused the perpetrators to act in the way that they did. Goldhagen failed to see that situations and personal factors interact with each other, people react to situations and in doing so affect the situation itself. In arguing that perpetrators had a choice to kill, and that the perpetrators did not always follow order but they chose to follow the orders of genocide Goldhagen fails to acknowledge the situational pressures present.

As has been demonstrated by the experiments of Milgram and Asch, when an order is issued by an authority figure there is pressure to follow this order this pressure would be greatly increased when the rest of the group carries out this order without question. New German recruits were motivated to carry out duties and do what was asked of them to help Germany, they saw their ability to function and do what was asked of them as a test of strength and honour. They were expected to follow orders. Also Goldhagen argues that many German orders were disobeyed at many different levels without retribution to the disobeyers.

This argument is difficult to believe, because if orders were frequently disobeyed then the German war machine would have disintegrated much earlier than it did. Goldhagens argument does not fully explain how the perpetrators were able to justify their actions to themselves after the genocidal killing had taken place. Justification would have been needed in order for mental functioning to have continued in a healthy way. Goldhagen argues that personal moral obstacles were overcome because the Jews were seen as sub-human, therefore normal ethics and morals did not apply.

While this argument may partially explain perpetrators ability to justify their actions it is difficult to believe that so many Germans possessed such vehement anti-Semitic values. That such a large proportion of the German population was able to totally justify their actions as ‘cleansing’ the Jewish problem. The physical act of killing was a very real act, not an ideological one. Therefore strong psychological justifications were needed in order for perpetrators not to have been significantly mentally affected by the killing process.

It is more likely that these moral values were overcome as the perpetrators no longer saw themselves as responsible for their own actions; they were just carrying out the wishes of an authority. This ability to justify their actions in such a way made it easier for perpetrators to carry out genocidal acts and created an escalation of brutality with each genocidal act. Finally Goldhagen puts forward the idea that Germans intense anti-Semitism was so unique. As was their understanding as to why they needed to kill that Genocide and similar treatment of humans by other humans would not happen again in western society again today.

This argument cannot hold as there have been many gross mistreatment of humans at the hands of other humans since the Holocaust. One only needs to look to Bosnia, Rwanda and Abu Ghraib to see the recent gross mistreatment of human beings by other humans. It is this history of mass killing, torture and genocidal acts throughout the twentieth century that demonstrates that ‘ordinary’ people are very capable of becoming genocidal killers. Christopher Browning presents a much more nuanced explanation of how ‘ordinary men’ and women became genocidal killer, an argument with which the essay strongly agrees.

Browning does acknowledge the role that anti-Semitism played in distancing the perpetrators and the Jews. It was this distancing that was key to facilitating the Holocaust. This distancing came as a result of a social and political process that blamed the Jews for the hardship and problems facing Germany (the problems of hyperinflation, the great depression and the threat of communism), as a consequence of this scapegoating Jews were devalued and excluded from German society. In order to control the problems facing Germany the solution was seen to control the Jews who were propagating these problems.

Browning also points to the social situational pressures that promote certain behaviours in ordinary men and women in his explanation of perpetrator actions during the Holocaust. Browning argues that Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that ordinary people are easily able to slip into the role that society gives them. Browning also emphasises the role of peer pressure, and the pressure to conform to the group. This pressure was not just about fitting in and being a part of the group, it became a matter of loyalty to the German cause and a test of manhood to be able to kill.

Browning puts forward that if the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were ordinary middle class Germans and not extreme anti-Semites, could become genocidal killers then “what group of men cannot”. These ordinary men were transformed into genocidal killers through the propagation of anti-Semitic beliefs that devalued the Jews, when it was time for the killing to take place a variety of situational pressures guided and enabled the perpetrators to carry out the genocidal act. This essay started with the memory of Hermann Patschmann, which recounted the brutal treatment of a Jewish prisoner by a group of ordinary German women.

The question was then posed how did these ordinary women commit this act so easily? The argument put forward by Daniel Goldhagen, that an intense anti-Semitism possessed by Germans at this time in history, to explain the genocidal actions of these German women does not hold. Rather as argued by Browning, an argument to which this author strongly agrees, these women were able to do so because of a social and psychological distancing between themselves and the Jewish women, combined with the social psychological pressures of the situation enabled and guided hese women to act in the brutal way that they did. The distancing of perpetrators and victims came out of a long social, psychological and political process. A process that saw the devaluation and dehumanisation of Jews, who were blamed and scapegoated for the problems facing German society, it was therefore seen that to control the Jews was to control the problems facing German society.

It was this distancing of the perpetrator and the victim combined with the situational pressures during the physical act of genocide that caused ordinary men and women to become ordinary killers. They were conforming to group expectations. They were conforming to the roles that society had placed upon them. They were obeying the orders of superior authority figures, which enabled them to overcome their personal moral objections.

What becomes evident when studying the Holocaust, and what is one of its most shocking lessons, a lesson that is “subsequently reinforced by psychological research,” ordinary “people can be induced, seduced, initiated into behaving in evil … ways by immersion in ‘… situations’ that can transform human nature in ways that challenge our sense of stability and consistency of individual, character and morality… Thus any deed that any human being has ever done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do – under the right or wrong situational pressures. ”

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Jewish Perpetrators of the Holocaust. (2017, Mar 12). Retrieved from