The 8th of May, VE Day, is a good time to reflect on how the Allied victory in Europe made the continent a better place. The extreme brutality and bloodthirstiness of the Axis powers still has the power to shock. In 1945, in the final days of the war, the psychologist G.M. Gilbert, serving in the US Army, was tasked with evaluating the Nazi leaders’ personality traits. His interview with Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the concentration camp Auschwitz 1940-1943, was quietly illuminating. Mass murder had taken place in this location in southern Poland. Gilbert, of course, was interested in finding out what motivated an apparently normal German officer to commit such heinous crimes.
Höss explained that he was a long-standing and fanatical National Socialist. He drew a parallel with a devout Catholic who, Höss said, would always believe in the dogma of his or her church. On the scale of incredulity National Socialism does not rank highly. It is anchored in a form of Social Darwinism with reference to what Darwin discovered about natural selection. Its conspiracy theory, that Jews are the hidden power behind both communism and international finance, is not among the craziest as conspiracy theories go.
Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev were all leading Jewish communists. The Rothschild, Mendelssohn and Warburg financial houses share this ethnic affiliation. Once the leap of faith is made, both class conflict and Germany’s suffering at the hands of bankers in the 1920s suddenly take on a new meaning. Communism is dividing Germans and international finance intends to starve them.
Höss’s antisemitism was sharpened by reading Goebbels’s editorials in Das Reich every week, while Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century provided much food for thought. He also read educational pamphlets and other materials from the SS. With the absence of any criticism of National Socialism in the totalitarian state, no reality check was available.
Höss did not doubt that it was necessary to eliminate the Jews. He was given to understand that they were a minority in every country, but still powerful because they controlled the media, film and education. Either the Jews would destroy the German people or the other way around. Initially, he felt scared that he would be playing such a preponderant part, but he knew that disobeying the order was not an option. Höss nevertheless took comfort from the fact that Himmler had reasoned with him and admitted that it would be difficult.
Blind obedience was a component in the tragedy that the Nazis caused. The SS, especially, were trained to carry out orders and pay no heed to the consequences. Recruits to this elite organisation might be told to balance an exploding grenade on their helmets and stand straight. They might be ordered to kill their pet dog. By inculcating a denial of the self, the Nazis intended that the SS should show no mercy to others.
This is by no means the only example of people being quick to obey authority, even when they should not. In the early 1960s, another American psychologist, Stanley Milgram, carried out an experiment where volunteers were told to administer electric shocks to a test subject behind a wall. The volunteers were primed that the experiment involved investigating the link between pain and learning. They were to ask the subject questions and to switch on ever higher voltages if the questions were not answered correctly.
What they did not know was that the switches were not connected. Most volunteers wanted to end the experiment when the test subject, an actor, apparently cried out in pain. But Milgram instructed them that the experiment had to be completed. More than 60% of the volunteers did so.
Obedience is one explanation for what happened, simple agreement is another. The German voters elected the Nazis, who turned around the economy and added vast swathes of territory to the Fatherland. Resistance to National Socialism was at best sporadic. There really is no evidence that ordinary soldiers thought any differently or behaved any better than their leaders. War quite naturally heightens aggression anyway. As the war continued with ever more barbarity, a common reaction would have been to become inured to what was going on.
Höss said that it was only after the collapse of the Nazi state that it occurred to him that the things he had been told might not be true. Most people will never question their habitual modes of thought, provided that they continue to associate with others of the same general beliefs. The dangers of blind faith, without evidence or enquiry, did not go away when Höss was executed in 1947.
David Redvaldsen is associate lecturer in history at Oxford Brookes University. His article, in Contemporary British History, on science and health policies in the British Union of Fascists and Oswald Mosley’s other parties is available online.
Image: Railroad and main building at Auschwitz 2, [Wikicommons].