Ordinary men, p.18
Ordinary Men, p.18Christopher R. Browning
Perhaps most relevant to this study of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is the spectrum of behavior that Zimbardo discovered in his sample of eleven guards. About one-third of the guards emerged as “cruel and tough.” They constantly invented new forms of harassment and enjoyed their newfound power to behave cruelly and arbitrarily. A middle group of guards was “tough but fair.” They “played by the rules” and did not go out of their way to mistreat prisoners. Only two (i.e., less than 20 percent) emerged as “good guards” who did not punish prisoners and even did small favors for them.17
Zimbardo’s spectrum of guard behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to the groupings that emerged within Reserve Police Battalion 101: a nucleus of increasingly enthusiastic killers who volunteered for the firing squads and “Jew hunts”; a larger group of policemen who performed as shooters and ghetto clearers when assigned but who did not seek opportunities to kill (and in some cases refrained from killing, contrary to standing orders, when no one was monitoring their actions); and a small group (less than 20 percent) of refusers and evaders.
In addition to this striking resemblance between Zimbardo’s guards and the policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101, one other factor must be taken into account in weighing the relevance of “self-selection” on the basis of psychological predisposition. The battalion was composed of reserve lieutenants and men who had simply been conscripted after the outbreak of the war. The noncommissioned officers had joined the Order Police before the war because they hoped either to pursue a career in the police (in this case the metropolitan police of Hamburg, not the political police or Gestapo) or to avoid being drafted into the army. In these circumstances it is difficult to perceive any mechanism of self-selection through which the reserve battalions of the Order Police could have attracted an unusual concentration of men of violent predisposition. Indeed, if Nazi Germany offered unusually numerous career paths that sanctioned and rewarded violent behavior, random conscription from the remaining population—already drained of its most violence-prone individuals—would arguably produce even less than an average number of “authoritarian personalities.” Self-selection on the basis of personality traits, in short, offers little to explain the behavior of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
If special selection played little role and self-selection seemingly none, what about self-interest and careerism? Those who admitted being among the shooters did not justify their behavior on the basis of career considerations. In contrast, however, the issue of careerism was most clearly articulated by several of those who did not shoot. Lieutenant Buchmann and Gustav Michael-son, in explaining their exceptional behavior, noted that unlike their fellow officers or comrades, they had well-established civilian careers to return to and did not need to consider possible negative repercussions on a future career in the police.18 Buchmann was clearly reluctant to have the prosecution use his behavior against the defendants and thus may have emphasized the career factor as constituting less of a moral indictment of men who acted differently. But Michaelson’s testimony was not influenced by any such calculations or reticence.
In addition to the testimony of those who felt free of career considerations, there is the behavior of those who clearly did not. Captain Hoffmann is the classic example of a man driven by careerism. Crippled by stomach cramps—psychosomatically induced, at least in part, if not entirely, by the murderous actions of the battalion—he tenaciously tried to hide his illness from his superiors rather than use it to escape his situation. He risked his men’s open suspicion of cowardice in a vain attempt to keep his company command. And when he was finally relieved, he bitterly contested that career-threatening development as well. Given the number of men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 who remained in the police after the war, career ambitions must have played an important role for many others as well.
Among the perpetrators, of course, orders have traditionally been the most frequently cited explanation for their own behavior. The authoritarian political culture of the Nazi dictatorship, savagely intolerant of overt dissent, along with the standard military necessity of obedience to orders and ruthless enforcement of discipline, created a situation in which individuals had no choice. Orders were orders, and no one in such a political climate could be expected to disobey them, they insisted. Disobedience surely meant the concentration camp if not immediate execution, possibly for their families as well. The perpetrators had found themselves in a situation of impossible “duress” and therefore could not be held responsible for their actions. Such, at least, is what defendants said in trial after trial in postwar Germany.
There is a general problem with this explanation, however. Quite simply, in the past forty-five years no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment.19 The punishment or censure that occasionally did result from such disobedience was never commensurate with the gravity of the crimes the men had been asked to commit.
A variation on the explanation of inescapable orders is “putative duress.” Even if the consequences of disobedience would not have been so dire, the men who complied could not have known that at the time. They sincerely thought that they had had no choice when faced with orders to kill. Undoubtedly in many units zealous officers bullied their men with ominous threats. In Reserve Police Battalion 101, as we have seen, certain officers and NCOs, like Drucker and Hergert, tried to make everyone shoot initially, even if they subsequently released those not up to continuing. And other officers and NCOs, like Hoppner and Ostmann, picked out individuals known as nonshooters and pressured them to kill, sometimes successfully.
But as a general rule, even putative duress does not hold for Reserve Police Battalion 101. From the time Major Trapp, with choked voice and tears streaming down his cheeks, offered to excuse those “not up to it” at Józefów and protected the first man to take up his offer from Captain Hoffmann’s wrath, a situation of putative duress did not exist in the battalion. Trapp’s subsequent behavior, not just excusing Lieutenant Buchmann from participation in Jewish actions but clearly protecting a man who made no secret of his disapproval, only made matters clearer. A set of unwritten “ground rules” emerged within the battalion. For small shooting actions, volunteers were requested or shooters were chosen from among those who were known to be willing to kill or who simply did not make the effort to keep their distance when firing squads were being formed. For large actions, those who would not kill were not compelled. Even officers’ attempts to force individual nonshooters to kill could be refused, for the men knew that the officers could not appeal to Major Trapp.
Everyone but the most open critics, like Buchmann, did have to participate in cordon duty and roundups, but in such circumstances individuals could still make their own decisions about shooting. The testimonies are filled with stories of men who disobeyed standing orders during the ghetto-clearing operations and did not shoot infants or those attempting to hide or escape. Even men who admitted to having taken part in firing squads claimed not to have shot in the confusion and melee of the ghetto clearings or out on patrol when their behavior could not be closely observed.
If obedience to orders out of fear of dire punishment is not a valid explanation, what about “obedience to authority” in the more general sense used by Stanley Milgram—deference simply as a product of socialization and evolution, a “deeply ingrained behavior tendency” to comply with the directives of those positioned hierarchically above, even to the point of performing repugnant actions in violation of “universally accepted” moral norms.20 In a series of now famous experiments, Milgram tested the individual’s ability to resist authority that was not backed by any external coercive threat. Naive volunteer subjects were instructed by a “scientific authority” in an alleged learning experiment to inflict an escalating series of fake electric shocks upon an actor/victim, who responded with carefully
Several variations on the experiment produced significantly different results. If the actor/victim was shielded so that the subject could hear and see no response, obedience was much greater. If the subject had both visual and voice feedback, compliance to the extreme fell to 40 percent. If the subject had to touch the actor/victim physically by forcing his hand onto an electric plate to deliver the shocks, obedience dropped to 30 percent. If a nonauthority figure gave orders, obedience was nil. If the naive subject performed a subsidiary or accessory task but did not personally inflict the electric shocks, obedience was nearly total. In contrast, if the subject was part of an actor/peer group that staged a carefully planned refusal to continue following the directions of the authority figure, the vast majority of subjects (90 percent) joined their peer group and desisted as well. If the subject was given complete discretion as to the level of electric shock to administer, all but a few sadists consistently delivered a minimal shock. When not under the direct surveillance of the scientist, many of the subjects “cheated” by giving lower shocks than prescribed, even though they were unable to confront authority and abandon the experiment.22
Milgram adduced a number of factors to account for such an unexpectedly high degree of potentially murderous obedience to a noncoercive authority. An evolutionary bias favors the survival of people who can adapt to hierarchical situations and organized social activity. Socialization through family, school, and military service, as well as a whole array of rewards and punishments within society generally, reinforces and internalizes a tendency toward obedience. A seemingly voluntary entry into an authority system “perceived” as legitimate creates a strong sense of obligation. Those within the hierarchy adopt the authority’s perspective or “definition of the situation” (in this case, as an important scientific experiment rather than the infliction of physical torture). The notions of “loyalty, duty, discipline,” requiring competent performance in the eyes of authority, become moral imperatives overriding any identification with the victim. Normal individuals enter an “agentic state” in which they are the instrument of another’s will. In such a state, they no longer feel personally responsible for the content of their actions but only for how well they perform.23
Once entangled, people encounter a series of “binding factors” or “cementing mechanisms” that make disobedience or refusal even more difficult. The momentum of the process discourages any new or contrary initiative. The “situational obligation” or etiquette makes refusal appear improper, rude, or even an immoral breach of obligation. And a socialized anxiety over potential punishment for disobedience acts as a further deter-rent.24
Milgram made direct reference to the similarities between human behavior in his experiments and under the Nazi regime. He concluded, “Men are led to kill with little difficulty.”25 Milgram was aware of significant differences in the two situations, however. Quite explicitly he acknowledged that the subjects of his experiments were assured that no permanent physical damage would result from their actions. The subjects were under no threat or duress themselves. And finally, the actor/victims were not the object of “intense devaluation” through systematic indoctrination of the subjects. In contrast, the killers of the Third Reich lived in a police state where the consequences of disobedience could be drastic and they were subjected to intense indoctrination, but they also knew they were not only inflicting pain but destroying human life.26
Was the massacre at Józefów a kind of radical Milgram experiment that took place in a Polish forest with real killers and victims rather than in a social psychology laboratory with naive subjects and actor/victims? Are the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 explained by Milgram’s observations and conclusions? There are some difficulties in explaining Józefów as a case of deference to authority, for none of Milgram’s experimental variations exactly paralleled the historical situation at Józefów, and the relevant differences constitute too many variables to draw firm conclusions in any scientific sense. Nonetheless, many of Milgram’s insights find graphic confirmation in the behavior and testimony of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
At Józefów the authority system to which the men were responding was quite complex, unlike the laboratory situation. Major Trapp represented not a strong but a very weak authority figure. He weepingly conceded the frightful nature of the task at hand and invited the older reserve policemen to excuse themselves. If Trapp was a weak immediate authority figure, he did invoke a more distant system of authority that was anything but weak. The orders for the massacre had been received from the highest quarter, he said. Trapp himself and the battalion as a unit were bound by the orders of this distant authority, even if Trapp’s concern for his men exempted individual policemen.
To what were the vast majority of Trapp’s men responding when they did not step out? Was it to authority as represented either by Trapp or his superiors? Were they responding to Trapp not primarily as an authority figure, but as an individual—a popular and beloved officer whom they would not leave in the lurch? And what about other factors? Milgram himself notes that people far more frequently invoke authority than conformity to explain their behavior, for only the former seems to absolve them of personal responsibility. “Subjects deny conformity and embrace obedience as the explanation of their actions.”27 Yet many policemen admitted responding to the pressures of conformity—how would they be seen in the eyes of their comrades?—not authority. On Milgram’s own view, such admission was the tip of the iceberg, and this factor must have been even more important than the men conceded in their testimony. If so, conformity assumes a more central role than authority at Józefów.
Milgram tested the effects of peer pressure in bolstering the individuals capacity to resist authority. When actor/collaborators bolted, the naive subjects found it much easier to follow. Milgram also attempted to test for the reverse, that is, the role of conformity in intensifying the capacity to inflict pain.28 Three subjects, two collaborators and one naive, were instructed by the scientist/authority figure to inflict pain at the lowest level anyone among them proposed. When a naive subject acting alone had been given full discretion to set the level of electric shock, the subject had almost invariably inflicted minimal pain. But when the two collaborators, always going first, proposed a step-by-step escalation of electric shock, the naive subject was significantly influenced. Though the individual variation was wide, the average result was the selection of a level of electric shock halfway between no increase and a consistent step-by-step increase. This is still short of a test of peer pressure as compensation for the deficiencies of weak authority. There was no weeping but beloved scientist inviting subjects to leave the electric shock panel while other men—with whom the subjects had comradely relations and before whom they would feel compelled to appear manly and tough—stayed and continued to inflict painful shocks. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to construct an experiment to test such a scenario, which would require true comradely relations between a naive subject and the actor/collaborators. Nonetheless, the mutual reinforcement of authority and conformity seems to have been clearly demonstrated by Milgram.
If the multifaceted nature of authority at Józefów and the key role of conformity among the policemen are not quite parallel to Milgram’s experiments, they nonetheless render considerable support to his conclusions, and some of his observations are clearly confirmed. Direct proximity to the horror of the killing significantly increased the number of men who would no longer comply. On the other hand, with the division of labor and removal of the killing process to the death camps, the men felt scarcely any responsibility at all for their actions. As in Milgram’s experiment without direct surveillance, many policemen did not comply with orders when not directly supervised
One factor that admittedly was not the focal point of Milgram’s experiments, indoctrination, and another that was only partially touched upon, conformity, require further investigation. Mil-gram did stipulate “definition of the situation” or ideology, that which gives meaning and coherence to the social occasion, as a crucial antecedent of deference to authority. Controlling the manner in which people interpret their world is one way to control behavior, Milgram argues. If they accept authority’s ideology, action follows logically and willingly. Hence “ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end.”29
In Milgram’s experiments, “overarching ideological justification” was present in the form of a tacit and unquestioned faith in the goodness of science and its contribution to progress. But there was no systematic attempt to “devalue” the actor/victim or inculcate the subject with a particular ideology. Milgram hypothesized that the more destructive behavior of people in Nazi Germany, under much less direct surveillance, was a consequence of an internalization of authority achieved “through relatively long processes of indoctrination, of a sort not possible within the course of a laboratory hour.”30
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