Like many of us, I have long been bewildered by the behaviour of ordinary Germans before and during World War II. I’ve read my history, I’ve wandered the streets of Berlin, I’ve toured the German war memorials. I’ve been numbed by the numbers—numbers with more zeroes than I can count, all representing unfathomable losses: German deaths, Holocaust deaths, total war deaths, reconstruction costs. It has always eluded me how one madman and a cadre of passionate followers managed to lead Germany into such a mess, leaving one quarter of its population dead, 70% of its infrastructure destroyed, and its international reputation in tatters. I can’t make it add up.
But where facts fail to illuminate, fiction sometimes does the trick. I’ve just finished a novel by Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River. Set in a little German town from 1915 to 1952, the book has gone a long way to painting for me the picture of how it all could have happened. Perhaps I feel some affinity with Ursula, who like me was born just after the war and grew up in its shadow. But whereas my little shadow was from distant reflections—no one I knew had even served in active combat—Ursula’s must have been all-enveloping, because she grew up in heavily-bombed Dusseldorf. At any rate, her cast of ordinary, every-day characters are the kind of people I live with and sing with and enjoy the company of; they are generous and brave and kind, they get jealous and angry and frightened, they make mistakes big and small.
In the novel, two characters have a conversation in the aftermath of the war. One bemoans the devastation, saying, how could this happen to us, to German people who are good, honest and hardworking?
And obedient, says the other. We were raised to do what we’re told. That’s how it could happen.
It’s that “do what you’re told” that left ordinary, everyday Germans vulnerable to the convictions of the maniac who stepped with ease into control of the country.
Have you heard of the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiments? Conducted at Yale beginning in 1961 (shortly after the launch of Adolf Eichmann’s trial), the experiments involved three characters and was ostensibly about the role of punishment in learning. There was the experimenter who conducted the experiments; a teacher whose job was to teach a learner a certain pairing of words, administering a shock if the learner got the answer wrong; and the learner. The learner was in actual fact an actor, and there was no real shocking going on. The teacher was in actual fact the subject of the experiment, which was really about how willing people are to follow the dictates of an authority figure. What goes completely beyond understanding is the lengths to which the “teachers” would go to obey the authority of the person running the experiment. They would shock their learner at high voltage levels, with clear indications that the learner was in extreme pain or even dying—purely on the direction of the leader. “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” the leader would say, or “You have no other choice, you must go on.” And the teacher would indeed go on. A whopping 65% of subjects went to the highest shock level, administering what they had reason to believe was a humungous, potentially fatal, 450 volt shock, where the learner would scream uncontrollably and eventually pass out over his desk.
In the words of Milgram’s report on the experiments: “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular 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.”
If you haven’t read about these experiments, and don’t mind unsettling yourself for awhile, have a look at Wiki’s balanced analysis.
After reading the report, I can’t help glancing over at Rick and wondering if he would be able to resist such a call by authority. He’s a very good guy, I figure, but 65% puts the odds against him. What about my housemates, my children, other members of my close communities? My well-being is tied to them and that 65% is so ominous.
I know that I wouldn’t exhibit that level of obedience, of course. I mean, I wouldn’t, would I? Surely I’d be the one person among the hundreds who participated in the experiment who’d storm out of my chair, throw the controls to the floor and pile-drive the authority figure. I’d make sure the learner was okay and apologise to him for ever having participated in the experiment at all, and then I’d report the whole mob to the local police.
A little pulse in my throat reveals a glimmer of doubt. Could I end up in the 65%? Can I afford to be arrogant about my ability to hold true to my values? After all, I’ve just done the airport thing, and I’m the one who bit my tongue when the bureaucrat at the immigration counter spoke rudely to us, and when the guy at Security brusquely directed me through the X-ray machine. What will I bite down on tomorrow?—and what will be the cost?
How many times this week have I already practiced compliance? My friends and family and I, and people everywhere—can we identify and resist encroachment on our freedoms and our humanity?
This is, I think, my greatest fear. You know how we all have something which gives us a frisson of fear for mankind? For some it’s climate change, or overpopulation, or solar flares. It’s where you think, “This is the thing that could mess us up good.” And this is my deepest fear. Sometimes I think education and technology are increasing our sense of personal responsibility, but sometimes I fear our freedoms are eroding as we give away more power to our institutions.
At one point in the novel, Trudi, the main character, builds a little cairn of stones from the river. Each stone represents a hate, a fear, a special joy she experiences. Her awareness makes her wise.
For me, I intend to keep working on my awareness, exercising my moral compass as I do. I’ll choose my battles wisely so that Rick isn’t left dithering at the airport while I’m hustled off to Guantanamo. But I’m aiming to be in the position where I’d question the Obedience experiments right from the start—and be a factor in preventing the next great war.