Why do people treat others with such inhumanity?

One of the key values of the Western Enlightenment that underlie the rise of science and our understanding of ourselves and the natural world is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is under attack from the right and the left and from religious extremists. Last week, a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist after a lesson about free speech being a fundamental value of the French republic. And other extremists have attacked and killed people in France and Australia in the last week. Police forces and right-wing extremists in the USA have attacked Americans protesting against the extra-judicial murder of black Americans by police. And both the right and left are “cancelling” people whose views they disapprove of and in some cases making sure they lose their job or are boycotted.

Amara Green, a teenage girl who was hit in the face at close range by a deliberately aimed rubber bullet in Minneapolis, is facing months of reconstructive surgery

How can people treat others with such inhumanity?  And its not an insignificant proportionof the population. Despite horrifically cruel actions, such as separating babies and young children from their parents, locking them up, and not keeping any information that would allow the return of these children to their parents, a fairly stable 40% of Americans approve of these actions or simply don’t care all that much about them.  Evidence is now emerging of the extreme and unprovoked violence unleashed by police on peaceful protesters in the USA. There are now a number of documented cases of police vehicles being driven at speed into crowds. The same tactic that has been used with success by Islamic extremists in Europe. And clear evidence that so-called “non-lethal munitions” have been fired at point blank range at people, sometimes causing death, blindness or severe injury.

The same question has been examined in depth and debated at length regarding the role of the German people in the holocaust.  Why did ordinary Germans take part in large numbers in the rounding up and killing of Jews? This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about, and found three books in particular to be very relevant.  I have been rereading these books over the last couple of months, as they examine these questions in depth and reach somewhat different conclusions from each other.

Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. First published in 1992

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. First published in 1996

James Carroll. Constantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews. Mariner Books, USA, 2002.

Browning is an American Professor of History who is a specialist on the Holocaust. His best known book Ordinary Men is a detailed study of a group of average middle-aged German police, not eligible for military service and mostly not Nazis, who were sent to Poland and ordered to kill tens of thousands of Jews. He obtained access to detailed records of the interrogations of and investigation of 210 of the 500 men sent to Poland in order to understand how and why they became mass murderers.

The author estimates that this single battalion transported 45,000 Jews to death camps and directly murdered at least another 38,000. In the 1960s, 210 surviving members were interrogated about Holocaust crimes, and the testimony they provided forms the basis of this book. The author acknowledges that the evidence given should be treated with caution. The men clearly wanted to avoid incriminating themselves. That said, he argues the interviews were carried out by skilful attorneys, who drew out some gruesome testimony.

Browning found that the Battalion divided into three groups. Some were sadists who tortured, beat and humiliated Jews before murdering them. He does not put a figure on this group of “enthusiastic killers” but if was probably less than 20%. Another group, the largest, simply followed orders. This group did not enjoy their work, and alcohol was liberally supplied to them to numb their feelings, but they did not avoid killing. A third group, between 10% and 20%, asked to be excused from shooting Jews or otherwise evaded doing so. No punishment was inflicted upon this group. In fact, the commander of the battalion explicitly gave the men the option to opt out of the killing. Fewer than 12 did so openly out of a battalion of 500, though more would avoid the killing by getting themselves lost in the forest etc.

None of them objected to serving on the transports to the death camps. They knew that the Jews would be killed but their role ended when the victims were delivered to the camp – “out of sight, out of mind”. The author concludes that the relentless and pervasive denigration of Jews in Nazi Germany did affect the attitudes of the men of RPB101, but he also argues that deference to authority and pressure of conformity were uppermost in explaining their participation in mass murder. Those soldiers who did not participate in the shootings were effectively shirking their share of an unpleasant collective duty and perhaps might have been seen implicitly critical of the others. They risked rejection and ostracism in a situation where a tightly knit unit was in the middle of a hostile population in a foreign country.

Browning provides evidence to support the notion that not all these men were hateful antisemites. He includes the testimony of men who say they begged to be released from this work and to be placed elsewhere. In one instance, two fathers claimed that they could not kill children and thus asked to be given other work. Browning also tells of a man who demanded his release, obtained it, and was promoted once he returned to Germany.

Browning concludes that the men of Unit 101 killed out of obedience to authority and peer pressure, and quotes the results of the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s and 70s to support this conclusion. The Milgram experiments showed that when asked by an authority figure to inflict an escalating series of fake electric shocks upon an actor/victim, two-thirds of Milgrams subjects, who were not coerced in any way, were compliant to the point of inflicting severe shocks. Variations of this experiment identified some of the conditions that led to more or less compliance, and there has been some controversy about the detailed implications of these experiments. However, they have been replicated a number of times with broadly similar results.  In the broad, they provide a remarkably similar distribution of responses to those of Reserve Police Unit 101 to Jew killing.  Around 2/3s of the experiment subjects were compliant, a small fraction actually proposed trying more extreme shocks, and around 20-30% objected to continuing the experiment.

Ordinary Men achieved much acclaim but was criticized by Daniel Goldhagen for missing what he called a specifically German political culture, characterized by “eliminationist anti-semitism” in causing the Nazi genocides.

Goldhagen wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the reasons ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust and made substantial use of the same documents concerning Police Battalion 101 as Browning. His subsequent book, published in 1996 four years after Browning’s “Ordinary Men” was highly critical of Browning’s conclusions, arguing that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” because of a unique and virulent antisemitism in Germany that had developed over many centuries. He has aggressively attacked Browning’s conclusions and there has been substantial public debate among historians, among the Germans, and in the media about whether Goldhagen’s interpretation is justifiable. The Wikipedia article on Goldhagen’s book  has an excellent and detailed summary of this public debate. It notes that Goldhagen’s assertion that almost all Germans “wanted to be genocidal executioners” has been viewed with skepticism by most historians, ranging from criticism of his methods as “not valid social science” to dismissal as “nonsense”.

Daniel Goldhagen is Jewish and his father was a Holocaust survivor who was interned in a Jewish ghetto in what is now Ukraine. Whether that has coloured his views on the overriding importance of anti-semitism in Germany I don’t know.

Christopher Browning included a lengthy afterword in the 1998 edition of Ordinary Men, then one I have been reading. In it he addresses Goldhagen’s criticisms and refutes them.  He notes that he and Goldhagen agree on two crucial findings:

  • The bulk of the killers were not specially selected but drawn at random from a cross-section of German society
  • They did not kill because they were coerced by the threat of dire punishment for refusing. In fact, there is no evidence of a German ever being severely punished for refusing to kill Jews.

But he then goes on the argue, in my mind fairly convincingly, that Goldhagen has selectively used the evidence and fails to make a plausible argument that anti-semitism was a major enduring feature unique to German culture, noting that the Germans had no trouble finding willing collaborators in the eastern European countries. He notes this as one of several major problems in Goldhagen’s selective interpretation of the evidence.

James Carroll is an active Catholic, a former priest and a civil rights worker, who spent part of his childhood in post-war Germany. He examines the awful 2000-year history of the Church’s anti-semitism, which provoked a crisis of faith in his own life as a Catholic.  This book is a tour-de-force, taking us on a 2000-year-journey from the earliest days of Christianity in the Roman Empire through the dark ages and middle ages, to today. He examines the Catholic Churches involvement in pogroms, the Crusades, forced conversions, ghettos, and the Holocaust. The Chapters of the book on the silence of the Church and Pope Pius XII on the Holocaust are eye-opening. He examines the detailed historical evidence to show that the Church was not entirely silent, it spoke up to protect Jews who had converted to Catholicism, but let it be known that it had no concern about the Nazi treatment of other Jews. What I had not known was that in the early 1930s when Hitler came to power,  the Papal Envoy to Germany Eugenio and negotiated an accord with the Hitler, the 1933 Reichskonkordat, which was Hitler’s first bilateral treaty with a foreign power, and immensely important in giving him legitimacy and international prestige. Pacelli would later become Pius XII.

The church saw Jewishness as a religious not racial identity and in late 1933, a German Cardinal wrote to Pacelli seeking protection for German Jews who converted to Catholicism. Pacelli raised the issue with Berlin, seeking protection for “non-Aryan Catholics” but noting that the fate of other “non-Aryans” was not the Vatican’s concern, as it had no intention of interfering in “Germany’s internal affairs”.

Rereading this book really brought home to me how responsible Christianity is for the deep anti-semitism which runs through the entire history of Western civilization over the last 2000 years, and ultimately led to the Holocaust. This was a much broader case of seeing the “Other” as not worthy of being treated as human, not just a uniquely German pathology. Similar “othering” of groups such as indigenous people, black people, homosexuals, other religions, political out-groups have led to genocides or extreme brutal treatment and continue to do so. Unfortunately, the focus on “the” Holocaust in order to prevent future holocausts has been entirely ineffectual.

Goldhagen’s conclusions would be very comforting if correct, that very few societies have the cultural prerequisites to commit genocide and that they only occur when the population is strongly supportive of its necessity. I am more inclined to agree with Browning that we live in a world in which organized violence, racism and demonization of the “other” are common and widespread and in which governments are increasingly powerful and legitimizing, personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated, and where peer group pressures on behaviour and moral norms remain immense. Given these conditions, governments which want to commit mass murder will not find it impossible to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners”.

At a somewhat less extreme level, governments across the world are not finding it at all difficult to find men and women willing to brutalize groups who are deemed “other”, including taking babies and small children from their parents, locking up people in cages or concentration camps indefinitely, firing projectiles and chemical weapons into crowds of peaceful protestors, and where agents of the state know that they can murder people in full public view with impunity. These things are happening not just under unashamed authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, but also in supposed democratic states like Australia and the USA.

What is largely missing from all three books is an examination of the role of levels of moral and cultural development. Ken Wilber (1,2) has written extensively on this, and I won’t dive into that material, except to note the broad levels of moral development in humans, both for humans and cultures over historical time and in each individual as they mature, first identified by Kohlberg (3). Very briefly, the three broad stages are:

  • Preconventional: The person is good to avoid punishment and gain rewards. A stage typical of young children and fundamentalists.
  • Conventional: The person internalizes the moral standards of the group and authorities and is good in order to receive the approval of others and avoid guilty feelings. Middle childhood, and for a substantial proportion of people their adult moral stage.
  • Postconventional: While recognizing moral rules are for the greatest good, also realizes that there are times when they are not appropriate.  A reasonable proportion of adults in modern societies reach this stage of development. At the higher stage, the person has developed their own set of moral guidelines and will be prepared to go against social disapproval and sanctions in situations they judge appropriate. Few people reach this stage.

Ken Wilber has guestimated that 70% of people are at the conventional stage. This may or may not be in the right ballpark for developed countries, and I’m doing some analysis to see whether the World Values Survey can provide some information. But it is this likely majority of people who are susceptible to the conditions under which group norms and demonization of an out-group, combined with human propensity to do what the group and authority want them to, who can under the right conditions become “willing executioners” who can and do treat others with extreme inhumanity.

Of the three books, I’d recommend Browning’s book as the first to read. It puts into context aspects of human nature that are fairly universal. Humans have evolved as group animals with very strong and powerful instincts to identify with the group and its values, important for survival in ecosystems where survival is the dominant concern. We all go through the stage of moral conformism and the identification with an in-group and exclusion of the “other, and a majority of us don’t get past that stage. And before I congratulate myself on being one of the minority who has, I need to remember that we all have that stage of development as part of us, and we can easily revert to it under extreme conditions.  Indeed, with the current wave of terrorist murders in Europe, I could easily imagine that I could revert to a fairly primitive level of behaviour if a member of my family was a victim. Or I simply need to recall a few occasions in the past when I kept silent about things I wish I had not (admittedly much much less consequential than genocide), out of fear of group disapproval and rejection.

If you are interested in the Holocaust and the reasons for it, I can strongly recommend reading all three books, and some of the discussions and controversy they have raised. If you are interested in the long history and causes of anti-semitism in Western civilization, or particularly in the role of the Catholic Church in  fostering anti-semitism and particularly its collusion in the Holocaust, then Carroll’s book is a must read.


(1) Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981

(2) Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

(3) Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.