The Psychology of the Perpetrators

I.  Generally two competing explanations for the behavior of perpetrators

        A.  Dispositional factors

                1.  Background Theory/Research

                        a.  Abnormality -- "They're crazy"
                                1.  Anyone who would kill innocent people has to be insane (circular!)
                                2.  Perpetrators are mentally ill
                                3.  Perpetrators must have a particular personality trait
                                        a.  blind obedience to authority
                                        b.  impulsivity
                                        c.  socially isolation (some evidence)

                        b.  They're driven by intense hate or prejudice (Why do they hate us?)
                                1.  Studies with U.S. soldiers indicate that emphasis is on comraderie (i.e., love), not hate
                                2.  Studies with terrorists indicate main motivation is to benefit in-group, rather than hurt out-group
                2.  Application to the Holocaust

                        a.  Hard to fathom, since it requires one to argue that tens of thousands of Germans were flawed

                        b.  Hard to find.  Dawidowitzc comes closest:

"The insecurities of post-World-War I Germany and the anxieties they produced provided an emotional milieu in which irrationality and hysteria became routine and and illusions became transformed into delusions.  The delusional disorder assumed mass proportions....In modern Germany the mass psychosis of anti-Semitism deranged a whole people" (Dawidowitzc, quoted in Browning "Ordinay Germans or Ordinary Men?"
                         c.  Not much support from other historians.  Even Goldhagen distances himself from this argument:
"I by no means agree with much of Lucy Dawidowitzc's formulation.  I have never said and do not hold the view, that the German people were  deranged by a delusional mass psychosis." (Goldhagen, Ordinary Men or Ordinary Germans)

       B.  Situational factors "…The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person
                                            a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds
himself that determines how he will act." (Milgram, 1974)

                1.  Persuasion pressures (mass propoganda, leaders, peers)

                        a.  Background research
                                1.  Propoganda often effective, especially when no other source of information is available
                                2.  People persuaded by leaders and peers they trust and like

                        b.  Application to the Holocaust
                                1.  Anti-Jewish propoganda very effective
                                2.  Some leaders (e.g., "Papa Trapp") were liked, many were not
                                3.  Peers were often friends and acquaintances from before the War         

.  Conformity pressures

                        a.  Background research

                                1.  Original Asch Study
                                        a.  Method: 18 sets of different size lines, "False" answers given 12 times (subjects | stimulus)
                                        b.  Results:  76% conformed at least once,  over 50% conformed at least 3 times 

                                2.  Follow-up studies showed that the following factors increase conformity
                                        a.  no prior commitment to answer/behavior
                                        b.  subjects made to feel incompetent or insecure by experimenter
                                        c.  importance/attraction of group membership
                                        d.  size of group (at least 3 people)
                                        e.  group unanimity
                                        f.   group pressures such as ridiculing the non-conformist
                                        g.  cultural value of respect for social standards (e.g., the nail that sticks out gets hit)

                        b.  Application to the Holocaust

                                1.  Prior commitment to anti-semitism but usually not to willful killing
                                2.  SS and police battalion members often rediculed by commanders if not up to task
                                3.  In foreign terrirory, away from all family and friends, group membership VERY important
                                4.  Groups were large, significantly more than 6 people
                                5.  Group unanimity hard to say: Browning reports multiple cases of dissent in Battalion 101, but this may have been rare
                                6.  Group pressures to conform were high (nonconformists were rediculed and looked down upon for not doing their share)
                                7.  Cultural value for respect of social standards: moderately high to high

                3.  Obedience pressures 

                        a.  Background Research:

                                1.  Milgram's original obedience study (see StanleyMilgram.Com)
                                        a.  the experimental design
                                                1.  schematic of experimental lab
                                                2.  reenactment available at
                                        b.  the findings 

                                2.  Follow-up studies identified factors that increased obedience  (bar graph of replication studies
                                        a.  legitimacy of the authority
                                        b.  greater distance from the victim
                                        c.  closer supervision by authority
                                        d.  presence of people who modeled obedience
                                        e.  gender, age, education not relevant

                                3.  Theories about why people obey
                                        a.  normative influence: obey authority
                                        b.  informational influence: can't know everything! when situation is confusing, trust expert
                                        c.  conflicting norms (obey authority and don't hurt people) are hard to figure out
                                        d.  incremental steps (starts out being reasonable, each small increase is reasonable, where do we draw the line?
                                        e.  cognitive dissonance theory (after shocks get too high, can't undo past behavior and don't want to label self as "bad" or "immoral")
                                        f.   fast pace -- not enough time to make good decisions

                                4.  Conclusion: Most people will obey orders to hurt someone, given strong situational factors 

                        b.  Applications to the Holocaust

                                1.  Many situational influences present
                                       a.  authority was seen as powerful and insurmountable
                                       b.  distance to the victim varied, but obedience generally high regardless
                                                1.  mobile killing squads rounded up victims and killed at point-blank range
                                                2.  extermination camps created in part because of the psychological toll of above method
                                       c.  ever-present perception of authority presence, even when it wasn't
                                       d.  constant presence of peers modeling obedience
                                       e.  ability to give up responsibility to someone else    

                                2.  but also lacking in many ways
                                       a.  study subjects were uncomfortable, many NAZI perpetrators enjoyed it (see Goldhagen)
                                       b.  study obedience decreased when physical intimacy increased, but Jews were often hit, kicked, and shot point-blank
                                       c.  study obedience decreases when researcher is not present, but many Nazi atrocities occured without commanders
                                       d.  study may not have anything to do with obedience (implied contract -- the magic act)

                4.  Effects of role assignment

                        a.  Background Research: Zimbardo prison study:
                               1.  Normal students assigned to be guards took on the characteristics associated with the role
                               2.  Some sadistic behaviors emerged in just a few days; experiment had to be stopped after 6 days
                               3.  Three types of guard profiles emerged (sadistic, duty-bound, and lenient), no one rebelled against system

                        b.  Application to the Holocaust
                               1.  Lots of men with no military or police experience were put into roles of guards and executioners
                               2.  Reports exist of all three types of perpetrators.  Again, no one (as far as we know) rebelled against system

                5.  Economic pressures

                       a.  Background research: Sherif's Realistic Group Conflict Theory
                              1.  The theory states:
                                    a.  people fight/compete over limited resources
                                       b.  during competition, the "other" is considered an enemy to justify trying to "win"
                                       c.  enemy is then dehumanized and scapegoated
                              2.  The research evidence
                                       a.  Southern state lynching study
                                       b.  Sherif's Robber's Cave study 

                       b.  Application to the Holocaust
                              1.  The Great Depression did create an economic crisis
                              2.  Jews were indeed scapegoated and dehumanized

              6.  Socialization pressures (affects disposition) 

                       a.  Background research

                              1.  cultural socialization
a.  narratives about victimization
          b.  cultural myths about heroes and heroic deeds
                                      c.  long-standing, widely accepted group beliefs such as prejudice
                                      d.  religious beliefs about death
                              2.  group socialization (e.g., army, militant group)
                                      a.  we watch out for one another
                                      b.  we support/help one another (e.g., doing unpleasant tasks) 

                       b.  Application to the Holocaust

                              1.  Substantial cultural socialization
                                     a.  narratives about "Jewish devils" and Jewish drain on resources
                                     b.  myths about the first two Reichs
                                     c.  long history of anti-semitism
                                     d.  Catholoic Church (including the Pope) supported the Nazi party, so pathway to heaven was not blocked

                              2.  Substantial group socialization (see both Browning's and Goldhagen's descriptions of the 101st Reserve Police Battalion                               

 II.  The special case of perpetrators in Nazi Germany: Integrating the historical evidence and scientific research       

        A.  Dispositional explanation:  Except for Dawinowitzc, not much support

        B.  Cultural explanation (dispositional or situational?)

                1.  Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners"

"Germans' antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust.  They were the central causal agent not only of Hitler's decision to annihilate European Jewry...but also of the perpetrators' willingness to kill and brutalize Jews.  The conclusion of this book is that anti-semitism moved many thousands of "ordinary" Germans -- and would have moved millions more had they been appropriately positioned -- to slaughter Jews.  Not economic hardships, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity."
                        a.  Strengths
                                  1.  compelling argument that many (maybe most!) Germans not only agreed with orders to kill but enjoyed their work
                                  2.  Anti-semitism certainly an important factor, undoubtedly necessary for the Holocaust to have taken place
                                  3.  Validated by the fact that the Holocaust could not have occurred without the support and assistance of many thousands
                        b.  Weaknesses
                                  1.  Ignores many compelling psychological and situational factors (Is antisemitism sufficient?)
                                  2.  Ignores that many non-Jews were also systematically killed
                                  3.  Ignores that there were many anti-semites who were not German.  Indeed, many assisted the Germans

        C.  Situational explanation

                1.  Browning's "Ordinary Men"  claims that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 killed because of numerous situational factors (see summary)

                       a.  Strengths
                                 1.  Recognizes a wide variety of contributing factors, including anti-semitism
                                 2.  Presents relatively persuasive evidence that many Germans did not want to kill and tried to evade the task
                        b.  Weaknesses
                                 1.  Over-reliance on German perpetrator testimony (which is rather revealing in this case)
                                 2.  Probably understates the importance of anti-semitism

        D.  Conclusions