Were the Nazis just ordinary people?

If you were ordered to administer life-threatening shocks to a fellow human-being, would you? I can only assume that you believe you wouldn’t… as this is what most people think. However chances are, that you would.

After World War Two, the world was left in shock. Shock that human-beings can be so evil by inflicting such pain on other people. Of course those who controlled the Nazi camps, those who ordered death upon individuals and carried out torture were just monsters! But, what if they were just ordinary people like us?

Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem

Justifications given by Nazis during the criminal trials were that they were just following orders and it was all due to obedience. Nazi War criminal Eichmann Adolf during his trial did not appear to be a monster but simply an “uninspired bureaucrat who sat at his desk and did his job” (Hannah Adrendt, 1961).




Stanley Milgram investigated whether we are all susceptible to complying to extreme orders under authority. This was his experiment:

Male participants were paired with another person whom they thought was also a participant. In fact, the other person was an actor (confederate) who would be playing the role of the ‘learner’. The ‘learner’ was strapped to a chair with electrodes while the participant played role of the ‘teacher’. The procedure consisted of the participant testing the ‘learner’ as to how well he had learnt a list of words pairs that had previously been given. If the recall of word pairs was incorrect (which most of the time they were) the participant had to give the ‘learner’ what they thought were real electric shocks. The shocks were fake, but the ‘learner’ acted as if they were truly responding to electric shocks so that the ‘teacher’ believed they were inflicting pain. These electric shocks increased in voltage each time initially from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock) with a total of 30 switches.

The learner’s responses to the shocks increased in severity and desperation until at the higher levels they expressed having a heart condition and that they couldn’t take the shocks anymore, as if begging the ‘teacher’ to stop participating in the experiment or it could be fatal. As the participant perceives the confederate’s pain, usually conscience kicks in and he begins to object to continuing in the experiment. Milgram who had asserted authority by playing role of the experimenter in the same room, would give a ‘prod’ in response to objections such as “please continue” and “you have no other choice but to continue”.

Psychiatrists asked in advance to the experiment taking place, estimated that only 1% of participants would carry out 450 volts… This is the proportion of mentally ill people in the population.

Results: 65% of participants continued to administer electric shocks all the way up to the highest level  of 450 volts/’danger-severe shock’. All participants continued till 300 volts.

Percentage of participants who stopped the experiment at certain voltages

This shows that ordinary people are susceptible to committing evil acts… if under authority.

Three theories emerged as to why  obedience to follow such extreme orders in normal participants was found.

  1. Legitimate Authority: It is a social norm to follow commands given by a person with legitimate authority e.g. parent, teachers, police officers.
  2. Agency Theory: Once given an order, an individual undergoes agent shift from the autonomous level where they are in control of their own behaviour, to the agentic level where they simply become agents of others and do not think for themselves. People remain in this agentic level due to fear of appearing rude by disrupting the well-defined social situation, and fear of increasing one’s anxiety levels by challenging the authority figure.
  3. Graduated Commitment: Once asked to obey a seemingly reasonable order, individuals find it difficult to refuse a subsequent order, even if it goes against their wishes. Therefore, we can become entrapped in fulfilling ridiculous requests if asked to commit gradually.

The results caused utter shock across the world as several psychologists and professionals could not accept Milgram’s  findings:

Bettelheim (1964): “The research was’…so vile that nothing these experiments show has any value. They are in line with the human experiments of the Nazis.”

If you’re struggling to come to your own conclusion of these shocking findings, this is what Milgram had to say…

The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation – a conception of his duties as a subject – and more from any particularly aggressive tendencies. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in terrible destructive process… (Milgram, 1974, p. 6)

So… were the Nazis different from ordinary people, or just obeying orders?



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