Genocide is an atrocity on humans. The fact that it is dependent on the complicity of ordinary people was best shared by Zimbardo and Milgram in their experiments. The Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority. Zimbardo’s experiment studied why guards and prisoners become compliant and authoritarian. The participants were 11 guards and 10 prisoners who also were college students, who volunteered for this experiment. The guards were told that they must maintain “Law and order” in this prison. These were the instructions for guards only, and the first thing they did was dehumanize the prisoners by taking their clothes and replacing their names with a number, just like in Auschwitz. “Philip Zimbardo (2007) himself decided that his Stanford Prison Experiment was unethical because it violated two of these principles. Participants “did suffer considerable anguish…and (the experiment) resulted in such extreme stress and emotional turmoil that five of the sample of initially healthy young prisoners had to be released early” (Van Der Kolk, p.68).
In Milgram’s study, “Milgram had recruited community members to participate in his experiment at Yale University. His research was stimulated by the success of Germany’s Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s in enlisting the participation of ordinary citizens in unconscionable acts of terror and genocide. Milgram set out to enlisting the participation of ordinary citizens in unconscionable acts of terror and genocide under which ordinary citizens will be obedient to authority figures’ instructions to inflict pain on others” (Van Der Kolk, p.68). Milgram’s experiment was by asking subjects to deliver electric shocks (fake) to students supposedly learning a memory task. Those getting shocked were actually members of the research team and would eventually cry out in simulated pain. Many participants still complied with the authority and he then debriefed the participants and followed up later on their well-being. Nobody has suffered long-term harm, and Milgram’s experiments adhered to the ethical guidelines.
Both experiments showed how ordinary people can be manipulated. “Between those who acted of conviction because they shared values of the regime and its policies on the one hand, and nominal compliers who acted against their will under supervision but did not obey orders when not being watched, there were other possibilities. Many accepted and internalized the role expectation that soldiers must be tough and obedient and carry out state policies regardless of the content of specific orders. Soldiers and police often willingly obey orders and implement policy that they do not identify as commensurate with their own personal values, even when not supervised, in the same way that soldiers and police officers often willingly follow orders and are killed in the line of duty, though they do not want to die” (Browning, p.219). Browning finds Zimbardo more relevant I believe, because his experiment was first dehumanizing the prisoner, which is what they did at the “camps”. The whole experiment was in a prison setting like the camps. The similarity overlaps and It can be believed that humans can become sub-humans under certain circumstances. These were ordinary men, your neighbors, your butcher, your schoolteacher, or any ordinary human in your town. But genocide is the most terrible crime to conceive. God forgive us if it should occur again, but unfortunately it still occurs in other countries to this day.
In continuation there were a group of men barely mentioned in the books, but important enough to be included. These are the “Musselmans” of the camps. They are the ones who moped around. “Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the musselmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea” (Levi, p.90). We as a society cannot become like those men. We can’t give up on hope, and the good that is in most people, and try not to let this happen again. We have no right to eliminate a race by blaming them for something “we think” they did. This was bullyism in the extreme.
I also wanted to point out the correlation of “the Trauma of the Incarceration Experience”, where Mika’ il DeVeaux spent 32 years as a prisoner. 32 years is a lot longer than 5 or 6 years the Jews had to spend during the Holocaust. DeVeaux stated, “The experience of being locked in a cage has a psychological effect upon everyone made to endure it. No one leaves unscarred” (DeVeaux, p257). DeVeaux stated, “Isolation did not help my state. More than anything else, I recall feeling sad and depressed. I felt caged, alone, and helpless” (DeVeaux, p.267). I couldn’t stop relating concentration camps to our prisons. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering my great grandparents went through each and every day during the Holocaust. They were very fortunate they were able to escape and start a new life here in the United States of America.
Some wise words from Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. “When I give presentations on trauma and trauma treatment, participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy. I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail. In today’s world your ZIP code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will lead a safe and healthy life. People’s income, family structure, housing, employment, and educational opportunities affect not only their risk of developing stress but also their access to effective help to address it. Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing all are breeding grounds for trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people” (Van Der Kolk, p.350). We have to open our eyes to trauma and talk about the trauma we face, because if not, it might happen again.
Browning, C. R., & Mazal Holocaust Collection. (1992). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland (1st ed.). HarperCollins, Chapters 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 18 and the Afterword.
DeVeaux, M. (2013). The trauma of the incarceration experience. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 48(1), 257-278.
Levi, P. (1996). Survival in Auschwitz. Touchstone Books.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body keeps the score brain, mind and body in the healing of
trauma. Penguin Books.