In the aftermath of World War II, the true horror of the Holocaust became apparent to the world.
But it wasn’t just German military officers who were complicit in the atrocities – a large segment of the general population, from school teachers, to counsellors and best friends went along with the Nazi plan, ‘dobbing in’ and even committing cruel acts on their Jewish friends and neighbours.
Indeed, the general populace was brainwashed by years of government propaganda, painting Jews as subhuman and dangerous – the cause of Germany’s woes; a people unworthy of their place in society.
The Milford Experiment
For Yale Professor of Psychology Dr Stanley Milford, the Holocaust raised many confronting questions: how could such a large-scale atrocity ever have been allowed to take place? And how can we prevent it from happening again to a segment of the community demonised by government propaganda and media-fuelled hysteria?
In his 1961 study, called the ‘Milgram Experiment’, Dr Milford examined whether people would compromise their conscience if ordered to do so.
Dr Milgram opened his study by saying:
“Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to… It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command.
Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances.
These inhuman policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.”
Dr Milgram devised an experiment to test the obedience of subjects, even when it caused immense suffering to another person.
Forty men between the ages of twenty and fifty participated in the study. Participants were told that the experiment was to test the effect of punishment on learning.
The participants assumed the role of ‘Teacher’. The ‘Learner’, unbeknownst to them, was just an actor.
Finally, there was an ‘Experimenter’, who sat in the same room as the ‘Teacher’. The ‘Learner’ sat in a separate room, where they could be heard but not fully seen.
The Experimenter then directed the Teacher to ask the Learner certain questions, and to administer an electric shock if the Learner got the answer wrong.
The Teachers were initially administered with a painful sample shock at just 45 volts – which was intended to enhance the veracity of the experiment and inform the Teachers of the electric shock device’s immense power.
Each Teacher was told that the voltage of the shock would increase in 15-volt increments each time the Learner gave an incorrect answer.
In reality, the Learner was not shocked at all. Rather, there were pre-recorded sounds for each shock level, and the Learner would act as if they were in more pain with every shock.
The Teachers were told that although the shocks could be extremely painful, they could not cause permanent tissue damage.
If the Teacher questioned an order, he was given a sequence of increasingly stern verbal ‘prods’, which were:
- Please continue; or Please go on,
- The experiment requires that you continue,
- It is absolutely essential that you continue, and
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
The experiment would be halted if the Teacher still refused.
Before the experiment commenced, fourteen senior Yale University Professors with psychology majors were asked what they thought the results would be. All predicted that only a few subjects would continue right to the end and administer the highest voltage.
Shockingly, most of the Teachers administered the highest level of shock – despite the sounds of excruciating pain seemingly emanating from the Learner.
Many Teachers expressed stress, reluctance and anger, and even nervous fits of laughter and digging their nails into their skin – but twenty-six out of forty went right to the end, administering what they believed was the highest voltage of a staggering 450 volts.
The Experiment exhibited just how strong our tendencies to obey can be, even when pitted against our conscience and morals.
What Have We Learned?
Although conducted more than 50 years ago, the Milgram experiment continues to be highly influential to this day.
Similar studies replicated Milgram’s results, finding that most people continued to inflict pain (or thought they did) when ordered to do so. In fact, Philip Zimbardo, who went on to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment, consulted Milgram before setting out on his own famous study.
The Milford Experiment goes a long way towards explaining how a large population can be instrumental in facilitating horrific abuses, such as the Holocaust.
History Repeating Itself?
Like the false claims against Jews before and during World War II, the US led invasion of Iraq 15 years ago was justified on the fabricated claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had large stores of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and that US military strikes were necessary to prevent their imminent use.
Indeed, much of the economic, social and political structure of Muslim countries has been decimated, and large numbers of civilians killed, through US led military operations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet, to the embarrassment of the US led coalition, top secret information released by WikiLeaks made it abundantly clear that the US – including the President – knew that Iraq did not have such weapons, but invaded the countries regardless.
Disgraceful acts of torture, murder and sexual assault have been perpetrated by US military personnel against Muslim people – including in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay. Families have been left shattered – with those left behind angry, disillusioned and susceptible to extremism.
Since 2001, Muslims have been systematically demonised through media campaigns and government propaganda – to the point where parts of the general populace have come to believe that, like Jews, Muslims are the most significant threat to civilised society, rather than those with real power who launch devastating and counter-productive military attacks.
US Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently declared that he would reintroduce ‘waterboarding… and a hell of a lot worse’ for terrorism suspects. The absence of a backlash amongst his supporters is concerning, to say the least.
Earlier, Trump announced that if elected, Muslims would be banned from entering the United States altogether. On a platform of fear and hatred, Trump has become the most popular republican candidate in the US.
In that context, the lessons of Hitler’s rise to power and the insightful Milford Experiment certainly provide food for thought.