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Understanding the Nazis

[1/20/11]

Contrary to the title, we may never truly understand the Nazis and their destructive perspective on humanity. However, various explanations on personality and environmental factors can help us walk in their shoes and understand their situation better.

James Waller’s book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing focuses on the many aspects that must be accounted for when questioning what it takes for a normal person to become evil. The book may sound like the wrong way to question evil; as Waller suggests, the book is not meant as a how-to manual but more as an explanation in terms of social psychology.

As humans, it should be our job to question the concept of evil and understand it, especially in order to prevent its occurrence in the future. I felt reluctant and guilty while reading the first few chapters of the book. After all, what would I say if someone asked me what I was reading? A book about humanity’s darkest and most evil intentions and the reasons behind them? Giving the book’s real title would be no better start either. But as I continued reading, I realized that Waller gave such detailed accounts, views, and information that I was justified for reading such a book.

Waller describes an authoritarian personality, a term brought up by four U.C. Berkeley researchers around 1950 who were studying anti-Semitism and how it led to the Holocaust. As they studied anti-Semitism, the researchers broadened their study to the search of a possible personality that disposes one to prejudice.

The personality was discovered in individuals who were raised by “domineering fathers and punitive mothers who engaged in unusually harsh child-rearing practices” (Waller 77). The researchers recognized nine factors that created the authoritarian personality. Such factors included strict adherence to orthodox values and views, submission and compliance with hierarchical ranks, and cynicism toward humankind. The researchers created an F scale, Potentiality for Fascism Scale, out of belief that the authoritarian personality could increase support for fascist policies.

However, it seems unlikely that one personality and set of environmental factors would dispose one to becoming a Nazi or something similar. The binding obedience and submission to hierarchical ranks may not be attributed to one’s childhood but instead to the environment in which such an organization is enforced.

Imagine that you have been drafted into an infamous army whose intentions you disrespect. The army commanders order all soldiers to slaughter people of a specified race. After staying in this army, you develop friendships and you learn your position in the hierarchy. You may dislike the army’s intentions still, but you are repeatedly told that you are a part of this entire group. Through this group, you learn beliefs and are told to adhere to them. When your group heads off in a battle, you are part of it. You see your friends in your group slaughtering men and women and children. Surrounding you are commander voices that are shouting for you to get started with your work. They say you will be executed if you do not follow commands.

What do you do? Do you defy authorities and separate yourself from the group? That would be difficult, as you would have nowhere to go. (Either persecute or be persecuted.)

The simplest way is to follow the group. This brings the concept of deindividuation—attributing one’s individual behavior to a collective group and its standards rather than to the individual self. Through deindividuation, one no longer feels entirely responsible for his actions. In this sense, Waller implies that virtually anyone can commit the Nazis’ actions; the sole difference is the environment and human interactions that one is faced with. (In his book, Waller includes more than just the collective mindset to explain general evil actions.)

Even more interesting are the results of intelligence and Rorschach tests that were administered on Nuremberg internees. Allied mental health professionals Gustave Gilbert and Douglas M. Kelley conducted tests on a small group of the Nazi internees and found astonishing reports. Using the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Test, Adult Form I, Gilbert discovered that the average IQ of the internees was 128. The highest IQ was 143. These internees proved to be far more intelligent than expected. (Some argue that the scores were slightly inaccurate because the particular test had not been standardized.)

The Rorschach tests made these Nazi internees appear as sane and meticulous as any other human being. In a 1946 article from the Rorschach Research Exchange, Kelley asserted that these individuals “were essentially sane and although in some instances somewhat deviated from normal, nevertheless knew precisely what they were doing during their years of ruthless domination. From our findings we must conclude not only that [their] personalities are not unique or insane but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.”

As Waller summarizes, “To bluntly suggest that all Nazis had a common, homogenous extraordinary personality that predisposed them to the commission of extraordinary evil is an obvious oversimplification” (86).

Yes, the authoritarian personality that the Berkeley researchers created seems unlikely. However, several of the components within this personality can be developed in order to dispose one to vile, destructive acts. A specific environment that harnesses a collective mindset and expounds specific views could bring any individual to mold into that specified mindset if he is maintained in the environment for a long enough period of time.

Waller emphasizes that “while the evil of genocide is not ordinary, the perpetrators most certainly are” (86-87).

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