28 August 2012
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SAVAGERY
The members of my book club are reading Erik Larson's non-fiction In the Garden of Beasts. The narrative recounts events in Adolf Hitler's Berlin from 1933-1937, and centers on the lives of American Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family (particularly his adult daughter Martha). The time period is critical, in that it spans the years of Hitler's rise to power, prior to the outbreak of World War II.
It has long been a mystery to me how Hitler, a figure of terror and psychosis, became so popular among the German people. I can begin to wrap my imagination around the nationalist feelings which Hitler roused, following Germany's humiliating defeat during World War I. Any defeated people longs for vindication, for a return to self-esteem, even to notions of glory and superiority. Hitler offered all this, wrapped in the flag of Nazi National Socialism. For a time, one can understand his initial appeal.
Yet the pendulum of the Nazi machine continued its swing past pride and into a vicious brand of supremacy, one which called for the subjugation and ultimately the extermination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, any group which did not live up to the "pure" Aryan ideal. How could ordinary Germans rationalize such extreme cruelty?
One hears responses that generally fall into two categories. Either (a) all Germans supported Hitler's militant racism, or (b) most Germans were simply unaware of how bad thing had become. If (a), then the German people were as evil as Hitler, and if (b), then the German people were living in a state of willful denial, fueled by their need for self-esteem. Either explanation could lead to the "I was just following orders" defense.
There is evidence that, with variations, both explanations carry weight. A recent study suggests that social identification, not blind obedience, might motivate unspeakable acts. In short, if one identifies with the culture and values of a given authority figure, then one would be predisposed to do whatever is demanded. Conversely, if one identifies with the culture and values of a given victim, then one would be predisposed to question and perhaps resist authority. If the truth boils down to this simple dichotomy, then clearly Germans were choosing to identify with Hitler's nationalism, and did not feel the cognitive dissonance that one would hope for from ethical people.
Lest we indulge in self-congratulation, let us recall that during the very years of Hitler's rise to power, it was no secret that Germany was re-arming in violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Further, those Europeans and Americans who, at the time, claimed ignorance of the bestiality of the Holocaust were themselves indulging in inexcusable denial. The memory of the horrors of World War I were fresh, and those memories accounted for America's determined stance of isolationism. But those same memories should have served as red flags when reports of Nazi atrocities and aggression began to surface. It took excruciating years and, finally, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, to finally provoke the U.S. into the last war in which evil and good stood in such stark contrast. During our delay, millions of lives were lost and much misery inflicted. Let us not be too proud of our eventual victory
Long story short, no one should rely solely on their government, their religion, or their culture for a reliable moral compass. That must come from within, and must grow with time and experience. Any nation, any individual is capable of killing or committing atrocities. All it takes is the wrong conditioning and the right opportunity. Resisting the impulse toward our darker side is the mark of a mature, integrated person ~ and a mature, integrated society.