General Question

halfg's avatar

What is the sociological explanation for why Hitlers army commited acts of brutality?

Asked by halfg (180 points ) December 17th, 2009

Not psychological, but SOCIAL explanations. Looking for reasons besides “propaganda”....ideally I’m looking for answers from someone who might be able to provide a link or has done some in depth reading on this.

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60 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

Stanley Milgram did some interesting experiments on this subject in the late ‘60s and early ‘70’s you might want to google him.

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

They were themselves under threat of torture and sent to the Western Front to fight the Russians if they failed to brutalize their enemies.
Also, their families would be uprooted and imprisoned, tortured and killed if soldiers failed to act as desired.

halfg's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien – Thanks, that’s exactly what I was looking for

halfg's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien Well, if that’s true. Thanks.

dpworkin's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien Sorry, but that is an historical untruth. Many Einstazgruppe begged off the killing work, and none were ever punished.

halfg's avatar

Okay, never mind then…

dpworkin's avatar

There is a vast literature on the subject; no where is Ms. Obrien’s point of view supported.

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

@pdworkin And many more were intimidated into acting brutally for the sake of their families. Nice of you to try to show some sort of innocence where their is none. The fact that my point of view is not represented in some literature on the subject is meaningless in terms of reality. You can bet your bottom dollar there were thrests aplenty to soldiers in Nazi germany to keep them performing as they did. This pd person is completely in error and his assertions have absolutely no merit whatever.

dpworkin's avatar

I don’t argue with Holocaust deniers and people of that ilk. If you are going to make outrageous claims, please support them with scholarly citations. I am leaving this discussion because I do not willingly sit in sewers with sewer denizens.

Sarcasm's avatar

If you believe so, please post articles arguing in favor of your position, @Kelly_Obrien.

halfg's avatar

Never mind, I found some literature on the matter – Omer Bartovs study on The Barbarization of Warfare verifies a lot of the claims @Kelly_Obrien makes – he mentions that at least “15,000” german soldiers were executed by their own army” for failing to carry out orders.

halfg's avatar

Thanks guys!

halfg's avatar

And @pdworkin I am citing an article from Harvard.

Xann009's avatar

Ever heard of the Milgram Experiments?

“The Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience…”

Basically, two people are actors and one is the subject. One of the actors is an authority figure, and the other is the student. The subject is the Teacher. The teacher is told that the Student is hooked up to an electrical device that they will shock them with after each incorrect question (of course, they are not and only act as if they are shocked.) Each wrong question, the intensity of the shock was to be increased, past the point of being lethal.

The majority of the subjects were willing to shock the Student past the point of killing them simply because the authority figure told them to.

Think about it.

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

@Sarcasm
Thanks for your interest, sarcasm. LOL…Now that’s funny. I read this stuff so long ago, they didn’t even have computers as you know them. They had CRAM computers back then. As such, I don’t have access to those old works which have gone missing for decades.
But @halfg seems to have found some citations and literature to back my assertions. Good move my friend. It is nice to see someone go out and find his own proof. These others are so lazy…possibly from living near sewers, eh pd?

PandoraBoxx's avatar

To understand the social implications you might want to google and read about The Third Wave, an experiment that took place at a Palo Alto CA high school in the 1960s, in which a teacher, Ron Jones, recreated the political climate in Germany in the 1930s and what played out as a result.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, the instructor for the Holocaust class used an exercise similar to what was used by Jane Elliott’s class in A Class Divided to teach about discrimination.

dpworkin's avatar

@halfg Soldiers in every army were executed for failing to carry out orders. The question is, which orders? None were executed for a failure to exterminate Jews. There was no shortage of volunteers, and no one who wanted out was forced to stay in. Do some more reading.

Buttonstc's avatar

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”

Edmund Burke

dpworkin's avatar

Another study apposite here is Phillip Zimbrano’s Stanford “Prison” study, q.v.

Buttonstc's avatar

Zimbardo :)

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

For terminologies’ sake…

“Hitler’s Army” taken in a narrow sense was the Heer. Hunting down and killing the people targeted by the Nazis for immediate extermination in captured Soviet territory was reserved for the Einsatzgruppen. An early exception to this was the Kommissarbefehl, which was to be carried out by soldiers of the Heer on the spot.

The civil authorities following in the wake of the army would have implemented Generalplan Ost and the Hungerplan had European Russia actually been conquered.

For more on non-SS war crimes see here.

woodcutter's avatar

because they REALLY wanted to win? And maybe arrian wanna be’s are just brutal by nature. Or maybe it’s the German way. After the “wall” came down there were many who were worried about the two Germany’s getting together again. (painful memories of two world wars the Germans were in the thick of) then again I could be wrong.

shilolo's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien Hey, would you look at this and that (warning:NSFW)? Look at all the scared German soldiers standing around and the concerned look on the SS officer’s face. This notion that the Nazi evil-doers were under duress is absurd.

@halfg Did you actually read all of Omer Bartov’s book so quickly, or did you simply look at this one page? I vote for the later since you quote the citation is from Harvard which is what it says in the text, but actually Professor Bartov is now at Brown University. Indeed, Professor Bartov mentions that 15,000 German soldiers were executed, but (at least in this one paragraph), he ascribes it to typical battlefield issues (attempted desertion, attempted retreat, failure to follow military orders). He is talking about the Wehrmacht (the German Army) and not the criminals of the Waffen-SS and Einsatzgruppen. The later in particular were responsible for the mass killings that occurred after towns and villages were captured by the army. In summary, no amount of rationalization will make the SS anything more than the scum of the earth.

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

@shilolo You don’t know what threats or duress these soldiers were under 65 years ago. even if you were alive back then. Did you have relatives who were soldiers or other personal relations who told you there was no duress. It is laughable the way you call my notion absurd. Good example from such a wizened old man.

shilolo's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien Well constructed answer. You must be an outstanding debater prone to fallacious arguments. I couldn’t have been there, therefore I couldn’t possibly have extensively studied history, including a college minor in Nazi history. You can be a Holocaust denier or apologizer to your heart’s content, but don’t be embarrassed when you are called out on it.

The funny thins is that you must have been so pleased when your colleague “found” a “supporting link” via a simple Google search, only to learn when I revealed the source that he was misrepresenting his limited “research”. Come back with hard, legitimate historical research from reputable sources, and then we can talk. Until then, your idea is quite simply a terrible fantasy.

dpworkin's avatar

Zimbardo! Thanks

Response moderated
PandoraBoxx's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien, MWAAAHHAAAAHHHHAAAAAA!!!!! Thank you for the good laugh. Wiping tears from my eyes…. The idea of @shilolo as aged, a blowhard and a “yout” is hilarious. back to laughing hard enough to snort milk out of my nose

mattbrowne's avatar

I’ve said this before and I still have the impression that many people are not aware of the following:

Not all German WWII soldiers were Nazis.
Not all Nazis were German WWII soldiers.
There is a difference between the SS and German WWII soldiers.

People had to be hard core Nazis to become SS officers. They were not normal soldiers. Some SS officers before they got their promotion had to prove their seriousness. Some were handed a living cat and they had to twist the cat’s head and kill it in an instant. Later some SS officers who passed this “test” had to lead the so-called

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einsatzgruppen

in Eastern Europe which involved the shooting of thousands of Jewish men, women and children. A lot of brainwashing is required to get to this level of mental perversion and being able to kill a cat was just the beginning. People with a conscience and scruples did NOT become SS officers.

The ‘if he didn’t obey his commanding officer’ logic applies to normal German WWII soldiers. It does definitely not apply to the SS, the Gestapo and the perverts running camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor and so forth.

However, there were many cases where the regular German army committed war crimes especially in the Soviet Union. Wars have the potential to turn normal people into beasts and this applies to all wars not only WWII. Sociological explanations? Violence begets violence which begets more violence. A lot of the brutality in the late period of WWII had to do with the policy of scorched earth. You might find this article interesting:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorched_earth

and I quote: “When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered both soldiers and civilians to initiate a scorched earth policy to deny the invaders basic supplies as they moved eastward. The process was repeated later in the war by the retreating German forces, which burned or destroyed farms, buildings, weapons, and food to deprive Soviet forces of their use.”

“The strategy of destroying the food supply of the civilian population in an area of conflict has been banned under Article 54 of Protocol I of the 1977 Geneva Conventions. However, it is still a common practice. The protocol only applied to those countries that have ratified it, notable exceptions being the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq.”

mattbrowne's avatar

@woodcutter – Or maybe it’s the German way? It’s very rare that I use a very direct answer when replying to Fluther posts. I find your comment extremely ignorant, offensive, insulting and wrong. How much do you know about Germany? How many Germans do you know personally? Or do you have evidence from DNA sequencing projects which have clearly identified an Aryan-German brutality gene? Or is it part of the general German culture to keep brainwashing the next generation so we can keep the societal norm of brutality? Any research studies done by social scientists to backup such incredible claims? If this were so, how do you explain the peaceful revolution in 1989 that brought down the Berlin Wall? Where was all the brutality?

Or do you think Fluther is just a community of Americans where it’s acceptable to talk about people in other countries in such a casual manner?

dpworkin's avatar

@mattbrowne To me it seems that of the two forms of ignorance on this subject, @woodcutter‘s seems less offensive, because at least it acknowledges that something despicable happened with the conscious cooperation of nearly an entire nation.

Of course your comments are salutary, and it would be a good thing if everyone knew the type of country Germany has become; that evil is a human, not a German, characteristic; that no one is immune from such behavior (which is why I mentioned Zimbardo and Milgram). However, I think he is far more educable than some others here who wish to deny what occurred. It was certainly the most significant event of the 20th Century and it would be a crime to allow the deniers their influence.

shilolo's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien I feel bad for you. Resorting to things like calling someone a “blowhard”, when all of the facts are stacked up against you. Since you have not provided one shred of evidence, despite multiple people providing evidence to the contrary suggests that you don’t know your subject matter and are simply trying, unsuccessfully, to agitate. There is no use to any further discussion.

dpworkin's avatar

I wouldn’t let it get to me, Doc. She does the same thing in any thread on any subject with the same obnoxious tone, and in my estimation she’ll be gone from Fluther soon enough. It doesn’t take long before the community catches on to someone like this.

shilolo's avatar

@pdworkin You know me. I don’t mind. In fact, I’m not even debating with this person since in order to have a debate, one actually needs an adversary. I’m simply providing information for anyone else who eventually will read this thread.

mattbrowne's avatar

@pdworkin – I agree. Holocaust denial is far more despicable. There’s an excellent book written by Michael Shermer and the part about the holocaust denial phenomenon is especially worth reading

http://www.amazon.com/People-Believe-Weird-Things-Pseudoscience/dp/0805070893/

It addresses why some people become evolution deniers or holocaust deniers. And there’s also a great section debunking the whole nonsense. I agree that on Fluther it’s best, as you said, not to argue with holocaust deniers and people of that ilk.

Insinuating that brutality is the German way is less offensive than holocaust denial. Therefore I wanted to give @woodcutter a chance to realize what impact and what consequences such casual and hasty generalizations about real people or groups of real people can have. And ultimately this way of thinking is one of the reasons that leads to prejudice, suspicions, xenophobia, racism and antisemitism.

dpworkin's avatar

I hope for his sake that he pays attention and learns something.

phillis's avatar

This person has been reported for poor behavior and name-calling in other threads, too. I understand and appreciate a debate, but this goes beyond that, attacking the person. It’s too mean-spirited for my tastes. There’s no need for that, and I won’t be supporting it.

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

You guys are just sore losers. @shilolo

Kelly_Obrien's avatar

@pdworkin I never denied the Holocaust. I stated that some German soldiers were manipulated through threats to themsaelves and their families to act despicably, and contrary to the code of honor to which all soldiers once adhered.

Buttonstc's avatar

Well if logical reasoning doesn’t seem to help, perhaps a little old-fashioned “shunning” may do the trick :)

Not everything old-fashioned is necessarily ineffective :D

phillis's avatar

Kelly, that is way better than anything else you said THAT, I can easily agree with. Stop the flaming so that I can be supportive of you when you deserve to be! That’s all I wanted in the first place.

mattbrowne's avatar

@phillis – Your support is appreciated. Thanks!

SeventhSense's avatar

Quite frankly this denigrated into name calling due to some assumptions and touchiness. I don’t note anyone denying the atrocities of the Holocaust nor the horrors of the German Army under Hitler and there is no basis for disagreeing with the fact that towards the end of the war there was much division within the ranks. To imagine the atmosphere one has to take into account the nature of Fascism and the desperation of society itself in Germany at the time. Fascism is by nature violent and every aspect of society was influenced by this. Most people under such circumstances are just trying to be on the side that doesn’t get killed. As the brainwashing and denial are complete there is a complete disconnect from ones own self not unlike that which happens in a cult.

Matt brings up a very good point in that the members of the SS were probably mostly true sociopaths and that is what they could be so “effective” in their aims. The killing of opposing armies and civilians in other parts of the world can be attributed to the horror and bestiality of war not unlike American Soldiers at times in Vietnam. There is a numbness that occurs and life becomes black and white.

It’s time to move forward.

phillis's avatar

@mattbrowne, thank you :) You are a generous person. I hope to get to kow you better.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

@Kelly_Obrien, I’m sorry, I should have been a little more explicit. And I would have been if I didn’t have to dash out the door to work this morning. I don’t find what you said to be true or funny; I found it to be so entirely ludicrous that I could not imagine how saying those things about @shilolo could have come out of a rational adult’s mouth.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Response moderated
Dog's avatar

[Mod Says:] Flame off folks. Please stick to the topic which is “What is the sociological explanation for why Hitlers army commited acts of brutality?”

Personal and off-topic quips will be removed.

mattbrowne's avatar

@SeventhSense – Some time ago I read a book by Daniel Goleman called ‘Social Intelligence’ which covers many areas of human psychology and sociology. In one of the final chapters the author mentions Ervin Staub, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, famous for his works on the psychology of mass violence and genocide. Goleman quotes from a book called “The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence”, see

http://www.amazon.com/Roots-Evil-Origins-Genocide-Violence/dp/0521422140/

Staub studied many conflicts and wars including WWII, Vietnam and more recently the genocide in Rwanda.

I quote:

“The groundwork gets laid during severe social upheavals, like economic crises and political chaos, in places that have a history of divisions between a dominant group and a less powerful one. The turmoil causes members of a majority group to find appealing the ideologies that scapegoat a weaker group, blaming them for the problem and envisioning a better future that ‘they’ are preventing. The hatred spreads all the more readily when the majority group has itself been victimized in the past and still feels wounded or wronged.”

Hitler’s NSDAP (Nazi party) got 43.9% on March 5, 1933, the last election in Germany before WWII which also means that the majority voted for other parties. Apart from open antisemitism the Nazi party portrayed the German population as victims of the Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919.

What Hitler really had in mind including all the brutality that would follow had been documented in his book ‘Mein Kampf’, however few people had really read it. It took quite some time before ‘Mein Kampf’ became a bestseller. Simply counting the numbers of printed copies can also be misleading. From 1936 on every married couple received a free copy at the civil registry office. Not many of them actually read anything, let alone the whole thing.

In his book ‘The Second World War’ Winston Churchill felt that after Hitler’s ascension to power no other book deserved more intensive scrutiny than ‘Mein Kampf’, and called the book the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.

Over time more and more people realized that Hitler meant every word he wrote, but this took time. Even many Jews didn’t realize at first that the ghettos were just created to become a giant waiting rooms for the trains to the extermination camps. The true dimensions of Hitler’s plan took quite a while for people to realize. I haven’t read ‘Mein Kampf’ and I won’t. It’s too disgusting and it’s promoting one of the most perverse ideologies ever invented. There are summaries available on the web. It tells us about Nazi brutality. But again, understanding what happened in the regular army is a different matter. Most of this brutality and sometimes war crimes is about unleashing the beast hidden inside human beings. Wars, especially longer ones change people fundamentally. This horrible phenomenon isn’t restricted to WWII.

SeventhSense's avatar

@mattbrowne
Thanks for the reference. Interesting take on Winston Churchill’s fascination with Mein Kampf. It is also stated that Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler had a mutual admiration for each other. This brings up a good point that is oft overloooked. That is, that leaders like Hitler, who are deplored for their acts (rightfully so) have a charismatic nature that is magnetic. Within every heinous lie is a compelling hook of attractiveness. I have read remarks of Jews in Nazi Germany who were moved to tears in watching the candlelight street marches so stirring were they emotionally. There was a surreal and deliberate indoctrination that was without precedent.

It’s unbelievable that we still think of war as acceptable. Yet I see the seeds of it’s origins in my own heart and behavior daily. It starts with a small thing, a disturbance, a sleight, a desire, a want. By the time nations escalate it to territories, demonizations of peoples and theft it is simply a machine on auto pilot.

Furthermore, I think that there are few as capable of really understanding the heart of this more than the Jewish people. The fact that they directly experienced its horror and had to struggle to make some sense of it makes their viewpoint all the more relevent.
On a different, but similar note, I amost impressed by another artist who is spreading a message of reconciliation and peace in our time.
The Orthodox singer, dare I say prophet, Matisyahu (Matthew) and his song ONE DAY

mattbrowne's avatar

@SeventhSense – Thanks for sharing this!

Yes, spreading a message of reconciliation and peace in our time is very important. And it really can make a difference. Few people outside of Germany are aware that a powerful Protestant movement in East Germany had been one of the major driving forces bringing down the Berlin Wall. One of the heroes is a minister called

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Fuehrer

“In 1980 Fuehrer helped to organize “Peace Prayers” (German: Friedensgebete) as part of a joint protest action of Protestant youth organizations. Starting on 20 September 1982, the peace prayers were held every Monday in the Nikolai Church in Leipzig focusing against the Cold War. In 1987 he organized a pilgrimage in the context of the Olof Palme Peace March. In 1988 he moderated prayers for the arrested protesters of the Liebknecht-Luxemburg-Demonstrations.

During the first months of 1989 the East German authorities, especially the Stasi, imposed more and more pressure to stop the “Peace Prayers” in Leipzig. They controlled access roads and arrested random “suspects” inside and outside the church. However, they were unsuccessful: the Monday prayers continued with an increasing number of attendees.

On October 9, 1989 troups of the army, police and Stasi officers arrived in front of the church. About 1,000 members of the SED were ordered into the church. Nearly to the end of the Peace Prayers a manifest was read out, written by Kurt Masur, Bernd-Lutz Lange, Peter Zimmermann and three low-rank leaders of the SED (later called the The Leipzig Six) appealing to all attendees not to use force and to stay peaceful. The demonstration of about 70,000 people right after the prayers was in fact peaceful.

The slogan ‘No Violence!’ (Keine Gewalt!) was used by more than 300,000 people during the following demonstrations. The whole East German revolution remained peaceful.”

borderline_blonde's avatar

Check out Kelman’s Crimes of Obedience (you can find a copy on amazon or through google books). Kelman uses the example of the My Lai massacre to understand how mass murder is committed, and I think it applies to Hitler’s army, as well.

pdworkin also mentioned Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. Zimbardo was a psychologist, but the Zimbardo study is often used in sociology courses to show how quickly people conform to assigned “roles”

SeventhSense's avatar

@mattbrowne
And thanks for sharing that. This should be shared with Conservatives in America because they are convinced it was Ronald Reagan. Well I guess it takes a village :0)

mattbrowne's avatar

@SeventhSense – You’re welcome!

Kraigmo's avatar

Wasn’t Hitler’s entire operation just a Stanford Prison Experiment on a mass scale? The underlying cause being two things: The desire to control, and the desire to belong

SeventhSense's avatar

That reminded me of how our entire system of imprisonment is inhumane in much of the Western world. The “primitive” cultures we scorn are often times more humane with a swift but corporal punishment which may leave scars on the body but the psyche intact. We build bigger jails and incarcerate more persons daily in the US and still they fail to address the roots of why recidivism is rampant.

Nullo's avatar

Humans are really nasty, deep down. Our parents place, and society enforces, checks on our behavior so that we’re nice. But if you give a person impunity and tell him that it’s okay to be horrible to someone, that’s what he’s going to do.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Nullo – I agree that a beast in inside all of us. But in some people it’s easier to unleash than in others. So asking people to be horrible doesn’t always work just like that.

Nullo's avatar

@mattbrowne And accordingly, you will find tales of the not-horrible-monster Nazis.

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