“It Is Not Truth Which Matters, But Victory”

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Adolf Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient – they are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to understand them.

Hitler at Nuremberg in 1934.  From iwm.org.uk

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions, but he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the right place at the right time?  Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand his contradictions?

The question which has always most troubled me is: did Hitler understand that any of his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did he understand that most people would think that was evil?  He employed euphemisms, which implies that he did.  


What, then, did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him (i.e. that the world would be better without Jews) and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually trouble myself too much with these questions, since I believe that they are essentially unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.” (p. 101)

Speer with Hitler in 1937, designing the World’s Fair German Pavilion.  From historytoday.com

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that he needed to remake the world in order to make himself righteous.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemed.  His use of it suggests that he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail in front of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Even if this quote offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, maybe it’s better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was ultimately correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The title of this post is a quote from Hitler, from a speech before the Reichstag in Berlin in January, 1939 – it is not the opinion of the author.

Featured image from biography.com

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.


     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.


Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org

Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 3


See Part 1: Shock, and Part 2: Pessimism.

The assumption that informed all of Milgram’s experiments was that his experimental subjects weren’t naturally malicious, and wouldn’t shock another volunteer of their own volition.  He had ample evidence in the reactions of his subjects, in their reluctance and anguish.

And he demonstrated it directly.  In one experimental permutation, Milgram had the experimenter instruct the teacher, from another room, via a telephone.  The set-up and the instructions were identical – the experimenter insisted just as strenuously on escalating the level of shock.  The only difference was the physical absence of the lead investigator.  When he was out of sight, the percentage of subjects who were obedient to the maximum level of shock fell from 65% to 20%.

“Moreover, when the experimenter was absent, subjects displayed an interesting form of behavior that had not occurred under his surveillance.  Though continuing with the experiment, several subjects administered lower shocks than were required and never informed the experimenter of their deviation from the correct procedure.  Indeed, in telephone conversations some subjects specifically assured the experimenter that they were raising the shock level according to instruction, while, in reality, they repeatedly used the lowest shock on the board.”

Then Milgram tried something interesting: he gave the teacher two peers, also secretly confederates of the experimenter, who would refuse to deliver shocks when the student expressed discomfort.  The confederate teachers would move to the other side of the room, saying things like, “I’m willing to answer any of your questions, but I’m not willing to shock that man against his will.  I’ll have no part of it.”

Milgram Peers

When in the presence of these braver peers, 90% of Milgram’s subjects refused to follow through to the end of the experiment.

“The effects of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter’s authority.  Indeed, of the score of experimental variations completed in this study, none was so effective in undercutting the experimenter’s authority as the manipulation reported here.”

Milgram understood well what his research showed, and what it meant.  If most people are merely obedient, then a very few truly bad actors can do an inordinate amount of damage.

“Any competent manager of a destructive bureaucratic system can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence.  The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions.  They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility.  First, legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions.  Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts.”

But Milgram gives us reasons for optimism as well as pessimism.  No one who reads his experiments should feel righteous – everyone is implicated.  But even if we look weak, or cowardly, or gullible, through Milgram’s lens, we don’t look cruel.  Time and time again, in Milgram’s experiments, our better nature peeks through, when someone else sets a good example, or when the experimenter is out of the room.  If there’s one lesson in Milgram, it’s not that we’re obedient murderers; or, it’s not that we’re necessarily obedient murderers.  Rather, it’s that we’re essentially unresolved: all it takes is a little push, in either direction.  We’re able and willing to shock a man to death, sure, but we’re also able and willing to refuse.

Or, as Milgram put it:

“Those who argue that aggressive motives or sadistic instincts are unleashed when the command to hurt another person is given must take account of the subjects’ adamant refusal to go on in these experiments.  It is not what subjects do but for whom they are doing it that counts.”

I strongly recommend reading Milgram’s own writing about his work, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.  He tried a great number of experimental variables, and he discusses them clearly and succinctly.

Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 2


See Part 1: Shock

As the title of his book suggests, Milgram believed that, when his subjects shocked the screaming students, they were not acting out of sadism – they were responding to the authority of the experimenter, backed as he was by the authority of Yale, of higher education, of class, of science.  That authority both allowed the subjects to believe that the experiment was always under control, and that they were not ultimately responsible for the outcome.

To test that hypothesis, Milgram tried two experimental manipulations (actually, he tried many, but there are two I want to focus on here).  In the first, a third experimental subject (also a confederate) was introduced.  Milgram called this new figure the ‘common man’.  In this new scenario, the experimenter left the room on a pretense, and left the ‘common man’ in the role of overseer.  Once alone, the common man shared a neat idea he’d had: to escalate the level of shock every time the student got an answer wrong.

Milgram Common Man

The common man made all the same arguments that the experimenter made in previous iterations of the experiment; the only difference was his lack of perceived authority.  Milgram found that, when the common man gave the order to shock the student, the teacher was dramatically less likely to comply.  Obedience fell from the baseline 65% to 20%.

In the second experimental permutation, through a ruse, the experimenter himself was put in the student’s chair, ostensibly to demonstrate to the reluctant volunteer-student that the procedure was safe.  He instructed the teacher to increase the shock every time he, the experimenter/student, answered incorrectly.  And then he began to answer incorrectly.

Milgram Experiment:Student Sole Authority

In that experiment, the moment the experimenter/student expressed discomfort, every single teacher immediately stopped the shocks and refused to proceed.

“At the first protest of the shocked experimenter, every single subject broke off, refusing to administer even a single shock beyond this point.  There is no variation whatsoever in response…Many subjects explained their prompt response on humane grounds, not recognizing the authority aspect of the situation,

Apparently, it is more gratifying for the subjects to see their action as stemming from personal kindness than to acknowledge that they were simply following the boss’s orders.  When asked what they would do if a common man were being shocked, these subjects vehemently denied that they would continue beyond the point where the victim protests.”

However, that unanimous refusal to obey only happened when the experimenter/student was the sole experimental authority.  Milgram then put two experimenters in the room, and had them pretend that the second volunteer was a no-show.  The two experimenters, in full sight of the teacher-to-be, decided that it was better to run the experiment with one of them as the student than to fail to meet their experimental quota.  They then flipped a coin, the loser took the student’s chair, and the experiment proceeded as per usual.

Milgram Experiment:Student

Milgram found that when an authority instructed the teacher to deliver a shock, even when the victim of the shock was another authority, the teacher complied.

“The experimenter, strapped into the electric chair, fares no better than a victim who is not an authority at all…In total he is no better treated than an ordinary person in the same situation.”

Next week, Part 3: Optimism.

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, by Stanley Milgram.

Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 1


If you were searching for evidence of the essential goodness of humanity, you probably wouldn’t go looking in Stanley Milgram’s experiments.

Milgram’s famous shock experiments were conducted at Yale University between 1960 and 1963, when he was a member of the Department of Psychology.  Like so many people who had been horrified by the revelations that came during World War II, Milgram was interested in the capacity of normal people to commit brutal acts, especially under orders.  His experiments were designed to explore that capacity, and his findings, which have become notorious, were, and are, disquieting.

In those experiments, subjects were told that they were participating in a learning trial, a word-recall task.  They and another volunteer (secretly a confederate of the experimenter, a plant) drew lots: the game was rigged, and the subject always drew the role of the ‘teacher’, and the confederate the role of the ‘student’.  The student was seated out of sight of the teacher, who would read word pairings to him.  Whenever the student recalled a pairing incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give him one in a series of escalating shocks.  The experimenter looked on, directing and encouraging the teacher.

Milgram Basic

The teacher administered the shocks from a shock generator with switches which generated voltages from 15 to 450 volts.  In order to drive the point home, these switches were labelled in groups designated Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock, and XXX (editorial sidenote: ‘XXX’? Really? ‘XXX’ should have been a dead giveaway that there was funny business going on with this experiment).

Shock Generator

The student, who in reality received no shocks at all and who answered incorrectly deliberately, expressed escalating discomfort, claimed a heart condition, begged to be released, screamed in agony, and finally fell silent and stopped responding in any way.  If the teacher expressed reservations, or tried to stop the experiment, the experimenter instructed him to continue, insisting if necessary, and assured the teacher that the student was perfectly safe and that the experiment was under control, even while the student screamed that he was having heart pain.  Even when he went silent.

Most of the subjects expressed distress at what they were doing.  They asked to stop, tried to insist.  However, only a minority actually stopped.  In Milgram’s original experiment, 65% of his 40 experimental subjects obeyed the experimenter and shocked the student to the maximum 450 volts.  These were clearly labelled lethal levels of shock, and 65% of normal volunteers continued to shock a screaming, begging man to the end.

And that was the message that most people took away from Milgram’s study.  The New York Times wrote, in 1963, “A study at Yale University to assess the extent of such blind obedience found that an unexpectedly large proportion of a test population would follow orders, even if they could see that they were inflicting severe pain.”

But Milgram’s studies were more complicated, nuanced, and thorough than most people realize.  In 1974, Milgram published his complete experiments and analysis in his book ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’.  The picture of our nature which emerges from that work is murkier than the New York Times supposed.

 Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, by Stanley Milgram.