The most disturbing book published in recent memory is Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldenhagen. With overwhelming evidence and logic, Goldenhagen debunks the myth that the Holocaust was the creation of an evil man who terrorized the German people into “following orders.” Rather, he postulates it was the logical endpoint of centuries of German anti-Semitism and intolerance.
Goldenhagen reports that Hitler did not need to coerce the Germans into participating in the unspeakable barbarities in what became humanity’s darkest hour. There were plenty of volunteers. His thesis has unleashed a raging debate in academe: do humans engage in such barbarism because of conditioning, or is it part of our nature. The answer, sadly, is both.
Several decades ago, social scientist Dr. Stanley Milgram performed an interesting experiment. He placed an actor in a booth and hooked him up to a wire. Participants in the experiment were asked to teach the actor a task and administer a shock of increasing intensity when the actor has performed the task inadequately. Of course the actor was receiving no shock, but the participants didn’t know this. Milgram found that a large percentage of the participants were capable of giving lethal shocks, even though the actors feigned intense pain during prior shocks. Milgram came to the glum conclusion that one-third of the human population was emotionally capable of working in a concentration camp.
In his classic, King Solomon’s Rings, evolutionary biologist Konrad Lorenz postulates why humanity is unique in the animal kingdom in inflicting senseless pain on its own species. Lorenz noted that a species’ tendency towards violent behavior among its members is inversely proportional to its strength. For example, rabbits are the most violent of creatures. Mercilessly gnawing at a competitor for a mate, rabbits are capable of inflicting tremendous pain but lack the physical
strength to cause death. Gorillas, on the other hand, are relative pacifists. Fights among males for mating rights consist of a single blow. The weaker male immediately concedes. Bears don’t even bother to fight. They map out their territory by clawing up a tree. Smaller bears making lower claw marks conclude that there is no sense in fighting a larger opponent and move somewhere else.
Why is this? Lorenz theorizes that since both bears and gorillas are physically equipped to kill each other, fights rarely escalate to a lethal level. Such behavior is not good for the survival of the species. So why do humans engage in such sadistic and brutal behavior? Lorenz believes human intelligence evolved too quickly, without a concomitant decrease in our violent instincts. Our primordial ancestors quickly realized that while crushing a human skull was virtually impossible with a fist, it could easily be accomplished with a rock. It takes tens of thousands of years for evolution to cause physical and behavioral changes in a species. But in the case of humanity, it took only a few thousand years to perfect the technology of killing. In fact, in the past one hundred years, we have “advanced” from primitive Gatling guns to hideous thermonuclear weapons that can destroy the planet. Yet our primitive and barbaric instincts still lurk in the hypothalamus and limbic system of our brains.
Any neophyte politician soon realizes that appealing to people’s emotions gets you farther than appealing to their logic. As has been shown so many times in history, leaders often assume power by fallaciously blaming a particular group for economic and social difficulties. That is why it is so important that our democracies have independent media outlets that can fearlessly expose politicians who engage in demagoguery and prevent monsters like Hitler from emerging. Diffusing power is the best way to insure that our barbaric impulses don’t get the better of us.