Chapter 2: Complicity in the demoralisation of the victims explained by Milgram’s study on obedience

Before concentration camps, temporary Ghettos, reflective of a slum area, in order to restrict the Jewish community were opened across German-controlled Europe. These were towns walled off from the German community with the purpose of isolating Jews[1]. Despite their isolation, families were allowed to live together and were still able to practice their religion[2]. However, this act of segregation is another example of an inhuman objective the Nazis were set on achieving as the Jews were consequently labelled as different; thus sparking the steep descent into serious dehumanisation. Anti-Semitic propaganda did not help this as they filmed the Jews being herded into ghettos like cattle. Only 1% of the population having access to running water and electricity and living in overcrowded rooms emphasised their supposed primitive and “uncivilised” ways[3]. This potentially allowed the population of Germany to mock the Jews and see them as a race who were considerably inferior to their own. Propaganda is a key way human behaviour can be taken to extremes in pursuit of an inhuman objective as the country is controlled by a higher authority imposing their views and policies to the majority, turning reasonable and ethical people into a prejudiced nation.

The liquidation, or closing, of the Ghetto’s occurred as the Jews were becoming an economic burden as they required health services due to starvation and diseases such as typhoid and dysentery. These weakened the Jewish population, making them unfit for work and rapidly increasing the death rate[4]. However, the Nazis still wanted a final solution to the Jewish problem, it is for this purpose the official camps were set up[5]. Unlike the Ghettos, the labour, concentration and extermination camps split up families and forced the prisoners to follow a strict routine which prevented them from practicing their religion[6].

Each camp was fenced off from the outside and guarded by soldiers; there was no date of release for the prisoners. There was at least one crematorium on site to burn the bodies of those who died[7]. This suggests that the Nazis had acknowledged their complicity in the inhuman objective of extermination as they had prepared for such consequences when designing the camp’s structure. On the other hand, Dachau, the first concentration camp to be opened in Germany 1933, was originally designed to re-educate prisoners with Nazi ideology. Once this had succeeded they were told they could be released which did sometimes happen[8]. Therefore it can be argued that the ultimate purpose wasn’t extermination, and that death was just a consequence of the harsh conditions. Despite this, it is undeniable that extermination camps such as Treblinka were “specialist industrial killing centres”[9] with the intention of killing as many Jews as possible, as efficiently as possible, which were altogether responsible for the 3 million deaths and the eradication of all hope and individuality[10]. This, in my view is undoubtedly an inhuman objective, and upon discovering the intended extermination, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto committed suicide[11], no longer wanting to be responsible for such a horrific act.

Prisoners selected for labour had to undergo stages of disinfection and registration, reducing them to numbers. It can be argued that this process is an example of how human behaviour can be taken to extremes in pursuit of an inhuman objective as these stages were made purposefully humiliating to enforce the prisoner’s worthlessness.  They were ordered to undress but were left stood naked for hours as the SS guards made the point that the camps were run in order to suit the authority, not for the comfort of the prisoners. They were then forced to have a chemical shower which prevented lice, however the guards would deliberately make the water either ice cold or red hot and provided no towels for drying. This would be followed by the shaving of all hair to prevent lice and to further humiliate the prisoners. The blade used for shaving was rusty and no soap or water was used therefore the prisoners felt “clawed” and “scraped at”. Guards would often find amusement in taunting and playing with the plaits about to be cut off[12]. This is a clear example of what can be considered to be an inhuman action taking place as they dehumanisation of the prisoners here is obvious as they are treated as inferior to the Aryans with no justifiable reasoning other than their prejudiced views.

In “The Camp System”, Shuter lists the rules at the original concentration camp at Dachau. They clearly stated that a prisoner could be beaten or have the right to eat removed at any time, in addition to verbal warnings. If a prisoner was considered lazy or not keeping one’s bed in order and took or received extra helpings of food they were given 3 or 5 days of solitary confinement depending on the severity. 8 days solitary confinement and a whipping of 25 strokes both before and after the confinement were given to prisoners disrespecting officers. The prisoners were expected to count their lashings, and if they miscounted they would be forced to start from 1 until they completed the full 25 correctly.

If politics were discussed or suspected resistance groups were accused of having contact with the outside, those involved would be sentenced to hang. If a prisoner was to be hung, they would be forced to walk to the stool and step onto it, read aloud their sentence and put the noose around their own neck, and have the stool pulled away by guards. In addition to this, if a prisoner attempted to escape and succeeded, 10 other prisoners, usually family or others associated with that person would be executed in their place. Prisoners could also be hung on poles by their wrists for several hours, as they were beaten and harassed by guards and their dogs. This almost certainly dislocated their shoulders making them unfit to work[13], which meant that they were useless to the Nazis which almost certainly resulted in their extermination.

The hospital block was most commonly used for medical experiments[14] to help nurses find the best treatments for those fighting in the war. In order to do this, prisoners were deliberately given frostbite through exposure to freezing conditions which was left to develop into gangrene. Live prisoners were also used to teach untrained nurses how to operate. Prisoners could also be injected with typhus and cholera germs to test new vaccines, and sterilisation chemical injections were also experimented. Needless to say, very few of these prisoners survived as many were fatally wounded[15]. Dr. Josef Mengele was most famous for his experiments carried out on twins. By the end of the Holocaust, Mengele had tested upon 3,000 sets without using anaesthetics. Most therefore died in the process and were later dissected; only 26 managed to survive[16].

The Children of Bullenhuser Damm were victims of Dr Kurt Heißmeyer’s experiments. 20 Jewish Children between the ages of 5 and 12 years from the Neuengamme Concentration Camp, were maltreated and used for testing. The doctor injected TB under their skin and used probes to ensure it reached their lungs[17]. Then their lymph glands were removed. All of the children suffered from starvation, illness and brutal labour. Heißmeyer stated that there was no difference “between Jews and laboratory animals”. On the 20th April 1945 when Hitler was celebrating his 56th birthday a few days before the war ended, Heissmeyer decided to kill the children in order to hide the evidence of the experiments. The children and the 4 adult prisoners looking after them were brought to a school building in Hamburg. The adults were hung from a pipe in the cellar whilst the children were injected first with morphine and then hung from hooks on the wall. This was because the SS men found it “difficult” to kill the mutilated children. The first child to be strung up was so light, due to disease and malnutrition, that the rope would not strangle him[18].

Here, in relation to the punishments and experiments the prisoners were subjected to, it can be questioned why the SS guards were so complicit in their actions given their destructive nature. The huge question remains as to why they continued to act in such a way. Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in 1963, after the Nazis accused at Nuremberg War Criminal Trials based their defence on their obedience in following of orders from their superiors[19]. Questioning what makes us obey legitimate authority when requiring destructive behaviour, Milgram recruited 40 male volunteers aged between 20 and 50 years of age from New Haven area[20]. Whilst this could be seen as gender bias, as SS guards tended to be male, this sample is representative of the gender and age they would have been. Milgram tested his hypothesis in a controlled observation in which the participant believed they were administering increasing volts of electric shocks for every wrong answer the “learner” gave in a test on word pairs. As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition, however these responses were actually pre-recorded. If the participant refused to continue, they would be given one of the following four prods from the experimenter:

1. “Please continue.”

2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”

3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”

4. “You have no other choice; you must go on.”[21]

All 40 participants obeyed up to 300v and 65% continued up to the full 450v. Despite being complicit, many showed signs of nervousness through sweating, stuttering, or biting their lips or nails, stating that they could no longer continue. One participant even suffered from a seizure. Milgram concluded that because the experiment took place at Yale University, this earned the participants respect as they believed it was for a worthy purpose. In addition they could be feeling a sense of obligation as they had been paid for participating, making it a job much like the SS guards. The reassurance that the shocks weren’t causing long term harm to the learner encouraged the participants to comply with their instructions and prods[22]. These conclusions suggest that the SS guards were perhaps complicit in the Holocaust due to a great amount of trust in the authority they were claiming to be obeying, as they felt it was their duty to carry out any orders, especially as they were being paid to do so. Even if the guards doubted these instructions, perhaps they assumed that those higher up would take the responsibility for their actions as they had given the orders. Regardless, the SS guards were certainly to be regarded as complicit in completing an inhuman objective which required destructive behaviour, with few showing any signs of objection.


[1]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd p.62

[2]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.5

[3]Shuter, Jane (2003) Prelude to the Holocaust, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.29

[4]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd, p.62

[5]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd, p.5

[6]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.5

[7]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.6

[8]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.9

[9]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.9

[10]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd pp.88-89

[11]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd, p.69

[12]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.43

[13]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.31

[14]Shuter, Jane (1999) Visiting the Past – Auschwitz, GB, Heinmann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP,, p.19

[15]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.16

[16]Sheehan, Sean, (2010), A Place in History – Auschwitz, Frankin Watts, Arcturus Publicishing,. London, p.30

[17]The Children of Bullenhuser Damm association (N.D) The story of the Children of Bullenhuser Damm, Available at:  http://www.kinder-vom-bullenhuser-damm.de/_english/, [Accessed: 13.06.15]

[18](N.A) (N.D)  (N.T) Available at: http://www.auschwitz.dk/Bullenhuser.htm, [Accessed: 13.06.15]

[19]McLeod, S. A. (2007). The Milgram Experiment. Available at: www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html [Accessed: 12.10.15]

[20]Lintern F., Bainbridge A., Bradshaw P. (2008) OCR AS Psychology Student Book, Heinemann

[21]Cherry, K. A. (2008). The Milgram obedience experiment. Available at: http://psychology.about.com/od/socialinfluence/fl/What-Is-Obedience.htm  [Accessed: 12.10.15]

[22]Holah.co.uk (N.D) Milgram, Stanley (1963) Behavioural Study of Obedience, Available at: http://www.holah.karoo.net/milgramstudy.htm viewed 12.10.15 [Accessed: 12.10.15]

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