Analysis of the underlying social psychology of the Holocaust March 9, 2000 The hate and prejudice that began the Holocaust went hand in hand with a political agenda that was fueled by the frustration aggression theory.(1) Hitler blamed the Jews for the loss of World War I and thus, instead of targeting political aspects of the Jewish community, he displaced his aggression towards ALL Jews, even the helpless. This, combined with religious anti-Semitism prejudice that had been present in Germany for 1500 years and the theory of eugenics, was the political and instrumental center of Hitler’s political campaign.(5) He used a system of ‘elimination of freedom’, which he felt was necessary in the conditioning the German people to follow him. This meant that he would slowly change the rules, allowing him to gain more and more control over his people. New laws preventing rebellious attempts to overthrow his government and the elimination of non-supporters that would possibly dissent, (disagree with his plan)(1), gave Hitler complete control over what happened within the country’s boundaries.(5) He further conditioned the Germans to accept the program for the ‘final solution’ of the Jews with the constant onslaught of misleading propaganda. Propaganda is the dissemination of ideas and information for the purpose of inducing or intensifying specific attitudes and actions.(4) This misleading information conditioned the German people to stereotype all Jews as evil and thus most of them became prejudice.
This was an effect of what is called the availability effect.(1) That is, they made stereotypical judgements based on the information available to them. Many of the Germans had been raised under the influence of this propaganda and it was all that they knew about the Jews, thus, the only available information with which to make judgements by. Under the umbrella of ethical relativism,(2) these judgements were ethical in relevance to the German culture at this time, and thus, widely accepted by the German people. The German people, especially the soldiers, bonded under what is known as the self-esteem theory of prejudice. Even though being a soldier was what they may have had in common, these men bonded under the belief that they were better than people in other groups, namely the Jews.(1) What is even more frightening is that it was not a well thought out plan, but rather a process with premises to subtly induce men to perform acts that would have ethical consequences that would cause great dissonance or uncomfortableness.(1,5) The soldiers were given information that coerced them into an us vs.
them state of mind, the realistic conflict theory. Due to the propaganda that they were bombarded with, they felt that they were competing with the Jews for resources.(1) This may not have been an organized plan, but it was a step by step journey that led ordinary men from acceptance of the ‘final solution’ to perpetrators of it. At first, the soldiers accepted the prejudice due to all of the previous theories noted and followed orders to kill. They may not have enjoyed it and not all of them may have complied, but enough did.(4) As soon as they had killed once, cognitive dissonance set in. That is, they had conflicting emotions about murder and following orders.(1) Since they could not change the act that they had committed, they had to change their attitude about the act they committed, thus decreasing the amount of dissonance, or discomfort that they felt due to conflicting feelings.
Once they had reached that point, they were on their way to being completely desensitized, and then the committance of murder in the name of their government, culture, and way of life was justifiable. The German people that made up the bystanders in this tragedy may not have been guilty of cold- blooded murder, but they were not innocent either. They were also victims of cultural ethical relativism,(2) believing that if their government thought that this was ethically relative behavior in their culture, then they should comply. In cultural relative behavior, rightness and wrongs vary from place to place, and in this place, this prejudice behavior was considered right. These Germans that did not speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Jews, even if they thought it would be ethically prudent, were also victims of the above theories as well as what is called the bystander effect.(1) The bystander effect is when there is a large group of people and thus the unlikeliness of anyone to help is stronger.
This is explained by a theory called the pluralistic ignorance theory.(1) This theory is based on an uncertain situation where the people around them are not reacting to help, thus, they do not see the need to help either. The information that they are receiving from others around them is telling them that it is okay not to interfere, thus they become compliant with what their culture has deemed appropriate behavior, irregardless of what they may be feeling. These people also went through cognitive dissonance, just as the soldiers did. Once they ignored one atrocity, they ignored the rest of them in order to justify ignoring the first one. They must justify their actions by changing their attitudes about the actions they have taken, thus, decreasing the amount of dissonance or uncomfortableness that they feel. The indifference that the bystanders might have felt may have been done without the intent to harm anyone, but their indifference and conformity were lethal.
By turning a blind eye and choosing to be indifferent, the bystanders actively chose not to feel and to shut down the human response within them, as if they had aimed the gun at the back of a neck and fired, as the perpetrators did. Fear disoriented these people and self-protection blinded them. A few, however, did not lose their way. These few are said to have taken their direction from their own ‘moral compass’ in this mad world where most people lost their bearings. These people were conditioned also, but they were conditioned to be rescuers rather that passive bystanders or active accessories. They were ordinary people who became extraordinary.
They were people that lived in an immoral society that acted according to the cultural relativism that was the norm at this time. These people decided to act against this cultural relativism and to act according to their own set of beliefs of virtue in the context of morality.(2) The rescuers had a combination of courage, empathy, compassion, awareness, resourcefulness, vigilance, inventiveness, and persistence. They also could accept people that were different in their community. They had the belief that one person could make a difference.(3) Each rescue story is different. Many rescuers say that seeing one horrifying incident between Nazis and their victims propelled them into becoming rescuers.