As a fellow Jew, speaking to Professor Sommers here, I do now know the religious identity of the TA if that who is reading this, I am sure you understand the weight and importance of the Holocaust and how much Jews are taught about it growing up. My whole childhood I learned about the Holocaust and how awful it was. I learned about it in public school, I learned about it in Hebrew school, I learned about it from my parents, but most of all I saw it in my grandmother. She was sent away from her home in Vienna at the young age of eleven when things first started getting bad in Austria. As the first wave of laws persecuting Jews were established her parents saw the direction things were headed and thought it would be safer for my grandmother in Palestine. Of course they never could have even imagined the atrocities that would come after those first laws, they decided to send my grandmother under cover of a summer camp to Israel, just for a little while, until the anti-semitism died down. That was the last time my grandmother ever saw her parents.
With all of this knowledge, historical, and even more powerful the anecdotal, I could never understand how a whole country could let this happen. How so many millions of people could not only let this genocide occur, but aid in it. In my eyes they all had to be the most evil of people. Now I know that that simply is not true, but that they were formed by their context. What I am shocked by, is how perfectly Hitler orchestrated the whole endeavor. He was a master social psychologist able to transform his population into willing and complacent cogs in his genocidal machine.
Every single concept we learned about Hitler used. He was able to set up an environment where people were not doing terrible things under the intense pressure of obedience, but rather the softer and more illusive conformity. By setting the social norm across all of society that the Jew as evil and meant to be exterminated, he did not have to use a heavy hand all of the time. He changed attitudes with the peripheral method with propaganda in every nook and cranny of the country. He changed the entire dialogue and set new societal norms.
I believe one of the keys to his success was the gradual nature of it all. Just as in the Milgram study, the shocks started off small and always got bigger. As I mentioned it all started off with anti-semitic laws, nothing new for Jews who have been persecuted historically; not a big deal. He just kept ramping it up though, and never stopped. In the Milgram study the participants only stopped at 450 because that is as far as the board went. I am sure they would take it all the way to 1000 volts if that was the end of the scale. That is what Hitler did, he simply extended the voltage to the absolute maximum, to the absolute final solution. While cognitive dissonance is what kept Hitler’s population in check and continuing on their path of aggression, it is that same dissonance that is making me uncomfortable now. I have lived my whole life demonizing those who committed the holocaust, and now I know how and why they did it, and how it could have bee anyone, worst of all myself. This is something I simply am unable to accept. While I know from the studies, and everything we have learned in this class that it is a very reasonable possibility that I could have taken part in this atrocity, I cannot accept that fact as true. No matter how long I think about it, I simply cannot accept it. In class you, Professor, made sure to distinguish between explaining these behaviors versus exonerating them, but I do not see the difference.