World War Wrapup: Explaining obedience without exonerating perpetrators

Investigating the psychology of war comes with a complex ethical dilemma: In attempting to understand how war and genocide can happen, we find ourselves in the position of explaining that people who claimed “we didn’t know” could have really convinced themselves that the Holocaust wasn’t happening, that SS officers who committed atrocities were influenced by natural human tendencies to obey, or that anti-Semitism can develop from small events without our awareness. There is a risk, which psychologists are well aware of, that these findings might be used to absolve perpetrators of guilt, or at least condone their behavior as “human nature”, relieving them of any responsibility for their actions.

But these attempts to explain human behavior are not about guilt, unless we are studying how people feel guilt and work their way through it; these points about how people think and react are all vital to (eventually) ensuring that these atrocities never happen again. We cannot leave the Nazi war crimes and crimes against humanity as the legacy of one evil man, Hitler, or a handful of high-ranking Nazi leaders. These events could not have happened if entire populations of people had not repsonded to Hitler and to the regime the way they did, because if more people had resisted the regime could have been overthrown.

We need to recognize what leads people to comply, or to stand by, and our tendency to go along, to irrationally justify our actions, to make decisions unconsciously – and all of these tendencies must be publicized so that everyone knows what they might be capable of if ther circumstances are right. These flaws in our thinking might explain our behavior, but they do not necessarily excuse it, because we can set the expectation that people will recognize and resist these flaws in our thinking. Being aware of these tendencies is the first step, and so research into the psychology of war continues.

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