Atrocity and Motivation

History Sep 02, 2019

By Dharana Needham
Published 2018-11-15

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and, with the implementation of the Third Reich, an era emerged that would soon become characterized by death and destruction. The power ascertained by Hitler would come to represent the capabilities of one idea to influence an entire population when accompanied by a method of mental coercion and manipulation. Due to the socio-economic climate of the world following WWI, Hitler found ease in rallying the people of Germany on the nationalistic basis of a new and improved Germany. When WWII broke out, Hitler commenced his plan to rid Germany of all that he believed made it weak and powerless, and instituted the first orders of the Holocaust. Throughout the Holocaust, the world saw the death of millions of people who were deemed unfit to be a part of the Master Race, known as the Aryan race. These deaths occurred in ghettos, concentration camps, death camps, and elsewhere, and the primary motivation was to eradicate the Jewish population, as they were seen to pose the biggest threat to Germany. These atrocities were performed not by Hitler, but by German soldiers and policemen, who prior to the war were citizens who lived in the same environment with non-Aryans cordially and happily. These German citizens, whether soldiers, policemen, or bystanders, were in many aspects the only thing allowing for the Holocaust to continue, as their involvement was crucial to Hitler’s plan. However, many of these citizens were not evidently averse to the Jewish community prior to the war, and further were not evidently overly violent people. So, what factors brought about a change in the collective mentality toward the violence that would be inflicted upon the Jewish people? Additionally, was the Holocaust a case of horrible men committing horrible actions, or rather men as sane and morally superior as the next acting in an atrocious manner because of psychological manipulation?

The actions taken during the Holocaust by Nazi soldiers represent the capabilities of the human mind to be manipulated, and further proves the lengths to which people will change their mentality when circumstances and influences are severe and of great magnitude. The reason the German soldiers were so successful in altering their previous mental states in order to commit the atrocities they did can be broken into three parts, which are described as indoctrination, social-psychological pressures, and coping mechanisms.

In order to successfully indoctrinate the German people, over the course of several years Hitler implemented a number of tactics to propagate antisemitism which included preaching German superiority, wrongly informing citizens of Jewish incentives in Germany, and blaming the Jewish people for failures witnessed during and after WWI. The notion of biological superiority is a concept that has a strong basis in theories such as Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory. Hitler adopted, manipulated, and popularized this idea by developing and proclaiming a belief that one human race was superior to all others. With the concept of the Aryan race, he was able to establish a collective ideology deeply rooted in national pride. Furthermore, with the constant promulgation of the Jewish people as a lesser-than group that was not only holding back the German nation but poisoning its roots, Hitler was able to establish a stable foundation of hatred. Hitler often preached that the Jewish people had no right to live in Germany, as they were not true Nordic people, and with Germany being the hub of the great Aryan race, they had no right intruding. Furthermore, in 1939 Hitler stated that “there [was] no plausible explanation for why the Germans of all people should be burdened with the members of [the Jewish] race, while in those countries that so enthusiastically laud [them] as ‘splendid people,’ their applications [for immigration] [were] suddenly rejected on the flimsiest of pretexts.” This declaration intended to emphasize German superiority, as well as the fact that no one wanted the Jewish people. This sort of statement clearly indicated to the Germans that if countries racially inferior to them would not take the Jewish people, they did not deserve to endure their presence either.

To further their ideological indoctrination, the Nazi Party spoke often about the incentives behind why the Jewish people came to Germany in the first place. It was often said that “since the beginning of time, the Jew [had] been the mortal enemy of all nations” and that their only goal in Germany was to “dominate the world and to destroy the Nordic peoples.” Through this tactic, the main goal was to create skepticism and doubt in the minds of the German people, thus solidifying a foundation of hatred and prejudice.

With the cessation of WWI, Germany found itself in ruins following the Paris Peace Conference. Due to these events, the German people wanted a leader who would provide them with a free, autonomous, and powerful country which would never face the ruin or humility that was experienced after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and War Guilt Clause. Hitler utilized the immense humiliation that was experienced to blame the Jewish people for failing Germany and corroding German nobility during WWI, causing Germany to lose the war. These claims aided in forming a bias against the Jewish people in such a way that when a second world war began, the citizens did not want to have the Jewish people involved in Germany in any capacity.

With the prevalence of propaganda being what it was in Germany, it was perceived that people inevitably “grew up in an extraordinary culture where an unusually virulent form of antisemitism was commonplace.” This created a generation of Germans who lived a life predisposed to anti-Semitic thoughts which to a certain extent ensured compliance when WWII commenced. Additionally, when the idea of the Holocaust, and all the actions that accompanied it were introduced to German soldiers, they were much more willing to act with Germany as they were under the impression they were defending Germany against an enemy of their families, neighbours, and nation. During the war, soldiers were given extensive amounts of “license to vent their anger and frustration on the enemy’s soldiers and civilians. The demodernization of the front consequently greatly enhanced the brutalization of the troops, and made the soldiers more receptive to ideological indoctrination and more willing to implement the policies it advocated.” The creation of the system of indoctrination allowed Hitler to establish a type of racist consensus among the German people in order to find a basis in which to build his divide between Aryans and the Jewish population. Furthermore, the creation of a mentality predisposed to hating the Jewish community was extremely advantageous, as when Hitler was provided with the opportunity to blame them for Germany’s downfall, he gained the support of the German people quickly and seamlessly.

The implementation of a system of war based on obedience and conformity created an army of German people who learned to believe there was only one option when it came to the Holocaust, and that was to kill. Obedience and conformity are two terms widely explored within the fields of psychology and are also terms often used to explain why, in certain social situations, behaviours change so that a person no longer physically represents their true attitudes toward a thought or idea.

The Nazi system that was implemented in order to ensure subordination had roots in the concept of obedience and heroism. Obedience drove subordination, as it emphasized that if an “order [led] to personal disadvantage or seem[ed] even to contradict one’s personal conviction,” they would be characterized as a hero of their nation. This notion fostered the idea that in order to be deemed a hero, soldiers had to follow all directions without question. Rudolf Hess’ speech on the Oath to Hitler depicted the vow German soldiers took in order to confirm their obedience to Hitler and his ideas. This declaration established a commitment to follow orders blindly and willingly no matter the request. This further proves the power that leaders held over the German people, and more so, the emphasis on the concept of loyalty and honour, and the lengths soldiers would go in order to be German heroes. Furthermore, when soldiers followed orders they were able to disconnect from their own values, as they could justify their actions through the excuse that they were simply following orders. This can be seen with the declaration of a German soldier speaking about his time killing, wherein he claimed that “on the first day it seemed terrible…but [he] said to [him]self: ‘Hell! Orders are orders.’ On the second and third days [he] felt it didn’t matter a hoot, and on the fourth day [he] enjoyed it.” With the shift in responsibility, a person would likely forget their past morals and develop a mindset conducive to the environment in which they were living and working.

A facet of both the system of war, as well as the ramifications of obedience, presents itself in the form of conformity and behaviour acceptance. The system of war strongly encouraged people to conform to the role of a sadistic killer while contributing to the Holocaust. Not only would men be seen as shirking their duties, but they would also be viewed as cowardly and weak if they did not partake in the mass killings. As seen in Christopher Browning’s retelling of the actions taken by the Reserve Battalion 101, the men who chose not to take action with the killing of the Jewish people were heavily ridiculed by the other men within the battalion. For many, this created a feeling of coercion when it came to taking action against the Jewish people, as the fear of rejection and exclusion from this particular group made the soldiers act in manners contrary to their actual attitudes.

During the time in which mass killings were frequent, specific measures were taken to ensure the German soldiers remained comfortable in their decisions, or at least stayed sane. Several coping strategies were adopted to help soldiers continue with their killing spree and come to terms with their actions. The use of alcohol, language specificities, and a new type of propaganda aided the German soldiers with accepting their actions and continuing the genocide without question or hesitation.

Throughout the war, German soldiers were provided alcohol in order to “prevent [their] ‘difficult duties’ from ‘harming [their] mind and character.’” However, with the suppression of their emotions and the inability to accept what it was they were doing, the German soldiers evidently became more dangerous once alcohol was involved. A system developed in which they used alcohol not only to forget and avoid coming to terms with their actions and emotions but also to help foster the idea that killing was a sport of some kind. This resulted in several night-time massacres, as the soldiers did not know what else to do in their inebriated states. Further evening fellowships were implemented with the intention “specifically to help ‘wipe away’ the effects of daily duties associated with mass murder.” This explicitly proves the use of alcohol as one of many coping strategies to avoid the acceptance of the Germans’ actions, and further establishes that the majority of the men acting against the Jewish people were not sadistic in nature, but were faced with an extreme situation that necessitated a lack of acknowledgement for mental stability.

Another mechanism used by the soldiers to avoid coming to terms with their actions was the alteration of vocabulary. In order to avoid the reality behind their actions, “German soldiers rarely used the words ‘death’ and ‘kill’ in their conversation”. By using words unrelated to death and genocide, the German soldiers were able to mask the true atrocity of their actions. Additionally, nothing that would remind soldiers of raw human emotion was discussed. They blocked themselves from feeling in order to complete their tasks. This change of language allowed them to create a separate self in which the words ‘kill’ and ‘death’ did not exist. Instead words such as ‘selection’ and ‘solution’ were used in order to create a mentality that was precise and strictly clinical, as well as devoid of anything violent or emotional.

Propaganda was commonly used as a method of establishing anti-Semitic views or rallying Germans to partake in the Holocaust. As WWII persisted, however, the use of propaganda changed to focus on reasons why German soldiers should continue their actions. As the war continued, propaganda became more vulgar and explicit against the Jewish community, often preaching that the Jews initiated the war and that their only goal was total destruction of the German people. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, in the latter half of the war declared that the only “effective [defense] is an unforgiving, cold hardness against the destroyers of [their] people, against the instigators of the war, against those who would benefit if [they lost], and therefore also against the victims if [they] win.” It was here that Goebbels attempted to rally German soldiers to push harder, and to ignore their morals so that the Germans could win. Furthermore, speculation that the Jewish people were going to attack innocent and weak German civilians aided in encouraging the soldiers to avoid remorse for killing children or older people, as it was thought that “the Jews [were] a parasitic race that [fed] like a foul fungus on the cultures of healthy but ignorant peoples” and that the only option for them would be to “cut them out.” These propagandist campaigns appeared to be the final efforts to help people understand what it was they were doing, and what they were fighting for. A main concern with the task of genocide is having people to commit it, and if the soldiers began to consider the true reasons behind their actions, the Holocaust’s system would be in a precarious state. Therefore, it is seen that in order to keep soldiers blinded and ignorant, leaders fueled them with thoughts of hate, as well as encouraged them to protect the freedom of Germany and the German people at all costs.

The perpetrators of the Holocaust were not clinically insane or psychologically ill. Nor were they sadistic in nature or acting on autonomous hatred. Instead, the basis of their actions were no more than the results and repercussions of a well-oiled system of coercion and conviction. The psychological manipulation that fueled the genocide presented itself in three parts; initial indoctrination to establish an anti-Semitic mentality, a foundation of fighting based on whether or not one could properly obey orders, and lastly, coping mechanisms to ensure a lack of regret or question throughout the Holocaust process. These tactics evidently drove the German people to commit atrocities that many individuals would never commit without previously facing extreme mental reconstruction. These extrapolations regarding an individual’s motives when it comes to committing genocidal acts are evidently transferable to more recent historical events, and as such, this topic should be explored more extensively as it could one day provide insight as to how society can reduce the risk of genocidal behaviours in times of warfare. Moreover, the conclusions found provide immense amounts of information regarding the function and malleability of the human mind, and with further investigation, could one day aid people in discovering ways of avoiding psychological manipulation. Hopefully, this in turn will aid in reducing or eradicating the frequency and magnitude of genocides.

Adolf Hitler. “Speech to the Great German Reichstag”, in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson
Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Hitler, “Speech to German Reichstag”, 1.
Reinhard Heydrich. “The Visible Enemy”, in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and
Sander L. Gilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 1; 3.
Guenter Lewy. Perpetrators: the world of the Holocaust killers. New York: Oxford University Press,
2017, 2.
Heydrich, “The Visible Enemy”, 1.
James Waller. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. 2nd edition.
Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007), 37.
Bartov, Omer. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1992), 76.
Donald Bloxham. Genocide, the world wars and the unweaving of Europe. London; Portland, OR:
Vellentine Mitchell, 2008, 132 ; Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police
Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, Harper Collins (1992).
Elliot Aronson and Timothy D. Wilson, and Beverley Fehr, and Robin M. Akert. Social Psychology, Sixth Canadian Edition. Pearson (2017).
Rudolf Hess, “The Oath to Adolf Hitler”, in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Ibid., 2
Sonke Neitzel, Harald Welzer; Chase, Jefferson S. Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: the Secret World War II tapes of German POWs. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Browning, Ordinary Men.
Ibid., 86
Aronson, Wilson, Fehr, and Akert, Social Psychology.
Edward B. Westermann. “Stone-Cold Killers or Drunk with Murder? Alcohol and Atrocity during the Holocaust”, in Historical Abstracts EBSCO host. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5.
Neitzel, Welzer, Soldaten.
Robert J. Lifton. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1986.
Joseph Goebbels. “The Jews Are Guilty!”, in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Ibid., 4.
Ibid., 3
Lewy, Perpetrators.