A Cautionary Tale

The commonly-held belief that ethical scandals are caused most frequently by “bad eggs” or “rogue actors” continues to take a beating as more and more literature supports the behavioral ethics research, featured in many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos.  This behavioral research shows that most ethical lapses feature good people doing bad things because they are unable to stand up to the social and organizational pressures, situational factors, or cognitive heuristics and biases that can pressure ordinary people into making bad moral choices.  Moral blindness and the ability to rationalize often seal the deal.

Joel Dimsdale is a distinguished research psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego.  For both personal and professional reasons, Dimsdale wrote a book entitled Anatomy of Malice, that focuses on the war crimes trial of Herman Gӧring, the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany behind Hitler, and twenty-one other Nazi leaders.  Dimsdale had access to the work of two psychiatrists who administered the Rorschach test to these twenty-two men before their trial.

During the trial, and even today, most people would be comforted to learn that the Nazi leaders were complete psychopaths, or in some other way different from the rest of us.  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

Rorschach expert Katherine Harrower admitted:  “[The records] did not show what we expected to see, and what the pressure of public opinion demanded that we see—that these men were demented creatures, as different from normal people as a scorpion is different from a puppy.”

Psychiatrist Douglas Kelley, who was the first mental health professional granted nearly unlimited access to the defendants, wrote that with one exception, “there wasn’t an insane Joe [among the 22].  I’ve never met twenty-one people who considered themselves so pure and lily white.”

All this is consistent with Hannah Arendt’s comments from her observations of the 1960s trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann:  “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

Certainly there were psychopaths amongst the leaders of the Nazis, as another psychiatrist who helped administer the Rorschach tests, Gustave Gilbert, concluded.  But the best evidence is that psychopathy was not the norm even amongst the leaders.  And it took literally thousands and thousands of regular Germans’ aid and assistance to carry out the Holocaust and certainly most of them were “normal” or what passes for it.  Dimsdale quotes historian George Kren and psychologist Leon Rappoport who concluded that the unhappy fact “is that the overwhelming majority of SS men, leaders as well as rank and file, would have easily passed all the psychiatric tests ordinarily given to American army recruits or Kansas City policemen.”

If we wish to live up to our own ethical standards, we must realize that unless we are careful, we are as prone to err in our moral decisions and our moral actions as the “regular” Germans who became part of Hitler’s death machine.  We must consciously exhibit moral awareness, moral intent, moral decision making, and moral action to avoid making similar mistakes.  It is dangerous to simply assume that the Nazis and the normal Germans who helped them were all “others,” completely different from us and therefore not embodying a cautionary tale from which we can learn.  Most were relatively normal psychologically.  Douglas Kelley wrote that even among the leaders, there were few anomalous character traits.  All they needed, in the situation in which they found themselves was “overweening ambition, low ethical standards, and strongly developed nationalism.”

 

Resources

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964).

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1998).

Joel E. Dimsdale, Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals (2016).

Jack El-Hai, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist (2013).

Gustave Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (1947).

Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997).

Douglas Kelley, 22 Cells in Nuremberg (1947).

George Kren & Leon Rappoport: The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior (1994).

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