Lessons for today from the Holocaust

Guest blogger Nick Lennon is the Director of the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Office at George Mason University in Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. His primary professional interests, and area of teaching, are ethics and leadership. In May he took a group of undergraduate and graduate students to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic for a new program called “Ethical Leadership: Lessons from the Holocaust”. The program is focused on behavioral ethics. It explored why ordinary people were bystanders and also why people did what they did knowing it was wrong during the Holocaust. Dr. Lennon has created a website to help make ethics more accessible to various audiences, infusing resources from Ethics Unwrapped (WeTake5.com/5-steps).How many individuals does it take to persecute and kill 11 million people? This is a question that I, and a group of undergraduate and graduate students from George Mason University considered while traveling through Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic in May during a new program called “Ethical Leadership: Lessons from the Holocaust”. We visited many historically significant sites including the Wannsee Conference house outside of Berlin where high-ranking Nazi leaders discussed the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Topography of Terror Museum at the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, and the extremely impactful Auschwitz concentration camp complex in Poland.It may be comforting to some to think that the Holocaust was carried out by a small group of madmen. However, when we consider the magnitude of this atrocity, it becomes increasingly apparent that not all the perpetrators of the Holocaust were “True Believers” in the Nazi ideology. It also becomes increasingly apparent how many people it actually takes to deny service to a large part of the population, revise the educational curriculum for children, implement discriminatory laws, transport people against their will, design and build a vast network of concentration camps, and carry out many other aspects of a complex society. The massive scope of the Holocaust would not have been possible without the action and inaction of many ordinary people, both within Germany and beyond Germany’s borders.The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. has a very powerful temporary exhibition called “Some Were Neighbors”. This exhibition provides a great deal of evidence for the idea that ordinary people (co-workers, neighbors, teachers and even friends of the victims of the Holocaust) collaborated and were complicit in the Holocaust, whether as bystanders and/or perpetrators to varying degrees. Much of the work in this exhibition, as well as some outstanding colleagues from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, provided the inspiration for the curriculum for “Ethical Leadership: Lessons from the Holocaust.”

One goal for the program was to ensure that we never forget what happened during the Holocaust. Another goal was to highlight some universal principles of human behavior that apply not just during the Holocaust, but to other genocides and historical events, as well as our own daily lives right now. These universal principles help us to understand why ordinary people do the good and bad things that they do, the major focus of the field of Behavioral Ethics.

The very well-researched and highly creative Ethics Unwrapped resources, which cover a wide variety of topics in the field of Behavioral Ethics, were invaluable in preparing our curriculum. Each day in Europe we would focus on a different principle of human behavior. Our workbook for the program was inspired in large part by the powerful topics addressed by Ethics Unwrapped, including: the Fundamental Attribution Error, Obedience to Authority, Conformity Bias, Rationalizations, and Incrementalism, among others.

In the morning, students would read some brief background information about the topic(s) for the day, including some specific examples from the Holocaust that helped to illustrate the topic. Then, sometime during our site visits or travel for that day each student would find a partner and discuss a series of reflection questions designed to help them make a more personal connection to the topic for the day. For example, some of the questions that students discussed related to the theme of conformity:

Can you think of a time when you did something just because everyone else was doing it, even when it didn’t feel quite right to you? How can an organization that wants its employees to make decisions in accordance with their own moral compass encourage them to do so?

Students were able to see that the principle for the day was relevant during the Holocaust, but also in many other situations, including their own lives. When asked about what they learned from this program, here is some of what our students wrote:

“[I learned about] the dangers of conformity and groupthink as well as the blindness people have to ethical standards when obeying authority.”

“The biggest thing I learned from this trip is that decisions are influenced by so much more than just what we feel like doing. There are outside factors and social influences…”

“… my definition of ‘perpetrator’ has changed throughout this trip: I used to think that only those who were directly responsible (the soldiers and policeman) for the incarceration, enslavement, and murder of the Jews, homosexuals, etc. were the perpetrators. However, now I realize that the large majority of not only German society, but also the societies of countries conquered by Germany were perpetrators as well. The Nazis alone were not responsible for the Holocaust; all of those who stood by and allowed such persecution to occur or, in many cases, actively joined in are also culpable.”

“Could it happen again? I want to say no, but sadly that may not be the case. I am a firm believer that if we do not learn from our mistakes, history will repeat itself… We have once again heard politicians stating we need to identify and maintain registers of certain religious groups, like Muslims. Only through historical education as well as ethical education can we prevent horrifying events such as the Holocaust.”

Much of what our students learned is related to the topics covered in Ethics Unwrapped. And I am very grateful for the outstanding and freely-available resources that this program has kindly shared with the world. Ethics Unwrapped made my work much easier and I truly believe the ripple effects of their work is being felt far beyond what they are able to see or measure.

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