During World War II, Nazi commanding officers, and soldiers under their command, carried out crimes against humanity in order to please their commanding officers or out of fear of what may become of the, if they did not comply with their orders. What could have been going through the minds of Nazi officers and soldiers while they were carrying out the orders they had received to almost wipe out an entire race of people?
The Nazi criminals were brought to justice in what was called the Nuremberg Trials. The prosecutors that brought the Nazis to trials consisted of the four powers of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia (Britannica 1). The Nuremberg trials were basically a series of trials held in 1945 through 1946 in which former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal (Britannica 1). The indictment lodged against them contained four counts: (1) crimes against peace, (2) crimes against humanity, (3) war crimes, and (4) “a common plan or conspiracy to commit” the criminal acts listed in the first three counts (Britannica 1). Were the Nazi soldiers to be held responsible for the actions they carried out on their prisoners, or did they have the option of denying their superior officers and doing what they thought to be right and just?
Were the trials conducted at Nuremberg legal? “The indictment of the organizations raised a fundamental legal question: the legitimacy of creating a legal system of guilt by association” (Court TV 2). The Nazis argued that there should not be punishment for laws that did not exist before the crimes were committed (Glueck 73). The tribunal took into consideration the defense presented by the defendants and came to the decision that the crimes committed by the Nazis could be presented in court, even though the crimes presented violated laws that were made ex post facto (77). The crimes committed were so severe that the tribunal could not allow the Nazis to walk away without facing some sort of punishment. Even though the laws were made ex post facto, the crimes committed by the Nazi leaders were crimes against humanity, and those crimes should not have to be written down in any law books. Crimes committed against humanity should be understood to be wrong and if someone should break those laws, they should expect to be punished for what they commit, even though there was no written law.
Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a classic study obedience in which the participants were forced to either violate their conscience by obeying the immoral demands of an authority figure or to refuse those demands (Behrens 343). Milgram’s study suggested that under a special set of circumstances the obedience we naturally show authority figures could transform us into agents of terror (343). His experiment showed that normal people could be influenced to the point of administering great amounts of pain on another human being, just because a person in a position of authority told them to do so (343). A theory that was reached as a result of Milgram’s experiment was that “it is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action” (355). Milgram’s results offer a possible explanation as to why the Nazis did what they did. Even though it may be easy to ignore responsibility when being told to do so by an authority figure, it is still the responsibility of the individual to do what is right, no matter what the consequences or repercussions, that is how the tribunal saw the Nazis’ actions. The prosecutors of the Nazis declared that, “if an organization was found to be criminal, the prosecution could bring individuals to trial for having been members, and the criminal nature of the group or organization could no longer be questioned” (Britannica 1). “The defendants that were brought under trial were entitled to receive a copy of the indictment, to offer any relevant explanation to the charges brought against him, and to be represented by counsel and confront and cross-examine the witness” (Britannica 1).
Nuremberg only brought twenty-four Nazi leaders to trial, and various groups (such as Gestapo, the Nazi secret police) were charged with committing criminal acts (Britannica 1). The total number of court sessions came to a total of 216, and on October 1, 1946, the verdict on 22 of the original 24 defendants was handed down (one of the defendants committed suicide while in prison, and another became mentally unable to stand trial) (Britannica 1,2). Men were given sentences of either imprisonment or death by hanging, depending on their involvement and actions during the war (2). When these sentences were handed down, the tribunal rejected the Nazis’ major defenses. It first rejected the contention that only a state, not individuals, could be found guilty of war crimes (2). And secondly that the Nazis’ “argument that the trial and adjudication were ex post facto” (2). The tribunal responded to the defendants that such acts had been regarded as criminal prior to World War II (2).
The Nazis were one of the most evil and ruthless groups of people to ever emerge as a power on this earth. They almost eradicated an entire race and committed unmentionable acts of violence against citizens of the human race. But not every German that became a Nazi held their beliefs and ideals. The Germans committed these crimes on people of neighboring countries, and even people of their own country. But how could these men and women carry out these crimes on people that were once their neighbors and possibly even friends? Just because of where they were born, religious beliefs, or color of their skin, people were harassed, beaten, and killed by the Nazis. How could the Nazi soldiers carry out these acts on another human being? This question brings to mind the idea of suggestibility and peer pressure. If a person is fed the same message over and over again, they become brainwashed and eventually believe the message themselves.
Solomon E. Asch, a social psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, conducted a series of experiments on men to determine the effect of suggestibility and peer pressure upon them (Behrens 336). “Asch’s experiment was conducted to prove the theory that every person’s practices, judgments and beliefs is a truism to which anyone will readily assent” (336). It was shown in Asch’s experiment that “monotonous reiteration of instructions could induce in normal persons in the waking state involuntary bodily changes such as swaying or rigidity of the arms, and sensations such as warmth and odor” (337). The results of this experiment proved that men’s beliefs can be influenced, even though they know that what they are doing is wrong (336). If put in the situation of a Nazi soldier, one may not have had before the war the idea that he was superior to those the Nazis were oppressing. However, the soldiers were constantly fed a mass amount of propaganda telling them that they were superior to other races and therefore should enforce their power over them. Wanting to please their commanding officers and the fed notion of superiority are reasons why the Nazi soldiers carried out the crimes on humanity. Milgram’s experiments, as well as Asch’s, are in totally different circumstances than those the soldiers were placed in during World War II, however the results reached from both can offer explanations to the actions of the Nazis. Both the idea of suggestibility and wanting to please their commanding officers are reasons why the Nazi soldiers carried out their crimes. Those factors can influence a person so greatly that it can force someone to go against everything they have ever been taught or known. A person that has been raised in a good and upstanding family can have a strong conscience and a good sense of morals, but suggestibility and fear of authority figures can wipe all of that out. People will always have to deal with topics such as suggestibility, and it is there responsibility to make sure that they do what is right no matter the consequences of their actions. What they choose to do will have an impact on society, no matter how big or how small the situation. Society must make good decisions on how people act and influence others, if people do not learn how to go against what is morally wrong, there may someday be another Holocaust, and another trial such as those held at Nuremberg.
Glueck, Sheldon. The Nuremberg Trial and Aggressive War. Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. New York, New York. 1946.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Court TV Online
Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, seventh edition. Longman Publishing.