To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read Chapters 5 and 6 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.
In previous lessons, students considered how Germany became a totalitarian state. Beginning with this lesson, students engage with material that will help them answer the question, “Once the Nazis came to power, why did most Germans follow the policies dic- tated by Hitler and the Nazi Party?” Students begin to answer this question by examining the human tendency to obey authority. Through analyzing two historical examples (one scenario describes the experiences of students at a school in California in the late 1960s and the other comes from 1935 Nazi Germany), students have the opportunity to understand obedience not as a distinctive German trait, but as an aspect of human behavior that is relevant to their decisions as individuals living in a larger society. In this lesson, students learn how to differentiate between obedience and blind obedience—obeying authority without question—and they practice the habit of distinguishing between situations when it is important and appropriate to obey authority and situations that call for resistance to authority.
When Paul von Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler combined the positions of chancellor and president. He was now the Führer and Reich Chancellor, the Head of State, and the Chief of Armed Forces. During the Weimar Republic, German soldiers had taken this oath: “I swear by almighty God this sacred oath: I will at all times loyally and honestly serve my people and country and, as a brave soldier, I will be ready at any time to stake my life for this oath.” Now Hitler created a new oath. “I swear by almighty God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht [armed forces], and as a brave soldier will be ready at any time to stake my life for this oath.”1 While in the earlier oath German soldiers swore allegiance to the country, under Hitler’s oath German soldiers, and eventually all government workers, swore their “unconditional obedience” to Hitler himself. Soldiers recalled how taking this oath allowed them to commit horrible crimes in Hitler’s name. Historian William L. Shirer, author of the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, said the new oath distanced perpetrators from responsibility for the crimes they were committing, enabling officers “to excuse themselves from any personal responsibility for the unspeakable crimes which they carried out on the orders of the Supreme Commander....”2
A culture of obedience pervaded not only the military, but all aspects of German society. German children who grew up in the 1930s, such as Hede von Nagel, describe how obedience was a central part of their upbringing and schooling. “Our parents taught us to raise our arms and say, ‘Heil Hitler’ before we said ‘Mama,’” she recalls.3 Under the Nazis, students did not call their instructors by the title Lehrer, meaning teacher, but instead they referred to their teachers as Erzieher. “The word [Erzieher] suggests an iron disciplinarian who does not instruct but commands, and whose orders are backed up with force if necessary,” explains Gregor Ziemer, a teacher and journalist who lived in Germany when the Nazis came to power.4 Alfons Heck, a teenager in the 1930s, remembers how the constant messages to obey influenced his behavior. “Never did we question what our teachers said,” Heck said. “We simply believed what was crammed into us.”5 This included believing the idea that some groups, especially Jews, were racially inferior, and that their very presence could harm the health and prosperity of the German people. These beliefs ultimately allowed Germans to make choices that resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.
After the Holocaust, many observers and scholars wondered if there was something distinctive about German identity that made Germans more prone to obedient behavior than individuals from other cultures. Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, decided to find out by recruiting college students to take part in what he called “a study of the effects of punishment on learning.” Working with pairs, Milgram designated one volunteer as “teacher” and the other as “learner.” As the “teacher” watched, the “learner” was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to each wrist. The “learner” was then told to memorize word pairs for a test and warned that wrong answers would result in electric shocks. The “learner” was, in fact, a member of Milgram’s team. The real focus of the experiment was the “teacher.” Each was taken to a separate room and seated before a “shock generator” with switches ranging from 15 volts labeled “slight shock” to 450 volts labeled “danger—severe shock.” Each “teacher” was told to administer a “shock” for each wrong answer. The shock was to increase by 15 volts every time the “learner” responded incorrectly. The volunteer received a practice shock before the test began to get an idea of the pain involved. In Milgram’s words, “The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?”6
Milgram’s hypothesis was that Germans would be more obedient than United States subjects and that most volunteers would refuse to give electric shocks of more than 150 volts. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists predicted that less than one-tenth of 1% of the volunteers would administer all 450 volts. To everyone’s amazement, 65% gave the full 450 volts! Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, made the following comments about Milgram’s study:
The question to ask of Milgram’s research is not why the majority of normal, average subjects behave in evil (felonious) ways, but what did the disobeying minority do after they refused to continue to shock the poor soul, who was so obviously in pain? Did they intervene, go to his aid, did they denounce the researcher, protest to higher authorities, etc.? No, even their disobedience was within the framework of “acceptability,” they stayed in their seats, “in their assigned place,” politely, psychologically demurred, and they waited to be dismissed by the authority.7
In this lesson, students will read about an experiment conducted by Ron Jones, a history teacher in California in the 1960s, whose findings also reveal how obedience is a dominant facet of human behavior.* While teaching a unit on Nazi Germany, he asked his students to obey specific commands about how to sit, answer questions, and salute him. Jones was shocked to find that nearly all of his students willingly, and even enthusiastically, obeyed his every command. Within several days, Jones orchestrated a series of rules for “Third Wave” members to follow, including reporting infractions of classmates who were not obeying these commands. Again, an overwhelming majority of students followed Jones’s plans, even threatening to beat up the minority of students who were skeptical of the Third Wave. Worried parents of these students called Jones to find out what was happening in school. “I was hoping he would come in with a tremendous amount of rage,” say Jones, referring to his conversation with a concerned father. Instead of being angry, the parent accepted Jones’s explanation.8
At this point, Jones was looking for an excuse to stop the Third Wave, such as intervention on the part of parents or school administrators. But, this was not to be. After about a week, when Jones recognized that the experiment had gotten out of control, he knew he had to take steps to end it. At an assembly, he told his students, “There is no Third Wave movement....You and I are no better or worse than the citizens of the Third Reich. We would have worked in the defense plants. We will watch our neighbors be taken away, and do nothing,” Jones declared, referring to the three skeptics who had been exiled to the library for the crime of disbelief. “We’re just like those Germans. We would give our freedom up for the chance of being special.” Explaining his involvement in the Third Wave, Philip Neel shared, “You want to please your teachers, your peers and you don’t want to fail.”9
What these studies, and others like them, demonstrate is the universal tendency of individuals to obey authority. Surely the desire to belong and succeed, and the fear of ostracism and failure, influenced the decisions made by the majority of Germans who obeyed the commands of Nazi officials, just as they influenced the decisions made by students in California. While the tendency to obey is universal, the particular consequences for obeying, and refusing to obey, must be analyzed within their unique historical context. In the 1930s, Germans who quietly resisted Nazi commands often faced social ostracism or might have lost their jobs; rarely were they jailed or hurt for refusing to say “Heil Hitler.” Ricarda Huch, a poet and writer, refused to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. She had to resign from her prestigious academic position and lived in Germany throughout the Nazi era in “internal exile,” unable to publish her work but also physically unharmed.10 With the start of World War II in 1939, failing to obey authority could be a matter of life and death.
Historical evidence implies that some Germans were excessively obedient to Hitler’s demands, going above and beyond to show their loyalty to the Reich. For example, Germans took it upon themselves to report their neighbors to the Gestapo, even when they were under no pressure to do so. (Similarly, the students in the Third Wave experiment reported “deviants” even when this was not required of them.) However, historian Robert Gellately refutes the argument that many Germans went along with the Nazis simply because of a desire to obey authority. His research about “Gestapo’s unsolicited agents” revealed that in most cases, informers were motivated by factors such as greed, jealousy, revenge, or a desire to be taken seriously.11 Thus, while on the one hand it is important to recognize the significance of obedience as a factor that influenced decision-making in Nazi Germany, on the other hand, we must avoid explaining decisions as only a matter of obedience. Multiple factors, such as opportunism, propaganda, fear, conformity, prejudice, and self-preservation, shaped the choices made by individuals before and during the Holocaust. [Note: These factors will be explored in greater depth in subsequent lessons.]
Finally, although the examples discussed above, and included in this lesson, demonstrate moments when obedience to authority resulted in negative consequences for vulnerable groups, this is not to suggest that obedience itself is harmful. Indeed, in most situations obedience to authority is appropriate and necessary to maintain peace and order in a community. For example, it would be difficult for a classroom of students to learn without any respect for authority. What these examples do reveal is the danger caused by “blind obedience”—when individuals follow orders without really “seeing” or questioning what they are being asked to do. Individuals who blindly obey authority fail to contemplate the moral consequences of their decisions. Because of this, they are prone to make unjust or unethical choices that inflict harm on members of a community, especially those in the minority.
The history of Germany in the 1930s lends support to the statement that human rights are more likely to be abused when individuals blindly obey authority—when they fail to consider whether what they are being asked to do is appropriate and morally just. Through the use of propaganda, fear, and opportunism, the German citizenry had been conditioned to avoid questioning the rules they were being asked to follow—rules that required Germans to treat their non-Aryan neighbors as second-class citizens and eventually as non-humans. What started as obeying laws requiring Germans to fire Jewish colleagues or avoid Jewish stores developed into laws requiring Germans to report their Jewish neighbors to the SS (the Nazi police) so that they could be deported to ghettos and concentration camps. During the Holocaust, blind obedience to Nazi policies was a significant factor that contributed to the murder of millions of innocent children, women, and men. From studying other moments in history—from Gandhi’s salt march in India, to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, to the civil rights movement in the United States—we learn that when citizens have the capacity to wisely and respectfully question authority, they can make better decisions about whether or not their obedience is ethically justified and can push for unjust laws to be changed.
Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior:
Begin this lesson by giving students the opportunity to think about the words “obey” and “obedience.” When they hear the words “obey” or “obedience,” what experiences, questions, thoughts or comments come to mind? You might post these words on the board and ask students to write or draw their reactions to these terms. After one or two minutes, you can go around the room allowing each student to contribute one idea that they recorded. As they share their ideas, ask students to listen for similarities and differences in their reactions to these terms. At the end of this exercise, explain that the purpose of this lesson is to help them understand how obedience influences decision-making, in Nazi Germany and in their own lives.
Remind students that in the previous lesson they learned about the various factors that resulted in the end of democracy in Germany and the beginning of Hitler’s dictatorship. One of Hitler’s first acts as dictator of Germany was to establish a law mandating that soldiers and government workers take an oath of allegiance, not to the country or a con- stitution, but to Hitler himself. The oath was worded as follows:
I swear by almighty God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to the Führer [leader] of the German Reich [empire] and people, Adolf Hitler, Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht [armed forces], and as a brave soldier will be ready at any time to stake my life for this oath.12
Read this oath to students. Then, write the phrase unconditional obedience on the board or on your word wall and ask students to record a working definition of this phrase in their journals. You might want to use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to help students with this task. Students can add or change this definition after this lesson and throughout this unit as they continue to learn about the meaning of unconditional obedience.
Next, ask students if they think many Germans will agree to take this oath of allegiance to Hitler. To make this question more concrete, you can read to them the first few lines from the reading, “Do you take the oath?” As you slowly read these lines, ask students to record important words or phrases.
I was employed in a defense [war] plant…. That was the year of the National Defense Law…. Under the law I was required to take the oath of fidelity. I said I would not; I opposed it in conscience. I was given twenty-four hours to “think it over.”13
After you read, have students report the words or phrases they recorded. Several important words and phrases in this excerpt are law, required, and “opposed it in conscience.” Then ask students to discuss with their neighbor whether or not they think this man will take the oath and the factors that may shape his decision. Again, you can use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to structure this conversation.
Inform students that before they come back to his decision at the end of the lesson, they will learn about obedience in a context closer to their lives than Germany in the 1930s, by reading an excerpt of a true story that took place in a school in the United States in 1967. Distribute handout 1, “Strength through discipline: The Third Wave.” You can ask student volunteers to read the excerpt aloud. As students read, have them highlight or underline examples of obedience. You can use the questions following the excerpt to frame a whole class discussion, or you can have students answer them with partners using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Before distributing handout 2, have students share their answers to questions 2 and 3. You might even take a poll by a show of hands to gauge how many students think Ron Jones’s students will return his Third Wave salute. Repeat this process for handout 2, allowing time for a thoughtful discussion about obedience and authority. At this point in the lesson, you might want to provide students with the opportunity to revise their working definition or obedience.
Now that students have a deeper understanding of obedience, distribute handout 3. You can repeat the same process of reading the text aloud and then having students debrief the reading using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy. Or you can use the Barometer teaching strategy to structure students’ discussion of questions 1 and 2 on this handout.
Then distribute handout 4, in which the man explains why he decided to take the oath and the consequences of his decision. Encourage students to apply their understanding of obedience, including the conditions that encourage and discourage obedient behavior, to help them understand this man’s decision to take Hitler’s oath of loyalty.
The two examples of obedience students explored in this lesson both addressed instances when blind obedience to authority had negative consequences, resulting in bullying, ostracism, and discriminatory treatment of innocent victims (although by no means should students equate the consequences of the students’ actions in Mr. Jones’s class to the consequences of the actions of millions of Germans in the 1930s). Yet, it would be irresponsible if students came away from this lesson with the impression that obedience is bad. To be sure, for societies to function it is critical that individuals obey authority. Thus, one important learning goal for this lesson is for students to develop their ability to draw distinctions between situations when it is appropriate to obey authority and situations that call for resistance to authority.
One way you can help students practice this important skill is to ask them to create examples of situations when it is good, and even vital, that individuals obey authority. For example, as a matter of public safety, when a mayor asks citizens to leave town before a hurricane, it is important that residents of that town listen. Then, ask students to brainstorm examples that call for resistance to authority. These examples could come from history or from students’ own experiences. You might have students work in groups to develop at least one obedience scenario and one resistance scenario. Students could read the scenarios aloud and ask the rest of the class to suggest if they think that scenario calls for obedience or resistance. If there are scenarios where the class does not agree about the appropriate course of action, give students the opportunity to explain their positions and to listen to the ideas of others. This also could be structured as a Barometer activity.
At the end of this lesson, you can ask students to turn in an Exit Card
where they define the term obedience and write one question they have about obedience. Another way to measure students’ understanding of obedience is to review their answers to the questions on the handouts. When reviewing students’ work, whether it be their participation in class discussions or their written work, look for responses that indicate an understanding of obedience as a universal human trait, and for responses that identify factors that encourage obedience, such as the presence of a charismatic leader, fear, peer pressure, and traditions that provide a sense of belonging.