Lesson 9
Duration:
1 class period

Obedience

Overview

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.

 

Learning Goals

The purpose of this lesson is to help students:

Reflect on these guiding questions:

  • What is obedience? What factors encourage obedience to authority?
  • What is resistance? What factors encourage resistance to authority?
  • What are some reasons why Germans obeyed authority in Nazi Germany?
  • What is the difference between obedience and blind obedience?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate to obey authority? Why?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate to resist authority? Why?

Practice these interdisciplinary skills:

  • Defining abstract concepts
  • Interpreting historical narratives
  • Defending ideas with evidence
  • Sharing ideas in writing and speaking

Deepen understanding of these key terms:

  • Obedience
  • Blind obedience/unconditional obedience
  • Authority
  • Resistance
  • Oath
  • Fear
  • Conformity/peer pressure

Context

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:

Citations

  • 1 : “The Führer Oath,” Jewish Virtual Library, Jewish Virtual Library website (accessed January 8, 2009).
  • 2 : William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 227.
  • 3 : Mede von Nagel, “The Nazi Legacy: Fearful Silence for Their Children,” The Boston Globe, October 23, 1977.
  • 4 : Gregor Ziemer, Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), 15.
  • 5 : Eleanor Ayer and Alfons Heck, Parallel Journeys (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995), 1.
  • 6 : Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974), 3–4.
  • 7 : Philip Zimbardo, “The Pathology of Imprisonment,” Society 9 (April 1972):4–8.
  • * : Facing History uses the “Third Wave” experiment to reveal how obedience is a natural aspect of human behavior. Facing History does not condone the use of simulations and experiments used on students. Simulations like this one have unintended consequences. Some of Mr. Jones’s students were emotionally disturbed by their involvement in the Third Wave. One student remarked how it hurt to have been fooled like that by a teacher. A respectful, safe classroom environment is based on trust among students and teacher. Simulations, like the one carried out by Mr. Jones, can violate that trust, not only between the students and one particular teacher, but they also have the power to cause students to distrust teachers in general.
  • 8 : Leslie Weinfeld, “Remembering the 3rd Wave,” The Wave, Ron Jones website, http://www.ronjoneswriter.com/wave.html (accessed January 8, 2009).
  • 9 : Ibid.
  • 10 : Wolfgang Beutin, A History of German Literature (Abingdon: Routledge, 1993), 496.
  • 11 : Robert Gellately, Florida State University website, http://www.fsu.edu/profiles/gellately/ (accessed January 9, 2009). For more information on German citizens reporting neighbors to the Gestapo, read Gellaty’s book Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933–1944 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Materials

Activities

Opener

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. 

Main Activities

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.

Follow Through

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.

Citations

  • 12 : “The Führer Oath,” Jewish Virtual Library.
  • 13 : Joachim Remak, The Nazi Years: A Documentary History (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 162.

Extensions

  • As part of the opening activity, ask students to compare Hitler’s oath of loyalty to the United States Pledge of Allegiance. Prompts you might use to guide students’ comparison of these two statements include: What is an oath or a pledge? What is similar about these statements? What is different? To what is the speaker being asked to pledge allegiance? What is the significance of pledging loyalty to values and ideals versus pledging loyalty to a person?
  • In an article Ron Jones published about his experience leading the Third Wave, he writes that he was surprised and disturbed that parents did not intervene to stop this experiment. He recalls how several concerned students told their parents about what was happening at school. Yet, according to Mr. Jones, he only heard from one parent, who happened to be a rabbi. When this father called him to find out what was going on at school, Mr. Jones was able to convince him that everything was under control and the parent did nothing further to intervene. After students read part two of “Strength Through Discipline” (handout 2), you might ask students to explain why they think parents let this experiment continue. Why didn’t any parents call the principal or refuse to send their children to Mr. Jones’s class?
  • One common phrase used to refer to Germans during the Nazi years is “blind obedience.”  As a follow-through activity, you can ask students to distinguish between obedience and blind obedience. Then, students can apply this phrase to the readings in this lesson by answering questions such as: Were the students in California “blind”? If so, what caused this blindness? By the end of this experiment do you think their vision was restored? How might this have been accomplished? Was the German man who took the oath blindly obedient or just obedient? How do you know? You also can have students identify a moment of blind obedience from their own lives and reflect on the conditions that encouraged this blindness. Students can also brainstorm what they could do in their own lives to discourage blind obedience.
  • The film Obedience is a documentary about Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. It can be borrowed from Facing History’s library. Some teachers might choose to show excerpts from this film instead of, or in addition to, using the Ron Jones excerpts. We strongly recommend that you preview this film before deciding whether or not it is appropriate for your students. If you decide to show this film, make sure that students know that the learners in the experiments are not really getting shocked; they are actors working in collaboration with the researchers. The important point is that the “subjects,” the test administrators, are led to believe that they are actually shocking the learner. Also, teachers who have used this film comment on the importance of planning sufficient time for debriefing during that class period, so that students can process their reactions before moving on to their next class. Often Facing History teachers do not show the whole film, but focus on the part when the “teacher” volunteer obeys the instructions of the test administrator to the most advanced degree (minutes 21:50–35:15). While viewing this clip, ask stu- dents to closely observe the behavior of the “teacher” and the test administrator. The following questions might be written on the board or on a note-taking template to guide students’ viewing of the clip: What language is used by the experimenter and the “teacher”? What is the teacher’s body language? How does the teacher act as he administered the shocks? What does he say? What pressures were placed on him as the experiment continued? This film has been known to provoke strong emotional reactions in students,  as they try to make sense of why individuals obey authority, even if it means inflicting harm on others. Many teachers have been surprised when students laugh at sensitive moments of the documentary. This laughter can be interpreted in many ways, but often it is a sign of discomfort or confusion, not of enjoyment.
  • The Wave (46 minutes)  is an Emmy Award–winning film that recreates Ron Jones’s classroom “experiment.” It can be borrowed from Facing History’s lending library. You may wish to show part or all of this film as part of this lesson on obedience. Even though the film was made more than twenty years ago, students are typically very engaged by this true story of obedience in an American school.

Assessment

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.

New Edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior

We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.