Learn about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and the insight they offer into the motives of Nazi perpetrators.
Dennis Barr is the Director of Program Evaluation at Facing History and Ourselves, as well as a psychologist. He is a Lecturer of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was the principal investigator for the Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded research entitled, Intergroup relations among youth: a study of the impact and processes of Facing History and Ourselves. The Ostracism Case Study emerged from this project. Barr has published articles based on his research on social and ethical development and risk taking behavior in adolescents.
According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in the twentieth century more people have died from genocide and mass murder than from all wars. After each atrocity, men and women in the international community cry “Never again,” but human rights abuses against innocent children, women, and men continue. In his job as a reporter for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has been able to see these human rights abuses firsthand, winning a Pulitzer Prize for bringing attention to the genocide in Darfur. Yet despite the attention Kristof and others have drawn to this humanitarian disaster, the violence continues. Why is this the case?
Looking to history can help us address this question. In the 1940s, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish resistance, publicized reports about Nazi atrocities to a mostly unbelieving audience. After the war, he spoke of his attempts to alert people to the mass murder of European Jews, explaining, “The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination.”2During the Holocaust, many people did not intervene to stop the genocide because they were not able to “imagine the unimaginable.” As Professor Larry Langer argues, “Even with the evidence before our eyes, we hesitate to accept the worst.”