Social psychologist Roy Baumeister begins his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, with a proposition that will be counterintuitive to many: “Evil usually enters the world unrecognized by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil.”
Dismissing evildoers as “insane” is an attempt to absolve both them and you of responsibility. Baumeister observes, “People do become extremely upset and abandon self-control, with violent results, but this is not insanity.” If only “insane” people commit “evil” acts, you might reason there is no need to strengthen spiritual and moral muscles. You might skip the reflection, study, and practice that builds spiritual and moral strength.
Would you, Baumeister asks, “obey orders to kill innocent civilians? Would you help torture someone? Would you stand by passively while the secret police hauled your neighbors off to concentration camps?” Baumeister writes, “Most people say no. But when such events actually happen, the reality is quite different.” Today, to the point, will you obey orders to fire upon people who refuse to comply with mandates?
In one of the most instructive books about Nazi Germany, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher Browning explores why most people say yes and commit heinous acts even when given latitude to say no.
The men of Police Battalion 101 were not specially selected psychopathic killers. Initially, the Battalion was set up to enforce Nazi rule in occupied Poland. Eventually, their mission changed, bringing them to be the genocidal murderers of Jews they were charged with rounding up. Browning explains, “The bulk of the killers were not specially selected but drawn at random from a cross-section of German society, and they did not kill because they were coerced by the threat of dire punishment for refusing.” Mostly they were “middle-aged reserve policemen.” Battle had not driven these men to depravity, “they had not been fired on nor had they lost comrades.”
Browning explores one of their initial murderous actions, “shooting some 1,500 Jews in the Polish village of Józefów in the summer of 1942.” Major Wilhelm Trapp addressed his men before the shooting began: “Pale and nervous, with choking voice and tears in his eyes, Trapp visibly fought to control himself as he spoke. The Battalion, he said plaintively, had to perform a frightfully unpleasant task. This assignment was not to his liking; indeed, it was highly regrettable, but the orders came from the highest authorities.”
Trapp provided a “justification” for the coming slaughter—Jews were damaging Germany and threatening German troops—but then Trapp “made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out.” The task, Trapp outlined, was the immediate killing of all women, children, and the elderly.