Hitler and fear may be among the first thoughts of those considering who and what was responsible for the Holocaust, but rationalizations made by ordinary people also played a large role, a professor from George Mason University said during a Holocaust Ethical Leadership Symposium at the McNamara Headquarters Complex May 4.
“Hitler was certainly a major factor, with his viewpoints, administrative control over so many things and true believers of his Nazi ideology. But ordinary people became involved, and not just because they were forced to or feared they were going to be executed or thrown into a concentration camp,” said Nick Lennon, who teaches an ethics and leadership course at GMU in addition to directing its Leadership Education and Development Office.
Examples of those who helped Jews in danger prove that people have choices even in the face of great risk and temptations, Lennon added. His presentation, called “Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?,” was based on behavioral ethics, a new field of social scientific research that seeks to understand how people behave — good or bad
— when confronted with ethical dilemmas. Typically, people rationalize or “make excuses” for not living up to ethical standards, according to Lennon.
“Rationalization is an attempt to justify questionable or corrupt acts using reasonable-seeming explanations,” he said.
Lennon described seven main categories of rationalization, beginning with denial of injury, thinking no one is really going to be harmed; denial of responsibility, believing one has no choice in carrying out an action and is therefore not responsible; and denial of victim, believing those harmed are terrible people and get what they deserve.
In a video produced by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., titled “Some Were Neighbors,” Fred Werner describes an acquaintance asking for his family’s home just before Nazis forced them to evacuate it. The neighbor was able to justify his greedy behavior by denying it would negatively affect Werner’s family.
“The neighbor’s thought was, ‘You’re going to lose it anyway, so why not to us instead of a stranger?’ Sometimes we do not see the direct harm to others and don’t feel it would be damaging enough to make a real difference,” Lennon said.
The video also shows Rosa Marx describing how she felt betrayed by a teacher she adored after returning from a prolonged absence during which she was imprisoned. At 14 years old, Marx was returning books to her school because Jews were no longer allowed to be educated alongside Christians. The teacher asked Marx where she’d been, to which she replied, “prison.” After telling her teacher she’d done nothing wrong, the teacher said, “If you didn’t do anything your father must have owed income taxes.” The teacher denied Marx as a victim, rationalizing that it was okay to treat somebody as lesser just because they’re different.
Other categories of rationalization include social comparison, through which people compare their actions to those of others who’ve done something worse, and legality, in which a person believes a behavior is okay if it’s not against the law. Individuals may also justify poor behavior with “earned” credit for times when they’ve done good things or argue that any behavior which violates a core value or principle is for a higher cause.
Rationalizations happen in extreme circumstances such as the Holocaust as well as in less intense situations. Lennon’s students often refer to the illegal downloading of movies and music without paying for it as okay because “everyone is doing it,” for example. Behavior can also be shaped by conformity bias, through which people take cues for proper behavior from the actions of others, Lennon said.
Being mindful of rationalization and conformity could help prevent future atrocities like those that took place during the Holocaust and encourage people to be more honest and less biased, he added. Lennon stressed his point by sharing these words from Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as Holocaust survivor: “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Lennon encouraged the audience to reduce groupthink, in which groups put unanimous agreements ahead of problem solving.
“If you’re an appointed leader, it can be helpful to avoid expressing your preference for a particular solution until you get other people’s viewpoints,” Lennon said. “Dividing groups into subgroups and then bringing the whole group back together can also bring different opinions to light.”
The event ended with a video of Holocaust survivor Manfred Wildmann recounting the morning his family was rounded up with others in the town square for deportation as others watched.
“One woman had the courage to come out and face my mother to say goodbye. Nothing happened to her. If more people had done something like that things may have changed,” he said.