Milgram’s experiment is a fascinating study of human nature, the willingness to follow a leader while violating generally accepted principles and rules. The purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to understand why in World War II the inhabitants of Germany were so cruel to the prisoners of concentration camps. Stanley’s point of view and reasoning were strongly influenced by Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. The plot centers on Adolf Eichmann, who is responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews (Arendt 1963). He justified the crimes by the banal performance of his work.
After the research was done in America, Stanley wanted to conduct it in Germany. It seemed to him that the Germans tend to obey the orders of people who are authoritative for them, no matter what. However, the experiment results in America overwhelmed him, and he decided to continue in New Haven, Connecticut. Milgram found so much obedience and submission in his fellow citizens that conducting the experiment abroad lost all meaning.
It was not only the occupiers – German citizens – who participated in the atrocities against innocent people. Often, their fellow citizens, the same residents of the occupied territories, signed documents about torture or murder. Very often, the Germans had nothing to do with it directly. Thus, it is possible to identify a clear connection between Milgram’s experiments and the information obtained during the Nuremberg trials.
Rules of Experiment
For the experiment, young healthy people without mental illnesses, who had no police records, and representatives of the middle class were selected. The subjects were informed that the experiment was aimed at studying the effect of pain on memory. All the subjects acted as a “teacher”, each of whom had to interact with the “student” and help him memorize a list of paired words (Perlstadt 2013). The peculiarity of the experiment was that the “student” was connected to a special device that generates current discharges, from weak to very strong. In fact, the role of the “student” was performed by a specially hired actor, and the device only imitated the impact of the current. In order for the subject not to guess anything, a draw was held before the start of the experiment, where the actor got the role of a student.
The student memorized the words, and the teacher took the exam. At every mistake, he had to punish the student with a discharge of current. The student was placed in a soundproof room and fixed on a chair with electrodes in front of the examinee. Before starting the experiment, the “teacher” received a demonstration electric shock to make sure that the device was working. The very first discharge was very weak, only 15 Volts, but with each error the current increased by another 15 volts. The maximum discharge value was 450 volts. This is twice as much as in a conventional household outlet, that is, enough to cause serious physical damage.
The whole procedure of the experiment was standardized, the “student” gave an average of one correct answer to three erroneous ones. At around 150 volts, the “student” asked to stop the procedure. As the tension grew, he asked more and more emotionally, complained of heart pain and increasing discomfort, and in the end, he just screamed, acting out the severe torment of an electric shock. If the subject began to hesitate, the experimenter told him a prepared phrase in advance: “It is absolutely necessary that you continue.”
Experiment One & Evidence
In the first version of the experiment described by Milgram, the student was in the next room with the teacher. The subject could not hear the student’s exclamations; this also happens because those rooms were sound-proofed. At the level of 300 volts, the student was allowed to knock on the wall. If it was already 315 volts, then the sounds in the division continued anyway, but this time, the scoreboard no longer showed anything. In the case of the subject, he had to interpret the absence of an answer for 5-10 seconds as incorrect and give more and more new electric shocks. After 315 volts, no screams or sounds should have been shown from the student.
There was also another experiment when the student said that he had previously had heart problems to make the experiment more intense. Among other things, there was no sound insulation, so the latter could hear all the horror that the actor played at the moments when he was “electrocuted.” When the discharge level reached 150 volts, the student screamed; nevertheless, the subject continued to perform electrical discharges because the other person gave incorrect answers.
This situation illustrates the central hypothesis of the experiment – even seeing the suffering of their victims, people continued to follow orders. Thus, among the published materials of the Nuremberg trials are descriptions of experiments on prisoners in thin air. Like the Milgram experiment, this was presented as pursuing reasonable goals. It was claimed that it was a search for a way to deal with changes in the pressure indicators of pilots. To know how to resist this phenomenon, it was first necessary to understand what happens to the human body in such conditions, for which an inhuman experiment was conducted. Therefore, Dr. Rasher drove his test subjects into the pressure chamber and systematically pumped out oxygen.
The results were monstrous, and most of the people died in terrible agony. Soldiers following orders watched as the victims tore out their hair and scratched their faces until they bled from the unbearable pressure. Nevertheless, the fascists were not afraid of any revenge or responsibility for their crimes. At the Nuremberg Tribunal, the results of the survey of captured German soldiers in American camps became known. To the question “Do you trust Hitler?”, in January 1945, 60% of respondents answered in the affirmative (Taylor 1970). Like the participants in the experiment, the majority were confident that all orders given must be carried out, despite the suffering of the victims.
Experiment Two & Evidence
In another variant of the experiment, additional conditions were provided: the subject asked what would happen if he continued. He was told that even though such shocks were strong enough, there would still be no severe damage in this case. The subjects could also argue that the student does not like such an experiment. Then the experimenter would answer: “There is no difference whether he likes it or not; we still need to continue.” Milgram also said that the experimenter is responsible for the fact that something can happen to the victims.
The results of this experiment apply to the shooting of civilians, the details of which were made public during the Nuremberg trials. Numerous written testimonies of witnesses confirming the facts of war crimes were presented. The conducted forensic medical examinations made it possible to establish the causes of death of people. The bodies of the civilian population and prisoners of war had traces of gunshot wounds and bodily injuries. They indicated the use of torture, murders with cold weapons, and complex blunt objects.
The crimes committed can be called genocide: many innocent people were shot, burned, and maimed, although no direct order was given. Clothes, shoes were robbed from the population; cows, sheep, calves, chickens were killed; old and young people were beaten with whips and sticks. The murders committed are crimes against humanity, the genocide of national, ethnic, and racial groups. It is a well-known fact that only war criminals should be shot during the war (Falk 1971). The killing of children, women, and the elderly are considered murder; similarly, the participants of the experiment were responsible for the use of electric shock. Nevertheless, the soldiers continued to carry out voluntary executions of civilians.
Experiment Three & Evidence
Also, the participants of the experiment were given money; at the same time, they were told that no matter how the experiment ends, the payment will remain. Basically, they were not interested in a specific action; later, similar experiments were conducted with students already without money, however, the results remained the same.
It is possible to draw a parallel of this phenomenon with the statement of the Germans that they carried out orders because they were all soldiers. They claimed that disobedience could be punished according to the military laws of their state. The experiment participants argued their actions by continuing to shock others because they wanted to get money. In the case of the experiment and its relation to the military, such arguments were immediately rejected. The fact is that paragraph 47 of the German Military Criminal Code stated that a soldier had the right to refuse to carry out any criminal order (Barbat 2020).
Among the materials presented at the Nuremberg trial, the following situation was documented. The mother of a woman who had just given birth was asked who should be killed first: a grandmother or a child. The woman asked to be killed first; the cruel captain ordered the soldier to perform the opposite. First, the baby was dead, then his mother, and only then – an older woman.
It is unlikely that the Wehrmacht soldiers mentioned in this example did not understand that they had committed crimes. They had the right to refuse to carry out the order in this order while observing the military laws of Germany. Similarly, the experiment participants would have received a fee for participation, refusing to continue it.
The Nuremberg trials were not the only trials of war criminals. However, previously only the executors were punished, and the people who gave the orders went unnoticed by the tribunal (Simmons 2018). Perhaps this allowed the then very young Hitler and his future entourage to believe in their impunity. From this point of view, the Nuremberg Trial was an unprecedented event. In the dock were not ordinary performers, although they were subsequently punished, but directly those who issued criminal orders. Because of this, the Nuremberg Tribunal is called the central court of the twentieth century, and the name of this process has become a household name.
At the same time, Milgram’s experiment shed light on many questions related to the behavior of an ordinary person during World War II. In particular, he explained why people so impartially, cruelly, and sometimes thoughtlessly signed a decree on the murder of their compatriots during the war. It turns out that all people tend to obey those who are their authority in one way or another. The only question is whether a person will be able to go against moral and ethical principles and values in this subordination, whether he will remain humane.
Arendt, Hannah. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil.” Theoretical & Applied Ethics, vol. 28, no. 2, 1963, pp. 223-275.
Barbat, Victor. “Documenting evidence in sounds and images: Soviet staging of justice at the Nuremberg trials.” Cahiers Du Monde Russe, vol. 61, no. 3, 2020, pp. 429-462.
Falk, Richard A. Crimes of War. Edited by Gabriel Kolko, and Robert J. Lifton, Random House, 1971.
Perlstadt, Harry. “Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: Its Origins, Controversies, and Replications.” Theoretical & Applied Ethics, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 53-77.
Simmons, Thomas. “Book Review: Nazi Law: From Nuremberg to Nuremberg.” Law, Culture and the Humanities, vol. 14, no. 3, 2018, pp. 533-548.
Taylor, Telford. Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy. The Yale Review of Law and Social Action, 1970.