I Was Only Following Orders…

(hover over for picture provenance)

In my other blog “things” are not going well for Mark and Lucy; stranded as they are in Nazi occupied Britain. I am pretty sure that if questions could be asked of my characters, one of them would declare: “But I was only following orders!” Which is, of course, the standard Nazi defence  in whatever universe you call home. In  our universe it is known as the Eichmann Defence, but just how much of a defence is it?

Adolf Eichmann(top left photograph) was born on March 19th, 1906 in Solingen.  He dropped out of college in 1925 and worked as a travelling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company. In 1930, during a stint of living/working in Germany, he joined the antisemite ‘Wandervogel’ group, and became a member of the Austrian Nazi Party in 1932

In April he joined the Austrian SS and by November he’d become a full SS member. When Hitler came to power, Eichmann returned to Germany, and in November 1933, he was appointed to the administrative staff at Dachau Concentration Camp.

The rest of his war time exploits are well known and – as a consequence – he should have stood trial with the other leading Nazis at Nuremberg. However, although captured by the Americans at the end of the War, he managed to convince them that he was only a reservist member of the Waffen SS; gave them a false name and was demobbed in 1947!

Leaving Europe as ‘Ricardo Clement’, Eichmann flew to Buenos Aires in Argentina and spent a few years working as a rabbit farmer – amongst other occupations. Kidnapped by Mossad on the 21st May 1960, Eichmann eventually stood trial for Crimes Against Humanity.

And this is where it gets interesting. Not for Eichmann – the three trial judges did not accept his defence that he was only following orders; and he was sentenced to death and hanged a few minutes after midnight on June 1st 1962.

What is interesting  is that this defence is now – if not morally acceptable – certainly scientifically proven.

The work was done by Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram (top right) in July 1963. He devised an experiment which focussed on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Rigging a “learning situation” so that participants were always in the position of the teacher and his confederate was always in the role of learner, Milgram – in the role of experimenter-  instructed participants to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to the learner – should he (in the original experiment, Mr Wallace) fail to answer correctly, a series of learned responses.

In the original study, it was proved that 65% of people would administer the full 450 volts. However, what Milgram went on to prove was that if the participant could instruct another to administer the shock – this increased to 95%. He also proved that if the experimenter was not wearing a symbol of authority (ie a lab coat/uniform) this obedience figure was low and, if the participant had moral support from a colleague (or if the instruction was issued by telephone) the obedience level  dropped to 20.5%

While the original study raised ethical questions, and questions surrounding the original 40 (all male) sample; subsequent repetition – of mixed gender/ race groupings – has validated Milgram’s findings.

I am pretty confident that if Eichmann had gone on trial after the findings of Milgram had been published, the outcome would have – rightly – been the same; but certainly that 95% figure gives me pause and makes me wonder if: there but for…