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Ordered to Kill, part 3 of 3: Who refuses to kill?

Ordered to Kill, part 3 of 3: Who refuses to kill?

In the first two parts of this series, I asked what type of soldier commits a mass killing. My last post emphasized the scary extent to which most people will conform to social pressure, including the pressure to kill innocents. Today, I want to ask what type of person will refuse orders to kill civilians.

To see how soldiers answered this in their own words, David Kitterman looked at the statements of 85 German soldiers who refused orders to kill civilians during WWII. Although half cited no specific reason for their behavior, the others offered a number of explanations – 27% said it was against their conscience, 17.6% regarded it as illegal, 8.2% thought it would cause emotional distress, another 8.2% said it was not their job and 2.3% said they considered it politically disadvantageous. Yet, this still leaves open the question of what differentiates these soldiers from those who went on to kill. That is, why did these soldiers listen to their conscience when most chose to ignore it. I haven’t seen any great studies on heroic soldiers, however, other studies of people who do heroic things – such as intervening to stop a crime or rescuing Jews during the holocaust – can give us some insight into the psychology of people who will take personal risks to save others.

During the Holocaust, for instance, only 0.5-1% of the people living in Nazi-controlled territories actively tried to help their Jewish neighbors. What set these people apart? While not unique in terms of their sex, age or level of education, several studies found significant personality differences between the rescuers and bystanders. Indeed, one study could predict with 93% accuracy whether an individual was a rescuer or a bystander based upon their answers to a personality test.

Probably the most recurrent personality trait was that rescuers were far more likely than the general population to feel personal responsibility for the events going on around them. Rescuers tended not to believe in fate, luck or inevitability, but saw themselves as in charge of their destiny. Thus, they could not ignore the suffering of the Jews by saying that the Nazis were to blame or that surely someone else would help. For instance, Oliner found that while 70% of rescuers had never been personally mistreated by the Nazis, 65% had directly viewed Nazi mistreatment of others. But as one woman who sheltered Jews explained, “I knew they were taking them and they wouldn’t come back. I didn’t think I could live knowing that I could have done something. I saw Germans shooting people in the street, and I could not sit there doing nothing.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, rescuers also tended to be highly empathetic in general. Compared to the bystanders, they were more likely to view other people as essentially similar to themselves and have friends from social group other than their own. Likewise, Midlarsky et al found that rescuers tended to reason about moral situations in abstract, highly internalized ways, allowing them to easily empathize with persecuted groups.

Interestingly, Oliner found that parenting played an important role in developing this moral outlook. To begin, rescuers valued their relationship with their parents more than bystanders did. The two groups also reported experiencing different parenting styles while growing up. When they got into trouble as a child, the parents of rescuers were more likely to include verbal explanations along with their punishments. Thus, as children, the rescuers had the chance to evaluate the moral claims of their authority figures. By contrast, the parents of bystanders did not verbally explain their punishments, instead justifying their behavior from their position of authority alone. Consequently, it is not hard to see why rescuers would be more likely to question immoral orders as an adult.

From my perspective, however, the most interesting characteristic of the rescuers is that most (67%) still had to be asked to be help. Most decided to shelter Jews after being asked to do so by friends or family members, while a quarter were asked by the victims themselves.

Why do I find this interesting? Because it suggests that a few early dissenters can counteract the depressing herd mentality that I discussed in the previous post. It seems that as soon as one person objects to immoral behavior, multiple people will follow. This meshes with psychological studies on conformity. For instance, Allen and Levine found that the presence of just 1 dissenter in a group decreased conformity levels from 97% to 36% on a visual test. It also meshes with descriptions of how soldiers behaved when ordered to commit a mass killing. For instance, Browning described how members of Nazi Police Battalion 101 responded to orders from Major Trapp to commit a mass killing:

“Trapp assembled the men in a half-circle and addressed them. After explaining the battalion’s murderous assignment, he made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments one man from Third Company, Otto-Julius Schimke, stepped forward… After he had taken Schmike under his protection, some ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major…”

Well, that’s it for this series. I probably will not post again until I finish my dissertation in a few weeks. But I find this topic very interesting, so I would love to hear your thoughts…

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About Lindsey O'Rourke

Lindsey is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Predoc at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.

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