In Browning’s piece about the Hamburg Police, he recounted how “ordinary men,” who were from working class backgrounds and not part of the SS, slaughtered innocent Jewish civilians because they were ordered to do so by their superiors. Browning also explains that many of the men were middle-aged and didn’t grow up with the crazed Nazi Antisemitism in the same way as their younger counterparts. In this specific situation, the commander of the battalion offered the men who did not wish to kill another job. Still some men decided to carry out the brutal massacre. After the war, many of them exclaimed that they were only following orders and did not mention that their superior gave them a way out. If these ordinary men did have a way out, then why did they choose to clean out the ghetto?

One reason might stem from the theory of obedience and exemplified by the Stanley Milgram experiment of obedience. In this experiment, subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to other people in a different room as a punishment for not learning a task. In actuality, there were no shocks and the other people were just acting. The researcher came in and asked the subjects to administer electric shocks in increasing intensity even if there was screaming or exclamations of pain. The researcher wore a white coat and would speak in very direct and commanding tones. In this experiment, 65% of the subjects thought they were administering a 450 volt shock. Milgram summarized,

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

These experiments lead to two main theories that state that a person may relay decisions to authorities in times of crisis or the person may see him/herself as a instrument in someone else’s wishes and therefore in devoid of responsibility. Perhaps people are prone to following orders just for the sake of obedience.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). “The Perils of Obedience”. Harper’s Magazine. Archived from the original on December 16, 2010. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority.