The Psychology of Obedience

As a World War II veteran,

As a World War II veteran, I have always wondered how Adolph Hitler, the "Fuehrer" (the Leader), could gain so much support in a nation where most of the people were Christian—Lutheran and Catholic. Why did so few raise their voices against the gathering storm? Father Bernard Häring, one of the best-known moral theologians in the Catholic Church 40 years ago, was honest enough to admit, "The Lutherans and the Catholics set up the German nation for Adolph Hitler by emphasizing obedience to authority to such an extent that they were all suitable Nazis."

Germans who had hesitations about serving in the military and obeying questionable orders were told that the issues were very complex and that they should simply trust in their superiors’ wisdom and obey. Everyone was united in fear against a common enemy—the Communists and then the Jews—under a strong leader. Wrote Häring, "Many Catholic bishops and clergy...played a very sad and compliant role—a role that stressed obedience to Caesar when indeed obedience to Christ was called for."

In our country, a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, wondered if we Americans might not be just as sheep-like as the Germans. So he set up a study to find out if volunteer subjects might not act contrary to their consciences if they were told to do so by a man in a white coat (the coat was his only authority). They were not threatened with punishment if they failed to obey orders. The volunteer subject was told to throw a switch that shocks a "learner" in increments of 15 volts, going all the way up to 450 volts. To make sure the subjects realized what they were doing, the different voltages were labeled, with 450 volts being tagged as "Danger! Severe shock!"

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Sojourners Magazine October 2004
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