The Nazis were not ‘just following orders’

New research casts doubt on the infamous Milgram experiments.

Ken McLaughlin

Any student of psychology is likely to be familiar with the Milgram experiments, a series of psychological experiments testing obedience to authority. Carried out at Yale University by psychologist Stanley Milgram and his team in the early 1960s, they were set up to measure the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure, even if what they were asked to do was cruel and immoral.

The participants were told that they were taking part in an experiment about learning. They were asked to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person whenever he got an answer wrong during a memory test. The shocks were not real, but the participants did not know this. The ‘tester’ wore a laboratory coat to make him appear as an authority figure. When the tester asked a participant to administer higher levels of electric shock – which, if real, would have been fatal – a high percentage of the subjects fully cooperated with the instructions.

Milgram argued that his study showed the ‘extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority’. ‘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’, he wrote. For Milgram and many others, the experiments showed how ordinary people ‘can become agents in a terrible, destructive process’.

The timing of the experiments is significant. They started three months after the start of the trial of, Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal. At the time, the defence of many Nazis was that they were ‘just following orders’. The implication was that, in similar circumstances, almost anyone could be compelled by authority figures to commit immoral acts against their fellow humans.

Milgram claimed there was a common psychological process between his laboratory experiments and the horrors of the Holocaust. But this does not quite stack up for a number of reasons. Milgram’s participants were assured in advance that no one would be permanently harmed. The perpetrators of the Holocaust, however, knew exactly the fate of their victims. In addition, there was no dehumanisation of the victims based on race, as there was in Nazi Germany.

Recent research has cast further doubt on the veracity of Milgram’s findings. Gina Perry, author of Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Experiments, found unpublished data from Milgram’s archives showing that all may not have been as reported.

Perry and her team examined data from 656 post-experiment questionnaires, which asked the subjects to report how much they believed the learner was receiving painful shocks. While Milgram was adamant that his participants had been duped into thinking the experiments were real, according to Perry this was not the case.

Perry found that most of the subjects – 56 per cent – at some point defied the authority figure and refused to continue administering the electric shocks. ‘A significant reason for their refusal to continue was to spare the man pain’, Perry told PsyPost. Those who believed the learner was in pain ‘were two-and-a-half times more likely to defy the experimenter and refuse to give further shocks’. Those who were less successfully convinced that the learner was in pain, however, were more ‘obedient’.

Perry’s findings are significant as they present a challenge to the traditional view of human beings as unthinkingly obedient in relation to authority figures. It also challenges simplistic explanations for events such as the Holocaust. The ‘just following orders’ explanation of the Holocaust depoliticises it, minimising the role of the wider political and social factors and, in particular, of the role of racial thinking. It instead suggests that the potential for mass murder is deep in the human psyche. Perry’s research presents a far more optimistic view of humanity than that of Milgram and his followers.

What’s more, while we may be shaped by society and history, we are also capable of making, and being held responsible for, our own decisions. Perhaps the sociologist C Wright Mills put it best. As he explained in his classic book The Sociological Imagination: ‘Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.’

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Hugo van der Meer

4th January 2020 at 7:54 pm

I was once in the military. Carrying out orders is what a soldier does irrespective of the consequences. War is cruel and morally corrosive, however, the objective must be achieved at any cost. It is all well and good for armchair mystics to attempt to condemn atrocities and yet put them in the heat of battle and they may well take a different stance…or melt… into gibbering imbeciles. The cartoon cry of ‘I vos only followink orders’, is a far cry from the actuality.

Agustus Haggerty

3rd January 2020 at 7:49 pm

NB Jews—far and away the main victims of the Holocaust—are not a “race”. They are a religion.

Cedar Grove

3rd January 2020 at 10:25 pm

That comment makes no grammatical sense. It doesn’t cover the ambiguity of the situation, either.

To be a Jew is a multifaceted thing.

Some people are Jewish by birth, by having a Jewish mother. Some claim descent from ancient Israel, though they don’t claim to be racially pure, as diaspora Jews often intermarried with the people they lived amongst. Others, including converts, are Jewish by religious conviction. Some people are historically Jewish but have no interest either in Judaism or Zionism.

All of those groups are Jewish when defined and persecuted as such by Nazis and other antisemites. One Jewish grandparent was enough for Hitler, no matter how culturally assimilated a person was, and irrespective of their religious affiliation.

Hugo van der Meer

4th January 2020 at 7:46 pm

@Cedar Grove

As with all religions, so with judaism which cannot be classified a race, because anyone can become a jew, by converting. Historical antecedent claims of race do not qualify judaism a race, no, judaism is a religion. Any person born into for example a christian family might legitimately identify as christian but could not legitimately suggest that christianity is their ethnicity. Same applies to muslim, jain, hindu, amish, etc, etc.

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David Alanson

2nd January 2020 at 7:46 am

Look at the Trent Park recordings. Fascinating, they record Senior Nazi WW2 officers who didn’t realise their private discussions were being recorded.

Milgram is a long time ago, even so, it still has a message to us today. Most academic stuff is flawed; many just follow the pack and all we see (today especially) is ivory tower group think.

Rokeby Venus

2nd January 2020 at 3:26 am

I don’t think the Milgram study accurately mirrors the psychological motivations of the perpetrators of the Holocaust for one simple reason: there were no consequences for those who defied the “authority figures.”

Refusing to follow orders in a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany was treason, punishable by death. Refusing to follow orders in the Milgram study was an easy choice that carried no grave consequences.

Jonathan Swift

4th January 2020 at 3:11 am

What the Milgram experiments do show is that some people will do evil if they can blame it on other people.

John Marks

1st January 2020 at 8:07 pm

No, they weren’t just following orders.
Lots of Germans felt outraged at the punishment meted out at Versailles, concluding WWI.
And it was our side (the Serbians) who kicked off WWI.
Then came the Great Depression, 1929-1933. That would just as likely have pushed the British population to vote for a demagogue if we’d received similar treatment to Germany.

James Knight

1st January 2020 at 2:32 pm

We don’t need Milgram’s experiment. Now we have I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here where people are “tortured” at the behest of Ant & Dec who behave like Gaddafi’s sons.

K Tojo

1st January 2020 at 11:36 am

Interest in the Stanley Milgram experiments was revived by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Did events there confirm Milgram’s thesis? I doubt it. What happened at Abu Ghraib looked like ordinary people taking the opportunity to be cruel with impunity rather than being coerced by determined authority into committing inhumane acts they had serious doubts about.

You don’t need an authoritarian system to bring out the sadist in ordinary people. Plenty of people are only too ready to indulge in petty cruelty.


1st January 2020 at 1:01 pm

‘What happened at Abu Ghraib looked like ordinary people taking the opportunity to be cruel with impunity . . .’

I think that there’s a bit more to it than that. An essential pre-condition is that the victims have to be – at least partially – ‘de-humanised’ in advance. Those who carried out the wanton cruelty at Abu Ghraib just didn’t see the prisoners as people in the same way as they’d have seen their neighbours – even neighbours that they had nothing in common with – as people. The Germans – in many cases they were ordinarily decent people, if not outstanding moral philosophers – who carried carried out the worst atrocities had spent years being conditioned not to see Jews or Gypsies or Slavs as people like them. They did see the British, Scandinavians and other Western Europeans as people like them.

A good book on the mentality of one of the Nazi war criminals (Franz Stangl) is Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness.

Agustus Haggerty

3rd January 2020 at 7:57 pm

The physical and mental control that the military has over one is extreme, and the consequences of even minor disobedience can be terrible—and that’s in the American forces. Imagine the Wehrmacht.

Howard Taylor

1st January 2020 at 11:36 am

Every one knows the difference between right and wrong.but most will consider the threat to their self if not carrying out the orders, and eventually increasing the risk of self harm. very few people have the ability to resist the perceived societal pressure to think outside the norm of the society in which they live.

Michael Lynch

1st January 2020 at 11:02 am

Interesting points raised and it’s easy to see that many involved in the experiment would have been cute enough to know that the person beyond the screen wasn’t really suffering pain. It was a simple game to many and they were probably being paid which added further incentive to complete the test. However, I’d have thought that Western Universities would have been seriously preoccupied in finding out how it was possible to get entire societies to act out the neurotic fantasies of a single mind. How did Stalin, Mao and Hitler achieve this? We see it happening in North Korea at present and no one seems to have the answer. Is it down to simple act of earning money, was it fear, simple coercion or blind belief? In fact, why do millions of people, even in the most liberal of societies like our own, get up every morning, go to work, pay taxes and obey the law without dissent? It is simply all down to herd mentality?

Claire D

1st January 2020 at 11:10 am

‘ Crowds and Power ‘ by Elias Canetti is worth reading on this subject.

Claire D

1st January 2020 at 11:17 am

Actually it’s worth reading full stop.

Michael Lynch

1st January 2020 at 11:31 am

Cheers Claire, I’ll certainly take a look at that.

David Alanson

1st January 2020 at 7:41 am

Trent Park recordings are an amazing insight into human behaviour by senior German Officers who saw what was happening in WW2. They were secretly recorded by British Intelligence.

Human beings have choice; we can choose to allow greed or gossip into our hearts. Equally we can challenge bullying and cruelty. I find I vary from situation to situation; sometimes I do stand up to bully’s ; sometimes my courage fails me.

Interesting article.

Mike Stallard

1st January 2020 at 7:11 am

I am a historian. My job is to understand, not to condemn. That is hard with the SS. But I can say that racism was much more “normal” in those far off days than it is today – we all know that. And we also know that today it is most certainly creeping back with the Muslim – Palestinian – Jewish – Labour Party problems. We also know that it was seen by Himmler as a cleansing process which, miraculously, did not corrupt the pure Aryan minds of the SS who did the dirty work. Racism today, however, is a no-no. And so it should be too.

Jim Lawrie

1st January 2020 at 9:04 pm

Racially motivated violence and prejudice against anyone but whites is a no no.

Jerry Owen

2nd January 2020 at 11:38 am

Isn’t your job to collate ?

Claire D

3rd January 2020 at 7:13 am

I don’t think it is possible to “understand” the SS, or others like them, without confronting the strong likelihood that evil exists, in which case we enter the realms of religion, philosophy and ethics as well as history.

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1st January 2020 at 6:50 am

But this does not explain the reason(s) as to why so many people throughout history, many from ordinary backgrounds and lives, go on to commit such atrocities ?

Jim Lawrie

1st January 2020 at 12:29 pm

And the article goes nowhere near that subject.

It seems like this publication wants to blame anyone and everyone at whatsoever level for the events of the 40’s.
I knew a blacksmith in Greece who was forced to work for the Bulgarians and Germans after seeing atrocities carried out on his female neighbours and knowing his mother, sisters and the rest of the village were next. No-one ever pointed the finger at him. His compatriots were grateful that he offered no resistance whatsoever, and carried out his work to the highest standard under pain of reprisal. Had he fled to the resistance the consequences would have been brutalisation and death for those left behind.

Why people cooperate or actively support a regime cannot be gleaned from the safety of a role playing exercise.
There are few opportunities for heroism in war, and the price of it can be high.

H McLean

1st January 2020 at 3:44 am

Good Lord, an academic fudging the results to guarantee a required outcome! Unfortunately this has been prevalent in the academy for decades, especially in the politically compromised humanities and social sciences.

Jim Lawrie

1st January 2020 at 2:45 am

There is no comparison between the consequences of faffing around in a student experiment, or even faking the results, and breaking military discipline in wartime.

Hugo van der Meer

4th January 2020 at 7:55 pm

@Jim Lawrie


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