Chapter 7. Groups and Organizations

7.5 A Sociological Analysis of the Holocaust

A painting of Adolf Hitler and a swastika with images of violence, anger, and death.
Figure 7.24 Anti-Christ (1942), by Polish-Jewish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)  (Image courtesy of The Arthur Szyk Society/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 4.0

This chapter concludes with a sociological analysis of the Holocaust to indicate the significance of some of the sociological dynamics of group behaviour. In sociology the group is always more than the sum of its parts. This chapter has examined this with regard to how individuals change their behaviour when they are around others in different types of group structure.

Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology noted how being in a crowd affected people very differently during the exuberance of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the riots of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. Chapter 6. Social Interaction has shown how being a member of a social group influences people to conform, to engage in groupthink or to choose in-group and out-group attachments. Social networks are also deeply influential. Depending on where one is located in a social network, individuals are enabled or inhibited, to a lesser or greater degree, to share and receive resources of various sorts from friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, in ways which change peoples behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Formal organizations structure the relationships between individuals in consistent and impersonal ways to be able to achieve organizational goals that individuals could not achieve on their own.

How does the insight that the group is more than the sum of the parts help to analyze how the Holocaust was possible? The Holocaust (literally “whole burnt”) refers to the systematic program of extermination of European Jews and Roma by Nazis between 1941 and 1945. During this period, it is estimated that 6,000,000 Jews and Roma were killed by the Nazis. How was it possible? It is difficult to imagine how the scale of this event could be the product of isolated individuals entering into interaction. It needs to be understood at the level of group behaviour.

Clearly, a significant minority of the population of Germany in the 1930s were anti-Semitic, but even among these individuals the concept of the Final Solution would have been unthinkable. Often, the explanation that has been put forward is that the Nazi era in 20th century Germany was a temporary aberration, a period of mass irrationality and social breakdown; an imposition of racism, hatred, and violence on the population by a megalomaniacal madman — Adolf Hitler — devoted to world domination. This explanation has an element of truth in that the combination of war reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War, the hyper-inflation of the 1920s, and the onset of a global capitalist crisis in the 1930s (the Great Depression) created conditions of instability and widespread desperation. Desperate people do not think clearly.

However, the sociological analysis of the rise of the Nazis and the implementation of the Holocaust is far more discomforting. Rather than an aberration or irrational outburst, the Holocaust unfolded within the purview of legal norms and on the basis of normal sociological phenomena. The Nazis were democratically elected into power not once but twice (in 1932 and 1933); the suspension of the Weimar constitution and the institution of emergency rule were enacted through formal legal, constitutional means; the imposition of totalitarian rule and the internment of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and political opponents were enabled by the voluntary contributions of ordinary citizens; and perhaps most perplexingly, all of this was accomplished in one of the most modern, cultured, educated, technologically advanced, and rationalized societies of Europe. Explanations of the behaviour of the perpetrators that relies on the idea that they were sadists, criminals, or madmen have been discredited for lack of evidence. While there were clearly a few individuals in the death camps known for their sadistic cruelty, “by conventional clinical criteria no more than 10 per cent of the SS could be considered ‘abnormal'” (Kren and Rappoport, quoted in Bauman, 1989).

As Zygmunt Bauman (1989) has argued, the Holocaust could not have occurred without the existence of modern, rational forms of social organization and the modernist desire to improve and “perfect” society:

The Holocaust was not an irrational outflow of the not-yet-fully-eradicated residues of pre-modern barbarity. It was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house (Bauman, 1989).

Bauman argues in particular that it was the rational, efficient organization of the Nazi bureaucracy which, once the problem of a Judenfrei Germany was posed by Hitler — a Germany “free” of Jews — enabled a series of solutions to be examined and rejected before the Final Solution was settled on. Bureaucracy also provided the three conditions which made overcoming individual emotional and moral aversion to the mass killing possible. Firstly, the violence was authorized according to correct bureaucratic procedures and hierarchical channels of command. Secondly, the violence was routinized by the rule-bound practices and clear division of labour of bureaucratic organization. Thirdly, the victims of the violence were dehumanized and distanced through, not only ideological propaganda and media spin, but also the impersonality inherent in bureaucracy (Bauman, 1989).

At no point of its long and tortuous execution did the Holocaust come in conflict with the principles of rationality. The ‘Final Solution’ did not clash at any stage with the rational pursuit of efficient, optimal goal implementation. On the contrary, it arose out of a genuinely rational concern, and it was generated by bureaucracy true to its form and purpose (Bauman, 1989).

As this chapter can be read to suggest, the bureaucratic planning and implementation of the Holocaust was supported by a number of other social conditions and properties of group behaviour. In-group and out-group distinctions divided the population into racialized categories of “Aryan” and Jews-Roma-Others. Eugenics and Social-Darwinism described the racialized division of society as a conflict over survival and limited resources. Reference groups created “imaginary” racial and national identities that minimized differences and maximized commonalities within in-groups and communities of comparison. Styles of leadership in a time of economic and political crisis favoured authoritarianism and social order based on domination. Processes of social conformity and groupthink eroded sources of independent thinking, autonomy and pluralism. Social networks expanded the influence of Nazi propaganda and the influence of the Nazi Party in accessing resources and rewards, while also providing a technology of surveillance and a clandestine network of informants.

The point is that the Holocaust was the product of the same ordinary sociological phenomena that operate in society today, including the formation of in-groups and out-groups, conformity to structures of authority, groupthink, networks and the “rational” structure of bureaucratic organizational forms. Therefore, an answer to the question about how the Holocaust was possible must begin with a study of Simmel’s forms of collective behaviour. Why do individuals conform to the will of collectivities even when this means overcoming strong personal moral convictions or rational thinking?

A sociological answer to this problem begins at the micro-level perspective of interpersonal interactions. In face to face social situations, people are inclined to attune and adjust themselves to each other in finding a common focus of attention. If people achieve feelings of solidarity and agreement with each other in a joint task they leave with feelings of strength, confidence and enthusiasm. If they do not, the feelings are ones of tension and discomfort, which are difficult to sustain and counter to the drive to socialibility (Collins, 2004). Social behaviour at the micro-level is weighted to conformity, but is also episodic and fluid. Where joint actions like the Holocaust extend beyond the immediate, face to face group, sociologists need to examine the properties of groups, networks and formal organizations at meso- and macro-levels to understand how the effect of the whole is more than the sum of the individual parts.

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