The scientific study of authoritarian sociopathy really began with the Milgram Experiment, which found that 65% of otherwise psychologically healthy people would administer a lethal 450-volt shock to a complete stranger based upon nothing but the verbal prodding of an authority figure in a lab coat. What’s seldom pointed out is that Stanley Milgram designed his experiment in response to the chilling testimony of one Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer convicted in 1961. Adolf Eichmann oversaw the logistics of kidnapping and forcefully relocating people deemed enemies of the State to prison camps, and death camps in Nazi Germany. When people joke that the trains ran on time, they can thank Adolf Eichmann.
Commentators on his trial said that he appeared “ordinary and sane” and that he displayed “neither guilt nor hate.” Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial was titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”During questioning he showed no remorse for his role in the murder of his passengers, and in his own defense he flatly repeated an all too familiar phrase:
“I was just following orders.”
In Eichman’s view he was acting upon the decisions of the State, which absolved him of all guilt. He coldly confessed to all his actions, but never acknowledged any personal responsibility.
What’s interesting about Adolf Eichman, when compared to those convicted in the Nuremberg Trials 16 years prior, is that this lesser known Adolf never killed anyone. Now, it’s a matter of historical debate whether or not Adolf Hitler ever directly killed anyone, other than himself. Historians dispute whether he killed his wife, Eva Braun, or she killed herself. In all likelihood Hitler took lives as a corporal in World War I, but it’s of little concern, because Hitler most certainly ordered the deaths of millions of people. Adolf Eichman never did that either. In his trial he was found not guilty of personally killing anyone, but he was still found guilty of crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
When the judges explained their reasoning during sentencing they repeated a quote in the transcript when he said:
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
See, Eichmann’s crime was not simply obeying unethical orders which lead the death of his passengers. His crime was willfully and enthusiastically embracing the legitimacy of those orders. He believed in the rectitude of his actions, which is a different moral infraction that being forced to drive a train against his will.
Adolf Eichmann was an authoritarian sociopath, and I would argue that the Adolf Eichmanns of the world are far more dangerous than the Adolf Hitlers of the world. When atrocities are committed by militarized societies the perpetrators are usually a minority of the population, and the victims are usually also a minority of the population. It is the witnesses who are the majority, and thereby the most capable of meaningful intervention. This was perhaps best expressed by Irish philosopher Edmund Burke who said:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Although that begs the question, are those who do nothing really good? Without the Eichmanns of the world, the Hitlers have no capacity. When the evils of German National Socialism came to light, and the world was screaming “never forget,” and “never again,” only to promptly forget, and recycle those slogans a generation later, Stanley Milgram was asking the question, “How many Adolf Eichmanns are out there anyway?” In his final analysis, published in Psychology Today in 1975, Milgram wrote:
“I would say, on the basis of having a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”
Statism is a mental disorder. That is not a euphemism, but a fact. There is a prevailing view in many societies that this thing, called the State, wields absolute supreme authority. In its wrath the State can smite their enemies, and enforce their prejudices. In its mercy it can heal the sick, and feed the poor. In its power it can turn paper into gold, and if they supplicate enough it can even change the weather. These people believe that society is the product of centralized violence, and not the aggregate of their own decentralized decisions. Those who deeply internalize “obedience to authority” as a core principle become capable of the worst forms of murder, and tolerant of the worst forms of abuse. They even chastise those who resist through horizontal discipline. But most importantly, they become capable of passively witnessing evil, and even facilitating it, believing, as Eichmann did, that their god absolves them of personal responsibility.