by John Spritzler
June, 2001




A popular course in the United States for middle and high school students about the Holocaust gives a false account of anti-Semitism and related events in Nazi-era Germany carefully designed to drive home the lesson that most people are prone to bigotry and are a dangerous force. The course, called "Facing History and Ourselves" (FHAO), is funded by liberal foundations and corporations (and in the past, grants from the U.S. Department of Education) and wealthy individuals. It reaches one million students a year in schools across the country. Foundations and corporate leaders support "Facing History and Ourselves" because it helps discredit the central idea of democracy -- that ordinary people are fit to rule society.

FHAO's main resource book, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, is a 576-page collection of short readings and questions carefully selected to convey a negative view of people by lying about the facts. Contrary to the views promoted by FHAO, the true facts about Germany during the Holocaust show that 1) working class Germans fought the Nazis; 2) anti-Semitism did not come from ordinary people; and 3) anti-Semitism was a weapon used by Germany's industrial and aristocratic elite to attack not only the Jewish minority but the entire working class.


Facing History's discussion of resistance in Germany to the Nazis begins with an Einstein quote: "The world is too dangerous to live in—not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen." The "Facing History" account claims that only a few isolated individuals resisted Nazism. The truth is quite different.

When the President of Germany appointed Hitler Chancellor on Jan 30, 1933, the Nazis had just suffered a major defeat in the national election. It had become clear that the Nazis could not out-poll their main opponents, the working class Marxist parties. Additionally, Nazi storm troopers were being physically attacked by workers in industrial centers and small towns across Germany. The elite installed Hitler as Chancellor because they feared that working class power was getting out of hand, and they were desperate to find a political leader who could lead the upper classes in a ruthless war against the working classes. Standard histories of this period, such as William Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, describe how this happened.

Every time Germans had a chance to vote for or against Hitler, the great majority voted against him. Hitler ran for President in March, 1932 and got only 30% of the vote; in the run-off election the next month he got only 37%, versus 53% for the incumbent Field Marshal von Hindenburg. Nazi electoral strength peaked on July 31, 1932 when Nazi rhetoric about representing all Germans and not special interest groups lured some voters away from the numerous small, special-interest conservative parties. The Nazis won 230 out of 608 total seats in the Reichstag (parliament). But their main foes, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Communist Party—both of which were led by Marxists and received mainly working class votes—jointly captured 222 seats in the same election. Voting records show that the richer the precinct, the higher the Nazi vote.

Working class Germans not only voted against the Nazis, they fought them in the streets. In the German province of Prussia alone, between June 1 and June 20, 1932, there were 461 pitched street battles between workers and Nazis, in which eighty-two people died and four hundred were wounded.

In his classic account, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, William Allen gives a detailed account of events from 1930 to 1935 in a small German rural town with a population of 10,000 mainly middle-class Lutherans.

Allen describes a typical incident. Three weeks before the July 31, 1932 Reichstag elections, twenty-five men in the Reichsbanner (a Social Democratic Party militia organization) got into a fight with sixty Nazi SA (militia) men while crossing a bridge in opposite directions. Homeless people in a nearby Army compound rushed to help the Reichsbanner, and when police arrived there was a surging crowd of about eighty persons pelting the Nazis with stones.

In the next Reichstag election on Nov 6, 1932 the Nazis lost 34 seats, reducing them to only 196 deputies, while the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party won a total of 221 seats — 25 more than the Nazis. This was the last free election before Hitler came to power.

This last free election suggests how little support anti-Semitism had in the German electorate. The Social Democratic Party condemned anti-Semitism as "reactionary" and was known for its history of refusing to combine with anti-Semitic parties in election runoffs even when it would have gained from doing so. The Communist Party also rejected anti-Semitism. (In fact the Nazis lumped Communists together with Jews as being all part of the same evil conspiracy.) Votes for these two parties were votes against anti-Semitism.

After this election the Nazis were in steep decline. The party was literally bankrupt and unable to make the payroll of its functionaries or pay its printers. In provincial elections in Thuringia on December 3, the Nazi's vote dropped by 40 percent. Gregor Strasser, a top Nazi who had lead the party during Hitler's time in prison, concluded that the Nazis would never obtain office through the ballot. In his diary in December, Hitler's right-hand man, Joseph Goebbels, wrote: "[T]he future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hope have quite disappeared."

And yet, only one month later, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor. Industrialists, bankers, large landowners and the military had pressured Hindenburg to appoint Hitler. They feared the growing strength of the working class and were convinced that only Hitler would do whatever was necessary decisively to defeat workers' power.

The elite feared not only working class votes, but a general strike that could lead to civil war. Two months before Hitler's appointment, General Kurt von Schleicher told the current Chancellor, Franz von Papen, "The police and armed services could not guarantee to maintain transport and supply services in the event of a general strike, nor would they be able to ensure law and order in the event of a civil war." When Hindenburg subsequently dismissed Papen and appointed Schleicher as Chancellor, he told Papen: "I am too old and have been through too much to accept the responsibility for a civil war. Our only hope is to let Schleicher try his luck." Schleicher, responding to the same Great Depression and the same kind of working class militancy that forced FDR to offer Americans a New Deal, tried to pacify the German working class with similar promises, but workers didn't trust him. After just fifty-seven days in office the elite decided that only Hitler could do what had to be done.

Twenty-six days before Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, Baron Kurt von Schroeder, a Cologne banker, had a private meeting with Hitler, three other Nazi leaders, and Papen. During this meeting Papen and Hitler agreed that Social Democrats, Communists, and Jews had to be eliminated from leading positions in Germany, and Schroeder promised that German business interests would take over the debts of the Nazi Party. Twelve days later, Goebbels reported that the financial position of the (previously bankrupt) Nazi party had "fundamentally improved overnight."

FHAO explains Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by telling students that Schleicher, Papen, and Hindenburg represented powerful people with little popular support who made a deal with Hitler: "He had the popularity they lacked and they had the power he needed."

This sophisticated-sounding analysis is wrong. The election results alone showed that Hitler's popularity was quite limited and in decline. Millions of Germans were actively, many even violently, opposing the Nazis. What Hitler offered the elite was not popularity, but the determination to lead an all-out attack on the working class.

Within two months of being appointed Chancellor, Hitler arrested four thousand leaders of the Communist Party along with others in the Social Democratic and liberal parties and carted them off to be tortured and beaten. On May 2, 1933 Nazis occupied all trade union headquarters, confiscated their funds, dissolved the unions, and sent the leaders to concentration camps; any known working class radicals were put in prison camps or went into hiding. By 1938 tens of thousands of working class leaders were in the concentration camps or prison and hundreds had been killed. Eventually the Nazis rounded up three million political prisoners.

Even after the Nazis took over the government, destroyed the unions, and imprisoned opposition leaders, the German working class fought them. This resistance is described by John Weiss in his book, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany. Weiss explains that resistance took many forms. No worker loyal to the Nazis was ever elected to workers' councils by his mates. When the Nazi government escalated its attack on Jews by destroying their property, killing ninety, and sending thirty thousand to concentration camps during the infamous "Kristallnacht" on November 9-10, 1938, workers distributed tens of thousands of leaflets protesting Kristallnacht, and millions of other anti-Nazi leaflets. Red flags flew defiantly over factories, and posters attacked the regime. In working class districts, youth gangs painted anti-Nazi graffiti and regularly beat up members of the Hitler Youth.

Later, even with three million political prisoners in the camps, workers still refused to make peace with the regime. Industrialists reported thousands of examples of slowdowns, stoppages, and sabotage, as well as some strikes and mass protest meetings. During the war, the Krupp corporation alone reported to the Gestapo some five thousand examples of such "treason." Most work stoppages, the Nazis believed, were used as a safe way to protest their rule. In the first and only elections for factory delegates to the Labor Front, Nazi candidates were overwhelmingly defeated, and Nazi-appointed workers' "representatives" were scorned. Propaganda meetings were sparsely attended and the Hitler greeting ignored. Workers harassed or beat up workers who supported the regime, and they distributed antiwar slogans and songs. Even as late as 1944 workers fought pitched battles against Nazis in the bombed-out rubble, forcing the SS to seal off the workers districts and capture thousands. The Nazi Security Service itself reported that most workers remained opposed to the Nazis.

Like workers in the cities, many rural Germans rejected anti-Semitism, sometimes to the point of risking their lives to help Jews. For example, near the war's end, SS guards marched starving Jewish prisoners to death in zig-zag paths across the German countryside. Despite twelve years of Nazi propaganda declaring Jews to be sub-human enemies of the German nation, and despite threats from the guards to shoot anyone who offered the Jewish prisoners aid, German civilians in the towns of Ahornberg, Sangerberg, Althutten, and Volary offered food and water to the Jews. In Allen's book detailing events in a single town, he reports that, despite the Nazi drive to enroll every school child in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls, and the abolition of all other school clubs, nonetheless: "In fact, even pupils sympathetic to Nazism felt enough of a sense of solidarity with fellow-students of the Jewish faith so that they refused to sing the 'Horst Wessel Song' [a Nazi marching song] in their presence."

In FHAO's book there is no inkling of the mass working class resistance to the Nazis, no hint that Holocaust-era Germany was in a state of extreme class war—a virtual civil war. Instead, FHAO writes, "Although the [Nazi] storm troopers operated outside the law, they encountered very little opposition. Indeed many openly supported their efforts." The accounts in the FHAO text all deny the widespread nature of resistance. A typical one is from Primo Levi who claims, "[T]he German people as a whole did not even try to resist." To suggest how self-centered and morally weak people are—even opponents of the authorities— FHAO points to a professor "of Nobel-Prize caliber and impeccable liberal credentials" who replied to a Nazi commissar's banning of Jews from Frankfurt University by asking the Nazi, "Will there be more money for research in physiology?"

In the fantasy world of FHAO the only resistance to the Nazis came from rare individuals. For example, fourteen students led by Hans and Sophie Scholl and calling themselves "White Rose" distributed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets before being caught and beheaded. They in fact were part of a massive working class resistance. But this is how FHAO describes them: "Among the few Germans to act on what they knew were Hans Scholl and his younger sister Sophie." Ignoring working class battles against the Nazis, FHAO suggests that what little resistance there was came from the upper classes. They write, "Although the Nazis were able to destroy the White Rose, they could not stop their message from being heard. Helmuth von Moltke, a German aristocrat, smuggled copies to friends in neutral countries."

Similarly, FHAO lies about the massive resistance to the Nazis when they ordered doctors and nurses to kill patients with mental or physical impairments that rendered them "unfit Aryans." The outcry against the Nazi euthanasia program spread from relatives of the murdered people to the entire country, and included public demonstrations and press editorials. But FHAO singles out a minister who "worked behind the scenes" against the euthanasia, writes that his fellow pastors "gave him little support," and asks the student, "How do you account for the fact that few Germans protested 'euthanasia' even though it was directed against 'Aryan' Germans as well as Jews and other minorities?"


Facing History and Ourselves identifies human nature as the source of anti-Semitism and other prejudices. Its resource book begins with chapters devoted to this theme. One unit on stereotypes and prejudice cites a psychologist who writes: "[W]e tend to see others as representatives of groups. It's a natural tendency...But [it] has unfortunate consequences." The resource book's introduction quotes a former student: "This course made me look inside myself. I for one know that I have felt prejudice toward someone of some other group. These things are all a part of being a human being, but cooperation, peace and love are ingredients also."

Facing History's central theme is that bigotry stems from people's nature as human beings, but that people also have the potential to resist this impulse and to act morally and courageously. This central point, however, is wrong. Bigotry does not stem from human nature; it is fomented by elites who use it as a method of social control. Facing History’s description of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda divorces it completely from its role as an elite weapon against the German working classes. Facing History in this way deflects attention from the real source of the problem of bigotry and blames ordinary people instead.

The key fact that makes it possible to understand anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany is that Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was designed to shift the focus of people's anger away from capitalists. This was a time when capitalists all over the world were in mortal fear of losing power to a revolutionary working class. The enormous unemployment and economic hardship caused by the Depression were leading millions of people to question the capitalist system. Taking advantage of the fact that the Bolshevik (Communist) government in the Soviet Union was notoriously anti-democratic, capitalists everywhere used the "Bolshevik menace" to rally followers against the working class in their own countries, whose revolutionary potential is what truly frightened them.

The Nazis used anti-Semitism to strengthen the forces opposed to working class revolution, or "Bolshevism." Nazis lumped Jews and "Bolsheviks" together, accusing them of being a single diabolical conspiracy against the German people. When people got angry at capitalists, the Nazis singled out Jewish capitalists and in the next breath blamed "Bolshevik" workers.

In the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, Germany was in the throes of the Depression and the world seemed to be falling apart. Record numbers of small merchants and artisans were driven into bankruptcy by banks and big business depriving them of cheap credit and large department stores underpricing them. When small businessmen and artisan associations denounced big business, the Nazis countered that blaming fellow Germans was a "Jewish-Marxist" sham. They said the real problem was that department stores could sell cheap Russian goods because Jewish Bolsheviks exploited Christian workers to benefit German Jews.

The peasants also were being driven into bankruptcy. Demanding "free trade," big business backed government policies that forced the peasants to dump their produce for low prices, and charged them exorbitantly for loans and supplies. Police seized the possessions of bankrupted peasants. Unlike all the other parties, the Nazis organized demonstrations and violent blockades against the police and authorities auctioning off peasant property. The Nazis railed against the "fertilizer Jews," the "grain Jews," the "bank Jews," the "stock exchange Jews" and the "commodity trading Jews," but also against "Jewish Bolsheviks" to blame city workers. A famous Nazi poster attacked the working class anti-Nazi street fighters by portraying one of them protecting a Jewish financier sitting on a bag of gold labeled "War, revolution, inflation—profits of eastern Jews." The poster asks, "Is this your battle against capitalism, Marxist?"

The conservative upper classes of Germany were the backbone of anti-Semitism. The newspapers and institutions they controlled spewed anti-Semitic propaganda, and their children disproportionately joined Hitler's SS troops from the beginning. Anti-Semitism was used to recruit and ideologically motivate elements of the population who could be used to carry out violence against opponents of the Nazi regime.

Anti-Semitism, however, was not the basis on which Nazis sought support among the general public. In fact, when it came to winning middle class votes, the Nazis actually had to downplay anti-Semitism. In Germans Into Nazis, Peter Fritzsche writes: "Germans do not appear to have voted for the Nazis because they blamed the Jews for their troubles... [A]nti-Semitism played only a secondary role in National Socialist [Nazi] election campaigns. It was not the main feature in electoral propaganda or in the pages of the leading Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter." William F. Allen reports the same thing in the town of "Thalburg" just prior to the Nazi takeover: "Social discrimination against Jews was practically non-existent in the town...If Nazi anti-Semitism held any appeal for the townspeople, it was in a highly abstract form, as a remote theory unconnected with daily encounters with real Jews in Thalburg. Thalburg's [Nazi] leaders sensed this, and in consequence anti-Semitism was not pushed in propaganda except in a ritualistic way."

In the hundreds of pages which Facing History devotes to the subject of anti-Semitism in Germany, all discussion of the role of anti-Semitism as a weapon in the ferocious class war raging in Germany is conspicuously missing. Helping students understand the real origin and role of anti-Semitism is not Facing History's intent; its intent is to use the horror of the Holocaust to convince students that bigotry comes from human nature. The implicit message, and the reason Facing History gets support from wealthy and powerful people, is that the way to fight bigotry is not to help ordinary people succeed in their struggles against elite power, but rather to admonish people to rise above their innate prejudices.


The Facing History and Ourselves text contends that the Holocaust is proof of the latent bigotry of most people. Supposedly the Holocaust could not have happened unless most Germans wanted it to happen. But, as we have seen, Germans were sharply divided over support or opposition to the Nazis, and even among the middle class attracted to the Nazis, anti-Semitism was not the basis for that attraction. The wealthiest Germans, on the other hand, bankrolled the Nazis, used anti-Semitism to deflect popular anger away from themselves and against working people, and used terrorism against Jews to intimidate opposition to elite rule. To carry out the Holocaust, the upper class needed only to cow most Germans into obedience; they neither required nor obtained the agreement of most Germans with their genocidal goal.

Hitler was aware of the widespread opposition to his rule and knew he had to abolish elections altogether. He suppressed his opponents with his new governmental power and then held one last election on March 5, 1933.

On February 27 the Reichstag [Parliament] building erupted in flames. Hitler declared it a Communist crime. The next day, civil liberties for all Germans were suspended—for the duration of the Third Reich. Only the Nazis and their Nationalist allies were permitted to campaign for the election unmolested, while thousands of Communist, Social Democrat and liberal leaders were arrested and beaten.

In the midst of this Nazi terror, with Hitler already Chancellor and the working class parties effectively suppressed, the Nazis still captured only 44 percent of the total vote.

After the Nazis were handed the reigns of government by the German elite, they used that power ruthlessly not only against anyone opposing them politically, but also against anyone expressing solidarity with Jews. In The Gestapo and German Society, Robert Gellately writes, "When it came to enforcing racial policies destined to isolate Jews, there can be no doubt that the wrath of the Gestapo knew no bounds, often dispensing with even the semblance of legal procedures. It is important to be reminded of the 'legal' and 'extra-legal' terror brought down on the heads of those who would not otherwise comply...Sometimes they [those who wanted to aid Jews] were driven to suicide."

The Nazi "Final Solution," the plan to kill all European Jews, did not begin until 1941, well into the war period. The Nazis, and the German elite that put them in power, launched World War II intending to crush any possibility of working class revolution in Europe by enslaving virtually the entire European working class. They thought they could legitimize the slavery with racist ideology.

War is the most powerful weapon that ruling classes have for commanding obedience. In peacetime the Nazis would not have been able to convince sufficient numbers of people to kill innocent people just because they were Jewish. As "leaders of the nation at war," the Nazis declared Jews to be the nation's enemy, and made opposition to the genocide tantamount to treason. Germans were drafted into military and police units and given their genocidal orders.

Most of the drafted men who obeyed their commands did so for reasons that had nothing to do with wanting to kill Jews. These men were stationed as occupying forces in Poland, Russia, and other foreign countries, surrounded by hostile populations. Breaking ranks by refusing orders meant, at the very least, implicitly denouncing the only people who provided material support and social contact far from home. Outright disagreement with the German government's war aims meant declaring oneself a traitor. Few men, in such circumstances, could imagine refusing orders from their legal government in time of war to kill those declared to be the enemy.

Because the Gestapo terror and mass arrests had eliminated organized and visible opposition to the Nazi regime and its killing of Jews, individuals opposed to the killing felt more alone than they really were, and hence lacked the confidence to challenge the authorities. At the same time, Hitler knew how little support there was for the genocide, which is why he shrouded the Final Solution in secrecy and banned public discussion of it.

The notion that the Holocaust could only have happened because most ordinary Germans wanted to kill the Jews is not supported by the weight of scholarly evidence. Yet Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, advances this notion, and has received acclaim for it in the New York Times, Time, and other corporate media. Goldhagen makes fraudulent use of historical evidence to argue for his thesis. For example, Goldhagen cites "ritual murder" accusations leveled against Jews as evidence for rampant anti-Semitism in Germany before the First World War. He writes, "...in Germany and the Austrian Empire, twelve such trials [for ritual murder] took place between 1867 and 1914." Goldhagen, however, omitted the remainder of the sentence which appears in his source; it reads "eleven of which collapsed although the trials were by jury." As Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn point out, honest use of the evidence by Goldhagen would have contradicted his thesis.

If Facing History approached the Holocaust from the perspective of asking why the working classes of Germany failed to defeat the upper classes, despite the fact that they outvoted the Nazis and fought them in the streets, then it would be a valuable course in our schools. Instead Facing History misleads students into thinking that there was no substantial fight against the Nazis, or even disagreement with them, and then cynically asks students to ponder what this means about the moral character of average people.


What, then, does explain the Nazi victory over working people in Germany? The answer is that Nazism could only have been defeated by a popular armed revolution, and there was no democratic model of revolution appealing to the majority of Germans and no revolutionary leadership committed to such a model. The Social Democratic Party had long since abandoned the goal of revolution and committed its considerable power to protecting the Weimar republic against Communist revolution. The German Communist Party offered only an anti-democratic idea of revolution which had already proved itself a disaster in the Soviet Union.

The problem was not that the Nazis reflected the real values and goals of most Germans. The problem was that the Marxist leaders of the working class parties, the Social Democratic and Communist parties, failed to champion the revolutionary aspirations of the majority of Germans.

If the Marxists had provided leadership for ordinary people's revolutionary goals, history might have been very different. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), however, which controlled the major trade unions, acted like a special interest group and only bargained for trade-union concessions, rather than mobilizing the working class for social transformation.

In these years (that is, 1929-33) the German Communist Party did espouse workers' revolution (this changed in 1935), but the anti-democratic model of Soviet-style revolution could hardly have been expected to gain majority support. In the USSR at the time, having crushed the Workers' Opposition within the Communist Party, the Stalin leadership was consolidating its power, destroying any lingering illusions that the Bolshevik Revolution could lead to a promising new world.


The real lessons of the Holocaust are that bigotry is generated by elites as a means of social control and that there is no limit to the horrors the ruling class will impose to stay in power. Until people overthrow elite rule and create real democracy, elites can and will commit mass murder.

Facing History talks about applying the lessons of history to our own lives. But the process should go in the opposite direction. We should use the experiences of our own lives, about which we have real knowledge, to try to understand historical events about which we have only the words of others.

The lesson of our everyday experience and the lesson of real history truthfully told is that ordinary people are the source of what is best in our world—caring relations of commitment to each other, trust, equality and solidarity. Left to themselves, regular people try to make the world better—without racial, ethnic or religious bigotry and without elite domination. This is exactly why the elite work so hard to make people mistrustful of each other. To Germany's elite in the 1930s and '40s, anti-Semitism seemed like a good way to create this mistrust. Anti-Semitism had a long history and a sophisticated, "scientific" aura based on new racial theories of "eugenics." Germans in respectable universities were taught that these were progressive ideas that would lead to a better society. Without this progressive facade, anti-Semitism would have remained a relic from the past.

Today crude forms of anti-Semitism and racism are largely discredited, so new kinds of propaganda are used. The goal of the propaganda is always the same—to blame ordinary people for problems that are in fact caused by the elite. The difference is that now the progressive facade is not about protecting society from people of this or that race or religion, but protecting it from the majority of people who supposedly have an instinctive tendency towards bigotry, and who supposedly lack the moral fortitude to do what is right.

Facing History And Ourselves is simply the newest, most sophisticated form of propaganda designed to do exactly what anti-Semitism was meant to do—convince us that ordinary people are the problem and elite rule the solution in creating a humane and just society.



The central idea of democracy is that ordinary people are fit to rule. Throughout history the privileged few who rule over the many have sought to undermine this idea one way or another. The latest method that corporate leaders have adopted involves using liberal rhetoric with its catch words and phrases -- "tolerance," "diversity," and opposition to "hate" and "racism" -- to undermine the idea of democracy.

The new corporate approach is to convince people that genuine democracy might not be such a good idea because so many ordinary people are prone to bigotry and ready to follow demagogues, the way Germans supposedly eagerly followed Hitler. To spread this view, corporate leaders are posing as champions of "tolerance" and exhorting the public to be less "hateful." They do this in a manner designed to make it seem as if ordinary people are dangerous -- the very source of bigotry and hate. The goal is to undermine the idea of majority rule.

A case in point is Facing History And Ourselves. The popularity of the Facing History Holocaust course is due to the fact that it purports to be against bigotry and prejudice. Facing History frames its discussion of prejudice, however, in the context of a profoundly negative view of ordinary people. If people are really the way Facing History says they are, then they certainly should not rule society.



Facing History and Ourselves argues that the Nazis succeeded in carrying out the Holocaust because most people are not only prone to bigotry, but are also morally weak: they obey authority instead of their conscience. To make sure students draw this conclusion, Facing History precedes its discussion of the Holocaust (in its Resource Book, Facing History And Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior) with a distorted account of a series of famous experiments on the psychology of obedience to authority, conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960's.

Facing History distorts the account of the famous Milgram experiments to convince students that only extraordinary people can be relied on to stand up for what is right. As Facing History relates, in these experiments subjects were falsely told that they were part of an experiment to study the effect of punishment on learning and that the experiment required them to give short but very painful electrical shocks to other subjects who had agreed to be the "learner." Facing History tells students that when the authority figure in the experiment asked the subjects to administer the shocks, "the majority of normal, average subjects behave[d] in evil (felonious) ways" and that even those subjects who refused to give the shocks still didn't "denounce the researcher." Quoting Hannah Arendt, Facing History wonders: "How do average even admirable people become dehumanized by the critical circumstances pressing in on them?" "What," Facing History asks,  "is blind obedience?" The effect on students of this account would be quite different, however, if Facing History informed students of two crucial facts which their Resource Book does not mention. First, the reason subjects didn't "denounce the researcher" was because they were told right after participating that the electrical shocks were fake and that the "learner" who cried out in pain was an actor.

Second, and more importantly, the conclusion drawn from the experiments by Stanley Milgram is quite different from the conclusion drawn by Facing History. The key distinction Milgram makes is that people obey and believe in what they perceive to be legitimate authority that serves a "desirable end," not just any authority. In his book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram concludes that "A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority." He adds, "Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing [his emphasis] obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end...The experiment is presented to our subjects in a way that stresses its positive human values: increase of knowledge about learning and memory processes. These ends are consistent with generally held cultural values. Obedience is merely instrumental to the attainment of these ends."

But Facing History wants students to view ordinary people as a dangerous element who just obey authority "blindly," no matter how evil it may be, and so they conclude the unit on this experiment by asking students: "What encourages obedience? Is it fear of punishment? A desire to please? A need to go along with the group? A belief in authority?" Facing History doesn't tell students that Milgram's own book suggests that the answer should be none of the above, but rather "a belief that the authority embodies positive human values."

Facing History describes a second experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo, also a psychologist, to reinforce its point that people are innately prone to hatefulness. In this experiment volunteer men were made to assume roles of guards and prisoners. Facing History quotes Zimbardo as saying that the mock prison had to be shut down because "the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced." (This quotation is supposedly from a journal called Societies, but librarians at Harvard University could find no trace of such a journal.)

Zimbardo's prison experiment in fact shows, if anything, that people are not innately hateful. In his web page discussion of the experiment Zimbardo indicates that only one third of the guards exhibited cruel behavior, and this was prompted by their being ordered to subject the prisoners to very real physical and emotional abuse and then to suppress a very real rebellion. The cause of the cruel behavior in the experiment was not "human nature;" the cause was the experimenter creating circumstances that fomented cruelty. (In real life it is not experimenters, but elites who work very hard to create the circumstances that foment prejudice. They spread lies and discriminate against certain groups to turn people against one another to divide-and-rule. Using these experiments to suggest that prejudice comes from human nature is just an attempt to deflect attention away from the real cause.)

As for the origin of prejudice, Zimbardo wrote a book on this subject which expresses views quite different from the ones Facing History attributes to him. In his The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence, in a section called "Some Origins of Prejudiced Attitudes," Zimbardo says there are two major types of explanation for prejudice: "dispositional," meaning due to the personality of individuals, and "historical sociocultural." Zimbardo illustrates the latter approach by noting that "The economic advantage accruing to those in power over those they discriminate against is obvious in the institutions of slavery and apartheid, ... and in the unequal pay and limits on advancement of women and minorities. Prejudice and discrimination pay off for some people; they did so for the founding fathers of America who were slaveholders, and they still do for those who exploit unskilled and blue-collar laborers in mines and farms and factories." Regarding the "dispositional" explanation of prejudice, the idea that it comes from something wrong with people's personality, Zimbardo writes, "However, this view is not accepted by social psychologists as the full explanation of prejudice because it is too narrowly intrapsychic without acknowledging all of the social causes of prejudice." Thus both Zimbardo and Milgram reject the conclusions from their own experiments that Facing History draws from them.



Facing History's negative view of people is not an isolated fluke. Corporate leaders of the most powerful institutions in society are attacking the idea of democracy in novel ways. On November 16, 1999 FleetBoston Financial Corporation ran a full page advertisement in the Boston Globe, promoting its sponsorship of Team Harmony. The ad's text makes it clear that when it comes to bigotry, FleetBoston believes that the problem is not people with wealth and power, but average teenagers. Hence the ad describes Team Harmony as "a program developed to help teens overcome bigotry and learn to respect people of all races and backgrounds. "It is especially audacious for Boston bankers to preach "tolerance" to teenagers since it is well known that it was Boston's bankers who used discriminatory mortgage policies (the notorious "redlining" of neighborhoods) in the 1960's to create black residential ghettos.

Another example reveals the utter contempt that the elite have for regular people. The Boston Globe, one of the nation's most liberal newspapers, now owned by the New York Times and for decades the leading mouthpiece for New England's corporate leadership, used the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday to accuse most people of having values and dreams the opposite of MLK's. On January 17, 2000 the Globe itself ran a full page advertisement. Under the heading "Most People" the ad listed three dreams: Winning the lottery, Owning a big house and car, and Being a movie star. Under the heading "Martin Luther King, Jr." they printed his famous "I have a dream" speech. Message: regular people are self-centered and petty whereas elite leaders like the Globe's owners share MLK Jr's idealism and vision.


We should not let their use of liberal and progressive rhetoric disguise the fact that corporate leaders are trying to undermine all of the truly progressive efforts of people to make our society more equal and democratic. The very fact that corporations feel obliged to pose as champions of "tolerance" in order to gain public approval is itself evidence that the public is by and large opposed to prejudice and bigotry. The corporate portrayal of ordinary people as hateful, bigoted and selfish is meant to make people feel so alone and hopeless about the prospect of building a revolutionary movement for a better world that they will not even try.

Let's turn this corporate attack around, by having conversations with friends and neighbors and co-workers about the real elitist message behind the liberal rhetoric. My son took the Boston Globe's MLK ad to his high school and pointed out to his teachers and friends how disgustingly anti-people it was. They all agreed. Now the Globe has far less influence among those people, despite its liberal reputation. The more we expose how corporations lie about ordinary people to portray them as the source of the problems in society, the more confidence people will have in each other that they are indeed fit to rule society and create a real democracy.



The Facing History And Ourselves resource book is Facing History And Ourselves: Holocaust And Human Behavior, published by the Facing History And Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., Brookline, Massachusetts, 1994. The quotations cited are, in the order they were cited, pages 363 (Einstein quote), 152 ("He had the popularity they lacked..."), 171 ("Although the [Nazi] storm troopers..."), 364 ("[T]he German people as a whole..."), 172-3 ("Will there be more money..."), 373 ("Although the Nazis..."), 282-3 ("How do you account..."), 13 ("[W]e tend to see others...').

William L. Shirer, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, Fawcett Crest, New York, 1950, 30th Anniversary Edition, paperback version is the main source for election results, accounts of what politicians, generals, bankers, and Nazi officials did and said leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, violence against Nazis in Prussia, and descriptions of Hitler's suppression of Communists and trade unions. The pages that cover this period are 219-282, and the specific pages cited are, in the order they were cited, pages 222-3 (Presidential election results), 233 (Reichstag election results), 231 (461 pitched battles against Nazis), 241 (Reichstag election results), 246 (Nazi party bankrupt), 247 (top Nazi Gregor Strasser sure Nazis would never obtain office by ballot), 249 (Baron Kurt von Schroeder would take over the Nazi's debts), 257 (President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor), 244 ( General Schleicher tells Chancellor he fears general strike, civil war), 245 (President Hindenburg fears civil war), 246 (Schleicher lasts only 57 days in office), 251 (Goebbels reports Nazis no longer bankrupt), 249-251 (Baron Kurt von Schroeder says bankers will take over Nazi debts), 271 and 282 (Nazi occupation of trade unions), 259 (SDP only bargained for concessions).

John Weiss, Ideology Of Death: Why The Holocaust Happened In Germany, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996, is the main source for accounts of resistance to the Nazis and descriptions of how Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was carried out. The specific pages cited are, in the order they were cited, pages 145 (SDP's refusal to join with anti-Semitic parties), 302 (elite pressure on Hindenburg to appoint Hitler), 303 (Schliecher's 57 day tenure), 284 and 362-3 (worker resistance to the Nazis after Hitler came to power), 350 (demonstrations against Nazi euthanasia), 279 and 283 (Nazi claims that Jewish Bolsheviks exploited Christian workers), 274 and 276 and 283 (Nazi propaganda about "grain Jews" etc.), 284 (Nazi poster), 284, 294, 307 (elite support of Nazis and anti-Semitism), 273 (SDP food price policy), 297-8 and 356-8 (racial theories of eugenics.)

Peter Fritzsche, Germans Into Nazis, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, paperback edition, is the source for statements about German voting patterns. Page 206 cites Richard F. Hamilton's "Who Voted for Hitler?" that voting records show that the richer the precinct, the higher the Nazi vote. Page 40 argues that "Germans do not appear to have voted for the Nazis because they blamed the Jews for their troubles..."

William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930-1935, Quadrangle Books, Chicago 1965, paperback edition, is the source of facts from a specific rural town. The pages cited are, in the order they were cited, pages 115 (homeless people pelting Nazis with stones), 251 (students refusing to sing the Nazi Horst Wessel Song), 77 (Social discrimination against Jews was practically non-existent), 48-49 (conservative role of Social Democratic Party), 180 (SDP rank and file wanted to launch a revolt against the Nazis).

Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996, p 348-9. It is particularly telling that incidents of rural Germans in town after town risking their lives to help Jews who were being marched to death should be reported by this author, since his thesis is that virtually all Germans were eager to kill the Jews. Goldhagen needed to mention the townspeople who came to the aid of the Jews in order to highlight the anti-Semitism of the SS guards who threatened the townspeople. He seems unaware of the fact that he inadvertently undermines his own thesis. (In "A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth" Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn thoroughly refute Goldhagen's thesis.)

Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation On Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis And Historical Truth, "Hitler knew how little support there was for the genocide, which is why he shrouded the Final Solution in secrecy and banned public discussion of it." pg. 53, also Finkelstein supports this by citing Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution, chapter 8; Gordon, Hitler, Germans and the 'Jewish Question, 182-6; Hans Mommsen, What Did the Germans Know About the Genocide of the Jews? in Walter H. Pehle (ed.), November 1938 (New York, 1991); Mommsen, The Realization of the Unthinkable, 108, 128, 131 n12; Steinert, Hitler's War and the Germans, 55, 140-5 passim, 335

Robert Gellately, The Gestapo and German Society, Oxford, 1990, cited in A Nation On Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis And Historical Truth, by Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, pages 38-9 discusses the wrath of the Gestapo when it came to enforcing racial policies destined to isolate Jews.

Leonard Gross, The Last Jews in Berlin, Carroll & Graf, New York, 1992 describes the way Jews in Berlin managed to escape the Nazis by relying on the help of non-Jews. It includes an anecdote about how the sister of the fallen German WWI soldier, Horst Wessel, aided Jews to escape the Nazis, which is especially interesting because the unofficial Nazi anthem was the "Horst Wessel Song."


FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES (RESOURCE BOOK). Regarding the Milgram experiment: "the majority of normal, average subjects behave in evil (felonious) ways..." pg. 211. "How do average even admirable people become dehumanized..." pg. 210. "What, Facing History asks,  is blind obedience?...What encourages obedience? Is it fear of punishment?... " pg. 212. Regarding the Zimbardo experiment: "the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced." pg 211-212; reference to Societies is note 4 pg. 251.

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Harper and Row, New York, 1974. "A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do,..." pg. 189. "Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing [his emphasis] obedience..." pg. 142. "The experiment is presented to our subjects in a way that stresses its positive human values..." pg. 176. Milgram's next sentence, interestingly, is "By contrast, the objectives that Nazi Germany pursued were themselves morally reprehensible, and were recognized as such by many Germans."

Zimbardo prison experiment web site: http://www.prisonexp.org/

Philip G. Zimbardo, Michael R. Leippe , The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence, McGraw-Hill, c1991., see the section called "Some Origins of Prejudiced Attitudes" for his explanation of prejudice.

Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon, The Death of an American Jewish Community", The Free Press, New York, 1992, pg. 3, 8, 108, 166, 167, 272, 273, 282 for a discussion of 'redlining' as referred to in: "It is especially audacious for Boston bankers to preach 'tolerance' to teenagers since it is well known that it was Boston's bankers who used discriminatory mortgage policies (the notorious 'redlining' of neighborhoods) in the 1960's to create black residential ghettos."


John Spritzler is a co-editor of www.NewDemocracyWorld.org and the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda in World War II.

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