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The ossuary in the corporate closet
July 11, 2006 4:48 AM   Subscribe

From cooperation to complicity. In 1988, the German chemical giant Degussa commissioned a study (by American historian Peter Hayes) on its collaboration with the National-Socialist regime. The corporation's involvement in the production of Zyklon B has been well publicised, due to the controversy over the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but it's only one chapter of a larger story that, according to the author (PDF), "suggests that most people, when presented with opportunities or imperatives that they have every imminent or material reason to accept or accede to and only potential or moral grounds to reject, will choose the course of least resistance, internalize the arguments that legitimate it, and balk at admitting that one could or should have done otherwise."
posted by elgilito (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
This reminds me of The Nazi Doctors, which explores the psychology of how doctors who pledged to save lives walked down a path toward intentionally taking them.

It's disturbing to think about how the human mind works, sometimes. Thanks for the link.
posted by miss tea at 5:12 AM on July 11, 2006


thanks...we're seeing it here--the acceptance of unending detention, rendition, torture, spying on us...
posted by amberglow at 7:32 AM on July 11, 2006


When you look at the percentage of people who didn't resist, you have to wonder how you would be counted in a similar situation if you had to face it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2006


Absolutely, Ironmouth. That's the frightening thing-- these were regular people, just like you and me. And, Amberglow, I too feel like the acceptanceof detention & torture says something very frightening about us.
posted by miss tea at 8:38 AM on July 11, 2006


Milgram, anyone?
posted by oraknabo at 9:17 AM on July 11, 2006


An aside about Zyklon-B that is little referenced is its marketing. Not created as a "human killer", it and other crystalline cyanide products were widely used as pesticides.

In particular, barracks-like quarters that had infestations of lice and other insects would be tented, then the gas would be generated inside the tent as an effective means of killing the bugs. One US soldier said that afterwards, at the foot of his barracks walls were drifts of dead insects, looking like coffee grounds.

To a great extent this explains why such quantities of Zyklon-B were available. It didn't have to be brought in especially to kill people, it was already there, a convenient tool for death.
posted by kablam at 9:43 AM on July 11, 2006


When you look at the percentage of people who didn't resist, you have to wonder how you would be counted in a similar situation if you had to face it.

Unfortunately, I've already found out the answer. I just keep going to work, and hoping that someone else will take care of it.

Pretty shitty realization.
posted by illovich at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2006


suggests that most people, when presented with opportunities or imperatives that they have every imminent or material reason to accept or accede to and only potential or moral grounds to reject, will choose the course of least resistance, internalize the arguments that legitimate it, and balk at admitting that one could or should have done otherwise.

This isn't exactly new, but people need to be aware of it. It's a real problem. Society needs to be structured to avoid creating those situations.
posted by delmoi at 12:15 PM on July 11, 2006


we're seeing it here--the acceptance of unending detention, rendition, torture, spying on us...

Here's an interview with John Dean about authoritarianism in America today.
posted by homunculus at 12:50 PM on July 11, 2006


I've been told the Germans have a saying: "Wehret den Anfängen!" -- resist the beginnings. The question isn't really when is it too early, it's when is it too late? Do you think it is too late for the US?
posted by Mitheral at 2:09 PM on July 11, 2006


Do you think it is too late for the US?
Well, we're pretty much in the early 30s stage, and pre-Reichstag fire. I'd say there'll be something before the 08 election that'll be comparable to the Reichstag thing, and then it's too late.
posted by amberglow at 3:54 PM on July 11, 2006


elgilito, Intriguing post. The corroboration of people around an abuser is a topic I'm very interested in, as a psychological/social phenomenon.

In the case of Germany then, I think they were very susceptible to being bullied by a patriarch on a mass scale:

There were child-rearing pamphlets by Moritz Schreber, which had a great impact on Germany and Europe that that time: "Germans were already known for their unusually harsh parenting practices, but these practices became far harsher under the influence of such pedagogues as Dr Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, whose tracts flooded the region during the mid-nineteenth century. A strict authoritarian, Schreber taught parents to break their children's spirits immediately after birth. For example, he instructed them to physically punish babies for crying, assuring parents that "such a procedure is only necessary once, or at most twice, and then one is the master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single threatening gesture will suffice to subjugate the child."

"Germans refused to even acknowledge, much less examine, their emotional injuries. Thus, they were probably unaware of the ethical significance of their actions; the cultural machinery of the Holocaust arranged itself on a largely unconscious level. Just as a simple algorithm generates the infinitely complex patterns of the Mandlebrot Set, the unrecognized and unarticulated psychological pain of the German people generated the intricate preconditions necessary for the creation of the death camps. "


There are social psychologists who have studied the subject of people, en masse, enabling a corporate or political bully, or on a personal level, in a number of ways: Charisma, Crowd Psychology and Altered States of Consciousness, Soul Murder by Morton Schatzman, The Chalice and the Blade, Contracting with your abuser.
posted by nickyskye at 5:33 PM on July 11, 2006


Profits über Alles! American Corporations and Hitler:
After Hitler came to power American business leaders with assets in Germany found to their immense satisfaction that his so-called revolution respected the socio-economic status quo. The Führer's Teutonic brand of fascism, like every other variety of fascism, was reactionary in nature, and extremely useful for capitalists' purposes. Brought to power by Germany's leading businessmen and bankers, Hitler served the interests of his "enablers." His first major initiative was to dissolve the labour unions and to throw the Communists, and many militant Socialists, into prisons and the first concentration camps, which were specifically set up to accommodate the overabundance of left-wing political prisoners.

This ruthless measure not only removed the threat of revolutionary change — embodied by Germany's Communists — but also emasculated the German working class and transformed it into a powerless "mass of followers" (Gefolgschaft), to use Nazi terminology, which was unconditionally put at the disposal of their employers, the Thyssens and Krupps.

Most, if not all firms in Germany, including American branch plants, eagerly took advantage of this situation and cut labour costs drastically. The Ford-Werke, for example, reduced labour costs from fifteen per cent of business volume in 1933 to only eleven per cent in 1938. (Research Findings, 135–6) Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Essen increased its profitability considerably because, in Hitler's state, workers "were little more than serfs forbidden not only to strike, but to change jobs," driven "to work harder [and] faster" while their wages "were deliberately set quite low."
It's not personal, it's business.
posted by cenoxo at 9:45 PM on July 11, 2006


In The Cunning of History, Richard Rubinstein argues that the Nazis state had an additional feature that made it easier for people to go along. The fact that everything was so bloody organized and was cataloged down to a level of such mind-numbing detail (wouldn't it have been simpler and cheaper just to raze the ghettos instead of transporting everyone to one spot and logging it all in ledgers?) caused the system to constitute a kind of authority in itself.

So, if the uniformed storm trooper wasn't doing it for you, and the Fuhrer wasn't doing it for you -- well, there was still the rulebook, and all of the routinized actions you were instructed to go through in doing your duty.

It's analogous to the way some religious people look at their texts (and I'm not talking about KJV baptists, at least I don't think I am): As a rote script that you recite, without real meaning or feeling. Becoming intimate with it requires having a dialog with it. You can do that with a book -- people do it with the Bible or the Koran or the Tao Te Ching, all the time -- but it's not so easy to do it with a system, that's codified as a set of actions and routines. So the bureaucratic system is less vulnerable to analysis than the sacrosanct religious systems.
posted by lodurr at 7:52 AM on July 12, 2006


... all of which is meant to say: Maybe, just maybe, we're not as vulnerable to fascism as we fear.

OTOH, American culture does lionize the triumph of the strong over the weak -- and even in our underdog stories about the "weak" triumphing over the "strong", the subtext is usually about redefining the criteria for strength, and mercy toward the defeated is generally present only as a token gesture. So maybe it's exactly as bad as everyone fears. Maybe it's worse.
posted by lodurr at 7:57 AM on July 12, 2006


lodurr, Interesting thoughts and book recommendation, thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 9:30 AM on July 12, 2006



LEAHY: Was the President right or was he wrong?

BRADBURY: The President is always right.
(Senate Testimony on Hamdan/Geneva Conventions)
posted by amberglow at 9:55 AM on July 12, 2006


From the chapter 1, The Police State, in Richard J. Evans' book, The Third Reich in Power, 1933-39:
...at least in the early years of the Third Reich, the massive apparatus of state bureaucracy, judiciary, police, penal and welfare systems inherited from the Weimar Republic and ultimately to a large extent from the Bismarckian Reich could not simply be brushed aside or overridden at will. There existed what the exiled political scientist Ernst Fraenkel called The Dual State, to quote the title of his famous book, published in the USA in 1941.

On the one hand was the 'normative state' bound by rules, procedures, laws, and conventions, and consisting of formal institutions such as the Reich Chancellery, the Ministries, local authorities and so on, and on the other there was the 'prerogative state' an essentially extra-legal system that derived its legitimation entirely from the supra-legal authority of the Leader67.

Theorists like Huber distinguished carefully between 'the authority of the state and the auth­ority of the Leader' and made it clear that the latter always had pre­cedence over the former. Thus normallv illegal acts such as the murders committed in the 'Night of the Long Knives' [^] were sanctioned by the Leader's authority and so in fact were not illegal at all.
And thus giving companies—not to mention the general population—the opportunity to absolve themselves of responsibility for decisions made by their leader.

Is there a clear turning point on the path from cooperation to complicity? And if we happen to come to that point, is it too late to change direction?
posted by cenoxo at 2:27 PM on July 12, 2006


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