Upstander or Bystander: How Do We Decide When to Act?

In 1961, three months following the beginning of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, Yale University Professor Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment designed to help figure out the motivations of people like Eichmann during the Holocaust—namely, whether Eichmann and his Nazi cohort had intended to pursue such violent ends towards the Jews and others, and was there to a certain extent an “mutual sense of morality among those involved.” The experiment included three people with roles identified as “Learner,” “Teacher,” and “Experimenter.” The teacher and the learner would be given specific word play exercises to perform verbally, and if the teacher performed one of the exercises incorrectly, the experimenter instructed the learner to shock the teacher with an electric burst of increasing voltage (the voltage increased based on the number of mistakes the teacher made). If the learner at any time hesitated to provide the shock, or seemed in some ways wary of actively harming the teacher, the experimenter would give a series of verbal prompts explaining the necessity of continuing the test and removing responsibility from the learner for the teacher’s suffering. The shock was not real; rather, a tape mimicked shock sounds and the teacher acted out a response to pain.

In the fifty years since Milgram performed this experiment, society has interpreted the results as a demonstration of either the apathy of the average person in response to basic commands to hurt someone else, or worse, sadism. And certainly, in the wake of the Holocaust, such an interpretation seems to make sense: the officers who perpetrated the atrocities were cruel sadists with no regard of the humanity of the people they were killing, and the citizens who stood by without acting were apathetic or indifferent to the plight of the persecuted. However, as Milgram himself documented in his notes on the experiment:

The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.

Essentially, once the learners were absolved by the experimenter of responsibility for shocking the teacher, harming them became substantially easier. Milgram contended that reassuring people of their absence of responsibility makes obeying even the most gruesome actions seem much more tolerable.

Eyal Press discusses this theory frequently in his book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. In the book, Press posits the motivation for a number of people who broke ranks with their societies, superiors and legislation to speak up and act against perceived injustices. He claims that all too often, people find themselves able to excuse even the greatest of atrocities or injustices if they feel that they themselves are not actively responsible for them. We classify these people as bystanders: people who do not actively perpetrate injustice, but who stand idly in its midst. We tend to assume that these people do not act against injustice because they themselves are not actively being harmed, but Press contends that the Milgram experiment demonstrated that their inaction was more a function of their lack of sense of responsibility for the harm being done to the other.

If plausible deniability of responsibility is enough of a justification for inaction, then what motivates people to act? In telling the story of Swiss border guard Paul Gruninger who actively disobeyed Nazi legislation by helping Jews illegally cross the border into Switzerland, Press notes that it was Gruninger’s ability to humanize the Jewish people rather than seeing them as evil, as many Nazi officials had sought to impress upon the lower guard and the people, that empowered him to act. Gruninger was an otherwise unimpressive man, not particularly inclined one way or the other to defy command, but he had direct contact with Jews and was thus moved to help actively and immediately.

There are countless stories like this in the Holocaust, stories of non-Jews risking life and limb for Jews and others persecuted under Nazi tyranny, doing so because they were able to see the Jew less as “the other” and more as a person, or even a fellow citizen. Take for example Anne-Wilhelm Meijer, who at the age of twelve biked from his small town of Haarlem in the Netherlands for hours to sneak extra ration cards to imperiled Dutch Jews; Miep Gies, whose family risked life and limb to shelter the Frank family in Amsterdam; or Oskar Schindler, whose factory saved thousands of lives.

These people were “upstanders.” They were not content to sit idly by and watch as the lives of others were ravaged by injustice. These people reversed Milgram’s experiment by showing that even if they may not have been inflicting the harm on people personally, it was their responsibility to stop it or in some way alleviate it. They show us that we all have an imperative to stand up and advocate for those amongst us considered “less than,” other, strange, or different, especially when their rights are in peril. In an interview on the racial integration of her neighborhood in a Philadelphia suburb in 1963, Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel recalled her neighbors’ despicable reaction to an African-American family moving next door, likening it to Kristallnacht. She is quoted as saying that if the rights of her neighbors are taken away, it wouldn’t be long until hers would be too, so she stood up, and marched on Washington, fighting to make sure that no citizen would be considered inferior to another.

Even more recently, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican senator to come out for full marriage equality, bucking not only his Republican colleagues but the Republican party platform, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and that rights will be apportioned as such. He claimed to be motivated by the fact that his twenty-one-year-old son had come out to him, meaning he could no longer group homosexuals as a collective other. Portman received significant criticism from his fellow Republicans, along with swift condemnation from the conservative right. However, Portman also received sharp rebuke from many on the political left, stating that the motivation for his change of heart was disingenuous, brought on by selfish love for his son rather than real or true ideological change. According to Eyal Press’s research however, it seems clear that this is how real change is effected: those who have no prior connection with an “other” or can satisfy themselves that they are not immediately responsible for the persecution or harm of that other are brought face-to-face with that other, such that the perception of the other changes to that of a fellow person, citizen, or in the case of Senator Portman, son.

As a fellow at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education this year, I have helped students and other visitors to the permanent exhibit “Mapping Our Tears” both to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust as well as to realize their own potential as possible upstanders fighting for the rights of those without. Whether it has been contributing to educational curriculum for student groups on the subject of civil rights, leading tours of the exhibit, or working on an online exhibit laying out in stark detail the persecution of people with disabilities during the Holocaust, it has been an honor to show students that real heroism does not always require a fire helmet or a uniform, but rather the willingness to stand up and fight for what is right. These are the stories and narratives that lay the foundation for our exhibit, and these are the stories that I have taught to every student group that comes for a tour. In teaching these lessons, I myself have learned of the real power that one, “average” person has to effect real change and make the world a better place. Hearing these stories helped me to realize the strength and heroism that Senator Portman showed in bucking his Republican colleagues and contemporaries by standing up for what is right. He is a tremendous example of how heroism can be attained simply by standing up for your family and understanding that love and respect transcend politics.

The average citizen wields great power, greater power than they may realize. That power is wasted by inaction against injustice, but it is emboldened by standing up for those in need. It has been my role, my imperative and my charge to help the people who we serve at CHHE to realize that power and to use it well as best they can.

Ariel Naveh is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education in Cincinnati.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *