Luke Holland’s documentary, Final Account, was filmed from 2008 to 2018 while Holland was dying of cancer, and it was released posthumously in 2020. Holland, who was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, remains off-camera as a disembodied voice, occasionally posing questions about individual involvement in Germany during the Second World War. The movie is a collection of interviews with former Waffenn SS members, the Leibstandarte SS, and German civilians. These were the children of Nazi Germany, athletic and ambitious members of Hitler Youth; the perpetrators and witnesses of Kristallnacht; and the frontline, elite SS units that destroyed lives, families, and entire villages. It feels incredulous to hear about these crimes today; about the people who were complicit and carried out such heinous acts against humanity. But the decades between then and now have been filled with many other murders and wars and genocides. Currently, the forests are on fire, vaccinations deniers are the norm even though receiving one would mean protecting others from a deadly virus, and politicians are more concerned with controlling women’s bodies and keeping masks out of schools instead of keeping out guns. It is not hard to see, even now, what happens when we all remain complicit in the atrocities of our time[i].
When I taught high school health, the course consisted of two credits: one for health education and one for interpersonal relations. In the later section, my personal favorite, I focused on aspects of social psychology. My class discussed conflict and boundaries, the sway of personal biases, and groupthink mentality, and eventually, I showed my students footage of Stanley Milgram’s Shock Experiment. Afterward, the class evolved into a heated discussion on ethics, personal accountability, and consequences, particularly the outcome when the boundaries between both are blurred.
The premise of the 1961 experiment – which began a year after Adolf Eichmann was tried and sentenced to death for his role as the architect of the Holocaust – was, in short, to measure obedience. Sixteen years after the end of the horrors of WWII, many who heard the testimonials at Nuremberg and witnessed the evidence of the Nazis and the Final Solution wondered: “How could this happen? How could no one stop this from happening?” While there is a lot historically to unpack with how, from Germany’s loss in WWI to the rise and perpetuation of antisemitism, to German reparations from WWI and the economic downturn it created, there is still, even more to consider from a psychological standpoint.
Former perpetrators, even as late as the mid-2000s in Holland’s Final Account, showcase extraordinary cognitive dissonance. Many said they were “just following orders,” which Milgram would identify as “agentic state.” In this state, a person follows orders and then blames responsibility and, therefore, consequences on those in power. Once here, there is no autonomy of thought and action. Two vital aspects, however, have to hold true for this state to present full obedience: The person in charge has to be a true authoritative, legitimate, and qualified leader and the subordinates have to believe that the authority will take full responsibility for all their actions. With the authority to blame, personal responsibility is removed, allowing for an assortment of inhumanity.
Milgram’s experiment, while unethical by modern standards, shows the power of these conditions: Participants (all white men of varying ages, educations, careers, and social class) were asked to test a subject who was not visible and was on the other side of a partition, on a series of word associations. The subject, who was a confederate in the experiment, was delivered a “shock” by the participant each time he said an incorrect answer. The participants were repeatedly reminded of the experiment’s purpose, and need to shock, by an authoritative leader who was also in on the experiment. With each question, the decibel of the shock increased and the actor receiving said shock responded with yelps of pain that gradually evolved into screaming. One confederate went as far to say he had a heart condition while begging the participant to stop delivering the shocks, with the actor eventually becoming silent right before the last, and most lethal, shock was delivered. The participants kept their fingers on the triggers despite not knowing that the shocks were fake and that the actor wasn’t actually hurt or even in pain. While they expressed clear concern for the individual on the other side of the barrier, the one the participants believed they were physically harming, around 65% still continued to the highest shock level. Participants pushed through their obvious physical distress and mental anguish even though they begged the authority in the experiment to stop. My students were always beside themselves with indignation by this point, and they often turned to me to ask the inevitable, “why?” But that answer, the why behind the madness, is always difficult to unpack.
As Milgram and his colleagues discovered, when an authority figure was present to urge and coerce the participants into delivering shocks, many complied despite disagreeing. However, when the authority figure forced a participant’s hand to deliver a higher shock, obedience fell drastically because it is much easier to disobey when the consequences of your actions are apparent. Obedience also waivered with location; the first experiment took place on the prestigious grounds of Yale and produced higher levels of compliance, while later experiments were conducted in derelict buildings and produced lower levels of obedience because the authority of the surroundings had changed. Obedience also waivered when participants who were in on the experiment refused because if someone openly stands up to something wrong and is the first to oppose, others are likely to follow. Lastly, when authority was removed from the experiment, it was very easy for the participants to disobey orders. Worse, though, was when obedience was highest: When participants instructed a confederate to deliver shocks instead of individually delivering them, 92% obeyed orders; people become most powerful when they’re in charge of others and not personally responsible[ii].
Despite the flaws in Milgram’s experiment (all white men as a sample population, the psychological distress it causes its participants, etc.), I thought about it often while watching Final Account. It’s hard to conceptualize how a group could murder fellow human beings with starvation, inhumane experiments, mass shootings, and gas chambers, but the history is painfully present despite the eighty-three years since the invasion of Poland. Even further, Hitler and the Nazi’s rise to power occurred in the fourteen or so years prior to September 1, 1939, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the stepping stones to madness, but as many say in the film, “We didn’t know!” Nonetheless, the problem isn’t what we know now, but, rather and terrifyingly, that none of that history and prior knowledge is stopping us from accepting the realities that are breaking our current sense of personal and collective responsibility into fragmented pieces that we occasionally pick up and pass along the chain. Somewhere, at some point, someone will fix it, but not those in the here and now. Simply put, we are running out of time.
Within the week I watched Final Account, the United States withdrew from its twenty-year war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban immediately reclaimed control. In the United States, as ICUS filled to the brim with COVID patients, New Jersey and New York City flooded, Lake Tahoe burned, and New Orleans fought against a destructive hurricane on the sixteen-year anniversary of another. Republicans in Texas passed a ban on abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, even going as far as to establish a website where individuals can snitch for a $10,000 incentive on women who choose to abort. In this law, even rideshare drivers who did their job and delivered a woman to an establishment where she could receive an abortion were at risk of being sued. The parallels to reporting a neighbor hiding a Jewish family in a barn or attic, a neighbor who was buying from banned Jewish businesses, or even one who hid Jewish bloodline echoes throughout the hallways of history. While the circumstances seem different, perhaps because the timeframe is or perhaps because some will argue that I’m comparing unlike things, which is the cardinal sin of comparisons, the underlying reality is that these things are not that dissimilar. It may be decades since the end of WWII, but these instances, restrictive legislation and practices, particularly those focused on limiting women’s and minority rights, have been rising at an alarming rate for years. As one former SS member begs a group of young students in Final Account not to go blind, I imagine this is already true. Some have already left these words, have stopped reading, having knowingly turned away from so many personal and systemic injustices because it is easier when our hands are not forced on the trigger when we do not have to look at what we, and those we’ve elected to positions of power, have done.
And those instances, while within one week in 2021 when I first wrote this essay, are not the only ones: The Earth – after years of abuse from our draining and burning its fossil fuels and being wasteful, greedy inhibitors – is retaliating with floods and fires. Voting rights are being challenged and dismantled in many states. The abortion ban in Texas is simply a stepping stone for other states to start overturning Roe v. Wade, with Mississippi and Florida being the first after Texas to begin with their own bans. Systemic injustices (too many to even dismantle in this piece) are still present and strong within Black, Native, LBGTQ+, and other marginalized populations. We have waded through a deadly pandemic, where affordable healthcare was accessed by the few who were properly insured, who lived in the right neighborhoods, and who could buy both treatments and medicine. We have seen vast swaths of society denying science and claiming after a basic Google search, that protective, collective public health measures are oppressive. The country, it seems, is teetering on the edge of some darkness. While these issues have been gaining, and are continuing to gain, momentum for years and should not be ignored, there is one catalyst that really seems to have marked a moment that should have made us all pause with deep reflection before taking swift action: January 6th, 2021.
Hitler’s first real attempt at a grasp of power came in November 1923 when Hitler and his Brown Shirts, also known as the SA, overtook a beer hall in Munich. Their aim was to overthrow the Weimar Republic, which would lead to a revolution and an eventual takeover of power with Hitler as Chancellor. This coup, however, was not successful in part because Hitler held local politicians at gunpoint and then later left them unsupervised with General Ludendorff, a respected WWI general, who allowed the men to leave. Once freed from the beer hall, the men alerted the local government to Hitler’s plans and actions. The next day, during an attempted march and demonstration through the Munich streets, police blocked Hitler and the Nazis, leading to a gunfight and lethal violence. Fourteen Nazis were killed and while Hitler escaped, he was later sentenced to five years in jail. However, he only served nine months of that sentence for what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch[iii].
The day of the Capitol Riots, I was in an empty high school in a virtual staff meeting that quickly ended when the news alerts popped onto screens. For the first time in months, I was thankful students weren’t in the building because I didn’t know how to react, and I definitely wouldn’t have known how to support their needs in that moment. After what felt like four years of destruction, I had been relieved when Trump lost the election, but then I watched as destruction reigned. As the protestors fought their way into the Capitol building with unrestrained glee, heavy clubs, and protective riot gear, I thought of the Beer Hall Putsch, of the failed first attempt at a revolution, and I wondered aloud if our government was collapsing. A few hours after the Capitol Riots, I texted with a coworker and expressed my fears of a coup. He told me that the Reichstag wasn’t on fire just yet.
The failed putsch is eerily similar to the Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021. While I didn’t vote for former President Trump in either election, and while I strongly dislike him and anything he represented and somehow continues to represent, I won’t say he is Hitler. To do so would be comparing him with a dictator; the person who allowed his inner circle to create the Final Solution, and while Trump is certainly guilty of quite a lot of wrongdoings and while I see similarities between Hitler’s followers and Trump’s rabid fan base, I don’t lightly compare him to a man who led his party to genocide. I’m not, however, hesitant to discuss the history that’s evoked when a violent mob, urged by a delusional man who lost the presidency, attacked the US Capitol building with the intent to destroy and harm and, quite possibly, control. Are Trump and Hitler the same? No, but their modes to seize power are, and that realization should immediately ring alarm bells with anyone remotely familiar with the history leading to WWII.
After the Putsch, Hitler was imprisoned, wrote Mein Kamp, and spent the next fourteen years legally moving himself and the Nazi party into positions of power. Despite his prison sentence and a failed coup, Hitler and the Nazi party gained attention from his trial. People were interested in and listening to their message. The Nazi Party was reformed in 1925 and then began systematically pumping out propaganda with the help of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, as well as the economic and societal chaos of the Great Depression. In 1932, Hitler earned German citizenship, and the following year, Hitler and the Nazis won a third of the seats in the German Reichstag; in 1933, the Reichstag Fire granted Hitler and the Nazis emergency powers while diminishing the rights of citizens and autonomous states[iv]. By 1934, Hitler seized control by dissolving the presidency into the position of chancellor after former President Hindenburg passed away. At that point, he was the Fuehrer, which then put him in the driver’s seat of the entire German nation and, for a while, he believed, the entire world[v].
In the US, this initial part of the putsch is already complete thanks to the events of January 6th, and the next part is easily assembling itself as pieces of history shake off dust, ready to reconnect as the familiar scenes play out yet again: transgender rights, reproductive rights, and voting rights are being dismantled at the state level with the proposal and passing of restrictive bills. Many states are passing education laws that allow parents to opt-out their children from lessons that teach about sexual orientation, as well as the history of slavery and systemic racism in America. Controversial subjects, it seems, are indoctrinating students with leftist, liberal agenda and must be stopped before they encourage another perspective and accurate historical representations[vi]. There are ongoing court hearings for those involved in the January 6th Riot, and while some have been sentenced and sent to prison, Trump has still escaped any real consequence, with the exception of being banned from Twitter. Even now, Trump continues to lie about how the election was stolen while he simultaneously holds rallies and alludes to a run for office in 2024. If Trump wins the presidency again, if these types of legislative acts continue to pass, where will this country be in fourteen years?
The connections to history keep resurfacing; a few weeks before this essay was accepted for publication, Russia attacked Ukraine with tanks and mortars and lethal bombs. Russia claims that Ukraine is under the control of Nazis and that they will liberate Ukrainian citizens to prevent genocide. While there are Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, as there are in many countries, the argument is especially laughable given that Ukraine’s President Zelensky is Jewish, his grandfather fought against the Nazis in WWII, and he lost many members of his family in the Holocaust. I can see the parallels to WWII with the current war in Ukraine. Current events remind me of the underlying message of The Final Account: Don’t wait until it’s too late. But my worry lately is that it already is.
After viewing Milgram’s Shock Experiment videos, my students often heatedly debated if they would have followed orders both in the 1961 experiment and in WWII. The subset I once taught was diverse; many students had turbulent histories conforming to the standard school settings. When quite a few proclaimed that they wouldn’t continue with shocking the confederate or falling in line with the Nazis, I felt, perhaps a fleeting, yet hopeful, belief, they wouldn’t, despite the statistics saying otherwise. Often, my students asked me what I would have done if I were alive during the rise of the Nazis. At times, I’ve shrugged, mentally exhausted from the hypotheticals, and offered that I really didn’t know and that my outspokenness, or membership in underground resistance, would have depended on where I resided when the Nazis took power. Other times, I mentioned my disdain for unethical situations and people. More often than not, I pointed to Milgram’s experiment, telling them that we’d all like to believe we wouldn’t obey and even with our current knowledge of conformity and WWII and its horrors, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t. Yet, despite all of these arguments, after watching Holland’s documentary, I also wondered aloud to my empty living room what would I do if I was raised in Nazi Germany or even part of Milgram’s experiment? Would I have conformed or confronted? At best, the answer is elusive, sand through the proverbial hourglass, yet it remains and reappears as an endless and taunting loop of “what if?”
But it’s impossible to apply the knowledge of now to some past scenario and predict hypothetical behavior. I’m not a citizen of those time periods, and I don’t know those particular struggles firsthand. While I can read and listen and study the rapidly dwindling testimonies from eighty-three years prior, I cannot decide actions in a time when I ceased to exist. All I have is the now and the fire that is the future. Nonetheless, if I am lucky enough to reach an age considered substantial, I don’t want to look back on my life and regret not speaking or acting when it mattered, even though I acknowledge there have already been times I’ve been too afraid and have failed to do so in my thirty-five years: in middle school when I saw a classmate being bullied and I didn’t stop it or tell a teacher, when men I’ve known and haven’t known have said derogatory comments to me and other women, when I didn’t join the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest ten minutes from my home – a form of white privilege in and of itself. Still, I fear becoming and don’t want to become someone who watched and waited for others to act.
Shortly after the January 6 Capitol Riots, a former high school classmate said that I needed to look at both sides and listen to what the other side had to say. My reply then, as it remains now, is that the time for listening to the alternative theories and downright lies and invalid information is over. People are dying and many more are threatened. There comes a time when a hard stop needs to happen, when the leaders must stand up and tell others to stand down, particularly when the fate of so many is tied up in the dangerous rhetoric that has spurred violence and upheaval. There’s a moment in Final Account when a former SS man says that if Holland, and the eventual viewers of the film, are looking for heroes in Nazi Germany and are attempting to find those who defied the regime, then there “aren’t many.” Power has a stern grasp, and it seems if we don’t start taking serious stances and actions against known injustices, then we’re balancing on a dangerous thread between the not-so-recent past and a very clear future. The generations are passing the torch, like some desperate race to lighting the cauldron that happens each time an older generation leaves the world, and it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. However, there are some smatterings of hope. As one student reflected after our Milgram lesson, “I think just knowing about all this makes the difference.”
But this is not, and has not been, an essay of hope. Holland’s Final Account is a stark reminder of what happens when a people and a nation become enamored with ideals that place one group over another and present radical means to reach an end. The most startling admission is the unapologetic former SS member who, with piercing blue eyes, looks directly at the camera and says, despite the eighty-three years between his time in service and all the horrors that have been unearthed and unfolded since then, that he doesn’t regret his service in the SS and that “Hitler had the right idea.” What happens when this current group of young adults grows old? Will they, if there is an Earth left to live on, be staring at the camera pronouncing their regrets to stop the world from escalating into political upheavals and flagrant disregard for human rights? What will happen then? Will we all turn away from the battle where if we don’t fight, most of us will perish? Even more, remove the “what then?” and start focusing on the “what now?” because if we’re to save society from the dire warning presented in Final Account, then we have a lot of work to do.