Social Dynamics

Social dynamics may differ from group dynamics in that they are related to how the soldier sees his place in society rather than his place within the group to which he belongs. “For some soldiers, it was important to justify the killings in terms of a formal structure, a framework that would legitimate their actions, even if those actions really amount to little more than indiscriminate murder” (Soldaten 87).

The soldiers felt the need to view themselves and their position in the military in a favorable light. It was important to them that they fought bravely and were competent at their job. Questioning the morality of the war within this framework appears almost a bizarre notion to them. Interestingly, the need to conform and preform to the norms expected by the wartime military got stronger the higher in rank the individual in question was, as transcribed in the protocols. For instance, Major General Erwin Menny complains and is disgusted at how many of his fellow Generals were captured alive (Soldaten 251), when there was a wartime expectation that every soldier would fight to the last bullet. Meanwhile, the Italian soldiers were derided as being weak, soft, and quick to surrender. The Russian soldiers were respected for their brutality and willingness to die. The German soldier has an, “…almost exclusive negative view of those who failed to conform to the ideal of the brave warrior…” (Soldaten 270).

The average German soldier did not see himself as fighting a racially based war of ethnic elimination but by combining a wartime frame of reference with a secondary concern, that of National Socialism, the soldier was enabled to commit heinous acts such as mass murder. Within the social dynamics of the military, there was no room to question the war or the holocaust. Soldiers did their job, fought to the last bullet if need be, and saw themselves as professional fighting men who wanted to be good at their job.

National Socialism

To understand the role of Group and Social Dynamics we have to take a harder look at the ideology of Nazi Germany, National Socialism. National Socialism was based upon the concept of Volksgemeinschaft, meaning folk community, a community in which the collective would regulate all aspects of life in an egalitarian manner for the Aryan race. The industrial revolution threw a wrench in the works for many Germans, crushing their perceptions of a utopian agrarian based society which almost certainly never existed in the first place. This reshuffling of the metal deck also took place because the process of industrialization atomized German society into class strata.

Historian Gotz Aly elaborates, “Nazi ideology conceived of the racial conflict as an antidote to class conflict. By framing its program in this way, the party was propagating two age-old dreams of the German people: national and class unity. That was the key to the Nazi’s popularity, from which they derived the power they needed to pursue their criminal aims…” (Aly 13).

In this worldview, Hitler and National Socialism also needed to define a “them”, a force that was holding back the German people from attaining glory in a hopeless Post-Weimar Germany. Hitler found a convenient enemy in the Jews and it was in this context that race theorists were able to define the holocaust as an act of self defense.

Gupta’s Formula for Collective Madness

Perhaps the formula outlined by Dipak K. Gupta is flawed in the title alone as madness implies a moral or medical judgment. When one looks at the cold cunning, discipline, and in some cases military brilliance of the Nazis, it becomes clear that they were not mad. Even the industrial scale murder of the Jews carried with it a cold strategic calculus. If a group perceives another as a problem, they can kill it until the problem goes away. This is perfectly rational and pragmatic for the group doing the killing, even if they are factually wrong in their assumptions. Gutpa acknowledges the limitations of the term, stating that, “most studies of political killings indicate that the participants show few signs of metal disorder. Indeed compared to ‘ordinary criminal,’ or those who are not motivated by a political cause, the political murderer is significantly more ‘rational’ and socially adjusted than the non-political murderer” (Gupta 9).

But the formula itself provides a valuable tool to cataloging and understanding why the Nazis committed mass murder as a collective and can be broken down point by point.

Ideology of paranoia and a clear identification of the “enemy.” The Nazis had a powerful ideology in National Socialism which acted as a social modifier upon the behavior of the soldiers as described above. Likewise, the identification of the Jews as the Nazi’s chief antagonist has also been identified.

The Rise of the Charismatic Leader. The embodiment of Hitler as the leader of Germany was firmly solidified with an entire generation of young men who grew up with National Socialism. Many of the soldiers in the intelligence protocols express an almost personal relationship with Hitler and prescribe to him authority and powers which are completely unrealistic. “I console myself with the words of the Fuhrer, he has taken everything into account,” one Nazi POW assures his cellmate (Soldaten 213). Ludwig Cruwell who commanded the Wehrmacht’s Panzer force in Africa described Hitler’s charisma and gets caught up in it all in one statement:

I am convinced that a great part of the Fuhrer’s success as party leader is accounted for by pure mass suggestion. It’s bound up with a kind of hypnotism, and he can exercise this on a great many people. I know people who are undoubtedly superior to him mentally and who yet fall under his spell. I cannot explain why it doesn’t effect me. I mean, I know perfectly well that he carried a superhuman burden of responsibility; what he said to me about Africa was astonishing, but I can’t say that (I was influenced). One outstanding thing is his hands-he has beautiful hands…” (Soldaten 214).

High Price of Defection. There were soldiers in the Wehrmacht who were not Nazi party members, most were not hardcore ideologues or true believers like Volker, but undesirables and malcontents would more than likely find there way into the camps along with the Jews. Any form of active resistance carried with it an extremely high price.

The Psychology of Mass Murder (Part One)

Read Next: The Psychology of Mass Murder (Part One)

Increasing Social Pressure for Acceptance. This is addressed within social and group dynamics. The need to appear strong and brave among other soldiers was extremely powerful.

Social Acceptance of Violence. Within the wartime frame of reference, killing became the new normal. Behavior that would be seen as unacceptable during peacetime becomes common place. Not only does killing become acceptable but acting or speaking out against it violates the new social norm. In Nazi Germany the Jews were the clearly identified enemy of the German people and murdering them was seen as a burden or a chore but one that had to be carried out for the good of the Reich.

Killing people was good because it benefited the good of the racial community, according to Himmler. “The National Socialist ethics of murder normatively encompassed individual scruples and individual suffering when faced with the task of doing the killing” (Soldaten 122).

Creation of a Milita/Flow of Arms. From the Wehrmacht to the Brown Shirts to the Waffen SS, the high state of German civil society lent itself to the creation of complex military machinery and efficient hierarchies. German factories produced the Panzer tanks, the Junkers aircraft, the MG-42 machine gun, and enough war material to fight the world to a standstill.

According to Gupta these are the preconditions that must be met for collective madness, or genocide. Nazi Germany was a perfect fit.

Trivial Violence

Setting aside the political science and social science models we must look at some of the anecdotal evidence found in the intelligence protocols which suggests that the Nazis did not kill because of ideology, or group dynamics, or because of a war time frame of reference. When you look at the individual cases of war crimes, not of soldiers fighting in battle, what you find is that the Nazis often killed for very trivial reasons. Autotelic violence is defined as violence which is committed for its own sake without any real purpose. This type of violence needs no motive as it is the motive. These were the people who killed for their own personal enjoyment.

One Nazi POW in the protocols named Lieutenant Pohl was a Luftwaffe pilot who flew combat missions over Poland. In a conversation with another Nazi officer he talks about how much fun he had shooting and bombing Polish soldiers as well as civilians. Speaking about bombing civilian targets he says that by the third day, “…I did not care a hoot, and on the fourth day I was enjoying it. It was our before breakfast amusement to chase single soldiers of the fields with M.G. [Machine Gun] fire and to leave them lying there with a few bullets in the back” (Soldaten 45).

In another instance of killing for fun, in mid-November of 1942 a group of musicians and performers belonging to a German reserve police unit in Berlin were asked to go to Luckow to entertain the Nazi soldiers. While there they were asked if they wanted to take a turn executing Jews. The entertainers spent the day murdering Jews for fun. There was no ideological motivation for the killings, it was purely trivial entertainment for the musicians to commit murder without any negative social consequences (Soldaten 237). These were not battle hardened soldiers coming off the front lines who carried the scars of Post-Traumatic stress, nor were they fanatical SS soldiers. The executioners in this case were ordinary people who, “…wanted to experience what it felt like to kill without fear of consequences, to exercise total power and do something extraordinary and monstrous, free from the possibility of social consequence” (Soldaten 137).

There are plenty more examples in which civilian spectators would show up to watch the Jews being executed en masse. Soldiers and civilians alike would show up to gawk at “helpless, naked women…” and “…offering advice to and cheering on the shooters” (Soldaten 137).

In these cases, the political theory models of genocide wrap up the killers in a comfortable facade of carefully crafted models, models for murder which protect the historian, the researcher, the psychologist, the veteran, and others from the reality of history. This reality is that with certain barriers removed, with a slight change in situation, we are all surrounded by cold blooded murderers.


Vera Wolhauf was the young wife of a Captain assigned to Police Battalion 101, a unit ordered to pacify the Polish countryside. She joined her husband on the front lines as the Nazis raided Miedzyrzec and commenced with the mass murder of Jews. Hundreds of bodies were laid out in the streets, other Jews were forced to squat and any of the group that stood or moved were shot. Many of those murdered were children who found it difficult to remain squatting all day. Vera participated in the executions, her presence apparently disturbing even the Nazi policemen as she was so enthusiastic about the killings. “This is how the pregnant Frau Wolhauf spent her honey moon” (Goldhagen 241).

In some ways Gupta’s path to collective madness and the RWA and SD profiles do more to conceal rather than reveal. They provide a context and show how the stage must be set for mass murder, but they do not truly explain the individual war crimes. Cases like that of Vera Wolhauf shatter our self image and our conception of civilized society. Germany was considered high society before and during the war. A simple case of collective madness does not explain the holocaust or other war crimes as even Gupta points out that political murderers are rational actors.

There are two levels of psychology in killing, the larger group mind and the individual mind with its own motivations. On the large scale it can be certain that the ideology of National Socialism played a role in the killings, however it was a secondary or tertiary role, one that was more than likely brought into the individual Nazi’s life narrative after the fact in order to justify his actions and frame them in a socially acceptable context. War as a profession, soldiering a job was an additional modifier. The Nazi soldiers saw themselves as doing a job and wanted to be brave and competent in combat. This was seen as a social duty and those who did not meet this standard were looked upon with disgust. Likewise, a wartime frame of reference drastically alters perceptions, modifying social norms and extended the bounds of activities which would be considered completely unacceptable during peacetime. In this context, soldiers could view themselves as outside observers rather than participants in the war crimes. They did their job and the notion of making moral judgments about the war or how it was carried out in the broad sense seems impossible for them to fathom. This also implies a large amount of group think which is taking place. With war as a new social paradigm, the very idea of questioning the basis upon which it is build is completely outside the individual soldier’s purview.

Certain Right Wing Authoritarian and Social Domination tendencies can be observed in the protocols. These can also fall into social duties and social dynamics. Some Nazis were RWA oriented ideological warriors but these were few and far between. Others were more SD oriented as they saw the Jews as a rival group which had to be exterminated for the good of the Aryan race. However, these tendencies seem to be expressed after the fact, long after the killings and it seems unlikely that they were actually the primary motivators behind the mass murders which took place during World War II. This is not what was on the Nazi’s minds as they pulled the trigger.

Gupta’s Path to Collective Madness provides a worthwhile model about how collective thinking can lead to mass murder and lays out the pre-conditions for such activities as genocide. This is a useful model for looking at one layer of the psychology of mass murder, the collective. It examines the psychology of “us” against “them” but as stated above, this psychology appears as a ancillary motivation with the Nazi soldiers recorded in the protocols.

It is said that all politics is local and perhaps all psychology is local as well. The question remains as to way did the individual Nazi soldiers commit war crimes. Why did the pregnant Nazi house wife murder Jews in Miedzyrzec? Why did Nazi musicians execute Jews in Luckow? Why did Lieutenant Pohl drop bombs on civilians in Poland? The answer to these questions is rarely spoken of because the implications are so frightening. The answer is not complicated and requires no large volumes of books or white papers nor decades of university research. These people killed because they could. The murders needed no larger collective motivation, required no ideology, or peer pressure. These were willing executioners who murdered men, women, and children for their own enjoyment.

When psychologists and social scientists use words such as “madness” and “insane” to describe these war crimes they provide de facto top cover for the Nazis and their crimes. This is not done out of any misplaced sympathy for the Nazis but rather it is done to protect the self and to protect the sanctity we would like to believe in about our own society. For these gleeful murderers, war was simply a venue for them to pursue activities which they could not get away with otherwise. The academics protect themselves, and the public, from this because it is so disturbing. It implies that every time we get on the bus, every time we take the subway, every time we walk down the street, that we are surrounded by people who if they were placed in the same context as the Nazi soldiers, would be more than happy to machine gun civilians into mass graves and fill them in with dirt before the corpses had stopped twitching.


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