Milgram and the Holocaust

What encourage Milgram to perform his experiments?

The Holocaust (Photo Credit: Tom Parry)

Milgram’s claim in his original paper that the experiments shed light on the Holocaust was also put into doubt. Milgram suggests, “the generalization of his findings is not specific to the Holocaust but addresses general principles of obedience to authority” (Lunt, 2009, p. 47). Milgram never claimed he was trying to capture the conditions of the Holocaust in a laboratory setting. Instead, he was trying to isolate factors that affected obedience in the laboratory. Milgram states that the idea of the Holocaust was simply a “background metaphor; in other words an extreme case in which the central importance of obedience to social life is illustrated but that his experiment is aimed at obedience as a general phenomenon” (Lunt, 2009, p. 47-48).

Milgram started his experiments in 1961, shortly after the trial of the World War II criminal Adolf Eichmann had begun. Eichmann’s defense was that he was simply following instructions when he ordered the death of millions of Jews, which aroused Milgram’s interest. In his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, he posed the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” (Cherry, 2008).