During the Second World War young men were taken from their homes and employed in Nazi occupied Poland to staff concentration camps. They were the perpetrators of many of the atrocities that took place in these factories of suffering and death.

To ponder the terrible acts of these young men is to confront a troubling question:

Given a similar life experience to these young prison guards, might I have been capable of perpetrating similar atrocities?

Here are some of the characteristics of the life situation of most of the young men who served as guards in Nazi camps. How might my behaviour look if:

1. I was raised in a culture in which violence was a widely accepted, even valued, norm and harsh discipline was viewed as a positive tool for rearing children.

2. I have been deeply instilled with an absolute unquestioning reverence for and submission to all officially sanctioned authority.

3. It was routinely expected that individual needs would be sublimated to the interests of the collective regardless of the damage this might inflict upon an individual.

4. I have deeply instilled in my psyche the conviction that my country is vastly superior to all other countries and that I and my fellow citizens are destined to dominate the inferior peoples of the rest of the world.

5. I am living in a foreign culture (all Nazi death camps were located in occupied Poland) among people whose language I do not understand and whose customs are confusing, strange, disorienting, and at times threatening. This places me far removed from the normal supports to civilized behaviour and mutual respect for all people that are supported by my family and the familiar surroundings of home.

6. I am assaulted by a constant barrage of propaganda aimed at convincing me that the strange people who are my captives are a dangerous and powerful force intent on destroying my country and ruling the world.

(nb: as early as 1936, the standard lecture for new recruits to the SS stated:

“The Jew is a parasite. Wherever he flourishes, the people die… Elimination of the Jew from our community is to be regarded as an emergency defense measure.”)

7. I live in a world in which there is a clear demarcation between the many people who are perceived to be my enemies and the much smaller group who I have been taught to view as my allies.

8. I live and work every day in close contact with comrades who expect undying loyalty and cooperation, and who will inflict terrible shame and suffering on anyone who fails to conduct himself in tune with the rest of the group.

9. Those who most actively and eagerly participate in acts of atrocity against their subjects are rewarded with advancement, privileges and comforts that do not accrue to those who resist the dominant culture in which we function.

10. I am living in an atmosphere of unrelenting violence, fear, insecurity, and hatred.

Of course it is impossible to know, given my privileged and comfortable life circumstances, how I might have responded had I lived instead in the world of the first half of the twentieth century.

Given the same circumstances faced by twenty year old male Nazi guards in eastern Europe in the 1940’s, it is difficult not to imagine that I might have succumbed to the same violence I so easily condemn in others.

The question of my potential for violence, however, is almost certainly impossible to answer with any sincere conviction. So, the more important question to ask is what kind of life my present choices and decisions are inclining me to live in the future. What life am I building today  for the future.