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Would you follow orders?

My wife and I were watching the brilliant BBC drama “The Eichmann Show” last week. As a part of a series of programmes about holocaust memorial week, the BBC has dramatized the events in the courtroom in Jerusalem in 1961 when Adolf Eichmann was put on trial for masterminding the execution of Hitler’s “final solution” for the Jews of Europe.

The drama shows the desperate efforts of director Leo Hurwitz to capture some sort of remorse, regret or even compassion on the face of Eichmann as he was tried. Witness after witness described the unimaginably awful history and Eichmann sat, unflinchingly, listening.

The psychologist, Simon Baron Cohen, postulated recently that “evil” is not a helpful term but that all acts that can be termed “evil” come from one source: a lack of empathy. The Nazi’s created such a frenzy around the Jews of Europe that there were millions who just saw them as the “other” – a body of people so different, so alien that they had no empathy with them. And it was this lack of empathy that meant that normal people behaved in the most appalling of ways.

“I couldn’t do it,” I speculated. “I just couldn’t do it.”

“Huh?” Clare was lost in her own thoughts about the show.

I carried on, needing to clear my own stream of consciousness. “I’m not saying I’m a hero or that I’m different to the millions of ordinary Germans who did follow orders and do awful things in the war but that is something I just couldn’t do.”

“To be honest, I just don’t know how I would react in a particular situation and I’m not saying that I’m immune to being brainwashed. You know, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t fall for the propaganda and lose all empathy with a certain group of people in such a febrile environment as Hitler’s Germany.”

Clare looked up, interested and a little startled by what I was saying.”

“But you know what? I couldn’t do it. I can see a scenario where I executed adults because I believed them to be cursed and evil but in the end I couldn’t have followed orders in the camps because of the children. I cannot envisage any scenario where I would not have empathy for the children. And so in the final analysis, I just couldn’t do it.”

“I’m not a hero. I’m just a dad. And once you’ve felt that love for your own children, you can’t help but project it onto all the others.”


The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent the views of

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