When we look back on history, there are countless stories where we wonder: “what were people thinking?”. Time after time, people have banded together to inflict unspeakable horrors on other groups of people. Consider the burning of “witches” in Salem, the mass guillotine executions following the French revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, the Rwandan genocide, the infamous Unit 731 of Imperial Japan that performed inhumane experiments on countless innocent people…
Even now, there is no shortage of examples of how a governing entity chosen by its people punishes a subset of its own population. We see homosexual people imprisoned and tortured in Russia. We see refugee children being torn apart from their parents at border control in the USA. We see brutal state policing of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.
It is very easy for us to examine these stories with a judgemental microscope. How can these governments be so evil? How can the people be so foolish to elect this government? Why are people not rising up against these powers to restore justice? The problem is that it is far easier to judge people for their actions rather than their intentions, or the context and setting that triggered them. Let us take an infamous historical atrocity as an example: the Holocaust.
Although Nazi Germany was initially formed from a coup d’état, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party maintained overwhelming support from the German people throughout its brutal regime. We may wonder how such a large group of well-educated, culturally sophisticated and civilised people could be swayed to support the inhumane actions committed by the Nazi government, but if you look at the historical context, we can find some explanations.
After World War 1, Germany was in economic ruin due to the “total war” nature of WW1 using up resources, followed by the staggering reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, with the final kick of the Great Depression. Inflation and unemployment ran rampant, leaving the populace hopeless and in despair.
But when Hitler rose to power, promising food, land and order, along with hopes of making Germany “great” again, those who had been sick and tired of their depressing situation rallied under the Nazi cause. The Nazi party capitalised on this desperation and vulnerability, using Jewish people and other minority groups as a scapegoat, blaming them as the cause of Germany’s downfall after the Weimar Republic. This allowed them to commit atrocities such as the internment and execution of millions of people, along with unprovoked war against the rest of Europe, by promising the people that it would provide more jobs, more goods and a better world for the Germans.
We can see from this case that a large part of how such a terrible situation arose was due to the desperation that people felt due to the context of global economic depression and the outcome of the Great War. If we simply judged the people for being “sheeple”, blindly following Hitler’s charismatic leadership and propaganda, then we would learn nothing out of this case study.
However, if we examine the underlying reasons for how this situation arose, we can see that the same horrors could happen again in our lifetime under similar contexts. This approach allows us to see current affairs from more objective stances and hopefully explore solutions, rather than just putting the blame on the people affected by their political, economic and historical environment. Furthermore, this frame of thinking helps us be less swayed by forces that are out of our control, as it lets us use our rational and logical thinking to make decisions, rather than our emotional reactions and survival instincts.