For this reason, the Holocaust lends itself to study -- to comparison. Specifically I want to highlight points made by Michael Bess in his book Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of WWII as he compares reservists in Police Battalion 101 "a low-level, semi-military organization whose purpose was to serve as home guard in Germany" and their 11-month killing spree through Poland (Bess 113) with the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a village in a secluded mountainous area in south-central France, and their efforts feed, shelter, and smuggle to safety thousands of Jews in the space of four years (Bess 115). (The chapter from Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of WWII that I am more-or-less summarizing here, "Deep Evil and Deep Good" is phenomenal, and one that I would recommend reading it its entirety, especially if the concepts of this post strike a chord [it was recommended to me by my roommate Marlee.])
The reservists, middle-aged working-class civilians, were not obligated by the commanding officers to shoot Jewish men, women, and children or to wade through the piles of bodies but they "got used it, after a while" (Bess 114).
The people of Le Chambon were led by "Protestant pastor André Trocmé who, with his assistant, Edouard Theis, served as a spiritual catalyst" preaching the kind of non-violence that the people of La Chambon, with their religious minority status in Catholic France & heritage of religious persecution and, embraced (Bess 115-116). After France was defeated by the Germans, the parish of Pastors Trocmé and Theis made immediate and obvious efforts avoid conforming "to the new racial laws and quasi-fascist rhetoric" with "relatively small symbolic acts" that could show their commitment to resistance. "We will resist," they told their parishioners, "whenever our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel. We will do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate" (Bess 116).
Without ever explicitly asking that the people of La Chambon commit to the dangerous task of taking in Jewish refugees, Trocmé and Theis "urged their flock to look into their own conscience and take whatever steps they deemed appropriate. The result was the gradual emergence, among the townsfolk and farmers from the surrounding countryside, of an improvised, secret, and highly decentralized network of rescue" (Bess 117). Years later when asked by interviewers for a film "how they managed to do this remarkable thing: an old farmer and his wife" simply "shrug their shoulders. They look down. They give a soft little smile. The interviewer persists: Where did you find such courage? Again the shrug, the smile. 'Oh, you know. After a while we got used to it.' " (Bess 118).
These two groups of people, who in many ways would have been indistinguishable, are ripe for the study of "how seemingly ordinary people could wind up as mass murders or as heroes" (Bess 119). Is character to blame? Or situational factors? Or, is it a combination of the two?
Bess refers to the experiments of Stanley Milgram and how they "cast important retrospective light on the behavior of Reserve Battalion 101" in the context of the "extreme circumstances of Nazi-occupied Poland" as well as how peer influence can cause people to do "extraordinary things," which in this instance "did not take the form of bravely facing combat together; rather, in consisted in steeling oneself to do ones part in carrying out the awful duty that they all shared" -- to refuse "became a 'betrayal' of the unity as a whole: it violated the ethic of comradeship in wartime" (Bess 124-125).
Bess also refers to the work of Phillip Zimbardo & the Stanford Prison Experiment where "the parallels with the behavior of Reserve Battalion 101 are too striking to ignore: seemingly normal individuals, placed in a position of absolute power over other human beings, rapidly degenerating into an astonishing array of inhumane behaviors" (127).
What these three situations seem to illustrate, says Bess, is that "the ability to resist even the most blatant evil, it turns out, is not nearly so robust as we might be inclined to believe" (128).
But that power to resists does exist, and the story of La Chambon is what provides the insight to where it can come from.
"Nonviolene and charity for Trocmé and Theis, meant more than just being kind to one's neighbor: they were dynamic forces that reached out to transform the world. In dark times like these, true Christian faith required taking the initiative to go out and oppose the evil that was being perpetrate throughout Europe" (Bess 117). This resonated with the Chambonnais and brought them together.
"At the same time, however, the ultimate roots of their motivation remained deeply personal in nature. Trocmé and Theis did not impose their views by force of will, but primarily by their own example. Each villager's choice to join the rescue effort, or to remain more on the sidelines, was left entirely up to that individual's temperament and conscience." Bess quotes Philip Hallie saying that:
[Trocmé] believed that if you choose to resist evil, and you choose this firmly, then ways of carrying out that resistance will open up around you. His kind of originality generated originality in others. It did not stifle that originality, the way a dictator using fear and hypnotic charisma stifles the originality of his followers.
Also, "Religion clearly played a pivotal role in Le Chambon --- but what made all the difference was the radical interpretation of Christianity espoused by pastors Trocmé and Theis. One scholar, Rene Girard, has aptly referred to it as "disruptive empathy": a combination of ardent solidarity with persecuted people, coupled with a willingness to shatter conventional behavior patterns in the act of reaching out to them" (Bess 128)
According to Bess, to be "a highly evolved moral agent" with disruptive empathy relies on several important elements: a "reliance on critical reason," the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, belief higher moral principles, an "unshakeable confidence" in one's own free will, and "a willingness to submit" one's "behavior to stern moral scrutiny" and to stop a "situation's momentum, breaking the facade of normality by crying foul" (131).
"The villagers of Le Chambon had been quietly but very deliberately preparing themselves, over years and years, for precisely the kind of moral challenge that the war ultimately presented. Partly through their own initiative, and partly through the leadership of their pastors, they had gradually shaped themselves as moral actors: cultivating the critical skills with which to question external authority; honing their sense of right and wrong through reflection; practicing the translation of abstract ideals into concrete action; experiencing their own power to make choices and to see those choices bear fruit; building the tools of moral judgment, and applying those tools time and again to the scrutiny of their own behavior. They carried out this process through the pursuit of their religion, but it was a highly distinctive religious practice that they undertook: the apparent simplicity of their adherence to the Gospel should not mislead us. Like athletes training for a race to be run at some indeterminate point in the future, they incorporated in the course of their daily lives a systematic effort of ethical and spiritual self-fashioning: unobtrusively, without fuss or fanfare, they build up an exceptionally strong constitution of dependent thinking and moral fiber (131).
In contrast, "the moral background of the police reservists had sufficed quite well to prepare them for roles as upstanding citizens in peacetime; but when faced with the extreme trial of the Holocaust, most of them simply lacked the internal resources -- the habits of mind and heart -- with which to assert a dissenting voice. Because their "character" remained shallow and immature, the majority of them succumbed to the powerful pull of "situational factors" (Bess 133).
Finally, I would like to end with what all of this points towards for us, now: "We are responsible for shaping ourselves or decades of time, as ever more effective moral agents. We have a choice, not only in how to act at any given moment, but also a broader choice about the long-term orientation of our life's purpose" ... "Do we, or do we not, take responsibility for the sustained struggle that is needed to become a different person from who we are today: more fully sovereign over our fears, more incisively self-aware, more sharply attuned to the needs of strangers? Whether or not we ourselves will ever face a trial commensurate with the one confronted by the Chambonnais, their deeds still present us with this question: do we choose for ourselves their clarity of purpose?" (Bess 134).