In April 2018, an audience packed the American Academy in Berlin to listen to the political scientist Kristen Renwick Monroe. The room crackled with energy. Donald Trump had been president for just over a year, and people desperately wanted insight into the tumultuous changes happening in the United States. The newspapers were filled with stories about the Muslim travel ban, a planned wall along the US-Mexican border, and White House attacks on the press.
Monroe’s talk, “Third Reich Émigrés and Traumatic Political Change,” looked at the decisions people made in Nazi-occupied Europe. It also explored what we could learn from people who had lived through that time. How, in perilous times, would we know how to act?
The lecture was a game changer for me. I was used to being offered simplistic explanations for why people became fascists: It was the economy or a lack of education or a need for nationalist pride. By studying rescuers, bystanders, and perpetrators, Monroe gave me a new way to understand people’s choices.
Monroe’s research explores how identity constrains choice, limits the options we see, and influences our sense of ethics. A two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a finalist for the National Book Award, she is the author of many books on moral choice and the director of the UC Irvine Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. Her research has transformed the field of political psychology.
LM: You described the mindset of perpetrators, which was that they saw themselves as victims.
KRM: The perpetrators were in some ways the most interesting for me, because they had this idea about “the zeitgeist.” You had to be in tune with the winds of history. If you weren’t in tune with it, you were nothing. And when people started saying that to me, I thought, “You actually believe all this?” I think there’s a large chunk of them that feel that they have been passed over. And they talk about longing for simpler times and simpler solutions. They want a strong man on horseback who comes like Napoleon or de Gaulle and says, “I’m going to take care of you.” I mean, Trump at some point says: I’m the savior.
LM: And there was that kind of perspective with Nazis as well, who saw themselves as victims even though they were the perpetrators.
KRM: There are a lot of parallels. The idea that there are just random things that happen in life and that the world is an uncertain place is not something most of us are comfortable with. If you can find a reason [for what’s happening], a villain, then it’s easier. So you see this quite often.
LM: I’ve told so many people about these categories since I saw your talk, and I feel like they’ve found a way to start thinking about different groups of people in their lives.
KRM: First of all, these are analytical categories that we come up with to explain things. And in reality, it’s much more fluid. One of the things Tony alerted me to was the difference between strategic and tactical decisions he had to make. So there was one point where he was in a battle with the Nazis and one of his scouts was trapped between the two sides, badly injured and dying. And Tony said, “If we’d sent somebody out to rescue him, to bring him back, we would have been killed. And so I had to let him stay there.” And he said there were a lot of times when it was just too dangerous to do something; it would just cost you or someone else their lives. So the categories that we use are not hard and fast.
LM: One of the things I was interested in talking about is how we love stories of transformation and redemption. And you spoke a bit about bystanders who became rescuers and then rescuers who realized: “Oh, I can’t really do very much in this situation.” And I’m wondering how much people move from one group to the other.
KRM: I think there was a lot of movement back and forth. Marian Pritchard said she came out of social-work school—she was about 18 or 19. She saw a bunch of people in uniforms throwing children into a truck and then there were some women who were trying to keep the children from being thrown in. And it happened so fast. And she said it took her a while to grasp what was happening. Later, she said: “We all have memories of times when we should have done something and we didn’t, and it gets in your way during the rest of your life.” Your actions have consequences, not just for other people but also for you. So she actually did work in the underground and helped people later.
There were a lot of times where people who were rescuers were bystanders. But having said that, there are lots of different ways that social scientists will try to explain things. And usually we try to look at sociodemographic characteristics—education, religion. We like to think that people who are religious people [and] who are well-educated are going to behave better. That’s not really what I found [in my interviews about] the Holocaust. It seemed to me that the only thing that explained everybody was the way they saw themselves in relation to other people. And that was a dynamic thing.
LM: So I can see moving from the category of bystander to rescuer and back. Were the perpetrators pretty much a constant?
KRM: My guess is—and this is more informed guess than science, I haven’t studied enough of them—but if you want to think of behavior on a continuum between altruism and whatever it is the other end of altruism, I think you have a natural mean. But I think you kind of slide around the mean a little bit. The situational factors can frame things in a way that will bring out your desire to help or will bring out your desire to protect yourself. Schindler’s an example of this. He wasn’t such a great person, but something triggered a desire to help others, and so he did.
LM: So when we look at who’s a bystander and a rescuer and a perpetrator, how can that knowledge help us to navigate the political landscape we’re in now?
KRM: It’s the big question. One of the things that struck me about studying the Holocaust is you have to understand the psychology—I think it’s really critical. People talk about the loss of World War I and the economic situation. Those are situational factors that you get right down to the micro level. [But] what is it that caused somebody who’s been a neighbor to someone for years to suddenly turn on them? And I think one of the things that struck me about looking at what’s happening with what I’ll call Trumpism—it’s not just Trump—is that there’s a huge part of the country that feel they’ve been left behind and they have been wronged. And therefore, they want to get [what they think they’ve lost] back. But there’s also the idea that “if I can’t have it, I’ll bring down everything.” And if you look at the Tajfel experiments—we usually assume that groups are [made up of] people who have interests in common and find each other. And therefore, because we have our interests, we stick together. But Tajfel showed it was the opposite. He showed that just being designated a group will cause you to find interests in common.
LM: You ended your talk with a story about a German woman from a very well-educated, comfortable background, who said, “Hitler was such a buffoon that people of good taste simply would not discuss him.” And I realized, my God, that’s what we do with Trump—we avoid talking about him. And you told us all, “You ignore people like that at your own peril.” And I knew you were right, but I also feel like blocking out a wannabe autocrat can also be an act of self-preservation. This person is being pushed on me, and I need some space where I’m not dealing with them. How do we reconcile those two things?
KRM: Yeah, I think this is where leadership comes in. I was just thinking of Franklin Roosevelt. We have had other periods in United States where we’ve had very extreme people like Trump; Huey Long was one of them. But Roosevelt contained him, and I think the best way to do it is with humor.
LM: We’ve talked about the parallels between Nazi-occupied Europe and the US under Trump. But is there a risk involved in looking for too many parallels?
KRM: Yes, that’s a problem. Political debate tends to be in the extremes, and you really want more nuances. I went back [to the émigrés I interviewed about the Nazi era] after Trump [was elected] and said: “OK, what do you think? Is this really the same kind of thing?” And they said: “There are parallels, and we do need to be sensitive to it. But the institutional differences are critical.” The Weimar Republic just didn’t have a long enough history. It was too weak institutionally to withstand some of the exogenous shocks from the economy. And so the émigrés said, “No, American institutions were hardier.” I thought that was right until January 6. Now I’m not so sure.
LM: I’m wondering if you can think of examples of countries that have averted the kind of danger we might be facing now.
KRM: I think Nelson Mandela was critical in South Africa. I think Gandhi made a huge difference in India. I think Vaclav Havel probably had a big impact on former Czechoslovakia. So I think I think that leadership is absolutely crucial. If you look at what happened on January 6 in the United States, Trump was on the phone with Raffensperger, the secretary of state for Georgia, who was certifying the election. I think there were two or three phone calls where Raffensperger said no, he would not do what Trump wanted. He voted for Trump. He was a lifelong Republican, but he had a sense of duty, the sense that fair is fair.
LM: Do you think on a grassroots level there are things people can do?
KRM: Absolutely. I think in the 2020 election a quarter of the people who voted had not voted in 2016—a handful of states shifted things. So I think it’s important that people feel that they can have an impact, and this goes back to the agency question. The bystanders felt like, “Well, what could we do?” And the perpetrators? “We have to go with the winds of history.” Say to people, “People can change things.” It’s not just the winds of history. It’s not just the spirit of the times. It’s not Marx’s kind of economic revolution that determines things. Individual human beings can have an impact. Political leadership is critical and political leadership at the grassroots level as well. If you look at what Stacey Abrams has done in Georgia, she could have gone: “You know, [the election I ran in] was probably stolen.” But she’s just dedicated herself to doing voter registration. And the fact that she got so many voters registered made a critical difference. If just one Senate seat had gone the other way… I was very pessimistic about it. I was not hopeful after 2016. So one person made a huge difference there.