An MBA Elective Course in Philosophy

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Proposal: An MBA Elective Course in Philosophy

Working Title:
“TheHolocaust as a Study in Social and Organizational Ethics”

Copyright 1995 Warren Thompson; email me with ideas or suggestions!


What does the Holocaust have to do with graduate study in business and management? Superficially, little if anything. In a more important, pedagogical sense, a very greatdeal. While it would be odious to claim any material equivalence between managerialbehavior and mass murder, there is much that connects them. History shows that severalhundreds of those involved with the Holocaust were managers and administrators workingin government and bureaucratic agencies. Without them, genocide could not havehappened; it is impossible to kill six million people without such customary managerialdesiderata as strong leadership, careful planning, and scrupulous attention to budgetingand cost-benefit analysis.

From a certain point of view, the Holocaust was nothing more than a corporate problemto be solved as expeditiously as possible, i.e., a large-scale undertaking to be”managed” through careful organization and judicious use of human resources. As such,it was not unlike the workings of a modern corporation such as General Motors or HersheyFoods. If one reads the Wannsee Protokol (the minutes, assembled and edited by AdolfEichmann, of the 1942 conference at which the decision to exterminate was passed on toParty, SS, police, and government leaders), one might have the impression of a corporateboard meeting save for the subject matter. Moreover, there are also a number ofcontextual commonalities between the Holocaust and management, and I believe it would beprofitable for students to be familiar with them. For example,

A. It does not take a monster to accomplish morally monstrous things.

The men andwomen who planned and carried out Germany’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” werenormal, ordinary, often even “decent” human beings. There were few certifiablepsychopaths among them. Many of them saw their actions as difficult, even sickening,but necessary and legitimate, i.e., they did what they did “with the best of intentions”and from a sense of duty and obligation.

In her Good Intentions Aside: A Manager’sGuide to Resolving Ethical Problems (Harvard Business School Press, 1990), p.11f, LauraNash, business ethics consultant and author, puts it this way:

Many analysts of business ethics have noted that most instances of businesswrongdoing are committed by people who never deliberately set out to commit unethicalacts. The potential for fallibility is not confined to the business person, but it alsodoes not escape him or her.

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One is reminded of Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi’s soberingconclusions that the truly frightening thing about the Holocaust was that it was carriedout not by the fiendishly evil or maladapted, but by ordinary people who, under othercircumstances, would appear to fit our common definitions of goodness. Wrote Levi in amoving analysis of the average Nazi in the SS:

They were made of the same cloth as we were, they were average human beings,averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters,they had our faces, but they had been reared badly. They were diligent followers andfunctionaries, many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career,or too obedient.

History and developmental psychology have indicated that members of almost any group,though individually well intentioned, can sink to immoral depths they would never daretest as individuals. Today’s manager needs to be armed with an awareness of what habitsof thought and action are most likely to subvert moral common sense and the moral toolsfor breaking through these ethical snags. The two paragraphs immediately above pointdirectly to an important conceptual intersection between the practitioners of genocideand the contemporary practice of management.

Those who planned and carried out the former were “organization men and women”; likewise, of course, for corporate managers today. Membership in a collective, the SSand the police, the military, the bureaucracy, a modern business corporation, even aLittle League baseball team carries with it certain undeniable constraints andpressures. Not the least of these are demands to conform, to obey, to defer individualgratification for the sake of the corporate good. If one accepts that orders are to beobeyed come what may, that Jews are a threat to national security, then killing Jewsbecomes morally permissible even if personally abhorrent. If one accepts that beating abusiness competitor is paramountly important and needs to be done, than “the endjustifies the means” becomes a working prescription for success and possibly forcontinued employment, as well.

The idea of “corporate (or organizational) culture” is relevant here. In order toremain in good standing, members of an organization must, at least tacitly, “buy into”the culture of the group, “internalizing” its ethos. The SS medical technician whopoured the Prussic acid pellets into a gas chamber at Birkenau was as much a part of hiscorporate culture as is the checkout clerk at K-Mart who wishes you a “nice day” becausecompany policy dictates “friendliness to customers.” The good German burgher whoquietly watched his Jewish neighbor sent off to Dachau after Reichskristallnacht in 1938was, through his inaction, part of his society’s ethos in the same way as was the FrenchHuguenot citizen of Le Chambon who hid refugee Jews because he was a Christian whobelieved in helping anyone who needed help. Thus, so long as one literally ormetaphorically “wears the uniform” of an organization, he gives at least tacit approvalto its culture and ethos. And hence he shares the responsibility for good or ill, evenif indirectly for what is done in the name of the organization.

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B. In killing millions of men, women, and children, Germany did not actcapriciously or out of uncontrolled rage or emotion.

To the contrary, the FinalSolution was a state-sanctioned plan, part of the larger scheme of what can be calledthe “Nazi ethic.” Germans (and their allies) planners, perpetrators, and bystandersalike acted in accord with a distinct system of ethics, complete with prescriptions andproscriptions. Among other things, this ethic dictated that one must keep private life,and its dos and don’ts, separate from the rights and wrongs of job, role, occupation,profession. In business ethics this is the familiar problem of “private v. publicethics,” where the issue is whether one can be as moral “on the job” as one assays to beat home. For example: A manager may well be kind, caring, and truthful at home, yet inher office be ever-obedient, even if reluctantly, and less than truthful in dealing withclients all for the sake of what she is convinced is “the corporate good.” Manyranking SS officials were desk-bound, “nine-to-five” administrators of mass-death”factories” at such places as Auschwitz/Birkenau and Treblinka who nevertheless rearedtheir children well, were faithful husbands and good providers, and possessed a highlevel of private moral sensitivity.


Through the perspectives of history, sociology, and social and applied ethics, thiscourse would wrestle with the questions and lessons of the German genocide and theirapplications to contemporary organizational and corporate life. Students wouldaccomplish this by,

  • Examining German society under National Socialism, 1933-45. See Appendix A.

  • Studying the special role of selected people in organizations and professions (e.g.,the bureaucracy, the police, the clergy, the military, the law, and the universities) inlegalized mass murder. See Appendix B.

  • Writing papers that connect the lessons of the Holocaust to contemporary business andorganizational practices

I believe this course will assist in an attitudinal broadening of our MBA students,reinforcing for them the home truth that business and management activities do not occurin a vacuum. What managers do will necessarily affect, sooner or later and for good orill, society as a whole. In tandem with the required Core Course in organizationalethics, it could help them see that there is truly a “moral bottom line,” despite thealleged scarcity of either black or white answers and an overwhelming amount of grey.See Appendix C.

Please know that I will be happy to meet with the Committee should it desire todiscuss this proposal.

Appendix A

Since most German citizens under Hitler had nodirect role in or knowledge of the extermination of Europe’s Jews but clearly knew theirgovernment had undertaken severe anti-Jewish measures, it can be argued that Germany asa society was morally indifferent to human welfare (sociologist Rainier Baum pointedlyrefers to moral indifference “the form of modern evil”*). As Hitler opponent MartinNiemoller is alleged to have said,

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they camefor the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist. Then they came for the tradeunionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me. There wasno one left to speak for me.”

* See The Holocaust and the German Elite: Genocide and National Suicide in Germany,1871- 1945, Rowman and Littlefield, 1981; and Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers, eds.,Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time, Temple UniversityPress, 1988, Ch 2.

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Appendix B

One of these studies would be that of Albert Speer, who served first as Hitler’spersonal architect and later as Minister of Armaments in Nazi Germany. As documented inthe three books he wrote following his release from 20 years in prison as a convictedwar criminal, Speer admits he made a Faustian bargain for the sake of professionalsuccess. He was before, during, and after Hitler a normal and decent human being whoyet came to moral grief in pursuit of a high-status career. (Interestingly enough, inhis memoirs Speer laments that only in prison, through his reading, thinking, andwriting, did he become “liberally educated.” His earlier university training waswholly, and narrowly, professional and technical. One wonders if things might haveturned out differently had he been better, because more broadly, educated.)

Another promising study concerns SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief administrator ofthe extermination program and a man described by Hannah Arendt in her controversialaccount of his trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking,1963) as almost boringly normal. Other studies could focus on, Reserve Police Batallion101, part-time street patrolmen unfit for regular military service who were activatedand sent to Poland for the express purpose of shooting Jews. As historian ChristopherR. Browning documents,

they were shopkeepers, clerks, and office workers who found themselves confrontedwith orders to kill unarmed civilians in time of war. Some refused. Yet…80 to 90percent proceeded to kill, though almost all of them at least initially were horrifiedand disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtlynonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them toshoot [Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution inPoland, HarperCollins, 1991, p.184].

Their commander tearfully informed them that they had to perform a frightfullyunpleasant task. This assignment was not to his liking, indeed it was highlyregrettable, but the orders came from the highest authorities. If it would make theirtask any easier, they should remember that in Germany the bombs were falling on womenand children [Browning, p.2].

His men also remember him saying, “Man…such jobs don’t suit me. But orders areorders” and “If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then [God] have mercy onus Germans” [Browning. p.58].

In the end, these “ordinary men” accepted that, as with most things inlife,”…killing was something one could get used to” [Browning, p.85]. By the end oftheir assignment they had “participated in the direct shooting of at least 38,000 [men,women, and children whose only crime was that they were] Jews” because “killing Jewsdid not conflict with the value system they had grown up with…” [Browning, pp.142 and182, respectively].

Death camp commandants Franz Stangl and Rudolf Hoess, each of whom when young men,seriously contemplated the priesthood as vocation. There is no evidence that either manever personally abused an inmate or had especially harsh attitudes towards Jews, yeteach sat at a desk and sent thousands to the gas chambers. The role of the directorsand administrators of the Reichsbahn, the German state railroad system, in providingmotive power, rolling stock, and crews for the “special shipments” of people to thecamps. Industrial executives who knowingly used inmates from the camps as slave-laborin their factories (e.g., I.G. Farben and Krupp). Biomedical researchers who conductedlethal experiments on involuntary subjects, justifying their actions as morallypermissible in time of war and because the German military had need of the data (itshould be noted that some of this research produced results that were scientificallyvalid and medically useful the United States military has been using them since the endof World War II). Physicians who eagerly participated in Aktion T4, thegovernment-sanctioned euthanasia program directed, not at Jews, but at Aryan Germanssuffering from severe medical and psychiatric disorders. While the official governmentjustification was that such people “deserved” to die because they were “useless eaters”and had “lives unworthy to be lived,” many physicians were convinced involuntaryeuthanasia was an act of “medical mercy” and thus morally licit.

Karl Brandt, one of Hitler’s personal physicians and Minister for Health andSanitation in the Third Reich, approved of the euthanasia program and the medicalexperiments. Ethically, Brandt is an important and even fascinating figure. He is alsoa very disturbing one in that, contrary to the “Nazi stereotype,” he was universityeducated, professionally trained, reasoned in discourse, and possessed considerablehumane idealism and concern for the moral good (at one time he considered working withAlbert Schweitzer in Africa). Ironically, it was the latter two traits that led to hismoral downfall. Because he was a leading figure in the Nazi hierarchy andSurgeon-General of the Waffen-SS, he was arrested by the American authorities at the endof the war. The United States Military Tribunal at Nuremberg convicted him of warcrimes and crimes against humanity. In his final statement before the Tribunal, hesaid,

Somewhere we must all take a stand. I am fully conscious that when I said “Yes” toeuthanasia I did so with the deepest conviction, just as it is my conviction today, thatit was right. Death can mean deliverance. Death is life just as much as birth. It wasnever meant to be murder. I bear a burden, but it is not the burden of crime. I bearthis burden of mine, though with a heavy heart, as my responsibility. I stand beforeit, and my conscience as a man and as a doctor.

On 2 June 1948 Brandt went to the gallows at Landsberg prison, where 25 years earliera failed political agitator dictated the manuscript of a book called Mein Kampf.

Appendix C

From Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers, eds., Echoes from the Holocaust:Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time, Temple University Press, 1988, p.181:

Germany’s Endlasung der Judenfrage [“Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”] is aparadigm of what G.J. Warnock has called a “plain fact” of moral wrong. Philip Hallie,in his account of the French Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon …, whosecitizens shielded Jews during the German occupation, begins by citing Warnock:

I believe that we all have, and should not let ourselves be bullied out of, theconviction that at least some questions as to what is good or bad people, what isharmful or beneficial, are not in any serious sense matters of opinion. That it is a badthing to be tortured or starved, humiliated or hurt, is not an opinion: it is a fact.That it is better for people to be loved and attended to, rather than hated orneglected, is again a plain fact, not a matter of opinion. Whether one has aprofessional interest in the Holocaust or works in the business world, it should beobvious that it is a “plain fact” that, beyond all relativistic cavil, those who helptheir fellow human creatures are morally better than those who do not.

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