An MBA Elective Course in Philosophy

Return to Education…A Legacy Forum


Proposal: An MBA Elective Course in Philosophy

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

Copyright 1995 Warren Thompson



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 great deal. While it would be odious to claim any material equivalence between managerial behavior and mass murder, there is much that connects them. History shows that several hundreds of those involved with the Holocaust were managers and administrators working in government and bureaucratic agencies. Without them, genocide could not have happened; it is impossible to kill six million people without such customary managerial desiderata as strong leadership, careful planning, and scrupulous attention to budgeting and cost-benefit analysis.

From a certain point of view, the Holocaust was nothing more than a corporate problem to 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 Hershey Foods. If one reads the Wannsee Protokol (the minutes, assembled and edited by Adolf Eichmann, of the 1942 conference at which the decision to exterminate was passed on to Party, SS, police, and government leaders), one might have the impression of a corporate board meeting save for the subject matter. Moreover, there are also a number of contextual commonalities between the Holocaust and management, and I believe it would be profitable for students to be familiar with them. For example,

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

The men and women who planned and carried out Germany’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” were normal, ordinary, often even “decent” human beings. There were few certifiable psychopaths 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’s Guide 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 business wrongdoing are committed by people who never deliberately set out to commit unethical acts. The potential for fallibility is not confined to the business person, but it also does not escape him or her.


One is reminded of Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi’s sobering conclusions that the truly frightening thing about the Holocaust was that it was carried out not by the fiendishly evil or maladapted, but by ordinary people who, under other circumstances, would appear to fit our common definitions of goodness. Wrote Levi in a moving 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 and functionaries, 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 dare test as individuals. Today’s manager needs to be armed with an awareness of what habits of thought and action are most likely to subvert moral common sense and the moral tools for breaking through these ethical snags. The two paragraphs immediately above point directly to an important conceptual intersection between the practitioners of genocide and 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 SS and the police, the military, the bureaucracy, a modern business corporation, even aLittle League baseball team carries with it certain undeniable constraints and pressures. Not the least of these are demands to conform, to obey, to defer individual gratification for the sake of the corporate good. If one accepts that orders are to be obeyed come what may, that Jews are a threat to national security, then killing Jews becomes morally permissible even if personally abhorrent. If one accepts that beating a business competitor is paramountly important and needs to be done, than “the end justifies the means” becomes a working prescription for success and possibly for continued employment, as well.

The idea of “corporate (or organizational) culture” is relevant here. In order to remain 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 who poured the Prussic acid pellets into a gas chamber at Birkenau was as much a part of his corporate culture as is the checkout clerk at K-Mart who wishes you a “nice day” because company policy dictates “friendliness to customers.” The good German burgher who quietly watched his Jewish neighbor sent off to Dachau after Reichskristallnacht in 1938 was, through his inaction, part of his society’s ethos in the same way as was the French Huguenot citizen of Le Chambon who hid refugee Jews because he was a Christian who believed in helping anyone who needed help. Thus, so long as one literally or metaphorically “wears the uniform” of an organization, he gives at least tacit approval to its culture and ethos. And hence he shares the responsibility for good or ill, even if indirectly for what is done in the name of the organization.



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

To the contrary, the Final Solution was a state-sanctioned plan, part of the larger scheme of what can be called the “Nazi ethic.” Germans (and their allies) planners, perpetrators, and bystanders alike acted in accord with a distinct system of ethics, complete with prescriptions and proscriptions. 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. public ethics,” 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 in her office be ever-obedient, even if reluctantly, and less than truthful in dealing with clients all for the sake of what she is convinced is “the corporate good.” Many ranking SS officials were desk-bound, “nine-to-five” administrators of mass-death”factories” at such places as Auschwitz/Birkenau and Treblinka who nevertheless reared their children well, were faithful husbands and good providers, and possessed a high level of private moral sensitivity.


Through the perspectives of history, sociology, and social and applied ethics, this course would wrestle with the questions and lessons of the German genocide and their applications to contemporary organizational and corporate life. Students would accomplish 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) in legalized mass murder. See Appendix B. 
  • Writing papers that connect the lessons of the Holocaust to contemporary business and organizational 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 occur in 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 organizational ethics, it could help them see that there is truly a “moral bottom line,” despite the alleged 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 to discuss this proposal.


Appendix A

Since most German citizens under Hitler had no direct role in or knowledge of the extermination of Europe’s Jews but clearly knew their government had undertaken severe anti-Jewish measures, it can be argued that Germany asa society was morally indifferent to human welfare (sociologist Rainier Baum pointedly refers to moral indifference “the form of modern evil”*). As Hitler opponent Martin Niemoller is alleged to have said,

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. 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.

Appendix B

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

Another promising study concerns SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief administrator of the extermination program and a man described by Hannah Arendt in her controversial account 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 Batallion 101, part-time street patrolmen unfit for regular military service who were activated and sent to Poland for the express purpose of shooting Jews. As historian Christopher R. Browning documents,

they were shopkeepers, clerks, and office workers who found themselves confronted with orders to kill unarmed civilians in time of war. Some refused. Yet…80 to 90 percent proceeded to kill, though almost all of them at least initially were horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot [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 frightfully unpleasant task. This assignment was not to his liking, indeed it was highly regrettable, but the orders came from the highest authorities. If it would make their task any easier, they should remember that in Germany the bombs were falling on women and children [Browning, p.2].

His men also remember him saying, “Man…such jobs don’t suit me. But orders are orders” 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 in life,”…killing was something one could get used to” [Browning, p.85]. By the end of their 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 Jews did 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 personally abused an inmate or had especially harsh attitudes towards Jews, yet each sat at a desk and sent thousands to the gas chambers. The role of the directors and administrators of the Reichsbahn, the German state railroad system, in providing motive power, rolling stock, and crews for the “special shipments” of people to the camps. Industrial executives who knowingly used inmates from the camps as slave-labor in their factories (e.g., I.G. Farben and Krupp). Biomedical researchers who conducted lethal experiments on involuntary subjects, justifying their actions as morally permissible in time of war and because the German military had need of the data (it should be noted that some of this research produced results that were scientifically valid and medically useful the United States military has been using them since the end of World War II). Physicians who eagerly participated in Aktion T4, the government-sanctioned euthanasia program directed, not at Jews, but at Aryan Germans suffering from severe medical and psychiatric disorders. While the official government justification was that such people “deserved” to die because they were “useless eaters”and had “lives unworthy to be lived,” many physicians were convinced involuntary euthanasia was an act of “medical mercy” and thus morally licit.

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

Somewhere we must all take a stand. I am fully conscious that when I said “Yes” to euthanasia I did so with the deepest conviction, just as it is my conviction today, that it was right. Death can mean deliverance. Death is life just as much as birth. It was never meant to be murder. I bear a burden, but it is not the burden of crime. I bear this burden of mine, though with a heavy heart, as my responsibility. I stand before it, 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 earlier a 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 a paradigm 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 …, whose citizens 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, the conviction that at least some questions as to what is good or bad people, what is harmful or beneficial, are not in any serious sense matters of opinion. That it is a bad thing 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 or neglected, is again a plain fact, not a matter of opinion. Whether one has a professional interest in the Holocaust or works in the business world, it should be obvious that it is a “plain fact” that, beyond all relativistic cavil, those who help their fellow human creatures are morally better than those who do not.

Go to the Top of the Page || Return to Education…A Legacy Forum