“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” These are the words of Anne Frank written in her wartime diary. What does this diary of a teen-age girl tell us about human nature? I enjoyed 4-days in the beautiful city of Amsterdam during a recent family holiday. With my daughter studying the Second World War and reading Ann Frank’s diary, we arranged to visit Ann’s house on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. The house is now a museum providing a dignified and respectful memory of Ann Frank. Although, just a building, the museum evokes the most powerful of emotions.
Anne Frank was a Jewish girl living in Amsterdam, who went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Ann and seven others hid in a secret annexe for almost 2 years, during this time Ann wrote her detailed diary.
“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.” Ann Frank
In 1944, Ann, then 15 years old, and the others were discovered and deported to concentration camps. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only one of the eight people to survive, on his return after the war he found and published Ann’s diary, which has now been translated into 67 languages with over 30 million copies sold.
So what does Ann’s story and her diary tell us about human nature? As I walked through Ann’s house I experienced the most powerful feelings, with opposite feelings occurring at the same time. One was a feeling of hope, inspiration, the goodness of people and their resilience in the worst of circumstances. As Ann says, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” “Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.” Juxtaposed to this, I experienced a feeling of despair that such cruelty and unbelievable hatred existed within Europe, only 70 years ago and on such an industrial scale.
After the Second World War, scientists tried to understand the causes of the genocide. The controversial ‘shock experiments’ conducted by Stanley Milgram and his team in the 1960s appeared to show that many people are incredibly obedient to authority. In the experiments participants were given instructions from a scientist, with many applying what they understood to be deadly electric shocks to an innocent person. The results of these controversial experiments have been used to explain supposedly blind obedience to authority. As Milgram put it “…obedience implies an action that is totally in response to a command, with no motivational support from inner sources.”
“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!” Ann Frank.
However, a 2014 research paper by Alexander Haslam and his colleagues looked at the archived feedback from Milgram’s participants. Based on this re-examination of Milgram’s original data, another interpretation was put forward that there was a willingness to perform these unpleasant tasks. This was dependent upon the identification with collective goals, and that ‘leaders’ cultivated identification with those goals by making them seem virtuous rather than vicious. Alexander Haslam’s interpretation provides an additional sinister explanation, a combination of obedience and willingness. This paints a very bleak picture of human nature.
But let’s reflect on the words of Ann Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” How true this is, as Ann puts it we need not wait a single moment to prevent the next act of individual or mass cruelty.
As I walked around Ann’s house, I commented gratefully that things have changed so much since 1944. However, I was quickly reminded of the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Bosnia 1995 and Darfur in Sudan in 2003, to name a few. So maybe human nature has not changed as much as I would have liked since 1944.
However, Ann Frank gives us hope, “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met.
I want to go on living even after my death!” Ann Frank