Deception, Perpetrators

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Deception, Perpetrators

The Nazi Holocaust, the extermination of Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1917, and the killings in Rwanda in 1994 are prime examples of genocide during the twentieth century. In each case, the initial victim group lived within the political boundaries of the countries that carried out the genocide, thus necessitating the establishment of an extermination system that maximized willful participation from the executioners, minimized resistance from the victims, and encouraged passive complicity from external and internal bystanders.

Perhaps the greatest obstacles that instigators of genocide face are inhibitions against killing on the part of those whose participation and complicity are required. The Nazi Holocaust is perhaps unsurpassed in terms of the sheer number of killings. Yet the monstrous efficiency with which they were carried out over a long period of time cannot be explained easily by references to bloodlust on the part of the executioners or coercion from leaders. Rather, participation and complicity were at least partly enabled through the widespread use of deception that began early on with propaganda. In the three genocides of the twentieth century, Armenians were marked as enemies of the Turkish Republic, the Jews as enemies of the German people, and the Tutsi as enemies of the Hutu. During the Holocaust the Nazi bureaucracy created very stringent rules on the use of language that specifically discouraged the use of terms such as killing, liquidation, and extermination, at least in official documents and written orders. In the Rwandan genocide euphemisms were employed—weapons were called tools, Tutsi were referred to as "infiltrators" and inyenzi (cockroaches), organizing for murder was described as umuganda (communal work). The Turks' forced deportations and marches of the Armenians (called "resettlements") through rural regions and rugged mountains allowed an area emptied of Armenians to become a wasteland of skeletons. In Nazi Germany most death camps were built in the occupied countries to the east of Germany, particularly in Poland. In Rwanda the Tutsi population was driven toward schools and churches where they sought sanctuary, but which turned out to be places to concentrate the slaughter. These efforts removed the killing from the larger populace both physically and psychologically, and in Turkey and Germany, it enabled the large-scale deception that those who were rounded up and transported to the death camps were instead marked for resettlement and "labor duty in the East."

In Nazi Germany the rules on language were entirely consistent with the outcome of the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942, which provided the blueprint for "The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem in Europe." The resulting document contained no references to actual killing or extermination, yet it made the Holocaust part of another lie, namely that of "the battle of destiny for the German people," just as the resettlement of the Armenians was a battle for the soul of Turkey, and the extermination of Tutsi was intended to reverse the so-called victimhood of the Hutu. These lies suggested that the war against a part of the civilian population was not a choice, but a war forced on the perpetrators by destiny, and that in each case it was a matter of life and death for a dominant population who must annihilate its enemies or be annihilated.

Deception of this sort helps produce compliance because it ultimately allows for self-deception, especially if the lie is repeated over time. It allows perpetrators, bystanders, and victims alike to construe events in alternate and less threatening ways that elicit inhibition to a lesser degree, conceal the crime, and sew confusion. Knowing that a trainload of people will be killed may trigger more inhibition than believing that they are merely being resettled. This kind of self-deception not only helps to soothe one's conscience, it also takes responsibility away from all but those relatively few who do the actual killing. Even the concentration camp guard who dropped the cyanide into a gas chamber could deceive himself about the nature of his actions by identifying them with an abstract concept on a higher level. Rather than putting people to death, he was contributing to "the battle of destiny."

How important these types of self-deception are for the execution of genocide is underscored by the actions of bystanders who did not adopt the official deception. They did not remain passive, but instead influenced other bystanders and in some cases even perpetrators into taking actions aimed at rescuing those marked for death. Prime examples are the rescue of seven thousand Jews from Denmark with the help of small boats and delayed deportation orders from German officials, Bulgaria's refusal to surrender its Jewish population to the Germans in light of public demonstrations, the heroic efforts in the French village of La Chambon that saved thousands of refugees yet escaped reprisals from German officials, and the actions of a few lightly armed peacekeepers under General Romeo Dallaire who rounded up Tutsi and secreted them in a stadium where they remained under their protectors' guard. In all of these cases, deception did not lead to self-deception, but instead inspired individuals into taking responsibility for pro-social action.

SEE ALSO Bystanders; Complicity; Deception, Victims; Propaganda; Sociology of Perpetrators


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Ralph Erber