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Deception, Victims

Deception is a key element of genocide. The perpetrators, always a government or other organized group, are able to operate in secrecy, whereas the victims, usually dispersed or leaderless, find it difficult to coordinate their knowledge and actions, and are also hampered by psychological barriers to belief and action. For these reasons victims can not only be easily deceived, but can be co-opted or coerced into helping to deceive outsiders. On the other hand, victims are sometimes able to evade genocide by hiding, fleeing, or assuming false identities, and to the extent that groups of victims are able to discover the truth and organize themselves, armed resistance may also be possible. All these responses require concealment both in preparation and execution, and hence are possible only if the victims in turn are able to deceive the perpetrators.

Ironically, past patterns of persecution short of genocide can help the perpetrators deceive the victims. Perpetrators and victims have typically lived side by side for many years, often in conflict but with long periods of peaceful coexistence. When violence begins to escalate, the victims tend to expect a repetition of previously experienced events and may fail to respond as decisively as they might if they knew what was coming. Perpetrators can thus deceive their victims by approaching genocide by degrees, recapitulating past persecutions. The Nazis, for example, started off by stripping Jews of property and civil rights, introducing discriminatory measures, expelling many of them, forcing them to wear identifying symbols, and confining them to ghettos: The Jews had experienced all these forms of persecution in the past and expected to be able to survive them, but this time they set the stage for genocide.

Either flight or some form of counter-deception, such as forging protective documents, or living under assumed identities or in concealed hiding places, usually provides the best chance of survival. In Cambodia individuals survived by such expedients as throwing away eyeglasses that could mark them as "intellectuals." In the case of pogroms or massacres of short duration, victims can also occasionally survive by feigning death. The very few eyewitnesses to the Cambodian Killing Fields survived in this way and played an important role in unmasking the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Totalitarian regimes have complete control of the media and are able to lie and mislead at will. A typical early move is to shut down all information channels but the official ones: For example, immediately after taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge confiscated all radios and televisions. Killing is usually not done in full view (Rwanda was an exception); victims may instead be transported to camps or remote locations, ostensibly for "resettlement." The Nazis went so far as to disguise gas chambers as shower rooms, with false showerheads, so as to continue the deception until the last moment.

The Holocaust was exceptional in that it allowed its victims many opportunities to practice counter-deception. Within some of the Nazi ghettos a political underground developed that published clandestine newspapers and was able to maintain a surprising degree of contact with the outside world. It was even able to smuggle out news of atrocities to the West and eventually organized a number of armed revolts. Deception within the ghettos took several other forms as well, for example, a thriving smuggling enterprise, which in the Warsaw ghetto was estimated to account for 80 percent of the ghetto's food and export income. Smuggling partly defeated the Nazis' intention of reducing the Jewish population through starvation. Once deportations to the death camps started, in 1942, the Jewish underground was able to track the deportation trains to their destinations and ascertain the true meaning of resettlement. But the Nazis continued to deceive the Jews by offering apparent exemptions from deportation and "amnesties" for those who had escaped from the ghettos. These deceptions persuaded some Jews to stay in the ghettos even after they knew what deportation entailed. Other Jews tried to evade the deportations by building hideouts in the ghettos, or by escaping and going into hiding "on the Aryan side."

The Nazis and the Jews thus played a cat-and-mouse game of deception and counter-deception. Victory went to the perpetrators, who killed nearly six million Jews; but some 200,000 Jews survived in hiding across Europe and more than a million managed to flee across borders to the Soviet Union, Sweden, Switzerland, and other countries of refuge.

Perpetrators often used Potemkin villages, and staged events to deceive outside observers, forcing the victims to cooperate in the deception. During the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq, reporters were given a guided tour of selected Kurdish areas and then attended a festive Kurdish wedding. In June 1944 a delegation of the International Red Cross visited the Nazi Paradeisghetto of Theresienstadt (in Czech Terezín), which had been spruced up for the occasion. The delegation was allowed to speak with a few prisoners who had been told what to say. The Nazis also forced Jews to take part in propaganda films depicting life at Theresienstadt and in the Warsaw ghetto.

Although most books that deal with genocide contain some discussion of deception by the perpetrators, the subject of evasion and deception by the victims has not been well served by the scholarly literature. There are a great many studies of victimization and its consequences (such as posttraumatic stress disorder), and many also of resistance and rescue, but the efforts of victims to save themselves by deceiving the perpetrators have only recently begun to draw the attention of scholars. Such experiences are described in memoirs and diaries too numerous to mention. The Bibliography here includes a small sample of these.

SEE ALSO Cambodia; Deception, Perpetrators; Ghetto; Propaganda


Klemperer, Victor (1998). I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933–1945. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Paulsson, Gunnar S. (2001). "Evading the Holocaust: The Unexplored Continent of Holocaust Historiography." In Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide, Vol. I. London: Palgrave.

Paulsson, Gunnar S. (2003). Secret City: The Hidden Jews ofWarsaw, 1940–1945. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Roseman, Mark (2001). A Past in Hiding: Memory andSurvival in Nazi Germany. New York: Henry Holt.

Szpilman, Wladyslaw (1999). The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45. New York: Picador.

Welaratna, Usha (1993). Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices ofNine Cambodian Survivors in America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Gunnar S. Paulsson

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Deception, Victims

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