Memoirs of Perpetrators

views updated

Memoirs of Perpetrators

Perpetrator behavior shakes one's sense of humanity and provokes a desire to be separate from such cruel barbarism, often achieved by characterizing perpetrators as demonic or psychologically deformed. The historical record and insights of scholars are used to confirm this judgment. But most contemporary work on this subject supports the recent conclusion of social psychologist James Waller who argues, "that it is ordinary individuals, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil. Perpetrators of extraordinary evil are extraordinary only by what they have done, not by who they are" (2002, p. 18).

Judgments about perpetrators are often made without their own accounts. Facing condemnation and punishment, perpetrators are unlikely to record their experiences in memoir form. Thus, while survivor memoirs, especially of the Holocaust, multiply, those of perpetrators are rare, even when supplemented by the writings of those who examined perpetrators. Among perpetrator memoirs are those of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, written while he awaited trial in Poland for crimes for which he was executed in 1947, and of Djemal Pasha, who as Minister of the Marine in the Young Turks government of the Ottoman Empire and Commander of the Fourth Army in Syria was one of three key architects of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Among studies of perpetrators are those of Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg that were authored by American psychologists Douglas Kelley and Gustave Gilbert, and that of Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, by the journalist Gita Sereny, based on her extensive interviews with him following the 1970 trial for his role in genocide.

Given an extremely thin resource base, what claims can be made about the historical value of perpetrator memoirs? These texts are, after all, suspect, and readers must approach them with critical skepticism. Perpetrators have obvious reasons to diminish their responsibility for or role in murderous actions. Djemal, for example, stated that when World War I began in 1914, he left Constantinople and thus had no input in the momentous 1915 decision to deport Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. He claimed that he took "the necessary measures to protect the Armenians against any attack while passing through my command . . . [and] did everything possible during the whole period of their deportation to give help to the Armenians" (1922, pp. 277–278). Scholars of the Armenian genocide paint a radically different picture of Djemal's involvement and actions.

Although both Höss and Stangl acknowledged and often accurately detailed their roles in the Holocaust, the reader must be cautious in accepting their accounts. Like most perpetrators, they developed an extensive set of rationalizations for their actions and these permeate their narratives. Both Höss and Stangl portrayed themselves as initially ignorant of the true nature of their assignments as commandants of their respective death camps, as administrators who devoted their energies solely to building and maintaining efficient camps in fulfillment of their duty, and as men who did not personally hate Jews or indulge in deliberate cruelty toward prisoners. By separating themselves from the actual killing process, not personally brutalizing the victims, and highlighting their roles as good fathers and husbands, they attempted to defuse their own responsibility and affirm their decency. Arguing that serious threats to his safety and that of his family trapped him in his perpetrator role, Stangl stated, "It was a matter of survival—always of survival. What I had to do, while I continued my efforts to get out, was to limit my own actions to what I—in my own conscience—could answer for" (Sereny, 1974, p. 164). No matter that he commanded two death camps with energy and dedication; as long as he personally did not pull the trigger or start the engines for the gas chambers, he was not guilty in his own mind.

Armed with the knowledge of perpetrator evasions and justifications, the reader can profitably use such materials to better understand: (1) how rather normal persons could become part of genocidal projects; (2) the various perpetrator roles, including killers, bureaucrats, and policy makers; (3) their motives for becoming involved; (4) the costs they paid for their involvement; and (5) the fact that perpetrators were essentially ordinary men.

If contemporary readers can gain significant insights from reading these memoirs, did their writing have any therapeutic value for the authors? If the memoir was the product of a genuine effort at self-understanding, including a willingness to accept responsibility for one's actions, then it could have such a value. Djemal's memoir, however, takes a very different tact as he essentially blames others, primarily the Russians, and unfortunate circumstances for the Armenian deaths and, thus, does not see himself in need of therapy or forgiveness. With death the likely outcome of his impending trial, Höss had an incentive to engage in such a therapeutic exercise. He begins his autobiography promisingly, "In the following pages I want to try and tell the story of my innermost being. . . and of the psychological heights and depths through which I have passed" (1959, p. 20). But the end result is so full of rationalizations, self-justifications, and evasions, that one questions whether it did have genuine therapeutic benefit. At the end of his extensive and probing interviews with Sereny, Stangl haltingly, painfully offered a kind of confession: "But I was there. So yes, in reality I share the guilt. Because my guilt . . . my guilt . . . only now in these talks . . . now that I have talked about it all for the first time. [pause] My guilt is that I am still here" (Sereny, 1974, p. 364). Nineteen hours later Stangl died of heart failure, perhaps more at peace with himself than he had been in many years.

SEE ALSO Diaries; Memoirs of Survivors


Broad, Pery (1991). "Reminiscences of Pery Broad." In KL Auschwitz Seen by the SS, ed. Kazimierz Smoen et al. Warsaw: Interpress Publishers.

Djemal (also Cemal), Pasha (1922). Memories of a Turkish Statesman, 1913–1919. New York: Doran.

Gilbert, G. M. (1947). Nuremberg Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Gilbert, G. M. (1950). The Psychology of Dictatorship: Based on an Examination of the Leaders of Nazi Germany. New York: Ronald Press.

Höss, Rudolf (1959). Commandant of Auschwitz. New York: Popular Library.

Kelley, Douglas M. (1947). 22 Cells in Nuremberg. New York: MacFadden.

Sereny, Gita (1974). Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience. New York: Random House.

Waller, James (2002). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald G. Schilling

About this article

Memoirs of Perpetrators

Updated About content Print Article