Psychology of Perpetrators

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Psychology of Perpetrators

In the years immediately following the Holocaust, studies tended to associate the horrendous genocidal acts with pathological personalities. This was understandable as it reflected a common social need: If one could attribute the Holocaust to specific bad or insane types of people, the future might seem different. All that was then necessary was to screen out the potential killers and prevent them from completing such evil acts, and the world would become a safe place once again. It took a great deal of human insight from philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and research by social psychologists such as Stanley Milgram and Phillip G. Zimbardo to understand the so-called banality of evil: that for the most part normal people, sometimes even well-educated people, carried out the industrialized killing of the Jews, Romani, Jehovah's Witnesses, and mentally ill in Nazi Germany. These findings were especially disturbing, as they suggested the conditions in which genocidal acts sprout and spread need to be controlled. Thus, the viewpoint developed that people are not usually born with genocidal mentalities; such a mentality is developed and created by the architects of genocide and their societies. Although this proposition has been mostly offered within the context of the Holocaust, it could be applied to other genocides as well.

When analyzing the question of genocidal mentalities, one has first to consider the architects who carefully plan the process, and usually these are people with sophisticated, although not necessarily formal, psychological understanding. These architects determine how to turn peaceful citizens into vicious killers. They know that most citizens will resist becoming killers, if presented with a choice. The careful planning and subsequent socialization of people into genocidal roles are therefore essential elements in developing genocidal mentalities. In certain genocidal systems the architects initially seek individuals who have a previous record of criminality or sadistic pathological characteristics. Still, massive genocidal acts require many more killers than the available sadists or criminals in a society. Usually, younger men are the first to be recruited, based on the assumption that it is easier to manipulate and train them as killers because they are more receptive to authority figures. But once there are not enough young men, more mature people will also be recruited to carry out genocide (as happened during the Holocaust and also in Bosnia and Rwanda during the 1990s).

In order to socialize ordinary men (such socialization usually occurs with men, although there are exceptions to this rule) to adopt genocidal mentalities, several factors have to be taken into consideration. Ordinary men are usually part of a social and moral network that helps them maintain their humanity toward others and prevents them from becoming involved in inhuman acts. In order to socialize them into becoming murderers, they have to be insulated from their original social network and an alternative network has to be created for the potential killers, composed of men like themselves, led by a genocidal authority. This is not an easy a task to achieve, and therefore careful attention needs to be given to the process that the potential killers are led through.

To successfully achieve insulation, the architects of genocide have to be equipped with strong mechanisms for social indoctrination. They have to maintain full control of the reward and punishment system for the men assigned to conduct the killing. The planners of genocide can provide potential killers with food and social advancement, and they can also decide to kill them if they do not comply with orders. They may even promise potential killers entry into paradise, with seventy virgins waiting for them (as was the case with Muslim suicide bombers in the early twenty-first century). The planners must provide potential killers with a convincing rationale for committing genocidal acts. This rationale should include a moral or positive goal achieved by the genocide (e.g., "purity of the race" and "eliminating the cancer of our nation"), combined with monolithic dehumanization and devaluation of the target population (e.g., "They are bad: the bacteria of our society"). There is usually a paradoxical message in this rationale: The target population is seen as being both strong (the threat) and weak (they can be easily killed), but the clear division between the good (us) and the evil (them) is stronger than this paradox. Ethnic differences can easily be used to develop such a rationale, especially when there is a history of ethnic tension, oppression, and exclusion. As already mentioned, the architects of genocide must devise a careful, gradual process that will enable peaceful citizens to slowly adapt to the mode of becoming killers. And, of course, they have to provide the killers with the technical means to effectively carry out the genocidal acts, which are usually culture-bound, such as the use of chemicals (Zyklon B) in Germany and machetes in Rwanda.

Social Conditions That Support Insulation of Mass Murder

How do the architects of genocide succeed in so completely insulating the designated killers from the rest of their society? It is an easier to achieve this insulation and plan genocidal acts when the society involved is in economic, ethnic, cultural, or military crisis and there is ambiguity in regard to its own future. In a society in which many people have lost their jobs, the religious or cultural belief systems are threatened, people exclude an ethnic group, or where killing or humiliation is a daily occurrence, it is easier to instigate the rationale for a genocidal system, based on insulation, because the rationale for a very strong corrective act and monolithic identity seems to be available and widespread. But even when some of these conditions are lacking, talented planners (e.g., Slobodan Milosevic in former Yugoslavia) found in distant history (the fourteenth century) an event that could be manipulated to trigger such strong sentiments of collective injury and humiliation—especially in an ethnically diverse and tense society—thereby providing the necessary strong rationale for developing a genocidal process. The exclusion and scapegoating of the target population may have the character of projective identification. This process is known to arise when addressing internal social tensions or conflicts may seem too frightening to openly address.

In many cases, however, such will still not be enough, because moral or religious convictions, or the belief that they are civilized will not allow people to take part in genocidal acts. Therefore, the architects of genocide have to develop a sophisticated system of disinformation, deceit, and cover-up. This manipulation of language, on one hand, creates the necessary insulation of potential killers from their social network and criticism, and on the other, deceives the target population. This is why the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei ("work liberates") welcomed new inmates at the entrance to Auschwitz. The Nazi genocide was referred to as the Final Solution, and Jews were shipped to the East for supposed work and resettlement. When the train transports arrived at the death camps, physicians carried out the selection process as if it were based on some medical logic. The perceived healers were made to perform killing acts.

The reason why society at large does not usually resist or oppose such behavior is associated with the careful planning mentioned above. People are mostly not aware of the planning phases of genocide, that is, the deception and disinformation practiced by the architects, together with the sophisticated methods they have used to develop genocidal mentalities. Most people are not aware of the mechanisms of insulation, gradual socialization, and indoctrination used to socialize the murderers. Perhaps, in addition, there is the general human tendency to keep out of trouble, to turn a blind eye, as it were, especially when living in a regime that manipulates and instigates fear of an enemy to account for current crises.

Can quiet citizens suddenly become perpetrators, without a long socialization process? There are several such known cases, especially when the social atmosphere has already legitimized genocidal acts. For example, in Austria toward the end of World War II, several inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp succeeded in escaping. The people who lived in the villages around the camp had long been aware of the atrocities taking place near their homes and did not mind; perhaps they even supported them. When the inmates escaped, some villagers took their hunting rifles and working tools and ventured into the woods to hunt for the escapees. These individuals had not been trained to carry out genocide, but could participate in murderous acts willingly, because they had been exposed long enough to the genocidal atmosphere of their society. A society steeped in genocidal acts can become genocidal at large, without the socialization mentioned earlier.

The following question could still be asked: What motivates so many people to actively take part in the massive killing during genocide? Besides the socialization described above, is it indifference, fear, or actual hatred, or is it perhaps a combination of all three? Although most scholars agree about fear, scholars such as Daniel J. Goldhagen tend to emphasize the hatred toward the Jews, its long tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe, and researchers such as Charles Browning prefer to emphasize indifference. The Nazis learned how to both manipulate and create the dehumanization of their victims, turning them into scapegoats for the inner contradictions that the perpetrators themselves could not face.

The Paradoxical Morality of Perpretrators

Do perpetrators see themselves as evil criminals? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question usually is no. Perpetrators invariably see themselves as moral people who simply did their job, completed their mission. A number of Nazi perpetrators, in retrospect, argued that they had participated in the killings of Jews and others against their will; otherwise, they or their families would have been in danger. However, such rationalizations often surface when society has already denounced the atrocities the perpetrators committed. Moreover, supportive evidence for this argument does not exist. Goldhagen investigated one hundred cases involving Nazis who refused to participate in the shooting or gassing of Jews and other victims, and determined that nothing had happened to them: They were simply assigned other tasks within the regime.

How could the Nazi perpetrators of genocide and other atrocities maintain a "moral self-image"? In The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Robert Jay Lifton (1986) claims that they were able to maintain such a positive self-image through the psychological mechanism of doubling: That is, they succeeded in building a kind of inner wall between what they did at the killing site and how they continued to live their personal lives. There were very few people who collapsed during mass executions. One father, a deeply religious person, broke down after witnessing the execution of his Jewish workers near Para via Novo in Belarus. But he was the exception, which suggests that, as a rule, perpetrators learn to live with their atrocious acts. Some need to consume large quantities of drugs and/or alcohol in order to keep going. Others describe the process of becoming involved in atrocities as breaking through a threshold of sorts. Once they had killed the first person, the next was much easier and later anything was possible.

Interestingly, the Nazis specifically, and genocidal architects in general, paid attention to the potential psychological inhibitions of the executioners. While delivering a speech to the Nazi leadership in Posen in 1943, Heinrich Himmler referred directly to the "psychological hardships" of the executions. He stated that for the executors "This is an unwritten and never-to-be written page of glory in our history" but they would have to keep it secret and steer a middle course between "the task that made us hard" and "cases of human weakness" in relation to their victims (Charny and Rappaport, 1992, pp. 240–241).

After World War II, with the Nazi regime authoritative mental and physical support system gone, how did individual Nazi perpetrators manage to adjust to the postwar democratic government? One might have expected them to become criminals in any postwar society, continuing their former socialization. However, this was usually not the case: The past perpetrators readjusted quite well to the demands of the new social order and tried to conceal their previous participation in genocide. Was that stressful for them? For example, did they return to their religious congregations and confess to their priests about the atrocities they had committed? In one study in which eighty Christian clergy were interviewed, only two perpetrators were identified as having spoken in confession about their experiences during the war. One of these individuals, a former soldier, confessed that after being ordered to do so, he stabbed a six-year-old girl who ran to him from the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto after the Jewish uprising. He admitted that ever since the "brown eyes of this girl never gave him peace" (Bar-On, 1989, p. 196). Perhaps it was not a coincidence that he chose as his confessor a priest who was the son of a famous perpetrator. Two aspects of this confession are important:

  1. There was a "double wall" between the perpetrators and their social surroundings that helped the former to maintain a conspiracy of silence about the atrocities they had committed in postwar Germany.
  2. The perpetrators developed a kind of "paradoxical morality" after the war. Most of them did not become postwar criminals and were even attentive to the moral upbringing of their own children. With regard to any atrocities they committed, however, they usually only maintained a vivid memory of a single act about which they felt guilt and shame. With the help of this single memory they established a sense of their own humanity and repressed the memory of all the other atrocities in which they had been involved. Had they recalled more, they would have faced the danger of moral disintegration and collapse.

SEE ALSO Explanation; Political Theory; Sociology of Perpetrators


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Dan Bar-On

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Psychology of Perpetrators

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