Political Science Genocide1

Published on November 1st, 2012


Why Ordinary People Participate in Genocide

By Tor G. Jakobsen

The presence of inhumanity throughout history and even today is incontrovertible. Often, the perpetrators are ordinary people who change their behavior and become evil mass murderers.

The last century has been nicknamed the “age of genocide”. It started with the killing of 80 percent of the Heroro population in Namibia in 1905–07, followed by the Armenian holocaust and the Greek genocide where the Ottoman government was the culprit, the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, the persecutions of Germans by the hands of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the Rwandan genocide, up to the more recent South African farm attacks.

Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan

These atrocities are carried out by ordinary people. One day they will carry out gruesome acts of pillage and plunder, and the next day be ever so nice to their family, pets, and neighbors.


The Nature of Groups

One way to explain such evil is to focus on the groups that make it possible. According to James E. Waller Jr. who is chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College groups can “develop characteristics that create a potential for extraordinary evil.” The reason for this is that groups moral constraints are less pronounced and groups become more competitive toward other groups. As illustrated by World War 2, different sections of the Nazi system “competed” with each other in being effective, something which produced a highly efficient system of evil.

Waller also brings in the aspect of extreme ideological influence. However, research show that there is little evidence that for example German anti-Semitism was of a genocidal nature, and the same is found with regard to atrocities in Balkans in the 1990s.



Professor Gerald Schneider at the University of Konstanz states that one needs to take into account cost-benefit calculations performed by the perpetrators of mass killings. Most terrifying acts are actually based on conscious decisions, at least by the organizers of the killings. One is often blinded by the reciprocal nature that mass killings and plunder has in many conflicts, and are thus mistakenly interpreted as revenge.

Schneider points out that most authors in the social sciences maintain that such acts are based on clear choices. Genocide is in other words used by governments as a means to deter revolt.


Several Factors Play a Part

In the end, there is no “one right answer” to why ordinary people participate in such action. Waller points out that there is a built in xenophobia and desire for social dominance in many people, and these characteristics can be strengthened by a culture promoting violence. If the victims have suffered a social death in advance, like the Jews in Nazi Germany or the Germans in post-war Europe, and the killings are organized in a system, the outcome may very well be genocide.


Further reading:

Schneider, Gerald, Lilli Banholzer, & Roos Haer (2011) “Cain’s Choice: Causes of One Sided Violence against Civilians” in Tor G. Jakobsen (ed.) War: An Introduction to Theories and Research on Collective Violence. New York: Nova: 57–82.

Waller, James (2006) “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killings” in Mari Fitzduff & Chris E. Stout (eds.) The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace.

Waller, James (2007) Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.







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