Genocide Essays Toward Understanding

Disconnecting the Threads:
Rwanda and the Holocaust Reconsidered

by René Lemarchand

The only way to clarify the applicability of definitions and generalizations is with comparisons. The question of whether the Holocaust had elements that have not existed with any other form of genocide is extremely important if we want to find out more about social pathology in general. When one discusses unprecedented elements in a social phenomenon, the immediate question is, Unprecedented in comparison with what?

Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, p. 39

Because the Holocaust is often regarded as the apotheosis of genocide and is the best known genocide in the western world, it is the paradigmatic genocide for political manipulation and revising the past Comparisons based on either the Holocaust or the Gulag Archipelago as a single archetype which assume that there is one mechanically recurring script are bound to be misleading.

Helen Fein, Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, p. 55, 56.

The Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide are two of the most terrifying and complex catastrophes of the 20th century. Whether measured by the scale of the atrocities committed against Jews and Tutsi, the distinctiveness of their collective identities, and the deliberate, purposeful manner of their annihilation, there are compelling reasons for seeing in the Rwanda carnage a tropical version of the Shoa. Little wonder if time and again the better known of the two has been used as the paradigmatic frame for analyzing the other.

The aim of this discussion is to challenge -- or at least problematize -- this analogy by placing the concept of genocide in comparative discourse. The sense of revulsion inspired by mass murder on such an appalling scale is no reason to gloss over the singularity of each catastrophe. For if the points of convergence between them are undeniable, to treat Rwanda as the carbon copy of the Holocaust is likely to obscure its historical specificity and regional context, and ultimately lead to a misunderstanding of the motivations behind the killings. Not only does it make short shrift of the very different logics at work in each case, one ideological, the other retributive; it also renders the prospects of national reconciliation in Rwanda even more remote. History, as someone said, never repeats itself, but it sometimes rhymes.

Before going any further, a few notes of caution. Although the title of this paper is meant as a rejoinder to Mark Levene’s effort to identify the “common threads” linking Rwanda to the Holocaust, it is by no means intended to settle scores with the author. [1] There is much in his discussion that I find illuminating and pertinent. In pointing to its shortcomings – his neglect of the regional and historical contexts – my aim is to raise problems of analysis which are of immediate concern to historians of the Holocaust yet seldom appear to cross the minds of Rwanda specialists, namely the relative importance of context and circumstance as distinct from intention or ideology. This where the ongoing debate among historians of the Holocaust – notably the controversies surrounding the intentionalist and functionalist schools – offers a particularly useful vantage point from which to look at the etiology of the Rwanda genocide. [2]

Contrary to the impression conveyed by most journalistic accounts, the history of Rwanda does not begin in 1994, or even in 1990, when a group of Tutsi refugee warriors invaded the country, setting in motion an extremely bloody civil war. We need to remind ourselves of the pivotal role of the Hutu revolution of 1959-62, culminating with the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy and the rise to power of politicians claiming to represent the voice of the Hutu majority. If, as Robert Melson has conclusively demonstrated, revolution and civil war were central elements in the background of the Holocaust and Armenian genocide, [3] his thesis also finds a perfect illustration in the case of Rwanda. Not the least of the merits of his model is that it offers a framework for understanding not just similarities but differences between the cases at hand. There are indeed significant differences between the Nazi revolution and the Hutu revolution, and Hitler’s disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union (code named Barbarossa) in 1941 has little in common with the 1990 invasion of Rwanda by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). In one case the perpetrator is the one invading his neighbor, in the other it is the perpetrator who is faced by an invasion from a neighboring state.

The distinction drawn by Helen Fein between ideological and retributive genocide is crucial to the argument set forth here. [4] Whereas the Holocaust is the classic example of an ideological genocide, rooted in the most stridently racist ideology, the Rwanda genocide is better seen as the byproduct of the mortal threats posed to the revolutionary Hutu-dominated state by the RPF. Like all ideal types these categories are analytic tools, and thus do not take into account the full complexity of real life situations. This is not to suggest therefore that racist propaganda did not play a major role in inciting Hutu mobs to kill innocent Tutsi civilians, only to emphasize the extent to which threat perceptions enhanced the receptivity of the killers to the poisonous ideology distilled on the airwaves of the infamous Radio Mille Collines. Nor is this meant to ignore the anxieties inspired by Nazi allegations of a Judeo-Bolshevik plot, only that such fears belonged to the realm of pure fantasy, whereas in Rwanda they were part and parcel of the every day reality of a vicious civil war [5]

To put it baldly: Jews did not invade Germany with the massive military and logistical support of a neighboring state; nor did they once rule Germany as the political instrument of an absolute monarchy; nor were they identified with a ruling ethnocracy; nor did Jewish elements commit a partial genocide of non-Jews in a neighboring state 22 years before the Holocaust. Again, Jews did not stand accused of murdering the head of state of a neighboring state (as happened in Burundi with the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993). And while Jews were insistently accused by the Nazi propaganda mill of working hand in hand with Bolchevism to subvert the state, at no time did their actions, within or outside Germany, lend the slightest credibility to these accusations. Immensely more threatening was the military posture of the RPF on the eve of the Rwanda genocide. [6]

The Case for Parallelism

Once this is said, there is a sense in which the analogy remains unambiguously compelling: Tutsi and Jews share a sense of victimhood for which here are few other parallels in recent or past history; both have been the target of a “total domestic genocide”, to use Melson’s phrase. It is not a matter of coincidence if the Rwanda genocide makes immediate claims on the collective memories of Jews everywhere, if Jewish commentators are instinctively drawn to identify with the agonies of the Tutsi, and if an exceptionally close relationship has since developed between the state of Israel and post-genocide Rwanda. Referring to the “murderous trauma which they have respectively endured”, William Miles notes that “it is in this vein that contacts between the RPF and the sate of Israel have been close; that cash-strapped Kigali maintains an embassy in Jerusalem; and the Israeli branches of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Amcha have actively assisted in survivor treatment and national healing programs in Rwanda, as well as advising Rwandan prosecutors on conducting war crime trials. In this sense post-1994 Tutsi are post-Shoa Jews”. [7]

The analogy applies at another level as well, albeit a more complex one. In a fascinating discussion of the problems involved in “ ‘Judaizing’ the Rwanda Genocide”, Miles draws attention to their collective self-awareness as “chosen peoples”, not to mention the “positive affinities” supposedly inscribed in their biblical “sibling relationship”: “Tutsi are also Jews in the more problematic sense of being – albeit in the African context – a ‘chosen people’, one whose historically privileged status stemmed from colonial favoritism. (According to some Hamitic interpretations, divine patronage also played a part in Tutsi superiority)”. [8] But as the author would readily concede, it is one thing to be “chosen” by a colonial administration imbued of the racially-inspired notions of 19th century European ethnography, and quite another to be a divinely chosen people (am nichvar) in the biblical sense. Of this crucial distinction Miles is fully aware. Nor is he oblivious of the ideological convergence between Hamitic and Aryan mythologies. [9] For there is indeed a sense in which Tutsi claims to superiority -- whether induced by early European colonizers and missionaries, or stemming from a culturally ingrained disposition to see themselves as belonging to a higher order of humanity -- remind one of nothing so much as of the way in which pseudo-scientific theories were turned into racist myths at the hands of Nazi ideologues. [10]

“Who, then, in the moral universe of Holocaust parallelism, are the Tutsi? Are they ‘the Jews’, victims of intended extermination? Or are they ‘the Nazis’, putative embodiment of a superior race?” [11] The question Miles raises is one that defies simple answers. His position is unambiguous: “To posit that they are, in some sense, both Aryans and Jews is unacceptable”. I am inclined to think otherwise: seen through the prism of history once might conceivably argue that they are both Aryans and Jews, albeit at different moments of their destiny. Their “Arianness” is inscribed in the explicitly racist connotations of the Hamitic hypothesis -- in part also in some of the myths of origins associated with the birth of the Nyginya monarchy – and their Jewishness in their tragic destinies, their shared victimization at the hands of a racist state.

This is only one of the many ambivalent issues raised by “Judaizing” the Rwandan genocide. Another has to do with the parallel relationship between the Nazi and Hutu revolutions, on the one hand, and genocide on the other.

The Historical Nexus: Revolution and War

Seldom is history determined by accident or contingency. Hitler alone does not explain the Holocaust, any more than Habyalima or his entourage, the so-called akazu, are the causes of the Rwandan tragedy. Like any major event in history genocide must be contextualized. No one has done it more effectively than Robert Melson in his remarkable inquest into the roots of the Armenian and Nazi genocides. Rather than looking at any single individual or culture or mentalité for an explanation, he shows how in each case the combination of revolution and war provided the structural opportunities for the systematic extermination of Jews and Armenians.

While providing the condition for the coming to power of “ideological vanguards”, revolutions redefine “the identity of the political community as the ‘people’, the ‘nation’, the ‘class’, the ‘race’”; the occurrence of war heightens of the sense of vulnerability of the new community, and creates strong ties between domestic and external foes: “Those that earlier have been labeled as ‘the enemies of the revolution’ are part of an insidious plot with the regime’s international foes to undo revolution or even to destroy the state and the political community itself”. Neither “expulsion, assimilation or segregation” are viable options in dealing with such threats; systematic extermination is the only solution. [12] More often than not, genocide is the deliberate, calculated response of the self-appointed custodians of the revolution to the menace posed by counterrevolutionaries at home and abroad.

The Melson thesis brings to light a crucial parallel between the Holocaust and Rwanda. In both instances the roots of genocide are traceable to the same lethal mix of revolutionary fervor and wartime conditions. Closer scrutiny of the evidence, however, shows that there are fundamental differences in the types of revolutionary upheavals experienced by each state, and the character of the war that followed in their wake.

All revolutions involve the drastic and violent restructuring the social order, but not all revolutions stem from the same ideological roots. The Nazi revolution was nothing if not stridently anti-semitic, aiming at the regeneration of state and society in the name of Aryan “purity”. Under the leadership of the Fuhrer the master-race would emerge as the only source of salvation in the face of a world Jewish conspiracy. The Rwanda revolution was an entirely different phenomenon. The aim was not to enthrone a “master race” but to end the hegemony of the Tutsi minority, the nearest equivalent of a master race during much of the colonial period, and in so doing free the Hutu masses of the shackles of the Tutsi-dominated monarchy.

The ethnic underpinnings of the Rwanda revolution (1959-1962) cannot be denied any more than the anti-Tutsi violence that has accompanied the rise to power of the Hutu counter-elites. As many as 20,000 Tutsi may have lost their lives (out of a total of some 350,000); tens of thousands fled the country, most of them to Uganda and Burundi, others to the Congo and Tanzania. Although some Tutsi do not hesitate to view the revolution as the first of the several genocides they have suffered at the hands of the Hutu, neither the scale nor the circumstances of the human losses have anything in common with the 1994 carnage.

Paradoxically, the exclusionary implications of the revolution were the flip side of its populist, egalitarian aspirations. The “emancipation” of the Hutu masses meant recognition of the claims of the humble and downtrodden – “le menu people”, to use the self-description most frequently used by Hutu politicians -- against the age-old domination of a “feudo-hamitic” monarchy. [13] Though utterly oblivious of the rights of the minority, this revolutionary agenda attracted considerable sympathy and support from Brussels. It is noteworthy that the revolution got underway three years before the advent of independence in 1962; a successful transfer of power to Hutu politicians would have been unthinkable in the absence of the wholehearted support they received from the trusteeship authorities and the Church. The tone of the revolution was populist and anti-feudal. Unlike most other varieties of African nationalism, its rhetoric was anything but anti-Western; its target was not the trusteeship authorities but the Tutsi-dominated Union Nationale Rwandaise (Unar), seen by Belgium as a dangerous radical movement, close to Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) and strategically allied to Communist China. In sum, to see in the Hutu revolution a tropical replica of Nazi revolutionary anti-semitism makes little sense.

What does make sense is the perversion of the Hutu revolution into an increasingly anti-Tutsi crusade, culminating in the years following the RPF invasion with an outpouring of rabidly racist propaganda. It is tempting – but quite misleading -- to explain the Rwanda genocide by projecting the events of 1994 into the past, and infer therefrom an undiluted commitment to racism on the part of the Habyalimana regime and its predecessor under the presidency of Grégoire Kayibanda. To cite but one example, Peter Uvin refers to “the long-standing and deeply ingrained racism of Rwanda society”, noting that “for decades Rwandan society has been profoundly racist. The image of the Tutsi as inherently evil and exploitative was, and still is, deeply rooted in the psyche of most Rwandans; this image was a founding pillar of the genocide to come”. [14] This naively ahistorical view of the roots of the genocide makes short shrift the fact that ethnic discrimination was indeed the hallmark of the traditional Tutsi monarchy long before it was appropriated by Hutu ideologues [15] -- and suggests an obvious parallel with the Goldhagen argument: just as the Holocaust is historically linked to a long tradition of “eliminationist anti-Semitism”, the Rwanda genocide is likewise anchored in a long-standing legacy of anti-Tutsi racism. [16] This is a gross oversimplification of a far more complex reality. Overt, officially-sanctioned racism, as distinct from “anti-feudal” or “anti-monarchical” propaganda, was largely absent from the political discourse of Hutu revolutionaries in the 1950s. There was no Mein Kampf to provide ideological direction to the revolution, no Fuhrer to instill hatred in the minds of the masses, no lebensraum to justify conquest, no Final Solution to deal with Tutsi threats (at least not until 1993, when the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi set in motion a trend towards “cumulative radicalization” best illustrated by the rise of Hutu Power). [17]

Anti-Tutsi sentiment has never been a constant in Rwanda history. It waxed and waned depending on the historical moment. The key variable was the salience of threat perceptions, a phenomenon closely linked to the political events in the region. Anti-Tutsi violence reached ominous proportions in 1963-4, in the wake of repeated attempts by Tutsi commandos – the so-called inyenzi, or “cockroaches” in Kinyarwanda [18] -- to fight their way back into the country. The most disastrous of such raids occurred in December 1963, when a group of armed Tutsi refugees from Burundi nearly captured the capital city; in response an estimated 5,000 Tutsi civilians were murdered by Hutu mobs in the Gikongoro prefecture. Ineffective though they were in bringing down the republic, the impact of these incursions on the radicalization of the Kayibanda regime has been profound. Several new elements, all of them harbingers of a future apocalypse, came into focus: (a) the growing identification of the enemies of the revolution with foreign enemies, (b) the conflation into the same subversive frame of exile and resident Tutsi elements, the latter supposedly acting as a spies (ibiyetso) for the former; (c) the radicalization of the domestic arena through the elimination of moderates. [19]

The following years saw a distinct lowering of the ethnic tension. As cross-border raids came to an end, so did anti-Tutsi violence -- only to resurface immediately after the 1973 genocidal slaughter of Hutu by Tutsi in neighboring Burundi. Scores of Tutsi students were killed by their Hutu schoolmates in secondary schools and on the campus of the National University of Rwanda, in Butare, causing another major exodus of Tutsi civilians to neighboring states. The 1973 pogroms played a major role in the army coup that brought Habyalimana to the presidency of the Second Republic, and in vesting power in the hands of Hutu elites from the north. Possibly to enlist their support against its domestic opponents the new regime at first showed unmistakable signs of sympathy towards the Tutsi minority. Few today seem to recall that in the years following his accession to power in 1973, President Habyalimana went to great lengths to integrate Tutsi elements into society, and publicly stress the need for national reconciliation. In a document titled “Protocole de la Reconcilation Nationale entre les Rwandais”, written in 1976 at the request of Habyalimana by a well-known Hutu politician, Joseph Gitera, a recurrent theme was the need to bring Tutsi, Hutu and Twa in a common unifying ideological framework, a goal in keeping with the stated objective of the Manifesto of the ruling party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND). [20]

By the early 1990s the government was faced with unprecedented challenges both from within and without. The plummeting of coffee prices sent the economy into a tailspin; the exigencies of structural adjustment placed further strains on the state; famine conditions were reported in several southern prefectures, in turn intensifying the long-standing tensions between north and south. It was at this critical juncture, in a climate of rising tensions, that some 6,000 RPF troops, with considerable logistical and military support from Uganda, marched into northern Rwanda on October 1st 1990. So far from being viewed as a force dedicated to the overthrow of a dictatorship, as they had hoped, the invaders were immediately perceived as Ugandan-supported counter-revolutionaries in league with a Tutsi fifth column inside Rwanda. Predictably, in a matter of weeks anti-Tutsi racism emerged full-blown. The ethnic cleansing of hundreds of Tutsi civilians in 1991 and 1992 were the premonitory signs of the 1994 apocalypse. The huge bloodletting -- precipitated by the shooting down of the presidential plane carrying President Habyalimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaramyira, on April 6, 1994 -- did not come to an end until a hundred days later, when the RPF finally seized power in Kigali. It is with reason that a retrospective homage is sometimes paid to the RPF for stopping the killings, but this does not detract from the fact that it bears much of the onus of responsibility for the carnage, for without the RPF invasion there would have been no genocide.

The contrast with the wartime conditions ushered by the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union could not be clearer. Barbarossa was a war of conquest launched by the perpetrator state in the name of a racist ideology. [21] The invasion of Rwanda, on the other hand, immediately metamorphosed into a civil war in which the victims were for the most part ethnically identified with the invaders, not the perpetrators. The conflict was between Tutsi invaders anxious to overthrow a dictatorship (and return to their homeland) against Hutu defenders who saw in the invasion the fearsome prospect of a return to servitude.

Tempting though it may be, in the light of these considerations, to argue that in Rwanda genocide was brought onto themselves by the victims, this is far too simplistic as an explanation, in part because the Tutsi invaders were a very different group of people in terms of their history, social backgrounds and generational ties from the victim group, i.e. the resident Tutsi community of Rwanda, and because it ignores the crucial role played by Hutu extremists in the scuttling of the Arusha accords (of which more later). Thus in response to the argument that there would have been no genocide if the RPF had not invaded the country, one might argue with equal plausibility that there would have been no genocide had Hutu extremists not chosen the path of violence. Once this is said, the case of Rwanda comes as close as any other, and probably closer, to giving qualified validation to the provocation thesis [22] . For a more critical assessment of the provocation thesis, something must be said of the regional parameters of the Rwanda tragedy.

Intentionalist vs. Functionalist Explanations

How much weight should one place on the intention to kill, as against the chain of circumstances leading to the killings? This, in a nutshell, is the central question at the heart of the debates among German historians grappling with the roots of the Holocaust.

For the intentionalists the role of Hitler in orchestrating mass murder is the irreducible, overriding element behind the annihilation of six million Jews; for the functionalists, “circumstance” is the key. While some emphasize the significance of “cumulative radicalization” that stemmed from the incoherence of the Nazi state, or what Christopher Browning describes as “the chaotic decision-making process of a polycratic regime”, others point to the disastrous consequences of Barbarossa. [23] As Arno Mayer puts it, “the radicalization of the war against the Jews correlated with the radicalization of the war against the Soviet Union”. [24] An extreme and highly debatable interpretation is set forth by the most controversial of German historians, Ernst Nolte, in his book on Germany and the Cold War. For Nolte the rise of anti-Semitism in its most murderous form is inseparable from criminal record of Bolshevism during and after the Soviet revolution; anti-Semitism and fascism, according to this reasoning, were simply the means through which the German people were effectively mobilized against the external threat of communism. [25] In Edouard Husson’s words, for Nolte “Hitler was, almost exclusively, an anti-Lenin”. [26]

Such contrasting interpretations are directly relevant to Rwanda as they bring into focus two critical dimensions of analysis, one focusing on the role of the genocidal state, its ideologues, militias and racist propaganda, the other drawing attention to the domestic and regional contexts in which the killings occurred. While I am in general agreement with Christopher Browning and others who point out that the intentionalist and functionalist arguments are in some ways complementary rather than mutually exclusive, I would give considerably more merit to the former in explaining the Holocaust.

The intentionalist dimension of the Holocaust is nowhere more pithily captured than in the following quote from Ian Kershaw’s magisterial history of the Third Reich:

Never in history has such ruination – physical and moral – been associated with the name of one man Hitler’s name justifiably stands for all time as that of the chief instigator of the most profound collapse of civilization in modern times. The extreme form of personal rule which an ill-educated beer hall demagogue and racist bigot, a narcissistic, megalomaniac, self-styled national savior was allowed to acquire and exercise in a modern, economically advanced, and cultured land known for its philosophers and poets was absolutely decisive in the terrible unfolding of events in those fateful twelve years Hitler was the chief inspirator of a genocide the like of which the world had never known, rightly to be viewed in coming times as a defining episode of the twentieth century. [27]

Replacing the name of Hitler by that of Habyalimana and the Nazi regime by the Hutu regime can only convey a totally misleading view of the roots of the Rwanda bloodbath.

To emphasize Hitler’s pivotal role in the extermination of Jews in no way diminishes the centrality of ideology; they are two sides of the same anti-semitic coin. Yehuda Bauer’s contention that “Nazi racial anti-semitic ideology was the central factor in the development toward the Holocaust” only adds strength to the intentionalist thesis; significantly, however, he goes on to observe that “one major difference between the Holocaust and other forms of genocide is that pragmatic considerations were central with all other genocides, abstract ideological motivations less so”. [28] This is where the Rwanda genocide deviates substantially from the Holocaust: if by “pragmatic considerations” is meant a conscious attempt to counter the clear and present danger of a Tutsi takeover, these loomed considerably larger than ideological ones. It is not without reason, therefore, that Bauer views Rwanda as “a pragmatically motivated genocide”. [29]

It is easy to see why some would find incongruous if not downright offensive the use of the term of “pragmatic” to describe the monstrous crimes committed against innocent Tutsi civilians. All the more so when one considers the murderous role played by the Hutu-controlled media in fanning the flames of genocidal murder. Several observers have chronicled the outpouring of scurrilous accusations leveled against the Tutsi community through the airwaves of Radio Mille Collines and in the pages of Kangura. [30] Racist propaganda is not enough, however, to explain the spiral to murder. To leave out of the picture Hutu perceptions of the multiple threats to their security posed by Tutsi elements within and outside Rwanda is to miss the key factor that made Hutu extremists so receptive to a rabidly racist propaganda.

Fear and hatred -- both contributing, in Helen Fein’s words, to place prospective victims “outside the universe of obligation” [31] -- were crucial motives behind the Rwanda bloodbath. Behind the paranoid fears raised by the RPF invasion lay the widespread suspicion that Tutsi everywhere in the region were in league with the invaders. This is where the regional context played a major role in magnifying the threat posed by the RPF. Nowhere was the image of the Tutsi as the embodiment of a mortal danger more hauntingly evident than in Burundi, where Tutsi hegemony was achieved at considerable cost in human lives. From the assassination of Burundi’s first Hutu prime minister (Pierre Ngendadumwe), in 1965, by a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda to the assassination of its first Hutu president (Melchior Ndadaye) in 1993, the history of the country is written in blood, mostly Hutu blood. [32]

The 1972 carnage marks a turning point in the escalation of ethnic violence in Burundi. In response to a local Hutu-sponsored insurgency as many as 200,000 educated Hutu males, including university students and secondary school children, may have died at the hands of the all-Tutsi army. Surprisingly little attention has been to this watershed event in the long chain of circumstances leading to the Rwanda tragedy. Whether referred to as partial genocide or selective genocide, the 1972 killings have been a pervasive presence in the historical memory of Hutu through the entire region. [33] Nothing has had a more profound effect in crystallizing anti-Tutsi sentiment than the presence of those tens of thousands of Hutu refugees who sought asylum in Rwanda. The same is true of the some 350,000 Hutu who fled Burundi into Rwanda after the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. It is no coincidence if these were among the most dedicated murderers of Tutsi during the 1994 bloodbath.

Ethnic memories transcend boundaries. Just as the flow of Tutsi refugees into Burundi during the Rwanda revolution contributed in no small way to polarize Burundi society, the genocide of Hutu in Burundi served as a powerful magnifier of the danger posed by the RPF. What needs to be underscored is the consistency with which history has influenced the receptivity of the Hutu masses to anti-Tutsi propaganda: from the assassination of Ngendadumwe in 1965 to the assassination of Ndadaye in 1993, from the systematic elimination of scores of Hutu politicians in 1965 and 1969 to the 1972 genocide, from the confiscation of the electoral victory of Hutu candidates in 1965 to the 1993 coup, the image of the Tutsi projected by the recent history of Burundi has been consistently threatening, whether as murderers of elected Hutu officials or genocidaires. The incredible fantasies conveyed by the Hutu-controlled media on the eve of the genocide are inseparable from their collective memory of past catastrophes.

To argue with Mark Levene that “there was at least a kernel of truth in the Hutu fear of the Tutsi” is an understatement. [34] Even more surprising is Yves Ternon’s contention that “there has never been in Rwanda the threat of a seizure of power by the Tutsi, who only represent in 1994 ten percent of the population and have been persecuted for the last thirty years”. [35] If anything, the deadly cross-border raids of the early 1960s, not to mention the invasion of October 1st, 1990, suggest precisely the opposite. The fact is that by 1993 fear was omnipresent in many sectors of Rwanda society. Not just fear of the Tutsi, but, especially among Hutu affiliated to the ruling MRND, fear of the Hutu opposition. The confrontation between the RPF and the Rwandan army in the north has often overshadowed in public attention the simultaneous outbreaks of intra-Hutu violence in the south.

The introduction of multiparty elections in 1991 was the signal for a violent competition among rival Hutu parties, and as the Arusha talks conferred upon RPF the status of a legitimate opposition party another source of anxiety arose among MRND extremists: the ominous possibility that the Hutu opposition would work out a deal with the RPF to take over the state. All of this gives considerable plausibility to Jaques Semelin’s proposition that “fear, exploited by propaganda, has played a fundamental role in the construction of a criminal project, a project subsequently implemented with method and organization”. [36] The situation of collective psychosis arising from a political environment saturated with tension and chronic violence is a key element in the background of the 1994 catastrophe.

The comparison with the regional context of the Holocaust is instructive. For if there are ample grounds on which disagree with Nolte that Nazism was in essence a response to the “class genocide” of the Bolcheviks, and the Holocaust a preemptive strike against the communist threat from the east, in Rwanda the perceived threats arising from both the domestic and regional environments were infinitely more substantial. One can only agree with Mark Levene that “the Nazi projection of threat (by contrast with the situation in Rwanda) remained entirely in the realms of fantasy”. [37] By the same token, there are excellent reasons to question Alain Destexhe’s dismissal of “background circumstances” as irrelevant to an understanding of the Rwanda genocide. “In Rwanda”, writes Destexhe, “some commentators were very quick to explain that the killings were due to background ‘circumstances’: the war, the death of the Hutu president, the ‘excesses of crowds gripped by fear and ancient hatred’, the ‘justifiable anger of the people’, the ‘provocations by the Tutsi’ and their ‘historical domination of the country’, etc. A consequence of this kind of reasoning is that ‘collective guilt leaves us with no one to blame Therefore, so the argument continues, genocides and systematic massacres fall in the same category as volcanic eruptions or earthquakes”. [38] Not only does attention to “circumstance” not rule out the apportionment of blame, it provides important clues to an understanding of the element of rationality underlying the motivation to kill.

The Rationality of Mass Murder

There is evidently more to genocide than a sudden outburst of murderous irrationality rooted in fear and prejudice. That human beings are capable of committing the most heinous crimes to promote specific political objectives, or for ideological reasons, or to save their own lives, or because they feel they can act with impunity are some of the most disturbing facts brought out by students of genocide. [39] But what kind of rationality can conceivably explain the systematic extermination of six million Jews? Where is the logic behind the killing of hapless Tutsi civilians, men, women and children, and the cold-blooded murder of one’s nearest kin and neighbors?

The works of Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning point to the vulnerability of “ordinary men” to the conditioning impact of racist propaganda, the polarizing effects of “race war”, the crushing weight of an all-embracing bureaucratic machinery. [40] Is there any reason to believe that the same forces that conspired to the extermination of Jews did not also operate in Rwanda? The answer must necessarily remain speculative. Nothing comparable to the sustained, empirically-grounded research conducted by Hilberg and Brown is as yet available for Rwanda. Nonetheless, enough is known of the circumstances of the killings in Rwanda to suggest significant variations in the logic at work in each case.

Perhaps the most obvious refers to greater salience of ideological motives in the planning and orchestration of the Holocaust. Without trying to minimize the impact of anti-Tutsi propaganda in the years following the RPF invasion, the impetus to kill all Tutsi cannot be traced to a long-standing ideological commitment. “What I view as singular about the Holocaust”, Helen Fein writes, “is the length of warning time, its transnational scope and Hitler’s announcement of his intention to eliminate the Jews two decades before their extermination”. [41] None of these singularities applies to the case of Rwanda.

What, then, is the rationality that impelled tens of thousands of Hutu extremists to engage in mass murder? Taking a leaf from Yehuda Bauer, one might invoke “pragmatic” reasons, but the phrase is too vague to capture the different sets of actors involved at different junctures of the crisis, and the diversity of their motives.

From the October 1990 invasion to April 1994 the overriding objective was to prevent the RPF from seizing power, but throughout this period recourse of violence served different intermediate goals.

The Instrumental Uses of Violence

It is useful to distinguish three phases in the sequence of violence leading to the ultimate carnage, each corresponding to separate but convergent motivations. During the first phase, stretching from October 1990 to the opening of Arusha talks in August 1992, hundreds if not thousands of Tutsi civilians in the north and west of the country were massacred by youth groups (the infamous “reseau zero”) acting under the supervision of communal authorities. The aim was essentially to physically eliminate those Tutsi elements who might join hands with the aggressors while at the same time accelerate the polarization of as yet unmobilized peasant communities. Contrary to an all-too-frequent opinion, the murder of Tutsi civilians was not a spontaneous mass phenomenon. It required the dismantling of inter-ethnic social mechanisms for controlling the use of force, along with the manipulation of ethnic identities against a common enemy. The pattern revealed by the Kilibira, Bugogwe and Bugesera massacres in 1991 is one in which trained activists were spurred on by state officials to engage in random acts of anti-Tutsi violence.

Next came the crucial period of the Arusha negotiations, from August 1992 to August 1993. The worst killings during that time occurred in the Gisenyi and Ruhengeri prefectures in February 1993, taking the lives of an estimated 300 Tutsi. The RPF responded by launching a massive and largely successful attack against government positions in the north, thus causing a temporary suspension of the peace talks. By then multiparty democracy had been formally endorsed by the Habyalimana government, and the civil war had given way to a long drawn-out negotiation among five different parties. The key players, the RPF and the MRND, were now joined by three opposition groups, the multiethnic Liberal Party (PL), the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), with its roots in the south-central region, and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Significantly, the most rabidly anti-Tutsi party, the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), had been left out of the talks at the request of the FPR, and was thus disqualified from participating in the so-called broadly-based transitional government (BBTG) agreed upon in Arusha. The exclusion of the CDR, together with the rejection by its leadership and other extremist fringe groups of certain key provisions of the Arusha accords, were the decisive factors leading to the killing of Tutsi civilians in 1993. The aim, in short, was the scuttling of Arusha. The point has been conclusively demonstrated by Bruce Jones: referring to CDR extremists and hard-liners within the MRND he notes that “these extremists reacted bitterly to the provisions of the Arusha accords which called for power-sharing and, especially, the integration of the armed forces The genocide was, in the first instance, an attempt by these extremists to maintain their power by destroying the Arusha accords and its supporters, including the moderates within the government parties who were among its first victims”. [42]

Before the onset of mass murder extremists had another practical purpose in mind: the use of force as a means of seizing power from their immediate Hutu competitors within and outside their respective political formations. “Ukubohoza” – “liberation”: the Kinyarwanda term to designate the campaign of violence directed by members of the opposition against the ruling MRND speaks volumes for the kind of rationality underlying the use of force. “Intimidation” is a better word to describe the criminal activities orchestrated by the MDR in the south to wrest control first from the local MRND cadres, then against the PSD and ultimately against the Tutsi. The process is excellently analyzed by Alison Des Forges in her discussion of how the burgomaster of Nyakizu, Ladislas Ntaganza, managed to use every resource at his disposal, including force, to break the power of the MRND, then to turn against his former ally, the PSD, and ultimately to manipulate ethnic solidarity to enlist the support of Burundi refugees against the Tutsi: “Asked how to define the basis of Ntaganzwa’s power, people said repeatedly and simply: fear”. [43]

Much the same strategy was used by radical politicians to rid themselves of their moderate rivals within their own parties. As the date for the installation of the BBTG came into view intra-party competition for access to the transitional government became increasingly fierce, putting anti-Tutsi demagoguery at a premium. Nothing seemed to pay higher dividends than to accuse one’s rival of being soft on the FPR. As anti-Tutsi rhetoric picked up momentum, so did violence. Before long every opposition party (except the PSD) was split right down the middle between radicals and moderates. The result, in the words of Vincent Ntezimana, a leading MDR personality, was “l’éclatement de l’opposition pacifique”. [44]

The phenomenon is directly linked to the emergence of “Hutu Power” (locally referred to as Hutu Pawa), a label that came to designate extremists across a wide spectrum – not just CDR or MRND fanatics but anti-Tutsi zealots within the PL and the MDR. The precipitating factor leading to the birth of Hutu Power was the assassination of President Ndadaye in Burundi. As Alison Des Forges puts it, “The movement known as Hutu Power, the coalition that would make the genocide possible, was built on Ndadaye’s corpse”. [45] News of Ndadaye’s death had an immediate and devastating impact on Hutu attitudes. Almost overnight many moderates turned into radicals, and radicals into Hutu power extremists, and those who did not were as likely as not to be faced with accusations of disloyalty (ibisiyo). Ndadaye’s death made a chimera of the implementation of the Arusha accords, and with the flood of Hutu refugees from Burundi fleeing into southern Rwanda anti-Tutsi sentiment gathered fresh momentum, driving home what many already suspected: “You simply cannot trust the Tutsi”.

The Security Dilemma

The crash of the presidential plane, on April 6, 1994, took the lives of two Hutu presidents, Habyalimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaramyira of Burundi, bringing to three the total of Hutu presidents killed in six months. Although responsibility for the shooting down of Habyalimana’s plane remains a mystery, few Hutu doubted that the RPF was directly implicated. In an atmosphere already saturated with fear and uncertainty it is easy to see why Hutu extremists quickly yielded to their long-standing plan of using force preemptively. By shooting down Habyalimana’s plane the FPR made dramatically clear that it was about to strike first; rather than wait for Kagame to preempt, for Hutu extremists in the government and the army the exigencies of security -- indeed survival -- called for an immediate response. The decision to apply the full force of genocidal violence against all Tutsi as well as every Hutu suspected of Tutsi sympathies stemmed from straightforward rational choice proposition: either we kill them first, or else we’ll be killed. Thus framed, the logic of the “security dilemma” left no alternative but to annihilate the enemies of the nation.

The argument that crisis situations generate irrational fears that are rationally exploited by perpetrators of mass violence is nowhere more dramatically illustrated than by the renewed outpouring of racist propaganda diffused through Kigali’s hate-radio in the days following the crash. In drawing attention to the critical nexus between irrational fears and the rational manipulation of such fears, Rothchild and Groth give us a clue to an understanding of how the shooting down of Habyalimana’s plane played into extremist hands: “Ethnic psychosis may create rational opportunities this kind of atmosphere, quintessentially irrational, is paradoxically compatible with a perfectly rational exploitation of mass psychosis by communal brokers and entrepreneurs”. [46] The entrepreneurs of death saw their opportunity and proceeded to exploit it to the full: the global targeting of all Tutsi as the common enemy went hand in hand with the setting in motion of the institutional machinery of murder, of which the key elements were the prefectoral and communal cadres and militias.

The Grass-Roots Killers

Tempting though it is to portray all “grass-roots killers” [47] as zombies mechanically responding to orders from above, the realities on the ground tell a more complex story. Admittedly, much more research is needed before we get a coherent picture of the full range of motives that led the lower-echelon genocidaires to kill friends and neighbors as well as relatives; there is as yet too little of the kind of fine-grained, local-level investigation conducted by Alison Des Forges in the prefectures of Gikongoro and Butare. Relatively little is known of the dynamics at work in regional arenas. [48]

What is reasonably clear, however, is that we are here dealing with very different kinds of phenomena from those so carefully analyzed by Christopher Browning in his landmark work on Ordinary Men. For if the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 killed for reasons that had little to do with the threat of sanctions, and more to do with peer pressure, careerism and self-serving ambition, the same is not true of the grass-roots killers in Rwanda. Many Hutu were driven to kill their Tutsi neighbors because they knew they had no other option; refusal to comply meant that they themselves would be killed the next day.

Again, while there is reason to agree with Browning that the psychological constraints of binding orders were little more than a convenient alibi for the men of Battalion 101, notwithstanding Stanley Milgram’s assertions to the contrary [49] , in the case of Rwanda the culture of obedience cannot be dismissed out of hand. Several commentators have correctly emphasized the extent to which conformity is a dominant trait of Rwandan political culture. People, whether Hutu or Tutsi, rarely challenge authority. Compliance with orders from above is part and parcel of what Filip Reyntjens describes as “social conformism”: “many Rwandans tend to do what their neighbors do or what a person of authority tells them to do”. [50] Not every Hutu fit the pattern of Milgramite robots, however; indeed, many took great risks to save the lives of their Tutsi neighbors. As reported by Des Forges, “some Hutu tried to protect their Tutsi neighbors, particularly those to whom they were bound by the ties of marriage, clientage, or long-standing friendships. Other Hutu opposed the killings on the grounds of principle.” [51] Sometimes, the killing of one Tutsi, unknown to the killer, did not prevent the same individual from going to great lengths to save the life of a Tutsi friend. (Le crime a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.) Clearly, the “culture of conformity” argument cannot be accepted without strong qualifications, but the fact remains that it has a far greater explanatory force in Rwanda than in Nazi Germany.

Given the extreme poverty of the country, among the poorest of the poor, it goes without saying that economic motivations loomed infinitely larger in Rwanda than in Nazi Germany. That some Hutu killed for no other reason than to pillage and loot Tutsi property is well established. “The killers pillaged the goods of their victims”, writes Alison Des Forges, “whether Tutsi in flight or local residents. One witness recounts seeing ‘people returning from Nkakwa with bags of beans, clothing, mats One man came by with cushions for a couch. He had six of them. He wanted to sell them to buy beer People were returning with things which they had found free. There was no punishment. It was like a festival.’” [52] Nor were wealthy Hutu necessarily safe. In those northern communes where land hunger was especially acute scores of land-owning Hutu were killed by their landless kinsmen. In many instances, the dynamics of grassroots murder were closely related to intra-ethnic class differences, with land ownership, rather than ethnicity, being the key determinant of the victim’s identity. Nonetheless, as reported by Maurice Niwese, cases occurred where putting a Tutsi label on a wealthy Hutu served to legitimize the theft of his/her property. [53]

Finally, and most importantly, many Hutu became killers because of an enduring sense of ethnic hatred born of the sufferings and hardships they experienced at the hands of the RPF. I refer to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the north, who were driven from their homes by the advancing RPF army. After the RPF offensive of February 1993 an estimated one million were forced out of their homelands and regrouped into some 40 IDP camps. As James Gasana noted, the IDPs were “explicitly targeted by the FPR rebellion, expelled from their homes and continuously shot at in the camps to force them to move farther into the government-controlled zone”; the result was entirely predictable: “families were separated and scattered heath centers were overwhelmed, mortality increased; suspension of schooling and lack of occupation for the young led to increased delinquency and crime”. Speaking of the “social, environmental and political problems caused by the huge displacement of civilian populations between 1990 and 1994”, the same observer draws attention to “the singular contribution” of the IDP phenomenon to the “combustion of ethnicity”. [54] Even more decisive was the contribution of the young IDPs to the ranks of the MRND militia, the interahamwe. It is hardly a matter of coincidence if, among the scores of young thugs manning the checkpoints of the capital, the vast majority were recruited among the IDPs of Nyacinga camp, near Kigali. [55] Seething hatred of every Tutsi in sight, rather than greed or binding orders, is what lay behind the scenes of mayhem in Kigali, Butare and Gikongoro.

What all this adds to is a picture of considerable complexity. The killings cannot be reduced to any single motive. The circumstances that caused Hutu to become killers differed from prefecture to prefecture, sometimes from commune to commune, and while anti-Tutsi propaganda played an important role in driving the genocidaires to murder, its impact varied widely from one sector of Hutu society to another. What remained constant throughout the killings were the sustained efforts made by prefects and burgomasters to mobilize the masses behind the killing machine, and even here there were some notable exceptions. [56]

Impunity: A Common Denominator

Reflecting on the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda, Helen Fein brings to light yet another rational dimension behind the horrors of mass murder. “Genocide is preventable”, she writes, “because it is usually a rational act: that is, the perpetrators calculate the likelihood of success, given their values and objectives”. [57] Certainly, no one familiar with the extent of French complicity during the Rwanda bloodbath, or indeed with the extraordinary indifference of the international community in both Rwanda and Bosnia, can avoid the conclusion that the organizers of the killings entertained few doubts that they could literally get away with murder. The French patron was seen as offering a diplomatic guarantee of impunity as well as the military and financial means with which to prosecute the carnage.

France’s patron role in Rwanda finds a parallel of sorts in the supportive part played by Germany during the Armenian genocide. In his discussion of “German complicity” in the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, Manus Midlarsky writes that “the Berlin-Baghdad railway, the symbol and reality of Germany’s extension of influence into the

Middle East, of course depended on continued Ottoman cooperation, made easier, in the German view, by complicity in the genocide of the Armenians”. [58] In the same vein, Norman Naimark points out that “The German themselves had played a central role in the Young Turk administration, and a number of Wehrmacht generals had earlier served as advisors to the Ottoman forces during the war. Some German officers may even have played a role in the Armenian genocide itself”. [59]

But even in the absence of an external patron to assist the genocidaires, the sheer passivity or indifference of the international community can be interpreted as a tacit approval of their plans. Rwanda and Bosnia are cases in point, but so is Germany in the thirties; although signs of Hitler’s genocidal designs could be detected as early as the 1920s and 1930s, [60] France and Great Britain found in their appeasement policies the justification they needed to refrain from intervening.

If impunity is indeed the rational foundation for genocidaires to become recidivists, public indifference goes a long way to explain impunity. One of the lessons of history that has yet to sink in is that unpunished crimes can provide a precedent for later crimes. In 1939, addressing a group of Nazi leaders and Wehrmacht generals, Hitler is reported to have said, “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” [61] Could some Hutu in Rwanda have referred to the 1972 bloodbath in Burundi in similar terms? Few would disagree with the proposition that the first step to prevent the recurrence of genocide is to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice and meted out a punishment proportional to their crimes. But as Leo Kuper reminded us many years ago, the sanction of immunity afforded by the concept of national sovereignty is not the least of the obstacles in the way of sanctions. Helen Fein puts it even more graphically: “Abusive powers will continue to abuse as long as it works: the movement to change the taken-for-granted assumption that sovereignty implies indifference to out neighbors’ crimes is still to emerge from gestation in images of mass flight, chaos, blood, and death”. [62]

One final note: to bring an end to impunity is one thing, just how to calibrate the scale and severity of the punishment is another matter. This is where the Holocaust holds a lesson for the rulers of Rwanda. The men most directly responsible for planning and implementing the Holocaust – some thirty people altogether – were identified, tried and sentenced to die. Although some have argued that the punishment decreed at Nuremberg was disgracefully benign in view of the magnitude of the crime, and that those elements who escaped punishment hardly became pillars of democracy, there is another side to the coin, which needs to be looked at. Can one imagine what the effect would have been on the German people and the future of democracy in Germany had every German involved in the Holocaust, at one level or another, or in one capacity or another, been brought to justice and condemned? Had tens of thousands been sent to the gallows, as some had wished, one wonders whether Germany would have become a flourishing democracy, or would have experienced much success in coming to terms with her past. In Rwanda today, very few of the “brains” behind the genocide have been identified, and none of those currently in detention in Arusha have been dealt a death sentence; meanwhile, scores of mid-level killers have been tried in Kigali and inflicted the death sentence, while some 130,000 Hutu suspected of participating in the killings are still languishing in jail, seven years later. The least that can be said is that the prospects for national reconciliation in such circumstances seem very remote. This is yet another difference with the Holocaust, and perhaps not the least consequential.

[1] . Mark Levene, “Connecting Threads: Rwanda, the Holocaust and the Pattern of Contemporary Genocide”, in Roger W. Smith ed., Genocide: Essays Toward Understanding, Early-Warning and Prevention (Williamsburg, Va.: 1999), 27-64.
[2] . On the contrasting interpretations of the Holocaust offered by German historians, see Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape From the Nazi Past (Pantheon Books, New York: 1989, Edouard Husson, Comprendre Hitler et la Shoa: Les historiens de la République fédérale d’Allemagne et l’identité allemande depuis 1949 (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris: 2000), and Christopher Browning, The Path to Genocide (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge : 1992), chap. 5.
[3] . Robert Melson, Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1992)
[4] . Helen Fein, “Genocide: A Sociological Perspective”, Current Sociology, Vol. 38, no. 1 (Spring 1990), Special Issue, p. 28-9. Especially pertinent in the context of this paper is Fein’s discussion of “the misuses of genocide comparison”, ibid. 55-69.
[5] Quoting from Norman Cohn’s classic work, Warrant for Genocide, Helen Hintjens argues that “just as the Nazi had done in Germany before the war, extremists in Rwanda ‘started with the fiction of a conspiracy and modeled themselves, more or less consciously after it’ (Cohn 1980, 193)”.
Although there was no dearth of anti-Tutsi conspiracy theories in the Rwanda media, the parallel with Nazi Germany strikes me as profoundly misleading in that allegations of Jewish plots were utterly groundless; in Rwanda as in Burundi, however, there were ample grounds upon which to build such theories, beginning with the assassination of the Hutu Prime Minister Pierre Ngendadumwe at the hands of a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda, in 1965. Elsewhere the author refers to the “supposed genocidal schemes of the (Tutsi) enemy” and the “supposed evil intentions and revanchist designs of the Batutsi enemy”. In the light of the genocide of Hutu by Tutsi in Burundi in 1972, resulting in the massacre of perhaps as many as 200,000, and of the armed invasion of Rwanda by Tutsi refugees in 1990, it is easy to see why many politically conscious Hutu in Rwanda, as well as in Burundi, entertained such “suppositions”! The Hutu extremists did not start with the “fiction of conspiracy”, but with the realities of murder and genocide, ending up with conspiracy theories. Helen Hintjens, “Explaining the 1994 genocide in Rwanda”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (1999), 263.
[6] Bill Berkeley, one of the few observers to call into question the parallels between the Tutsi’s experience of genocide and that of the Jews, notes in the same vein that “the parallels are not exact: the Jews of Europe were never armed. There was no Jewish conspiracy to dominate Europe, nor had there ever been one. There had been no Jewish tyranny in Germany, as there were Tutsi tyrannies in Rwanda and Burundi, and there had been no Jewish-perpetrated genocides in, say, Austria, as there were Tutsi-perpetrated genocides against Hutus no fewer than three times in a generation in Burundi, just an hour’s drive down the road”. Bill Berkeley, The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa, (Basic Books, New York: 2001), 264-5
[7] . William F.S. Miles, “Hamites and Hebrews: problems of ‘Judaizing’ the Rwandan genocide”, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 2, no. 1 (2000), 112.
[9] . The definitive work on Aryan ideology is Leon Poliakov, Le Mythr Aryen (Calmann-Levy, Paris: 1994); on the Hamitic hypethesis, see Edith Saunders, “The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origins and Functions in Time Perspective”, Journal of African History, Vol. 10 (1969), 521-532.
[10] . I have noted elsewhere the more intriguing parallels between the Aryan myth and its Rwandan counterpart: (a) their genealogical roots are traceable to societies located outside the genocidal states, one to ancient Ethiopia, the other to Sanskrit civilization; (b) both were elaborated by 19th century European intellectuals anxious to lend pseudo-scientific respectability to their speculations about the presumed superiority of certain civilizations, including their own; (c) in post-colonial Rwanda as in Nazi Germany these pseudo-scientific were recast into virulently racist myths at the hands of Nazi and Hutu ideologues. See R. Lemarchand, “Where Hamites and Aryans Cross Paths: Myth-Making and Mass Murder” (unpublished ms.)
[11] . Miles, op. cit., 112.
[13] . For a fuller discussion of the Hutu revolution, see R. Lemarchand, Rwanda and Burundi (Pall Mall, London: 1970)
[14] . Peter Uvin, “Tragedy in Rwanda”, Environment (April 1996), p. 13.
[15] . See Jan Vansina, Le Rwanda ancien (Karthala, Paris: 2001), esp. the last chapter, “L’histoire face au présent”, and R. Lemarchand, Ethnicity as Myth: The View from Central Africa (University of Copenhagen, Center for African Studies, Occasional Paper, May 1999)
[16] . Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Vintage Books, New York: 1997). For critical commentaries, see Ruth Bettina Birn, “Revisiting the Holocaust”, The Historical Journal. Vol. 40, no. 1 (1997), 195-215, and Edouard Husson, Une culpabilité ordinaire? Les enjeux de la controverse Goldhagen (PUF, Paris: 1997). As might have been expected, the Goldhagen thesis has found a highly receptive audience among some Tutsi intellectuals : see, for example, Benjamin Sehene, Le Piège Ethnique (Editions Dagorno, Paris : 1999), 119-121.
[17] . Significantly, the first signs of an explicitly anti-Tutsi, racist ideology came into view not in Rwanda but among the Tanzania-based Hutu refugees from Burundi, in the aftermath of the 1972 genocide. See R. Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide (Cambridge University and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, New York: 1995), 201; see also Liisa Malkki, Purity and Exile: Transformations in Historical-National Consciousness Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1995).
[18] . The Kinyarwanda term for cockroach, inyenzi, is a deliberate deformation of ingenzi, meaning “brave”. The original label used by Unaristes for designating the Tutsi guerillas was “ingangurarugo ziyemeje kuba ingenzi”, the name of one of king (mwami) Rwabugiri’s armies, meaning roughly “the brave ones in the service of the king’s army”. I am indebted to Emmanuel Hakizimana for this information.
[19] . For a more detailed discussion of the impact of the abortive inyenzi raids on post-revolutionary Rwanda, see R. Lemarchand, “Refelections on the Rwanda Genocide: A Backward Glance into the Past”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA), Nashville, November 2000.
[20] . The full text of the document is reproduced in the newspaper Intego (Kigali), no. 12, June 11, 1996.
[21] . Arno Mayer describes Barbarossa as “an incarnation of the major tenets of Hitler’s action-ideology. Rooted in racist social Darwinism, the war in the east had the fourfold purpose of conquering lebensraum from Russia, of enslaving the Slavic populations, of crushing the Soviet regime, and of liquidating the alleged nerve-center of international Bolchevism.” Arno Mayer, Why Did the HeavensNot Darken? The Final Solution in History (Pantheon Books, New York: 1989) 459.
[22] . For an excellent discussion of the glaring misconstructions of the provocation thesis applied to the Holocaust and Armenia, see Melson, op. cit. 10-12.
[23] . Christopher Browning, The Path to Genocide, op. cit., 86.
[24] . Arno J. Mayer, op. cit., loc. cit. See also Christopher Browning’s critical commentary of Mayer’s interpretation, Browning. op. cit., 77-85
[25] . Ernst Nolte, Deutschland und der Kalte Krieg (Stuttgart: 1985)
[26] . Husson, op. cit., 136. See also Richard Evans’ excellent critique of the Nolte thesis, in In Hitler’s Shadow, op. cit., 24-46.
[27] . Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis (Penguin Books, London: 2000), 841.
[28] . Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking Genocide (Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 2001), 42, 47.
[30] . See for example, Alison Des Forges, Leave None To Tell the Story (Human Rights Watch and International Federation of Human Rights, New York and Paris: 1999), 65-91, and Jean-Pierre Chrétien, Rwanda. Les media du genocide (Karthala, Paris: 1995).
[31] . Helen Fein, “Scenarios of Genocide: Models of Genocide and Critical Responses”, in Israel Charny ed., Towards the Understanding and Prevention of Genocide (Westview Press, Boulder: 1984), cited in Melson op. cit., 15.
[32] . See R. Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide (Cambridge University Press and Wilson Center Press, Cambridge: 1995)
[33] . See R. Lemarchand and David Martin, Selective Genocide in Burundi (Minority Rights Group, London: 1974); for a more detailed (and revised) analysis of the 1972 bloodbath, see R. Lemarchand, Burundi: EthnicConflict and Genocide, op. cit., 76-105. It is noteworthy that most analysts of the Rwanda genocide more or less systematically shun the use of the term “genocide” to describe the 1972 bloodbath, as if recognition of the anti-Hutu genocide in Burundi might diminish the horror of the anti-Tutsi genocide in Burundi. For example, in her definitive work on Rwanda, Alison Des Forges refers to the “slaughter of tens of thousands of Hutu by Tutsi in 1972” (p.65) and elsewhere to the “slaughter” of “some 100,000 Hutu” (p. 134). The G word never appears in the Burundi context. Alison Des Forges, op. cit.
[34] . Levene, op. cit., 37.
[35] . Yves Ternon, L’innocence des victimes au siécle des génocides (Desclée de Brouwer, Paris : 2001), 47.
[36] .Jaques Semelin, “Qu’est-ce qu’un crime de masse? Le cas de l’ex-Yougoslavie , Critique Internationale, no. 6 (Winter 2000), 146.
[37] . Levene, op. cit. 37.
[38] . Alain Destexhe, Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (New York University Press, New York: 1994) 13.
[39] See Jaques Semelin, “Penser les massacres”, typescript (Paris, 2001); see also “Qu’est-ce qu’un crime de masse?”, op. cit.
[40] . Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Viking Press, New York: 1963), Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews (Quadrangle, New York: 1967), Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Harper Collins, New York: 1992.
[41] . Fein, Genocide : A Sociolgical Perspective, op. cit. 55.
[42] . Bruce Jones, “’Intervention without Borders’: Humanitarian Intervention in Rwanda, 1990-94”, Millenium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1995), 243. See also, Bruce Jones, “Civil War, the Peace Process and Genocide in Rwanda”, in Taisier M. Ali and Robert O. Matthews eds., Civil Wars in Africa (McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal: 1999) , 53-86.
[43] .Des Forges, op. cit, 361.
[44] . Vincent Ntezimana, La Justice Belge Face au Génocide Rwandais (Karthala, Paris: 2000), 42. The author’s phrasing ignores the fact that the MDR’s activities in the Butare prefecture were not exactly “peaceful”, and that he himself has been accused by a Belgian tribunal of having taken part in the genocide.
[45] .Des Forges, op. cit. 137.
[46] . Donald Rothchild and Alexander J. Groth, “Pathological Dimensions of Domestic and International Ethnicity”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 110, No. 1 (1995), 75.
[47] . The term is borrowed from Christopher Browning to designate low-level genocidaires as distinct from the regular army, the Presidential Guard and the prefectoral and communal cadres. Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Germans or Ordinary Men”, Address and Response at the Inauguration of the Dorot Chair of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies (Emory University, Atlanta: 1994), 9.
[48] . The research currently undertaken by Scott Straus, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, promises to fill some major gaps in the literature on the dynamics of lower-echelon genocidaires.
[49] For a persuasive critique of the Milgram argument that obedience to orders from above is the key to an understanding of the behavior of Holocaust perpetrators, see David R. Mandel, “ The Obedience Alibi: Milgram’s Account of the Holocaust Reconsidered”, Analyse & Kritik (October 1998), 74-94.
[50] . Filip Reyntjens, “Rwanda: Genocide and Beyond”, Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1996), 6.
[51] .Alison Des Forges, op. cit., 378.
[53] “Someone could be called Tutsi simply to take away his cow; it would have been illogical to steal his cattle without calling him a Tutsi, and once thus named his fate was sealed”. Maurice Niwese, Le peuple rwandais un pied dans la tombe. Récit d’un réfugié étudiant (L’Harmattan, Paris: 2001), 55.
[54] . James Gasana, “Natural resource scarcity and violence in Rwanda”, A Report Prepared for the Swiss Organization for Development and Cooperation (Intercooperation), n.p., 2000, available from the author at
[55] . I am indebted to Emmanuel Hakizimana for this information.
[56] The widespread participation of prefects and communal councillors in the killings does not mean that these are traceable to the presence of a genocidal “strong state”; the dynamics of murder must be seen against the background of highly personalized networks headed by a handful of key “patrons” (such as Theoneste Bagosora, Joseph Nzirorera, Fernand Nahimana, to cite but the most prominent) with multiple ramifications into local administrative cadres and the civil society. The principal vectors of death, i.e. the interahamwe, the parties’ youth wings, the Radio et Television Mille Collines, were all part and parcel of the civil society. As the killings got under way, the state had virtually ceased to exist, and next to the president the most visible embodiment of the state, Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana, along with several other cabinet members, had already been killed.
[57] . Helen Fein, “Patrons, Prevention and Punishment of Genocide: Observations on Bosnia and Rwanda”, in Helen Fein ed. The Prevention of Genocide: Rwanda and Yugoslavia Reconsidered, A Working Paper of the Institute for the Study of Genocide (New York: 1994), 5.
[58] . Manus I. Midlarsky, “The Killing Trap: Genocides and Other Mass Murders of the Twentieth Century”, Unpublished ms., 2000, 6.
[59] . Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 2001) 57.
[60] . “’Out with the Jews’, insisted Hitler, June 24, 1920, ‘those who poison our people’. In an August 13, 1920 speech entitled ‘Why we are Anti-Semites’ Hitler again made clear that the Jews would have to go”, Ibid. 63.

[62] . Fein, “Patrons, Prevention and Punshment of Genocide”, op. cit., 12.

From the book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009. For more information, please visit

Although significant, dissenters, both individuals and small groups, re­ceive disproportionate attention compared to an overwhelmingly im­portant but neglected theme: the perpetrators’ communities. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, I wrote about the Holocaust’s perpetrators in a manner that restored their humanity. I treated them fully as human be­ings having views about their deeds and making decisions about how to act, not as abstractions wrested from their lives’ real social contexts but, as they actually were, embedded in their social relations. Such an approach was at the time absent, even stridently opposed. The German perpetrators of the Holocaust and of eliminationist and extermina­tionist assaults on Poles, Russians, Sinti, Roma, and other targeted peo­ples operated within broader communities. They undertook their deeds often over long periods, always with considerable time on their hands to reflect. They had social lives. Wives and girlfriends accompanied many of them (many of whom also became perpetrators). The perpe­trators went to church, played sports, even organized athletic competi­tions. They attended cultural events, went to movies, and had parties. They wrote revealing letters to loved ones and went home on furlough. Most of all they talked—while on duty, while off duty, while eating meals and driving places, among themselves and others, discussing the days’ events, their historic deeds, and more. Those many German per­petrators carrying out their brutal eliminationist tasks in Germany it­self, especially in the camps densely blanketing the country, often lived at home. After a day of mistreating and brutalizing, and even killing victims, they returned to their families, had dinner, played with their children. They spent time with friends, also went to church, and did all the social and communal things, including talking about work, that people do. What is true about the German perpetrators’ rich social and communal lives is also obviously true, a commonplace, about other mass eliminations’ perpetrators.

Yet if you pretend people killing, expelling, or brutalizing others are atomized individuals, are under authority’s hammer or intense social psychological pressure with no capacity to think, or are bureaucratic abstractions instead of real human beings; if you toss around mind-deadening phrases such as “banality of evil” or “obedience to author­ity” or “group pressure,” or treat mass murder as if an artificial social psychological environment, such as the Zimbardo Experiment of a tiny number of people (twenty-four) for a short time (six days) with no ex­perimental controls to speak of, so it was not really an “experiment” in a scientific or social scientific sense, is a guide to its perpetrators’ real­ity and existences as people with families, friends, and communal lives; or if you postulate these fictive and dehumanizing reductions of the perpetrators as a tautological account of their actions and, more broadly, as a way of conceiving and discussing them, then there is no reason, as we have seen, to investigate how they come to hold their views about the world and their victims (or even what those views are). There is also no reason to examine the perpetrators in their multiple communal contexts while committing their eliminationist acts or to ex­amine their social relations, ways of living, and activities. The hard­headed questions we ask to ascertain the perpetrators’ motives and their sources, and the bystanders’ attitudes and their sources, also pro­vide answers that can be built upon to explore the perpetrators’ rela­tionship to the bystanders helping to form the communal contexts of the perpetrators’ eliminationist actions and lives.

The analytically unfortunate fact is that we know little about elim­inationist perpetrators’ communal lives. Some perpetrators, in the So­viet gulag’s frozen reaches, were removed from conventional social life. Yet many other eliminationist perpetrators are like the Germans, going home to dinner and out with friends, partaking in cultural events, attending church, talking about their deeds with others and among themselves—comparing notes, swapping stories, and discussing their deeds’ historic significance—and carrying on with their lives. This was so for the Japanese in Asia, the British in Kenya, the Indonesians slaughtering communists, the communist Chinese, the Tutsi in Burundi, the Serbs in Bosnia, the Hutu in Rwanda, the Political Islamists in Sudan, and so many more, certainly of most perpetrators killing people within their own country. As do other Hutu executioners, Léopord Twagirayezu conveys the easy conversational and convivial nature of the perpetrators’ talk and social lives: “In the evening, we told about Tutsi who had been obstinate, those who had gotten themselves caught, those who had gotten away. Some of us had contests. Others made pre­dictions or bets to win an extra Primus [beer]. The bragging amused us—even if you lost, you put on a smile.”18

The evidence strongly suggests that perpetrators live in a milieu over­whelmingly supporting and affirming their treatment of the victims in the name of and for their people. As with eliminationist assaults’ many other aspects, if broad principled opposition or dissent had existed, then there would be abundant credible contemporaneous evidence about it. It does not. Nothing suggests that family and friends, or community members generally, saw or treated the perpetrators with disapproval, let alone the withering condemnation that would be directed at those considered among humanity’s worst criminals. Nothing suggests that family, friends, and community members treated the killing and other eliminationist acts as anything more distasteful than an unpleasant part of a necessary elim­inationist time and project. Nothing suggests that the perpetrators’ com­munity and social and recreational lives were normalcy’s salve to guilty consciences. And nothing suggests that their communities were saying to them: You are a good man despite what you do. Rather the communal verdict was: You are a good man because of what you do. Nothing sug­gests that during eliminationist onslaughts the perpetrators’ existences are psychically and social-relationally fragmented. Rather, they consisted of integrated selves, with integrated minds, in integrated communities with their self-conceived heroic, violent acts on behalf of their country, their people, their God, or humanity harmonizing with their communal exis­tences and with family, friends, and acquaintances. In Indonesia, through­out Bali, “whole villages, including children, took part in an island-wide witch-hunt for Communists, who were slashed and clubbed and chopped to death by communal consent.”19 In Bosnia, the ethnic Serbian commu­nity was so supportive of the eliminationist assault, and so deeply com­plicit and involved, that the extremely knowledgeable Alisa Muratčauš, president of the Association of Concentration Camp Torture Survivors in Sarajevo, maintains that “a lot of people from Republika Srpska [Bosnian Serbs] were involved in the crimes, and I think that actually maybe 70 or 80 percent of Republika Srpska’s population should be actually punished in prison, in jail.” Adamant that she does not mean they merely “sup­ported” the crimes of raping, torturing, expelling, and killing people, de­stroying their houses, and more, she explains that they “actually committed crimes. People who returned to their original community meet very often their perpetrators, [who say] ‘Oh, hi, hello.’”20 In Rwanda, an in-depth study about one community of killers shows how the perpetra­tors slaughtered their victims with incredible cruelty and lived their lives with family, friends, and community in a thoroughly integrated and sym­biotic way. Jean Hatzfeld, its author, writes: “In 1994, between eleven in the morning on Monday April 11 and two in the afternoon on Saturday May 14, about fifty thousand Tutsi, out of a population of around fifty­ nine thousand, were massacred by machete, murdered every day of the week, from nine-thirty in the morning until four in the afternoon, by Hutu neighbors and militiamen, on the hills of the commune of Nyamata, in Rwanda.” This, he adds, “is the point of departure of this book.”21

Clothing of the victims, Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Bugesera District, Rwanda, April 2008.

Although we need more evidence to draw firmly grounded general con­clusions for certain eliminationist assaults, the substantial existing evidence suggests that, overwhelmingly, ordinary people, moved by their hatreds and prejudices, by their beliefs in victims’ evil or noxiousness, by their con­viction that they and others ought to eliminate the victims, support their countrymen, ethnic group members, or village or communal members’ killing, expelling, or brutalizing others—as Germans did during the Nazi period, as Poles of Jedwabne did, as the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe did regarding ethnic Germans, as British settlers in Kenya did, as Bosnian Serbs did, and as Hutu across Rwanda did. The killers, and those near them in their cities, towns, and villages, and especially those emo­tionally dear to them, constitute mutually supportive eliminationist com­munities. Alphonse Hitiyaremye, a Hutu mass murderer, conveys how the Nyamata commune’s ordinary Hutu had this unmistakably affirmed, starting with the killing’s first day, a machete butchering orgy of five thousand Tutsi holed up in the local church and then in the Sainte-Marthe Maternity Hospital:

The first evening, coming home from the massacre in the church, our welcome was very well put together by the organizers. We all met up back on the soccer field. Guns were shooting in the air, whistles and suchlike musical instruments were sounding.

The children pushed into the center all the cows rounded up dur­ing the day. Burgomaster [the mayor] Bernard offered the forty fattest ones to the interahamwe, to thank them, and the other cows to the people, to encourage them. We spent the evening slaughtering the cat­tle, singing, and chatting about the new days on the way. It was the most terrific celebration.22

The perpetrators of mass annihilation and elimination know they exist in supportive eliminationist milieus; they themselves witness the open communal expressions of support. The eliminationist campaign against the Jews was immensely popular among Germans not only during the pre-exterminationist phase of the 1930s, as everyone in Germany knew—the regime and ordinary Germans alike openly celebrated it with fanfare—but also during the mass-murderous phase starting in 1941.

To see how this knowledge of the Germans’ broad base of support for the Jews’ elimination was acted upon by the regime, shared by Ger­man bystanders, and communicated by the perpetrators to their loved ones, we need merely to look to Europe’s largest concentration of Jews, the Warsaw Ghetto camp in the heart of Poland’s capital. Did the Ger­man leadership try to hide half a million Jews’ inhuman conditions? Not at all. In the midst of the Germans’ all-out extermination of the Jews, the German Labor Front’s recreational organization for German workers, called Strength Through Joy, organized coach tours of the ghetto where the Germans were starving the Jews to death on fewer than four hundred calories a day.

The Polish government in exile reported in May 1942:

Every day large coaches come to the ghetto; they take soldiers through as if it was a zoo. It is the thing to do to provoke the wild an­imals. Often soldiers strike out at passers-by with long whips as they drive through. They go to the cemetery where they take pictures. They compel the families of the dead and the rabbis to interrupt the funeral and to pose in front of their lenses. They set up genre pic­tures (old Jew above the corpse of a young girl).

Pedestrians in the Warsaw Ghetto walk past corpses lying on the pavement on Rynkowa Street, near the ghetto wall, Warsaw, Poland, 1940-1941.

The brutality—whips!—the photographing, the mocking, the joyful­ness and obvious approval (already seen and further discussed below), these recurring features of eliminationist assaults were apparent (1) in the tourism itself (common among German bystanders where perpe­trators brutalized or slaughtered Jews), (2) in the acts of these coachloads of ordinary Germans, and, of course, (3) for all the perpe­trators in Warsaw and other places hosting such tourists to see. The regime, knowledgeable of Germans’ broad solidarity with their elimi­nationist project, also made films of the ghetto, showing them in Ger­many. Members of the German press, so that they, the eyes of the people, could be fully knowledgeable of what the regime was doing, toured ghettos. One, named Roßberg, wrote in a manner capturing Germans’ common knowledge of this eliminationist assault’s charac­ter, great support for it, and transmutation of ordinary emotional re­sponses into their opposite upon beholding Jews:

I had the opportunity to get to know the ghetto in Lublin and the one in Warsaw. The sights are so appalling and probably also so well-known to the editorial staffs that a description is presumably superfluous. If there are any people left who still somehow have sympathy with the Jews then they ought to be recommended to have a look at such a ghetto. Seeing this race en masse, which is de­caying, decomposing, and rotten to the core will banish any senti­mental humanitarianism.23

Germans seeing people in a state ordinarily evoking compassion and pity are expected, when the people are “this race,” to behold them as a physical embodiment of their true, hateful nature. We have no reason to believe they did otherwise. After the Germans had methodically de­ported to Treblinka’s gas chambers the Warsaw Ghetto’s inhabitants they had not already starved to death, the surviving Jews decided to go down fighting, rebelling in April 1943, until after a month the over­whelmingly militarily superior Germans crushed them. Many Germans celebrated the ghetto’s utter destruction. Air force sergeant Herbert Habermalz, wanting to make his comrades similarly joyful, wrote his former place of employment, a farm equipment manufacturer, a letter that, as letter writers knew, was likely to circulate among the workers: “We flew several circles above the city. And with great satisfaction we could recognize the complete extermination of the Jewish Ghetto. There our folks did really a fantastic job. There is no house which has not been totally destroyed.” That Habermalz wrote, without thinking he needed to explain to them anything about the “complete extermi­nation” of a Jewish ghetto once containing nearly half a million Jews, merely confirms what a vast array of sources definitively show: The Jews’ systematic annihilation was well known and well supported among Germans, so much so that Habermalz unabashedly termed the job done “fantastic.”24

To develop a systematic and comparative understanding of the per­petrators’ social existences and communal lives, and how their social embeddedness affects or reflects treatment of their victims, we need to examine the perpetrators’ various communities and social relations. We must replace the fictitious general image of the frightened, atomized, isolated killer (said to exist under a regime’s draconian authority, or under group pressure), with a realistic account of the perpetrators’ so­cial, psychological, and moral communal existences. These vary sub­stantially across eliminationist assaults, and even within given eliminationist assaults when a particular eliminationist program cov­ers large territories or long periods.

The framework for the needed extensive empirical inquiry into the perpetrators’ communal lives in individual eliminations and then com­paratively distinguishes five principal kinds of communities that form the social context for the perpetrators’ actions. First, the community of the perpetrators themselves, including but not restricted to men serv­ing in the same camp, mobile killing squad, death march, and other eliminationist institutions. Second, the broader nonperpetrator com­munities in which they are embedded while eliminating their victims. These consist of local cities and towns where the perpetrators are sta­tioned, whether at home or abroad, and the social communities and lives their governments and institutions at times create for them. Third, their home communities, to which most of them will return, of family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and fellow members of their local national, ethnic, or communal groups. Fourth, related to the third, the more abstract—though given the power of nationalism and ethnic or religious group membership to move people, hardly trivial—larger na­tional, ethnic, religious, or political communities. Fifth, far more distant and less relevant for most perpetrators, the international community, the rest of humanity.

The perpetrators’ community: SS female auxiliaries and Karl Höcker, the adjutant to Auschwitz’s camp commander, eat bowls of blueberries to accordion music, Solahütte retreat near Auschwitz, Poland, 1944.

The perpetrators live in all or most of these communities while they kill and eliminate their victims. Their physical and social existences are continuous in some, episodic in others, and nonexistent or almost so in others. But in them all, though obviously varying substantially, the perpetrators are situated socially, psychologically, or morally, and even in those they do not physically inhabit while acting as perpetra­tors, they know they eventually will have some relationship of moral accountability, psychological influence, or social or political conse­quence. This knowledge is relevant, can be powerful, and should not continue to be discounted. Still, whatever is generally true about the per­petrators’ various communities, including their general supportiveness, more can be said about each of them, and their interconnectedness.

Working in eliminationist institutions can be utterly normal (or at least can become utterly normal after a perpetrator’s initial participa­tion in an eliminationist operation) when the need to carry out the elim­inationist assault seems unquestionable. Even among perpetrators viewing the victims as sufficiently noxious or threatening to warrant or necessitate their elimination, including lethally, some may doubt such actions’ wisdom or morality. In such circumstances, a perpetra­tor’s comrades’ validation of the violence, or the knowledge that he op­erates under the state’s aegis, or as the nation’s or the perpetrators’ ethnic or religious group’s representative and guardian, can help quell a perpetrator’s lingering doubts. The eliminationist regime’s character, and the specific eliminationist institution’s character, can affect the per­petrators’ understanding of their deeds and their lives’ quality while killing, expelling, torturing, and immiserating their victims. Some regimes and killing institutions, such as the Germans’, were organized and hierarchical, and relatively lax and understanding toward the per­petrators. They were also characterized by considerable off-duty com­radeship and conviviality.

Some, also organized and hierarchical, are harsher, as the Guatemalan mobile killing squads could be. Others have more variable, fluid, and intermittent qualities, such as that of the far less formally organized and hierarchical Hutu. The Hutu’s killing operations’ character de­pended on whether the villagers were left on their own for a given day’s killing expeditions—villagers not feeling up to joining that day’s hunt staying behind—or they were under the supervision of the Intera­hamwe, which sometimes forbade a day off. But for the reasons already established and more addressed below, the various eliminationist insti­tutions’ other features—from their hierarchical structures, the actual or implied coercion that might exist, the normative world of support for killing and elimination—have not been the perpetrators’ prime movers, and could not have been given their actual conduct. Sometimes when killers speak frankly, they, in a jumble, adduce a host of factors and circumstances that composed the mass-murderous complex of their actions. But when doing so, there is an assumption, explicit or clearly implicit, of underlying consent to the deed, born of their shared con­ception of the targeted peoples as noxious or threatening, of deserving their fate. Some Rwandan perpetrators speak in such a logically inco­herent but psychologically plausible muddle. At one moment they dis­cuss how they got drunk on their greed for looting. At another moment they mention that the Interahamwe—dedicated executioners—would not permit them to take a day off or would reproach them for not killing an acquaintance, or would fine them for not going into the bush to kill (hardly a plausible burden as it was easily paid from their looting’s proceeds), or would threaten them with death for not killing. At yet another moment the same perpetrators openly state that they and their comrades and all Hutu hated the Tutsi, thought the Tutsi were not human beings but snakes, cockroaches, and vermin who wanted to enslave all Hutu, so they believed it imperative to free their country of the Tutsi scourge, so they “cut them.” Elie Ngarambe, in a work camp prison when I interviewed him, also speaks in such a vein, asserting among other things that he was coerced, as were other Hutu, but then, when trying to convey to me the character of the genocide and the various facets of what really happened, says and indicates in many ways that he and ordinary Hutu, perpetrators and bystanders alike, hated the Tutsi, thought them not to be human beings, wanted to destroy them, and pursued or supported these goals with amazing and cruel vigor. When asked, “Were most Hutu happy to get rid of the Tutsi in one way or another, even if they themselves didn’t want to do the killing?” he replies, “They felt like they should be eliminated and wiped out,” explaining that Hutu shared the government’s “bad ideology,” which told them to “start from a small child, continue with a pregnant woman, kill her with her husband, her in-laws, and all her families, eliminate them all, eat their things, after you finish everything take their land, take their cars. Think of how long they have been fighting against us.” Ngarambe is emphatic. “They [the Hutu] wanted to eliminate all of them [the Tutsi]. They did not want to see anyone surviving.” Ngarambe has confessed to participating in the killing of only two peo­ple, but similarly in the course of his own testimony (some quoted here) betrays himself, repeatedly making it clear that he was daily in the thick of the mass murder, participating in the butchery of many more.*25

The complex interactive effects of various influences upon some per­petrators, and yet their willingness and conviction in the rightness of the principle of eliminating the targeted people and of the killing itself that are the foundation of the perpetrators’ deeds and the members of their enormously supportive societies or groups’ views about what ought to be done, are captured also by others. Pancrace Hakizamungili discourses in a jumble about having no choice, having hesitations including those born of what will happen should they fail (which a “good organizer” can quell), and about his and the other Hutu’s hatred for the Tutsi, their en­thusiasm in going on the hunt, and their relief at finally ridding them­selves of the Tutsi. And so, from Pancrace’s mouth come words that could serve as a motto for our age’s willing executioners, whether ordi­nary Germans, ordinary Serbs, or ordinary Hutu, “you obey freely.”26

The local community: A group of German soldiers and civilians looks on as a Jewish man is forced to cut the beard of another in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland, September–October 1939.

The second kind of community, the communities physically encom­passing or abutting the perpetrators while at their eliminationist tasks, forms the perpetrators’ immediate social context. These communities vary enormously. If the perpetrators are killing in their own country but not near home, they live as visitors or temporary residents. If in a con­quered or colonial area, their government or they and their compatriots construct a local perpetrator community (the nearby victim peoples usu­ally being communally irrelevant). These can vary from settler commu­nities, as the British had in Kenya, the Japanese founded in Korea, the Germans created in Poland, and the Chinese established in Tibet, to im­perial garrison communities with impromptu human and institutional infrastructural support, as the Japanese and the Germans had in some of their conquered areas. Everyone in such communities knows about the perpetrators’ deeds. They see them. They mingle with the perpetrators. They work with them. They often revel in the perpetrators’ deeds. They service and supply them, and collaborate with them in nonelimination­ist activities. Such people are not formally perpetrators (some do cross the line), yet they implicate themselves in the deeds, or they so intimately rub shoulders with the perpetrators that they belong to the perpetrator community. Everything suggests they are consensual communities.

The third community, consisting of the perpetrators’ families, neigh­borhoods, and towns, powerfully exists for all mass annihilations and eliminations’ perpetrators, though differently depending on where the perpetrators work their violence. Perpetrators, usually sooner than later, visit or return to their families and home communities, to loved ones, friends, and others, who often, probably usually, know at least the ba­sics of the perpetrators’ deeds. The perpetrators must inevitably con­sider how these people will judge their deeds. In many mass eliminations perpetrators operate in their home environs. As they brutalize, expel, and kill people, they, embedded in those communities day and night, do not have to wonder what their families and communities will someday say. This was true of those in Turkey attacking Armenian death marches as they trudged by impromptu perpetrators’ towns, of the enormous number of Germans guarding or servicing camps in their own cities, towns, and neighborhoods, of Indonesians slaughtering communists, of Serbs in Bosnia, Tutsi in Burundi, Hutu in Rwanda, and more.

Beyond their local communities is the larger reference group of the nation, the people, the political movement, the tribe, or the religious group, in whose name perpetrators act. Perpetrators kill, expel, and in­carcerate their victims to secure the future for themselves and their fam­ilies by reconstituting society. As we repeatedly see, they also understand themselves to be acting for their larger communities. What will be their personal legacies to their people? How do they expect their people to see and judge them, to thank and celebrate or to shun and punish them? Such considerations unquestioningly affect many perpe­trators, potentially all of them.

The national community: Austrian Nazis and local residents look on as Jews are forced on hands and knees to scrub pavement, Vienna, Austria, March-April 1938

Finally, there is the international community or humanity—the real human beings, not the abstraction of humanity moving many commu­nists, or the Germans’ and the Japanese’s restricted racist conceptions of humanity, consigning peoples to subhumanity. Perpetrators facing their victims likely do not think much about the international community. Yet, as much testimony indicates, the perpetrators are aware of a larger world, which they usually understand will condemn their actual and prospective eliminationist violence. In the past several decades, the spread of telecommunications has made perpetrators increasingly aware their acts will receive international scrutiny. Nevertheless, most perpe­trators appear but tenuously connected psychologically to these distant and rather abstract community considerations. After all, when perpe­trators face the “work of demons who wage their battle against us” or other putatively threatening or problematic subhumans, people across an ocean, or over a border or two, must seem irrelevant. Political lead­ers initiating and overseeing eliminationist assaults, however, are acutely conscious (if often ultimately dismissive) of the international commu­nity. The critical issue, taken up in Chapter 11, is how to vastly increase the international community’s psychological and moral centrality, and relative weight among the perpetrators’ various more immediate com­munities, for actual or prospective perpetrators—from the man on the ground, gun or machete in his hand, to his immediate commanders, to those running eliminationist institutions, and especially to the political leaders unleashing and orchestrating the eliminationist assaults.

Few, if any, perpetrators likely self-consciously disaggregate their embeddedness in various communities, or regularly assess how each community and its many members (even leaving aside the distant inter­national community) judge or will judge their deeds and ultimately them. For many, especially those working at home, no difference exists among some of their communities. For some, such as the Indonesians slaughtering communists and, even more so, Serbs in Bosnia and Hutu in Rwanda, the communities of killers, of immediate locale, of home, and even of the nation collapse into an integrated mass-murderous and eliminationist consensual community. In addition to these instances, the judgment of communities, except the international one, is obviously gen­erally a non-issue for killers, expellers, and guards. The perpetrators move in overlapping or intersecting communities approving their deeds, so acute moral doubt and existential discomfort do not arise.

In addition to the expressed approval and acceptance various rele­vant communities give them, the perpetrators know that those be­longing to their country, people, ethnic group, political movement, or religion, having been party to their society’s conversation about the dehumanized or demonized victims, widely share their views. The per­petrators know they similarly believe the perpetrators’ deeds are right and necessary, support them, are even thankful the perpetrators are eliminating the people they commonly hate or fear. Because the elimi­nationist logic of the perpetrators’ beliefs applies equally to the many others sharing those beliefs who have not been asked to act upon them, it is abundantly clear that many other people in the perpetra­tors’ communities and societies would also have brutalized, incarcer­ated, expelled, and killed the victim groups had they been asked or put in the position to do so. This, that the vast majority of ordinary Germans would have also been Hitler’s willing executioners, I demon­strated for Germans during the Nazi period.27 Though for other elim­inationist assaults the data do not lend themselves to the same methodologically inescapable, surefire generalization to the perpetra­tors’ societies and communities (exceptions notwithstanding), we can still say, for various reasons, that so many others from those commu­nities would have willingly acted as the perpetrators did. The perpe­trators know this very well. The perpetrators do not necessarily ponder how the members of their various communities work through the logic of their beliefs and what they therefore think about the perpetrators’ deeds, or what they would do if mobilized for the eliminationist as­sault. Neither do soldiers in war. Absent demonstrable opposition at home, soldiers do not wonder about their countrymen’s support or readiness to join them. They naturally assume both. So too the elimi­nationist perpetrators, conceiving of themselves, like soldiers, to be con­ducting a war against their people’s dangerous enemies. The public discourse—more intensified, explicit, and public immediately preceding and during eliminationist assaults—about the need to exterminate-the­brute or to eliminate-the-plague, merely confirms to the perpetrators what the same discourse had already prepared them and their commu­nities for. When governmental organs, civil leaders, media, intellectuals, and religious leaders repeatedly publicly proclaim—as they have so often done—people’s noxiousness and threat, and even call for their elimination, they further affirm what the perpetrators already know, having watched family, friends, and others nod in agreement or ap­provingly repeat what is in the air. “The Jews are our misfortune” was one of the German public sphere’s most oft-repeated phrases in the 1930s and 1940s. British colonial officials and ordinary settlers alike casually and reflexively spoke of the putatively savage, bloodthirsty, murderous Mau Mau. Ladino Guatemalans called Maya “animals.” Serbs as a matter of course referred to Bosnian Muslims as “Turks,” constructing them as the Serbs’ historic and eternal enemy, and as Bosnia’s rightless alien invaders. The Rwandan airwaves coursed with, and Hutu newspapers and popular publications printed, hate-filled ac­counts of the Tutsi “cockroaches” and calls to exterminate them. These and other commonplaces solidify the sense of a community of like-minded thought, values, hatreds, and actions among the perpetrators and those around them. As Pancrace, echoing so many others, ex­plained: “The radios were yammering at us since 1992 to kill all the Tutsi,” which found echoes in an activated and intensified Hutu con­versation, as Christine reports: “In the cabarets, men had begun talk­ing about massacres in 1992” with the president of their commune visiting their houses “to see that the tools behind sacks of beans were well sharpened.”28

A striking feature of prejudices and hatreds, of the dehumanizing and demonizing conceptions one group’s members have for another’s, is their intellectual and social leveling—within communities and, what­ever the specific beliefs’ differences, across societies and civilizations.

In given eliminationist communities, university professors and high school–educated janitors share common murderous views about tar­geted people. The same talk animates the lecture hall and the beer hall, the principal difference being the little separating highfalutin nonsense from plain nonsense. The “people of poets and thinkers,” as the Ger­mans, Europe’s most highly educated people, liked to call themselves, were no different from illiterate Hutu farmers (Rwanda’s adult liter­acy rate, at around 50 percent, was among the world’s lowest). Intel­lectuals, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and clergy—the opinion leaders and in some cases, especially the clergy, moral leaders—validate the elimi­nationist beliefs and acts of their societies’ ordinary members and prospectively further sustain the perpetrators’ confidence in their peo­ple’s solidarity. We have already explored how Serbian writers and in­tellectuals, including the country’s most influential body of thinkers, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, laid down the common ideational foundation and even provided the political leadership for the Serbs’ eliminationist assaults. German intellectuals, doctors, jurists, teachers, clergy critically contributed to spreading eliminationist anti­semitism and other racist and dehumanizing views in Germany before and during the Nazi period. Shelves of books, including some of the very early scholarly works on Nazism and the Holocaust, bear such ti­tles as Hitler’s Professors, The Third Reich and Its Thinkers, The Nazi Doctors, Hitler’s Justice, Revolutionary Anti-Semitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner.29 Such socially and culturally crucial people analo­gously prepared the ground for our time’s other mass slaughters and eliminations, including those done in the name of Marx and the prom­ised land he and his intellectual epigones promised. Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and others, who laid the foundation for and initiated the communists’ long-term eliminationist assault on many portions of So­viet society, were extremely intelligent men and authors of learned Marxist works. Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders were also rel­atively highly educated, having imbibed their foundational Marxism in Paris. In Rwanda, intellectuals prepared Hutu for what was to come, as Innocent Rwililiza, a Tutsi survivor, explains: “Genocide is not really a matter of poverty or lack of education. . . . In 1959 the Hutu relent­lessly robbed, killed, and drove away Tutsi, but they never for a single day imagined exterminating them. It is the intellectuals who emanci­pated them, by planting the idea of genocide in their heads and sweep­ing away their hesitations.”30 After the fact, some perpetrators, finally seeing their deeds through the outside world’s condemning eyes, reflect on how their intellectuals, elites, and clergy led them astray.

Intellectuals, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and clergy are also part of their societies. They too participate in the hateful discourses, in which they are no less, and often more, embedded than the communities’ other members who also create and sustain them. They too act or support the acts that follow on their logic. No significant part of the German elites thought the Jews wholly innocent and therefore dissented from the fundamentals of the eliminationist project against the Jews (though some would have preferred a nonlethal eliminationist solution). Even the leading German resistance groups to Hitler were profoundly anti­semitic, which informed their future plans for Jews. One of the resis­tance’s central documents, prepared by leading Protestant theologians and university professors, contained an appendix called “Proposals for a Solution to the Jewish Problem in Germany,” which, referring to Jews, stated that a post-Nazi Germany would be justified in taking steps “to ward off the calamitous influence of one race on the national community.” Yet thanks to the highly effective exterminationist pro­gram, they could perhaps tolerate Jews in Germany, because “the num­ber of Jews surviving and returning to Germany will not be so large that they could still be regarded as a danger to the German nation.”31 German elites were active, willing, and leading participants in the an­nihilationist assault on the Jews and in the Germans’ other elimina­tionist projects. Einsatzgruppen leaders slaughtering Jews in the Soviet Union were academically trained, as did the principal author and oth­ers working on the murderous and eliminationist anti-Slav General Plan for the East. Church leaders and clergy the world over, from Turkey, to Germany, to Croatia, to Indonesia, to Serbia, to Rwanda, and to the Political Islamic religious leaders and clerics in different countries, have actively and tacitly blessed mass murder. (Where, we should ask, have religious leaders opposed their countrymen’s or clansmen’s elimina­tionist assaults? If they had, such as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders who were instrumental in preventing the Bulgarian Jews’ de­portation, or Pastor André Trocmé, who led an effort in Le Chambon­sur-Lignon in France that saved five thousand Jews, we would know and they would have prevented countless deaths. Yet we know of so few.) Local dignitaries often organized and led the Bosnian Serbs’ para­military or local killing institutions. In Rwanda, the local intellectuals were in the thick of the mass murder. Jean-Baptiste Munyankore, a Tutsi teacher and survivor, explains: “The principal and the inspector of schools in my district participated in the killings with nail-studded clubs. . . . A priest, the burgomaster, the subprefect, a doctor—they all killed with their own hands. . . . These well educated people were calm, and they rolled up their sleeves to get a good grip on their machetes.”32 Well-educated people, leading professionals of one society after the next, together with those looking up to them, have closed ranks in a community of murderous consent.

After eliminationist assaults, after the massive death toll and the vast suffering the perpetrators have inflicted become clear, in country after country, in town after town, the perpetrators return to their people, whose names they have blackened in the world’s eyes, but evidently not in their own. In every mass murder and elimination’s aftermath, the broader community in whose name the perpetrators acted has not socially or politically rejected, let alone punished, the perpetrators. (Punishment has occasionally been meted out by those defeating per­petrators or those replacing the perpetrating regime.) The perpetrators have not been turned into outcasts, not shunned, not treated in any way as a community would ordinarily treat murderers, let alone mass murderers in their midst. It did not happen in Turkey, in Germany, in Indonesia, in Serbia or among Serbs in Bosnia—who after the elimina­tionist assault continued to celebrate the Bosnian Serbian elimination­ist architects Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić as heroes—in Burundi, in Rwanda among the Hutu themselves. Communities wel­come the perpetrators back and, when necessary and feasible, have pas­sionately risen to defend them. The social and communal solidarity the perpetrators find in the posteliminationist era merely continues the sol­idarity they experienced while assaulting their victims.

We do not know the percentage of each community’s people who have supported the exterminationist and eliminationist politics perpe­trators practiced in their name. Everywhere—among Turks, among Serbs, among Hutu—there has been some communal dissent. Even in Germany, where the evidence of broad and deep popular support for the eliminationist assault against the Jews is overwhelming, some dis­sent existed. (The ready knowledge we have of it and, often by the dis­senters’ own admission, of their exceptional nature and isolation, further confirms Germans’ overwhelming support for the elimination.) Nevertheless, in our time’s lethal and non-lethal eliminationist assaults, we find among the broader relevant national or ethnic communities lit­tle credible evidence of widespread dissent from the eliminationist con­ceptions of the victims and the thinking underlying such politics, or of actual opposition to the eliminationist onslaughts themselves. But we have abundant evidence of active communal support and encourage­ment for the perpetrators, of the perpetrators’ comfort within their var­ious communities and among their countrymen, and of the perpetrators’ smooth reintegration into their accepting communities when the mass killings, expulsions, and incarcerations end

*Another example: “We peasants, we were using our traditional weapons. It is for that reason that when you were hacking you were supposed to cut [the Tutsi] into two pieces. There was times where you would hack him and not cut him into two pieces and you hurt him only and think that he was dead. . . . Let’s say that we are going in the squad that is going to kill and loot, we meet someone and we are almost five of us, one of us says, ‘Let’s see who is going to be the first to hack him.’ The one who hacks the first runs, and the second one also hacks and runs.”

18. Quoted in Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 96.

19. John Hughes, Indonesian Upheaval (New York: David McKay, 1967), p. 175.

20. Alisa MuratOauš, author interview, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzego vina, July 12, 2008.

21. Hatzfeld, Machete Season, p. 9.

22. Ibid., p. 93.

23. BA Koblenz, ZSg. 101 Sammlung Brammer zur Pressepolitik des NSStaates, no. 41, pp. 55–57.

24. Quoted in Alf Lüdtke, “The Appeal of Exterminating ‘Others’: German Workers and the Limits of Resistance,” in Michael Geyer and John W. Boyer, eds., Resistance Against the Third Reich, 1933–1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 73.

25. Ngarambe, author interview.

26. Hatzfeld, Machete Season, pp. 71 and 219.

27. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996), especially pp. 450–454.

28. Hatzfeld, Machete Season, pp. 219 and 170.

29. Max Weinreich, Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in the Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People (New York: YIVO, 1946); Léon Poliakov and Joseph Wulf, eds., Das Dritte Reich und seine Denker (The Third Reich and Its Thinkers) (Frankfurt, Germany: Ullstein, 1983); Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986); Ingo Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1991); and Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

30. Quoted in Hatzfeld, Machete Season, pp. 153–154.

31. Quoted in Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, p. 115.

32. Quoted in Hatzfeld, Machete Season, p. 68.

Tags:book excerpts, Daniel Goldhagen, essays, genocide, Holocaust, humanity, Rwanda, Soviet, Worse Than War


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