4 May 2019

Text & Translation: Corinna

#Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders & Rescuers

‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’ – Primo Levi1

As a rule, four groups are always involved in genocide: the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and the rescuers.

KZ SachsenhausenPhoto: Thomas Matthias


‘I was never cruel.’ – Hermann Göring2

In percentage terms, this group is relatively small, but also the most dangerous group in a genocide. In addition to the “normal people”, they include the army, the paramilitary and the administrative apparatus of a state. The military and paramilitary play a particularly central role here, because the generals who give the orders and the soldiers who carry out the orders are often the main perpetrators. Military personnel, above all soldiers, are trained for violent situations, armed for battle and trimmed for obedience.3

Like other professions (doctors, social workers, policemen, etc.), they develop a so-called ‘role distance’, which allows them to create a distance between themselves and their profession. They perform actions that might be humanly problematic without much regret, because they feel completely okay about the actions on a professional level. The perpetrators, in their opinion, only follow the social invitation to inhumanity. 4

Some states also have a paramilitary force which has no defensive function. It is merely intended to terrorize and mobilize as many people as possible. Within the paramilitary there is often a spirit of hatred in which torture, violence and cruelty are normal. This is not an official state institution, so the state can therefore evade responsibility for atrocities. 5

Examples of perpetrators: military and paramilitary, civilians, doctors and medical staff, lawyers and judges, ministries and their respective offices, banks and enterprises, foreign governments, police and special forces as well as churches and other religious communities.6

Waschstelle KZ SachsenhausenPhoto: Thomas Matthias


‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ – Aeschylus

The victims are the only members of genocide who cannot choose their role: they are pushed into the victim’s position without being offered an alternative, unlike the other groups. Once the genocide is in full swing, they can usually no longer do anything to help themselves; they can support each other to the maximum. As a rule, they have only a few options left: flee, hide, or fight. 7

The Genocide Convention only protects four groups: Members of national, ethnic, racial and religious groups. These four protected groups are difficult to define, especially the characteristics of ethnicity and race, since they are non-objective characteristics, but always a social construct. The characteristics of a group are therefore always determined by another group and are therefore not unchangeable.8

By definition, social, cultural and political groups do not fall within the victim groups of the Genocide Convention. However, they can still become victims of mass atrocities.

Photo: Thomas Matthias


‘The world is a dangerous place to live. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.’ – Albert Einstein

The bystanders are usually the largest group and are therefore incredibly important for the outcome of genocide, because they define the events through their empathy or indifference. The difference to the perpetrator is that the bystander doesn’t actively participate in the destruction, but his or her passivity and approval of the act makes him or her an indirect perpetrator.

Since genocide never takes place in a closed system, but always in a global context, there are not only internal bystanders, but also external ones.9

#Internal Bystanders

They are usually part of the national population and profit directly or indirectly from the genocide (money, housing, jobs, businesses, etc.). They must decide whether to allow the perpetrators to commit genocide or whether to help the victims and organise themselves as an opposition. In this decision, the prior exclusion of the victims plays an important role, because the ideology that is trickled in makes it difficult to organize protest and find supporters. Exclusion can only come about through deep social acceptance.10

As a rule, however, they see the perpetrators’ deeds and crimes, but decide not to do anything, because they are not directly affected. They watch, even if they look away. Occasionally they provide help when it is safe, e.g. when they warn a victim, show them the way, give them food, clothing or money. 11

#External Bystanders

External audiences include the international community, governmental and non-governmental organisations and citizens of all countries. Everyone must respond as quickly and as promptly as possible to the first warning signs of genocide. Passivity allows governments around the world to simply continue with the killing. Sometimes the perpetrators even get supported with economic or military aid by external bystanders by doing business with them or holding sport events (Olympic Games, World Championships, etc.) in these countries.

Oftentimes, individual states remain inactive, because one does not want to violate the sovereignty of the perpetrator state, does not feel responsible or pursues own national interests. Military interventions and the responsibility of states to protect themselves are highly controversial issues in international law.

VölkermordPhoto: Thomas Matthias


‘Greatness, like malice, often begins with small steps. Heroes develop, they are not born.’ – Ervin Straub

According to experts, the rescuers represent a larger number than previously believed. It is assumed that this group accounts for 15 to 20% of the population – as many as the group of perpetrators. And although this number is not exactly small, most of the rescuers are extraordinary people, because it takes courage to stand up against the perpetrators and passive spectators. People often risk their own lives, and yet many of them don’t care if the victims have the same nationality, religion, race or ethnicity. For them, human and moral values are universal. They feel an obligation to democracy and believe in social justice. Often their actions are not necessarily thought through, but rather born out of the moment. What counts for them is humanity.

However, one should always bear in mind that even the rescuers can change their minds and become perpetrators themselves. The longer a genocide lasts, the solidarity among the population decreases and the greater are the risks for the rescuers, but also the size and speed of the genocide, the proximity to safe places, economic resources and social, political and local networks are decisive for the rescuers and their actions.12


Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.’– Carl Sandburg

Apart from the victims, each participant in genocide has the choice of what role he or she plays. Human beings have been given the ability to think logically and to form free wills. We can choose – whether we want to take part in genocide, watch it, do something about it or let it come to that.



# Barth, B. (2006) Genozid – Völkermord im 20. Jahrhundert: Geschichte, Theorien, Kontroversen. München: Verlag C. H. Beck oHG.

# Hilberg, R. (1992) Täter, Opfer, Zuschauer – Die Vernichtung der Juden 1933 – 1945. Frankfurt am Main: S.Fischer Verlag.

# Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.

# Welzer, H. (2005) Täter – wie aus ganz normalen Menschen Massenmörder werden. Frankfurt am Main: S.Fischer Verlag.

1 Welzer, H. (2005) S.12
2 Hilberg, R. (1992) S. 13
3 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 43 – 44
4 Hilberg, R. (1992) S. 39 – 40
5 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 43 – 44
6 Hilberg, R. (1992) S. 35 – 36
7 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 52 – 53
8 Barth (2006) S. 18 – 19
9 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 50 – 52
10 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 50 – 52
11 Hilberg, R. (1992) S. 215 / 234
12 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 54 – 55

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