Before we go a little bit deeper into this difficult topic, I would like to say briefly that this post can only address the subject superficially here. I am a) not a trained psychologist, b) even the brightest scientists have not yet found a clear answer to this question, and c) it would simply go beyond the scope of a blogpost.
Furthermore, I would like to mention that murder can never be accepted and that there is no excuse for mass murder, no matter what explanations are listed. Mankind always has the opportunity to choose, to think rationally and to reflect on its actions, because that is what distinguishes us from animals.
Foto: Thomas Matthias
Why do people kill? And why do some become murderers and others not? Who are these people? Are they psychopaths? Rotten to the core? Or quite normal people like you and I?
If extraordinary evil is not the norm of our everyday life (hands up: who knows a murderer?), where does it go wrong? How do we become so exceptionally evil that we just kill another person (or thousands of people)?
Since the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), humanity has waged an average of six international and six national (civil) wars every decade. Alone since the end of World War II, 150 wars have been fought. In the 20th century about 100 million people have died because of war or armed conflict.1
If you look at the various genocides, you can see that the perpetrators were mostly ordinary people. Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia – these nations couldn’t just consist of pathological citizens, could they? In this case Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” seems plausible. Accordingly, the worst thing in the world is evil, which is committed by “nobodies”. Evil committed by people without any motive. Without convictions, without evil character or demonic will; of human beings who refuse to be individuals”.2
But it cannot be that simple, can it? The human psyche is simply too complex. For thousands of years philosophers, thinkers and psychologists have been concerned with the nature of mankind, and there are four different main theses. Accordingly, humans are by nature:
#Neutral – like a white sheet which is going to be filled with experiences and impressions. Good and evil are reflections of our social environment and experiences.
#Good – especially in most religions it is assumed that every soul is good to the core by divine creation.
#Evil – people are fundamentally evil, dangerous and impulsive.
#Both – humans do have a good side and a bad side that are in an eternal struggle with each other.3 So we are all a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Foto: Thomas Matthias
Let’s follow these four approaches. The French philosopher Descartes had the opinion that only humans are capable of making rational and reflected decisions. Humans act out of their own free will, think about their will and act accordingly.4 Or do we only act out of innate instincts, according to Darwinism? Thus, competition is our nature. Following the theme of “Survival of the fittest”, we have been competing with other individuals and groups for thousands of years. Natural selection has shaped us, and killing / injuring others has brought us possible advantages. Accordingly, evil slumbers within us in the form of our instincts. Sigmund Freud was of the opinion that all people are driven by instincts and that we not only have an instinct for self-defense, but also an instinct for destruction.5
On the other hand, one could argue that altruism and cooperation could also be a good way to survive. One thing is certain: we humans are part of the nature and do have deep rooted instincts, but also psychological tendencies. Therefore, we are neither neutral nor exclusively good or bad. Both, good and evil are human qualities and cannot be considered separately from each other.6
But then why does one become a mass murderer and others not? Evolutionary psychology tries to find an answer to this by investigating the assumption that our environment influences and shapes us enormously.7 However, different internal and external factors must interact. A certain religious belief or an unstable economic situation alone does not make us a mass murderer.
#Cultural belief system – Our culture, our community, our family and friends as well as our religion and many different factors shape our personality and character by conveying values, principles and morals.8
#Authority thinking – Every person has a different attitude towards authority figures. In principle, a certain authority is needed in every form of cohabitation, but there are people who respond very strongly to authority. Some people have such a strong sense of authority that they are very unlikely to contradict their leader, question him/her/them or oppose him/her/them, even if they are called upon to use violence.9
#Totalitarian states – Societies in which genocide has been committed have been very often authoritarian and totalitarian states. Dictatorships destroy all opposition, use repressive armed forces, secret services and paramilitary organizations. The state expects absolute obedience and obtains it, if necessary through violence and terror.10
For example, resistance fighters were persecuted, arrested, sentenced to death or sent to concentration camps during the Nazi era to send a clear signal.
#Group coercion – Humans are basically social beings, and as it is easier to survive as a member of a group, humans want to be part of one. We don’t want to be excluded, punished, laughed at or even killed ourselves.12
#Ideology – becomes very often a way of life and can give meaning to life. The followers of each ideology see their lifestyle as the right one and will defend it or force it on others.13
#Political, social and economic circumstances – in addition to ideology – these circumstances can support the process of hatred, as ideology only works in a cultural context. If people find themselves in an extreme situation, such as war, an economic crisis, political instability or the struggle for natural resources such as water, land and food, a moral decoupling takes place. If the basic human needs can no longer be met, a scapegoat is sought and radical ideas and “proposed solutions” are perceived much more easily. If killing gives an advantage such as land, food, career advancement, wealth, power, prestige, etc., then humans are tempted to follow.14
#Emotions – the leaders of genocide are often masters at mobilizing basic emotions such as fear, anger, shame, humiliation, disgust, and hatred. They activate the perpetrators by persuading them that they are in great danger and must destroy “the others” before they can implement their diabolical plan. Self-defense is the only way to ensure one’s own survival. But also the desire for revenge and retaliation (for alleged past injustices) can lead to killing. Or the fear of retaliation by the victims – before they can take revenge, one rather erases them completely.15 Better safe than sorry.
#Distance – some people become mass murderers indirectly. Not by raising their weapons, but rather by bureaucracy and help. Although they do not participate directly in the atrocities, they clear the way for genocide in the form of laws, rules, administrative acts or by drawing up detailed destruction plans. These so-called “desk killers” are often civil servants, lawyers, judges, public prosecutors, who have no direct contact with the victims and therefore do not even see the suffering their actions cause.16
Here I would like to refer to our article about the warning signs and stages of a genocide. Genocide does not happen overnight, but is planned, organized and developed slowly, sometimes over decades. The genocidal ideology is instilled into people constantly and bit by bit, sometimes people do not even notice it.
It begins with the division into groups (“us” against “them”) and the intensification of existing resentments; the ground for racism. The victims are dehumanized to suppress any human sympathy; hate speech is part of everyday life. The perpetrators are releasing themselves morally in an active process in order to not perceive the atrocities as bad anymore. From the perspective of the perpetrators, only in this way the values of the community can be defended and the nation saved.17
Oftentimes an extenuating language is used to cover up the real cruelty. Dead civilians are suddenly collateral damage, people are not killed but liquidated, the Holocaust becomes the “final solution” and imprisonment in ghettos and concentration camps is part of an “evacuation and resettlement operation”. Paul Hilberg analyzed thousands of Nazi documents, not even finding the word “killing” in them.18
As already mentioned at the beginning, these are just a few examples and attempts at an explanation why people become mass murderers which do not go into great depth. It is incredibly complex, but you can see that a person’s character traits, origins, beliefs and values determine whether he/she/them becomes a perpetrator or not. We have to try to understand who the perpetrators are in order to understand why they become perpetrators.
# Goldhagen, D. (2009) Worse than War – Genocide, Eliminationism and the ongoing Assault on Humanity. New York: Public Affairs.
# Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.
# Waller, J. (2002) Becoming evil: How ordinary People commit Genocide and Mass Killing. New York: Oxford University Press.
1 Waller, J. (2002) S. x
3 Waller, J. (2002) S. 136 – 138
4 Waller, J. (2002) S. 138
5 Waller, J. (2002) S. 140 – 141 / 149
6 Waller, J. (2002) S. 166 – 167
7 Waller, J. (2002) S. 145
8 Waller, J. (2002) S. 178
9 Waller, J. (2002) S. 180
10 Spencer (2012) S. 41 – 42
12 Waller, J. (2002) S. 218
13 Waller, J. (2002) S. 182 – 183
14 Waller, J. (2002) S. 187 / 190 / Spencer (2012) S. 49
15 Spencer (2012) S. 47 – 48
16 Spencer (2012) S. 44 – 45
17 Waller, J. (2002) S. 185 – 186
18 Waller, J. (2002) S. 188 / 189