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Why do humans commit genocide?

By Norman M. Naimark, affiliate at The Europe Center, the Center for International Security and Cooperation, and the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Naimark is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of history.

Genocide occurs throughout world history, at all times and all places. This may seem obvious, but for a very long time, we thought about genocide as strictly associated with the Holocaust. There were no other genocides in this kind of analysis.

Gradually, however, we have come to the realization that the Holocaust was not the only case of genocide, and that similar episodes are important to identify and study. Each case of genocide has its own provenance, if you will; scholars can and should also examine past cases to see how they are linked together with one another.

Take the Old Testament, for example. In some sections, you will find a very vengeful and genocidal Hebrew God asking his people to kill other peoples in their entirety. Perhaps, growing up, you sang that wonderful gospel hymn, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.” The hymn doesn’t say that at the end that Joshua and his men killed all the inhabitants of Jericho — men, women, and children — and burned the city to the ground.

Now, we don’t know that this really happened. But we see from this example that the concept itself goes back a long way.

More than 2,000 years later, what do we mean by the term? The December 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defined it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The as such is very important because the aim is to destroy an entire group or, by destroying part of that group, to eliminate that group.

I consider the 1948 definition good, but not great. Social and political groups were removed from early drafts of the Genocide Convention; many countries, especially the Soviet Union, feared they would be susceptible to accusations of genocide if those groups were included. The framers of the Genocide Convention were thinking about World War II and what happened to Jews, Poles, and others, and that was where their definition began and ended.

Why do we commit genocide?

I explore several themes in my book, and one of the most notable is the strong relationship between genocide and war. In fact, if there weren’t other very good reasons to prevent war, the correlation between war and genocide is a good one.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One can argue that soldiers who are used to battle, used to seeing blood, used to killing, are able and ready to commit genocide. I’m not sure that’s always true, but regular armies have certainly been documented to have engaged in this behavior, including the Ottoman Turkish Army in World War I (against the Armenians) and the Wehrmacht in World War II (against the Jews). Paramilitaries are also frequently tasked with genocide, from the SS in Germany to the NKVD in the Soviet Union, as well as rangers and posses in the cases of settler genocide.

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There are also strategic dimensions to genocide. One of the things we’ve come to understand better about the 1915 Armenian genocide is that the Young Turk leadership worried about the strategically valuable territory occupied by the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. The Ottoman Turks were fighting the Russians in World War I, and therefore the Ottomans felt that the allegedly “treacherous” Armenians had to be removed. In removing and then killing victims, one brutal action literally bleeds into the next and the war becomes a cover for genocide. World War II, in some ways, served as a cover for the Holocaust — the mass murder of Jews did not begin until after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Another theme is dehumanization, which precedes genocide but accelerates during the course of it. During World War II, the Jews were forced into ghettos, and denied food and medicine. They were sick, starving, suffering. Then Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would come to the ghettos and say, “Look at those Jews. They look like animals. They can’t be allowed to live.”

Then the perpetrators also identify their victims as non-human. The Tutsi were called cockroaches by the Hutu. Kulaks (supposedly rich Soviet peasants) were called monkeys, lepers, and rats. Racism in genocide goes back at least to Spanish treatment of the Indians in the New World in the 16th century; this was one of the worst genocides in history, and it was accompanied by an argument about whether the Indians were human or not.

Another motivation for genocide is economic. Military provision ministries in Nazi Germany demanded that the Jews be expropriated, that their property be taken away, and that they be used as forced labor. When there was a shortage of food on the Eastern front, Nazi government ministries conspired that they not be fed.

Settler genocide also reflects profoundly economic motives. White colonists arrive in new territory and say, “Those Indians [or those aborigines or those San people] cannot make anything out of that land. Therefore, it belongs to us settlers and we will take it over.” What do they want the land for? They want it to survive, first of all. But second of all, they want to build their wealth.

This kind of world history demonstrates that genocide is everywhere. Mass killing permeates history in multiple ways. It resides in our consciousness, just as we are products of this history. Not only that, we are all capable of participating in genocide. It’s very important to understand, I think, that we are not immune to genocidal behavior. It is part of living in human society, and it is especially an available mode of human action when times are economically bad and peoples are at war.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Several new studies indicate that the incidence of violence — of genocide, rape, homicide, all sorts of killing — have gone down over the centuries. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature demonstrates this trend most convincingly: Despite a terrible upward blip in the middle of the 20th century, the general curve is going down.

He attributes this — and we should all try to understand the phenomenon — to changes in norms, changes in institutions, changes in way nations and peoples deal with each other. Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s going to be no more genocide, but it may mean on the whole that we’re coming to terms with what it is and what it means. Eventually, maybe, hopefully, sometime in the distant future, there will be no more genocide.

This talk was based on Norman M. Naimark’s latest book, Genocide: A World History (Oxford University Press, 2017).