Ordinary People as Mass Murderers – Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives

Ordinary People as Mass Murderers –
Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives
Edited by Olaf Jensen & Claus-Christian W.
Szejnmann
Palgrave Macmillan – £60.00

It never ceases to amaze me how some crimes can go unpunished, simply because of the way they’re perpetrated – or because of the age of some of those committing the crime. Only yesterday I heard, how for legal reasons, a fifteen-year-old boy from Manchester couldn’t be named, although he’d raped four young girls in the Moss Side area of the city.

Why?
Why couldn’t he be named?
Surely, if he’s old enough to physically rape girls, he’s old enough to bear the consequences?

This overt travesty of common sense is nothing new however. Whether it’s killing someone as a result of drunk driving, under-age stabbing, or that timeless old chestnut, acting under orders, people can, and do (quite often), behave in the most despicable and unforgivable of manner. Then again, as Adolf Hitler proclaimed in 1923, there are: ‘’two things which can unite human beings; shared ideals and shared roguery.’’

As such, humankind doesn’t always need coaxing to be cruel. It unfortunately already is; as this urgent, compelling and rather disturbing study comprehensively substantiates.

Ordinary People as Mass Murderers – Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives, lays forth such an historically, consequentialist blueprint for ghastly human behaviour, that it really ought to be made compulsory reading for anyone remotely interested in both history and human behaviour. Herein lies just some of the definition – scientific, as well as social and political – behind that of the most appalling atrocity ever undertaken by that of the so-called human race: the Holocaust.

This book’s excellent compilation of essays explores that of the darkest and most profound traits of behaviour, most notably: how ‘ordinary’ people will willingly participate in mass murder. And I’m not talking silent mass murder behind closed doors; but rather, blood-drenched, screaming blue murder of the most haunting and chilling persuasion – as Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann disturbingly writes in the first essay ‘Perpetrators of the Holocaust: a Historiography: ‘’The Nazi racial dictatorship was the most genocidal regime the world has ever seen. It is often forgotten that around 3 million Poles, 7 million Soviet citizens, and 3.3 million Soviet POWs were murdered because they were regarded as Slavic ‘sub-humans.’ The sociology of its perpetrators who killed approximately 20 million unarmed people, occupies a central place in the study of the Holocaust and has a contemporary meaning. How many people took part in the mass murder? What kind of people were they? What were their reasons for their murderous activities? And what were the consequences of their deeds? Some of these perpetrators still live with us or are known to us as family friends or acquaintances, fathers or mothers, uncles or aunts, grandfathers or grandmothers. These questions also deal with the uncertainty as to whether the mass murder of the Jews was a singular historic event, or, because potentially it may be rooted in the nature of humans, it can be repeated.’’

To a certain degree, the potential for abominable cruelty is without any shadow of any doubt, deeply entrenched, if not deeply ‘’rooted in the nature of humans.’’ The harrowing, blood-curdling fact that there are fully-grown men, hacking defenceless young children to death in Syria as I write, validates as much.

Once more, this is somewhat defined and adhered to in the book’s Introduction where Olaf Jenson writes: ‘’[…] for mass killing to happen, the essential condition is that the killing constraint not only has to be officially abandoned, at least temporarily, but completely reversed. Killing becomes ‘compulsory,’ and taking part in the genocidal process is now useful for one’s career and one’s social prestige. The whole process from defining and dehumanising the victims to abandoning the killing constraint leads to the absence of empathy – and many people who a short time before probably wouldn’t have thought they could take part in something like that are now part of a genocidal process and most of them are convinced that they are doing the ‘right thing,’ of creating something ‘good,’ and without feeling guilty about it as numerous examples in this volume show.’’

These nine contributions intertwine with another in such a way as to present complex findings in both a highly readable and accessible format. They approach what is clearly a harrowing subject from that of a variety of perspectives (history, gender, sociology, psychology, law and comparative genocide), by shedding inflammatory light upon previously uncharted territory.

One such example being the growing interest of woman as perpetrators within the Holocaust, as the aforementioned Szejnmann continues to write under the heading ‘Perpetrator studies since the 1990s’: ‘’It is only more recently that studies about the personnel of perpetrator groups, in particular research about the ‘euthanasia’ killing and concentration camps, made visible the important and varied functions women fulfilled as perpetrators and bystanders in mass murder […]. In total, around 10 per cent of all camp guards, i.e. 3, 500, were female. They participated in tormenting and torturing prisoners, and helped to select and murder victims. Female perpetrators pursued their work under no duress, regarded concentration camps as a normal place of work and the attached SS estate as a normal place to live in, and often perceived inmates as ‘sub-humans’ who had no right to live in the Nazi state. Gudrun Schwarz argued that SS wives (240,000 women were married to SS men) were directly involved in the system of terror by providing domestic and emotional stability at the place of crime for the husbands, and by actively participating in the system of exploitation and robbing. Some wives of members of the SS or the Gestapo even volunteered to take part in encroachments and shootings. Overall, female perpetrators worked as efficiently and professionally as their male counterparts to ensure a smooth killing process. They were not passive tools in the apparatus of repression but used their freedom to pursue personal initiatives.’’

Might it be said that such (relatively) new findings, may trigger yet another avalanche of psychological, humanistic questioning. In fact, there’s something to be soundly said for the dictum, the more one finds out, the less one knows.

Either way, Ordinary People as Mass Murderers is a controversial, albeit extraordinarily well researched/written book. As Wolfgang Benz (Centre for Research on Antisemitism, Technical University of Berlin, Germany) has said: ‘’the editors doubtlessly succeed in offering a supremely objective and factual contribution to this urgent, extremely challenging and delicate theme.’’

David Marx

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