Political violence occurs in nations in which killings and genocide have a high risk of occurring. As such, academics and political scientists can study the norms of a society in which such behavior is likely to occur. Mass killings must be understood from a strategic, intellectual approach to determine the extent in which perpetrators accelerate to that point.
Benjamin Valentino argues that political killings do not occur because of a few leaders deciding to implement pogroms. Indeed, perpetrators “do not need widespread support in order to carry it out.” (66). Mass killings can occur on unarmed citizens with very little political clout or influence because the ways in which hatred can occur in countries brings about an ideological commitment to a cause which can result in genocide. Valentino argues that mass killings are most likely to occur when leaders of “powerful groups come to believe it is the best available means to accomplish certain radical goals, counter specific types of threats, or solve difficult military problems.” (66). Given this context, one understands that genocide is an instrumental policy designed to achieve political and military goals which, from the perspective of the perpetrators, would be difficult or impossible to achieve in other contexts.
Some methods of mass killings will include ethnic cleansing or efforts to suppress perceived threatening groups, such as that practiced by the Nazis against the Jews during the Holocaust. Approximately six million Jews were killed during this time, many were placed in gas chambers at concentration camps. Others were shot and put in shallow graves. Daniel Goldhagen argues that the Holocaust defined German politics and political culture. Most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were German, even if there were people from other nationalities willing to help Germany eliminate European Jewry. Most resources, organizational procedures, and plans were comprised by Germany and top Nazi officials. Goldhagen claims that the Holocaust was the culmination of an anti-Semitic Germany during the Nazi era. In other words, Nazism and German culture combined to create unique cultural dynamics which focused on exterminating Jewish people. Laws, signs, and persecution against them were evident throughout the country almost immediately after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As a result, the perpetrators could feel justified in planning these murders at the concentration camps.
Diane Dumitru and Carter Johnson argue that there were considerable differences in the behavior of Christians towards Jews within one region of Eastern Europe. One “group of gentiles provided support and aid to its suffering Jewish neighbors, while another group exacerbated the situation, causing deliberate harm, often with gratuitous acts of violence.” (1). This correlates to the Goldhagen piece regarding ordinary people sometimes being sympathetic to genocidal acts of violence simply because of the effects rhetoric or propaganda may have upon that society. As such, ordinary Christians in some areas behaved the way they did because of the ways in which their interethnic relationships with Jews influenced their feelings towards them, as people of another religion and ethnic group. Even in contemporary society, many states struggle to “alleviate tension between historic groups within their borders as well as with new immigrant communities.” (3). Subsequently, many acts of genocide have occurred because of interethnic conflicts with regards to nationality and because some states encourage the majority population to abuse minorities. Such a culture would encourage political violence and make ordinary citizens believe their behavior is sanctioned by the state. This can occur because of perpetrators spreading propaganda. Yet, some of these citizens will aid minority populations even at great risk to their own safety.
One aspect of the Holocaust that made it so successful for Germany was the way in which they recruited ordinary people to help with managing the concentration camps. Christopher Browning uses an example of mostly middle-class and lower middle-class men from Hamburg becoming part of the Order Police, often being taken from the barracks and required to serve in Poland. This was unusual given the limited experience many of them had with police work. Most of these men were drafted to the Order Police because they were considered too old “to be of use to the German army.” (1) Eventually, some of these men would become quite committed to the cause given that rumors spread throughout Germany that Jews had been responsible for the American boycott of Germany, which resulted in considerable economic struggles for ordinary German citizens. As such, in a perverse way, the Holocaust would provide economic improvements to Germany and boost morale. This can happen if conditions are suitable to promote oppression of minority groups.
Yet war can bring about cruelty from many different sides. Browning reminds the reader not to believe that “war atrocities were a monopoly of the Nazi regime.” (160). Some American soldiers took some of the body parts of Japanese soldiers as souvenirs. He also explains that the men who carry out war crimes or “atrocity by policy” (161) are not behaving this way out of anger, frenzy, or hostility, but calculation. The Reserve Police Battalion 101 had orders to eliminate Jews from Europe. Some of the men had served in World War I and had military experience but most had never encountered the battlefield or fired a shot at anyone. The men became brutalized after killing of Jews began in Poland during the Holocaust. Many of the men would believe they were following orders because their superiors implemented certain plans. Browning explains that race war leads to brutalization. Some war crimes may have resulted because of a frenzied state of soldiers, but some behavior is deliberate and set to implement brutal policies of certain regimes.
Most perpetrators believe genocide is necessary because such tactics will reduce rebellion in their country. Yet, genocide tends to reduce economic resources, such as in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. They destroyed much of the intelligentsia, killing some people for even wearing eyeglasses. This of course is a different era and political dynamic than was experienced in Nazi Germany, but many of the tenets are similar. Overall, political violence is usually strategic, and leaders will compel ordinary people to take part in oppression or hatred through propaganda.
Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperPerennial, 1993.
Dumitru Diane & Johnson Carter. “Constructing Interethnic conflict and Cooperation: Why Some People Harmed Jews and Others Helped Them During the Holocaust in Romania.” World Politics, vol. 63, 2011, pp 1-42 doi:10.1017/S0043887110000274
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. 1996. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
Valentino, Benjamin A. 1994. Final Solutions Mass Killings and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994.