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December 20, 2001 -- Vol.6, no.1

This article refers to:
History and Prevention of Genocide Symposium 2001

Justifying Genocide: The Role of Professionals in Legitimizing Mass Killing
by Alex Alvarez

Good morning. First of all, let me say how honored I am to be here in such distinguished company. I wish to thank the science department of the Österreichischer Rundfunk; the federal ministry of science, education, and culture; the town of Vienna; and the Hans Jonas-gesellschaft for organizing and sponsoring this important conference. My special thanks also to Dr. Erich Loewy, Dr. Martin Bernhofer, and Renate Pfaller for their logistical support.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking with you about the role that social elites play in legitimating genocide. It is by now well recognized that genocide requires the active participation of many members of a society and the passive acquiescence of many more. It is a crime of the many, rather than of the few. The holocaust, for example has been called a “German national project” because it involved so many participants and accomplices from all walks of life. [1] Similarly, the Rwandan genocide, while guided and orchestrated by military and political leaders, nonetheless relied upon many ordinary citizens to facilitate the killing. Other examples of genocide also exhibit the same kind of mass participation and/or acceptance.

Since all genocides are large-scale and systematic attempts to eradicate populations, their perpetration is utterly dependent upon large segments of a nation going along with the genocidal policies. This raises the important question of why does this acceptance take place? How is it possible for genocidally inclined states to enlist such mass support in their destructive and murderous policies? Many of the individuals who participate are typically ordinary citizens who may well have values antithetical to violence and criminality. Although it is popular to view them as such, the perpetrators of genocide are not monsters or psychopaths. Most are ordinary human beings engaged in extra-ordinary crimes. The psychopaths and sadists are far outnumbered by individuals who are “normal” in their psychological processes. [2] How is it possible for all of these participants to put aside their values and engage in genocide? While there is no single answer to these questions, and while a complete understanding of how these crimes occur must draw from a number of different disciplines and perspectives, I believe one important factor concerns the role that social elites play in providing important justifications for the violence.

Invariably, genocide receives much of its perceived legitimacy from professionals who provide the ideological, intellectual, scientific, and legal underpinnings for the destruction of a specific group. Because of their status and visibility certain professions are very important in legitimating the destructive actions of their states. Lawyers, doctors, and scientists often justify genocide by providing “vocabularies of motive” that frame the genocidal actions in such a way as to make it acceptable and palatable for the mass of a society. [3] In all fairness, I should note that this complicity is not always intentional.

Sociologists have long recognized that most people have an innate willingness to defer to authority. Authority, it should be noted, is distinct from power. Power concerns the ability to achieve certain goals in spite of resistance and opposition. Authority, on the other hand, is the power that individuals and groups accept as legitimate. It is the difference between willingness and coercion. Most individuals voluntarily accept the demands and constraints of social living, deferring many of their own desires and needs in favor of those of the group. We are after all, social beings, who are taught to get along and obey and to be respectful of “authority figures.” This natural inclination to fit in with collectives is termed conformity and conformity is a powerful force for most individuals. A variety of experiments and research, such as Ash’s and Milgram’s work, confirms this propensity to defer to the group. [4] All of us tend toward obedience and conformity, especially if someone in authority legitimates or authorizes the behavior or attitude. But how does this social reality translate into genocidal complicity?

First, genocidally inclined states often refer to a variety of scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas that can be utilized to justify later atrocities. Because they are “scientific” they have a weight and power that would otherwise be lacking. These ideas are disseminated by scientists and doctors whose status lends weight and importance to their pronouncements. While the original intent may have been completely unpolitical the ideas are perverted to suit a particular agenda. For example, in the years preceding the Nazi rise to power, medical professionals created a body of knowledge that was used to lethal effect against the Jews. [5] The Nazis appropriated medical language and imagery to scapegoat the Jews for much of Germany’s problems.

Around the beginning of the 20th century physicians throughout western Europe and north America became interested, even obsessed, with disease and its transmission. Diseases such as typhus, plague, cholera, smallpox, and influenza had long ravaged large segments of the world populations and during the latter half of the 19th century, Europe’s colonial empire had brought a host of new infectious afflictions to European consciousness. Western doctors responded with a concerted campaign to make Europe and America safe by using sanitation and hygiene as preventative measures to combat these lethal outbreaks. Unfortunately they also began identifying jews as carriers of disease, and in fact as disease themselves. Typhus, for example, became known as a Jewish disease or Judenfieber. It is no accident that the language of sanitation, hygiene, delousing, gas, and crematoria, first introduced to combat disease, became such notable features of the Holocaust.

Under the Nazis, these associations created the ideal situation for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Jews could be segregated from the general population and concentrated into ghettos in order to prevent them from transmitting disease. Once they were crowded into ghettos and deprived of enough food and facilities for proper sanitation, the outbreak of disease in these places was inevitable but was attributed to the Jewish propensity to carry disease, not the conditions in the ghetto. In short, the Nazis were able to portray their discriminatory and genocidal actions as necessary to maintain the health and welfare of German society.

Doctors also played an active role in creating the mechanisms necessary for genocide to take place. As Dr. Friedlander so eloquently pointed out, many of the specific techniques for killing were pioneered by doctors during the infamous T4 euthanasia program. [6]

In a similar vein, the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts set the stage for a resurgent Serb nationalism years before the ethnic cleansing and genocide actually took place. Published in 1986, the memorandum was a document that detailed a long list of injustices suffered by the Serb peoples. Since the 1970s, Serb intellectuals and academics had increasingly begun expressing increasingly nationalistic sentiments. Members of the Serbian academy of sciences and arts had begun meeting in 1983 to discuss the situation in Yugoslavia which resulted in the memorandum of 1986.

In this memorandum the authors asserted that, “in less than fifty years, within two consecutive generations, twice exposed to physical annihilation, forceful assimilation, religious conversion, cultural genocide, ideological indoctrination, invalidation, and denunciation of their own tradition under the imposed complex of guilt, intellectually and politically disarmed, the serbian people were exposed to temptations that were too great not to leave deep scars on their spirit.” Additionally, the memorandum asserted that “the serbian people have a historic and democratic right to establish fully national and cultural integrity independently, regardless of the republic or province in which they live.” [7]

Essentially, this document provided a legitimation for the policies of “ethnic cleansing” which were to follow. The perpetrators were not perpetrating evil from this perspective, they were merely defending their people and asserting their rights. As the polarizing forces of the cold war faded away in the early 1990s, nationalism became the means by which unscrupulous politicians such as Slobodan Milosovic and Franjo Tudjman were able to remain in power. [8]

Another important group that often plays a significant role in legitimating the persecution of various groups are legal professionals. Lawyers and Judges throughout Germany, for example, did much to provide the legal foundation for the subsequent holocaust. [9] Not only does the profession of law carry with it a tremendous amount of prestige and status, but the law itself is a powerful vehicle in legitimating policies of persecution. By definition, everything that is legal is legitimate and everything that is illegal is illegitimate. The holocaust happened only after legal initiatives had over the years deprived jews of their professions, their possessions, and their rights. [10] Once their rights were removed, anything could and did happen to them. Similarly, in Bosnia legal officials in the Repuklika Srpska enacted laws depriving Bosnian Muslims of their rights and legal protections.

In some communities, non-Serbs were barred from all management and senior positions in large businesses. In one town, non-Serbs had a curfew of 4:00 p.m., and were banned from gathering in public places, making contact with relatives who didn’t live in the town, drive or travel by car, sell real estate without going through Serb authorities, or to leave without permission. [11] In this legalistic way, the Muslim population was pressured into leaving Serb controlled territory. These legal decrees had the effect of socially and economically marginalizing the non-Serb population, making them more vulnerable to more extreme measures.

Control of the law lends itself to ideological power. Simply put, the law is a tool of propaganda, lending credibility to certain groups, actions, and behaviors, and delegitimizing others. The ability to legally define certain people as criminal is to take away not only their rights, but also their identity as citizens. Criminals are generally perceived as different and alien from the “law abiding” and “decent” citizens of a society. The perpetrators of genocide, protected as they are by the state and its laws, are defined as good citizens engaged in a patriotic service to their nation. The victims of genocide, on the other hand, are portrayed as devious and scheming enemies who pose a threat to those being asked to kill them.

In this Orwellian universe, roles are reversed and victims are portrayed as perpetrators while the perpetrators see themselves as victims. In other words, the killers are provided with ideologies that alter perceptions of reality in order to justify their lethal behavior. As my colleague Jeff Ferrell reminds us, “authority operates not only through prison cells and poverty, but by constructing and defending epistemologies of universality and truth.” [12]

The state creates popular perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, and works vigorously to reinforce and defend them. Ideological power is a formidable instrument in the creation of public support or condemnation. It provides a patina of legitimacy that serves to deflect much criticism. “Evil,” as Frank Hagan warns, “often gilds itself with an ideological gloss.” [13]

In closing, we must ask why do these professionals serve genocide so well?

First, we must recognize that many agree with the policies of destruction. Highly educated people are not immune to the biases and prejudices of the society in which they live.

Second, we must understand that many see cooperation as a vehicle to advancement and professional development. Just as scholars today often tailor their research based on opportunities, resources, and “hot” topics, so too do professionals in genocidal societies.

Third, it is important to note that science and bureaucracy are supposed to be amoral. Decisions and actions are supposed to be taken without reference to morality. Science is supposed to be objective, technical, rational, but not moral.

Fourth, we must also remember that the complicity is not necessarily deliberate. Genocidal states are adept at picking, choosing, and manipulating the theories and concepts of scholars.

These few remarks are certainly not the entire answer, but rather one piece of a much larger puzzle. Than you for your time and attention.

[1] Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

[2] Alex Alvarez, Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Analysis (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001), George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport, The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994).

[3] The term comes from C. Wright Mills, "Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive," American Sociological Review 5 (1940).

[4] S. E. Asch, "Opinions and Social Pressure," Scientific American 193 (1955), S.E. Asch, "Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority," Psychological Monographs 70, no. 416 (1956), Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969).

[5] James M. Glass, Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany (New York: Basic Books, 1997), Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[7] "Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, 1986," in East European Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Peter F. Sugar (American University Press, 1995).

[8] Roger Cohen, Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (New York: Random House, 1998), Ed Vulliamy, Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia's War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, D. C.: The Brookings Institute, 1995).

[9] Michael Stolleis, The Law under the Swastika: Studies on Legal History in Nazi Germany, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[10] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975).

[11] Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[12] Jeff Ferrell, "Confronting the Agenda of Authority: Critical Criminology, Anarchism, and Urban Graffiti," in Varieties of Criminology: Readings from a Dynamic Discipline, ed. Gregg Barak (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994).

[13] Frank E. Hagan, Political Crime: Ideology & Criminality (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1

This article refers to:
History and Prevention of Genocide Symposium 2001