The Killing Com­part­ments: The Men­tal­i­ty of Mass Murder

Abram de Swaan
  • Review
By – December 23, 2015

Ever since Han­nah Arendt’s con­tro­ver­sial Eich­mann in Jerusalem, where­in she described one of the main per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust as a study in the banal­i­ty of evil, social sci­en­tists have attempt­ed to grap­ple with the ques­tion of whether any­one under cer­tain cir­cum­stances become geno­cidaires or per­pe­tra­tors of mass killings. In all this anni­hi­la­tion of human life, Abram De Swann opines in The Killing Com­part­ments, the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion of six mil­lion Euro­pean Jews stands as the nadir — which prompts the ques­tion: how do seem­ing­ly ordi­nary men become killers?

De Swann’s con­clu­sion is that in time of upheaval, such as in Ger­many dur­ing the Weimar Repub­lic and the sub­se­quent appoint­ment of Hitler as chan­cel­lor of Ger­many, an almost invis­i­ble selec­tion mech­a­nism grad­u­al­ly sorts out per­sons who are only slight­ly more dis­posed to vio­lent abuse than oth­ers, until they end up in a geno­ci­dal set­ting.” Once they find them­selves in such a sit­u­a­tion, De Swaan argues, per­pe­tra­tors may regress much fur­ther than they even imag­ined they could. He notes that they often feel that this killer per­sona is not real­ly them. After the geno­ci­dal episode is over, if they look back at all, they like to think that they were a dif­fer­ent per­son then, liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent world.”

There is, states De Swaan, noth­ing banal” about such expe­ri­ences. Even if per­pe­tra­tors were once reg­u­lar, harm­less peo­ple in most respects, after serv­ing as part of the appa­ra­tus of mass mur­der they are no longer ordinary.

So are we all poten­tial Nazis? Although, De Swaan admits, in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions peo­ple will com­mit acts that they nev­er would dream of com­mit­ting, some peo­ple are more like­ly to fall in than oth­ers; some will resist even at con­sid­er­able per­son­al risk, and still oth­ers may be eager to fol­low orders. This depends not only on the sit­u­a­tion of the moment, but also on their pri­or expe­ri­ences, per­son­al his­to­ry, and indi­vid­ual character.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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