Lands Bathed in Blood
Bosnia shows we haven’t learned the Holocaust’s lessons about genocide
The soil of Europe heaves again with the bodies of massacred dead.
By Walter Reich
Only five decades after the Germans expunged from the continent’s face 6
million Jews, and in the process killed millions of others whose only crime
was who they were or what they believed, warring parties in the former
Yugoslavia have slaughtered, on a far smaller scale but with focused
brutality, civilians whose mere ethnicity marked them as suitable subjects
for hatred and extinction.
The soil of Srebrenica yields, to the shovels of probing investigators, and
to the expectant horror of already-grieving loved ones, the remains of
human beings whose killers thought their crimes would lie forever hidden.
The continent weeps, the world weeps, as we all expect, some day, in some
corner of the planet, new ethnic massacres, new cadres of hating killers,
and new zones of heaving soil. .
How can this still be? What brings us to this, whether in Europe, Africa,
Asia, the Americas, or anywhere else? How do we, as individuals and
societies, regularly justify, and regularly carry out, such barbarities?
In the past few years, and especially in the past few months, the Holocaust
itself, the most horrendous genocide of all, carried out by a society proud
of its civilization and culture, has been studied with particular scrutiny
in the struggle to answer these questions.
The answers most frequently offered, never fully satisfying, have been of a
psychological sort. They have focused on the ways in which human beings who
live ordinary lives during ordinary, times find ways to justify killing
other human beings during extraordinary times.
Most of these explanations have focused on what have been called
“mechanisms of moral disengagement” — the ways people who do evil can
disengage their murderous actions from their usual personal rules of
morality and convince themselves that what they are doing is not evil, and
may even be good.
Social psychologists call one of the simplest such mechanisms “euphemistic
labeling” — the use of language to suggest that what a person is doing
isn’t quite as bad as it really is. In the Holocaust, people who were sent
to extermination centers were described as being “deported”; when they were
gassed, they were being subjected to “special treatment.” Using these terms
made it easier for functionaries and soldiers to go about their grisly
business. And, more recently in the former Yugoslavia, as during the Second
World War in that area, “ethnic cleansing” was a term that sounded as if
people were engaged in an act of public health.
Another psychological mechanism that helps individuals harm others and
still feel that the harm is justified is to believe that the persons
authorizing it are right due to their elevated knowledge, wisdom and
status. If the state says that it’s good to kill Jews — or if warring
military officials say it’s good to kill Boshinn Muslims or Croats or Serbs
— then it must be good. After all, don’t such authorities have more
knowledge than we do? And haven’t they accepted ultimate responsibility for
our acts if we follow their orders?
Yet another psychological mechanism that makes it easier to harm others is
to feel that you are only a cog in a large machine. That large machine may,
in the end, spew out mounds of human carcasses. But no one involved does it
all; everyone plays only a partial role, whether it’s confining Jews into
ghettos so that they’re ready for “deportation” or loading cattle cars full
of Jews to transport them “to the east.”
Even in the former Yugoslavia, where the carnage has been much less than in
the Holocaust, some killers were truck drivers transporting innocent
victims, and others were the rapists and trigger men.
And it’s easier to harm others, of course, if we feel that they’re less
human than we are — if they’re “subhuman,” as Germans termed Jews, or
“useless eaters,” as they termed the physically and mentally handicapped
persons they killed.
After the Srebrenica massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, according to news
reports, one of the Bosnian Serb killers noted with satisfaction, “That was
a good hunt. There were a lot of rabbits here.”
To that soldier, the victims were living creatures, to be sure, but not
quite as human as he, and suitable subjects for killing.
In sweeping through parts of Croatia long populated by Serbs, Croatian
forces, in a massive “ethnic cleansing” operation, methodically shot
elderly Serbs in the back of the neck or slit their throats, also seeing
them as less human than they, and as less worthy of life. And even Muslim
forces at times engaged in atrocities against civilians of other ethnic
backgrounds. The brutal killing, although not equal among the warring
parties in magnitude, was shared, often carried out with energy and
Not all killers during ethnic wars or state-sponsored mass murder
operations find the enterprise satisfying or even easy. The architects of
the Holocaust understood that some Germans might find killing Jews day
after day distasteful even if they did it and, after trying various methods
of killing, these architects organized the murder operations so that the
process would run efficiently, smoothly and quietly, and be as untaxing
psychologically as possible on the killers themselves — at least on the
killers who, in fact, found it taxing.
Interestingly, in a book that has received considerable notice in recent
weeks — Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
— the author, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, argues that, in general, Germans
didn’t find killing Jews to be as taxing as most have assumed. He also
argues that far more Germans participated in the killing operations than
most have believed, and that many of these Germans didn’t have to be
coerced, psychologically or socially, to do it.
Dr. Goldhagen paints a picture of a German society so distorted by a
murderous, virulent, eliminationist and ultimately exterminationist
anti-Semitism — developed over many years from the traditional roots of
anti-Semitism, but accentuated and rendered official by the Nazi state —
that killing Jews was seen not only as something that was not evil but even
as something that was good and necessary.
And this permission to kill was accepted so broadly, he argues, that many
Germans ultimately killed Jews with pride and pleasure, and even killed
when they didn’t have to do so — not only SS. officers but also ordinary
soldiers and police, and with the widespread knowledge of the German
population as a whole. Germany became, he suggests, an assenting genocidal
community during the Nazi era.
For presenting this scathing and unrelenting thesis, Dr. Goldhagen, an
assistant professor at Harvard, has been widely hailed and widely
criticized. His scholarship is being subjected to considerable scrutiny,
and ultimately the bar of scholarly opinion will pass judgment on his work.
But even if one is discomfited by Dr. Goldhagen’s explosive and unremitting
indictment of German society during and before the Nazi era, he stresses a
dimension of explanation that is often left out by theorists who try to
account for the Holocaust in purely psychological terms.
None of the psychological mechanisms that have been described would make
people into killers unless these mechanisms were used to make it possible
to carry out acts that were justified on ideological grounds. For one group
to kill another, the killers must feel that their victims deserve death,
that their victims are evil and dangerous, and that if those victims are
not killed then they, in turn, will harm the killers, the families of the
killers and the societies of the killers.
Leaders of various warring factions in the former Yugoslavia have stressed
to their populations the dangers posed by their ethnic enemies and so did
tribal leaders in Rwanda, who incited widespread ethnic massacres two years
ago by using the argument that the other tribe had harmful designs on
These are the kinds of beliefs that are fostered by prejudice, most
stunningly, hatefully and murderously by the kind of anti-Semitism that was
promoted in Germany. And these are the kinds of beliefs that are promoted
by various national groups that carry out forms of “ethnic cleansing” to
rid their areas of “foreign elements” that might harm the interests of the
killing group. Once this ideology of hatred and irrational fear takes hold
in a country such as Bosnia or Rwanda, the psychological mechanisms
previously described make it easier to do the killing, to feel that one has
not done something evil, and even to feel that one has done something
All this is strange, and all too human. Although the Holocaust remains
unique in its supposedly scientifically sanctioned racial focus, its
mechanized ferocity, and the degree to which a culturally advanced
civilization sank to the most profound depths of human depravity, it
teaches resonant lessons about the ways that ideological hatred and
psychological mechanisms, given free rein by the systematic dismantling of
democratic freedoms, can result in mass death.
It is for this reason that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in
Washington explores deeply the roots of prejudice, shows how democratic
institutions and practices can be taken apart and explains how leaders bent
on anti-human practices can bring them to murderous reality.
The genocides in the former Yugoslavia were very different from the
Holocaust in scale, method, ideology and organization, but we can learn a
great deal about them by learning about the Holocaust. This is why the
Holocaust Museum seeks to understand the genocidal process. And this is why
it pays close attention to signs of burgeoning genocide around the world
and has just established the Committee on Conscience to alert the world to
possible genocides and crimes against humanity.
And this is why it seeks to help Americans as well as others appreciate the
value of democracy, which, in the end, is the political system that most
stoutly protects our lives and our society from the development of
ideologies of prejudice that can turn vibrant civilizations into societies
of hatred and machines of automated murder.
It’s impossible to guarantee that the earth’s soil will never again heave
with massacred bodies. But it’s unacceptable not to try.
Walter Reich, a psychiatrist, is the director of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington
This article was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on 28
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