Ordinary People as Mass Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspective (2008)

Two relevant previous posts are entitled:

Some reflections regarding the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania in December 1989

Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) features specialist essays comparing Nazi and Stalinist mass murder in the 1930s and 1940s

At the above-noted posts I highlight some perspectives regarding the power dynamics, the power relations, associated with violence.

A recent book, which I’ve been reading over the past while, has further enhanced my understanding of mass murder in the context of the Second World War.

The book I refer to is entitled: Ordinary People as Mass Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives (2008).

The study is edited by Olaf Jensen and Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann.

What I’ve found of particular interest are the frames of reference that historians have, successively, brought to study of the Second World War.

The view in the 1990s, by way of example, differed markedly from the view from previous decades.

Particular historians have made unique contributions, by way of moving the historiographical analysis forward.

This is a most interesting and valuable study. I’ve read just about every chapter so far and find the content of much interest. So, if you have an interest in finding out how ordinary people can turn to mass murder, this book is a good place to start.

6 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Regarding the book highlighted at this post a possible entry point to study of Ch. 1 by Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann, “Perpetrators of the Holocaust: a Historiography,” would be the following excerpt (pp. 27-8) regarding the historiography related to the immediate postwar period, before the historiography became more closely acquainted with what had actually taken place during the Second World War; the excerpt reads:

    Considering the continuity in personnel in more or less all sectors of West German society after the defeat of the ‘Third Reich’ and the fact that many Germans had been perpetrators, accomplices or bystanders, it cannot be a surprise that most Germans were not keen on dealing with the topic of perpetrators, and kept secret or minimised the crimes of the past.

    What comes to mind when a person reads about the historiography related to mass murder in the context of the Second World War? Speaking for myself, what comes to mind is the historiography of the interactions between Indigenous peoples and settler colonial societies in countries around the world. We deal, in such a context, with histories and with current realities.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Among the topics I have been reading about is how ordinary people can be trained to engage in torture.

    Some references include:

    Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities (2002)

    A review at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

    This is a rare study of how ordinary men turn into career torturers and serial killers in the name of public order and security. The authors interviewed 23 Brazilian policemen. Over half had served as torturers and/or murderers of suspected common criminals and political dissidents. The others were “facilitators” who delivered victims, chauffeured assassins, watched, and helped conceal official atrocities over a period of 30 years. The authors do not construct a complete historical narrative of violent repression during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Rather, they develop a social-psychological analysis of the perpetrators of state-sponsored atrocities. They explore how future abusers are recruited and trained, how they are pulled ever deeper into the spiral of torture and murder, how they protect one another and justify what they do, and what toll it takes on them in the course of their careers. As the authors of this remarkable study note, the findings of such research sheds light not only on “violence workers” under similar dictatorships but also on the violence-prone members of specialized crime units in the US. A concluding chapter provides a succinct general overview into how ordinary people become monsters for the state. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. P. R. Sullivan independent scholar. Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

    A Dec. 14, 1986 Los Angeles Times article is entitled: “Anyone Can Inflict Torture, Report Claims : 2 Psychologists Say Training Can Make ‘Normal’ People Capable of It.”

    An excerpt reads:

    An estimated one-third of all the world’s governments accept torture as a legitimate practice and routinely torture prisoners and political opponents, according to Don G. Healey, executive director of Amnesty International.

    “There aren’t many fools for torturers. The military does it, and if you’re in the military, that’s what you do,” Healey said. “It’s generally not your sadist and your pervert.”

    Mika Haritos-Fatouros, dean of philosophy at the University of Thessaloniki in Greece, in 1982 began studying military police officers who were trained as torturers during the Greek civil uprising in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    Of the 16 torturers interviewed, all but one had completed at least some high school and none had exhibited disturbed behavior as children. All were interviewed after they were prosecuted for their conduct.

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    By way of an additional reference, Nov. 30, 2019 Lancet article is entitled: “Truth and torture in the war on terror.”

    An excerpt reads:

    The Report, Scott Z Burns[‘s] new thriller, adopts one of two conflicting narratives about post-9/11 torture by the USA. The “Cheney–Brennan narrative” is that torture is a “black art” that must be deployed in national security emergencies to save lives. The counter narrative, the human rights and science-based narrative, is that torture is a crime against humanity that produces only false information. When images of torture become public, they are horrifying and provoke outcry. For example, the 2004 photographs from Abu Ghraib of US Army troops brutally abusing Iraqi prisoners were devastating to the reputation of the USA. The Abu Ghraib photos taught the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was running its own torture programme at “black sites” around the world at that time, that videotapes of waterboarding could not become public.

  4. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    The Psychological Origins of Institutionalized Torture (2003) highlights research by Mika Haritos-Fatouros.

    A blurb reads:

    Book Description

    Original research, including interviews with former Greek torturers, is supplemented by discussion of former studies, military records and other sources, to provide disturbing but valuable insights into the psychology of torture. The book describes parallel situations such as the rites of passage in pre-industrial societies and cults, elite Corps military training and college hazing, eventually concluding that the torturer is not born, but made.

    Of essential interest to academics and students interested in social psychology and related disciplines, this book will also be extremely valuable to policy-makers, professionals working in government, and all those interested in securing and promoting human rights.


    Mika Haritos-Fatouros is Professor of Psychology at the University of Thessalonica, Greece. She studied psychology and psychotherapy at universities in London, Oxford and Thessalonica, and has held visiting appointments at universities in the USA, Europe and Australia. She is President Elect of the European Association of Counselling and Honorary President of the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims in Thessalonica. She has published works on the subjects of psychotherapy, populations in crisis, women’s issues and the psychology of state torturers, and is co-author of the forthcoming book on ‘Violence Workers’, which will be published by University of California Press.

  5. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    The previous notes refer to torture in several countries including Greece; a study that provides background is entitled: Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010).

    A blurb reads:

    Violence is a fact of human life. This book trace the social roots of the extraordinary processes of human destruction involved in mass violence throughout the twentieth century. Christian Gerlach shows that terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are too narrow to explain the diverse motives and interests that cause violence to spread in varying forms and intensities from killings and expulsions to enforced hunger, collective rape, strategic bombing, forced labour and imprisonment. He explores what happened before, during, and after periods of wide-spread bloodshed in Armenia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Greece and anti-guerilla wars in order to highlight the crucial role of socio-economic pressures in the generation of group conflicts. By focussing on why so many different people participated in or supported mass violence, and why different groups were victimized, the author offers us a new way of understanding one of the most disturbing phenomena of our times.

    Related previous posts include:

    Christian Gerlach’s 2010 study of mass violence focuses on extremely violent societies

    Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) features specialist essays comparing Nazi and Stalinist mass murder in the 1930s and 1940s

  6. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Dec. 26, 2021 New York Times article is entitled: “How Paid Experts Help Exonerate Police After Deaths in Custody: Inside the self-reinforcing ecosystem of people who advise, train and defend officers. Many accuse them of slanting science and perpetuating aggressive tactics.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Dr. Vilke, an emergency medicine doctor in San Diego, is an integral part of a small but influential cadre of scientists, lawyers, physicians and other police experts whose research and testimony is almost always used to absolve officers of blame for deaths, according to a review of hundreds of research papers and more than 25,000 pages of court documents, as well as interviews with nearly three dozen people with knowledge of the deaths or the research.

    Their views infuriate many prosecutors, plaintiff lawyers, medical experts and relatives of the dead, who accuse them of slanting science, ignoring inconvenient facts and dangerously emboldening police officers to act aggressively. One of the researchers has suggested that police officers involved in the deaths are often unfairly blamed — like parents of babies who die of sudden infant death syndrome.

    The experts also intersect with law-enforcement-friendly companies that train police officers, write police policies and lend authority to studies rebutting concerns about police use of force.

    Together they form what often amounts to a cottage industry of exoneration. The dozen or so individuals and companies have collected millions of dollars over the past decade, much of it in fees that are largely underwritten by taxpayers, who cover the costs of police training and policies and the legal bills of accused officers.


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