A collaborative effort with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Study, this program explores the motives and actions of perpetrators of genocide and mass murder.
JERRY FOWLER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Jerry Fowler, and I’m the staff director of the Committee on Conscience here at the Museum.
Today’s program is being presented jointly by the Committee on Conscience and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. The Committee on Conscience’s mandate is to alert the national conscience to threats of contemporary genocide, and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies’ mandate is to sponsor research on the Holocaust particularly and on genocide more broadly. In today’s panel, our two mandates intersect, as we have a very distinguished panel to discuss the issue of perpetrators in the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda.
I just wanted to bring to your attention two upcoming programs on the Committee on Conscience later on this month. Next Monday, on March 11th, we will sponsor a presentation by Linda Melvern, who is the author of A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. That will be at 12:30 next Monday, March 11, in one of the classrooms -- Classroom B, I believe, which is on this level but across the way.
Then on March 26th, we will have a presentation by Samantha Power, who is the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and author of a book that has just been published called A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. That will also be at 12:30, and, as I say, on March 26th.
To keep track of all the activities that the Committee and the Center sponsor, we both have list serves that you can sign up for through the Museum website, which is www.ushmm.org. So thank you very much for coming.
To present and introduce today’s speakers, I’m happy to hand it over to Patricia Heberer of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
PATRICIA HEBERER: Thank you, Jerry. Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming, and welcome to the panel presentation “Perpetrators in the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda -- The Evil That Men Do.”
As my colleague, Jerry Fowler, has just indicated, today’s program is a collaborative effort on the part of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Study, especially its university programs and visiting scholars’ divisions, together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s academic committee, who has oversight for the Center, and the Museum’s renowned Committee on Conscience.
I’d like to take a moment to thank all those who played a part in putting together today’s events. My name again is Patricia Heberer. I’m an historian with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
The subtitle of this presentation, “The Evil That Men Do,” comes from a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the famous funeral oratory of Marc Anthony for the slain Roman leader. “The Evil That Men Do,” writes Shakespeare, “lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Our distinguished panel today will explore the motives and actions of perpetrators of genocide and mass murder within the study of the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda, and examine the resonance of these crimes on three continents.
Let me introduce our panel. First, to my immediate left, Professor Christopher Browning, a name well known to students of the Holocaust, is Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among the many influential monographs which he has published are Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and The Final Solution in Poland; Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution; The Path to Genocide, in 1992; and, his most recent work: Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers.
He has given expert witness testimony in the trial of alleged Nazi perpetrators for the Canadian Department of Justice, the Australian Commonwealth Office of Public Prosecution, and the British War Crimes Branch. Professor Browning has won many awards and honors, most recently an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College. He is a former holder of our center’s prestigious J.B. and Maurice Shapiro senior visiting fellowship, and is a current member of our academic committee.
Today, Professor Browning addresses “The Question of Holocaust Perpetrators: Ideologues, Managers, and Ordinary Men.”
All the way at the end of the table is Dr. Stephen Heder, a lecturer in political science at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He has worked as a special correspondent in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Taiwan for Time Magazine, Newsweek, and NBC News; and is the co-editor of a volume: Propaganda, Politics, and Violence in Cambodia.
In his long career in his field, he has worked as a researcher for Amnesty International and served as deputy director of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, Information Educational Division. As a consultant to the War Crimes Research Office at American University since 1998, Dr. Heder has been a leading force behind the collection and publication of individual perpetrator cases for possible use in the international criminal tribunal. He is currently a Center fellow with our Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
Today, his topic is “Premeditated Murders, Unintended Consequences: Senior Leaders, and Local Accesses: Conundrums of the Cambodian Case.”
Finally, Bill Berkeley is an investigative reporter with The New York Times. He was previously an editorial writer for The Times, and for more than a decade reported on African affairs. His experience is providing the underpinning for his most recent book: The Graves Are Not Yet Filled: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa, published in 2001. He’s also served as correspondent on the African beat, Soviet Union, and the Middle East for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The Washington Post.
Mr. Berkeley teaches writing at Columbia University’s graduate school of International and Public Affairs. His paper today explores “Genocide in Africa: The Business and Politics of Race, Tribe, and Power.”
Without further ado, let me introduce Christopher Browning.
Raul Hilberg wrote in 1961 that the Holocaust perpetrators represented “a remarkable cross-section” of German society and “were not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German”(1). Hilberg was challenging the then prevalent explanatory notion that the perpetrators were distinguished in their individual psychological and character traits from ordinary people. Seemingly normal in normal times, these “authoritarian personalities” allegedly possessed a cluster of “sleeper” traits that were activated or awakened in the historical circumstances of the Nazi dictatorship. These activated traits set in motion a process of self-recruitment and career advancement that resulted in the concentration of such individuals in the front ranks of the Nazi hardcore and especially among the Holocaust perpetrators. Their murderous behavior, often accompanied by voluntaristic zeal on the one hand and gratuitous cruelty on the other, was seen as the product of an abnormal psychological makeup that distinguished them from the rest of us.
The empirical weight of Hilberg’s study as well as subsequent scholarship, documenting the widespread participation of people from virtually all segments and professions of German society recruited in the most random and unselective ways, has forced scholars to seek the explanation for perpetrator actions in the dynamics of group and societal behavior rather than individual psychological abnormality. I would like to look at three such explanatory approaches—ideological, cultural, and situational/organizational/institutional—on the one hand, and three categories of perpetrators—ideologues, managers, and “ordinary men”—on the other. Neither the explanatory approaches nor the perpetrator categories are, of course, clear-cut and mutually exclusive. I am not looking for monocausal explanations for the behavior of monolithic groups. But I am trying to establish points along a spectrum that will be useful in highlighting both the broad division of labor, multiplicity of motivation, and range of individual choice that characterized perpetrator participation in the Holocaust.
Let us first turn to the explanatory approaches. Here I am using ideology in a very narrow and literal sense of the word, namely the working out of the logic of an idea or set of ideas. Ideologically-motivated action in this regard is conscious, calculated, and belief-driven. In this approach men determine the actions they will take based upon the ideas that they hold. They seek to persuade others to do likewise.
Here I am using culture to indicate those patterns of behavior, attitudes, assumptions, and values that are so ingrained in the fabric of everyday live that they are accepted as the “norm.” While ideology is experienced as a revelation, discovery, or conversion, culture in this regard is the milieu within which one is socialized. One does not discover or convert to one’s own culture; one becomes gradually aware or conscious of it as one discovers the existence of cultures and “norms” that are different.
By situational, organizational, and institutional factors, I am referring to those patterns and tendencies of human behavior within groups that seem to occur predictably and regularly across cultures. Pertinent examples for the topic at hand are: deference to authority, conformity to peer pressure, adaptation to role expectation, ambition for wealth, status, and power, and the urge toward the construction of group identification, which in turn has the capacity to legitimize and exclude.
These categories of explanation do not operate in isolation from one another. How one understands or reads the situation one is in and responds to the organizational incentives and deterrents to which one is subjected will depend in part on the cultural baggage one carries. How wide an ideology spreads and how popular and accepted an ideologically-driven regime becomes depends in part on which cultural assumptions and attitudes are appropriated and promoted to the keystone position and which cultural values are discarded or violated, in short how much overlap there is between ideology and culture and the extent to which the former becomes internalized as the latter.
Let us now turn to our three selected categories of Holocaust perpetrators, and first of all the ideologues. From Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and Goebbels at the top through the cohort of young SS and SD officers, especially in Heydrich’s RSHA, in the middle, to various camp and killing squad personnel at the bottom, they represented a driving force behind the Holocaust out of all proportion to their numbers in German society. Here, obviously, motivation is not the key question. They were ideological antisemites who sought to transform their beliefs into actions, their words into deeds. Nonetheless, several qualifications are needed. First, the centrality of their antisemitism did not preclude either other motives or other victims, as can be seen in the letters of Fritz Jacob, the Gendarmerie commander in the south Ukraine. He sought his appointment there not only to do what he called “practical work” for his Führer and but also because “the promotion path” was “really slow” in Saxony. Once in the east he killed Jews “without the slightest prick of conscience” because they were “not humans but rather ape men.” But Jews were not his only victims. “We do not sleep here,” he wrote. “Weekly 3-4 actions. One time Gypsies and another time Jews, partisans, or other riffraff”(2). Second, contrary to the first generation of “intentionalist” scholarship, the centrality of Hitler to the Nazi regime and antisemitism to Nazi ideology did not equate with an early decision and clear plan for physical extermination. An uncompromising commitment to solve their self-imposed Jewish question “one way or another” only insured that in the face of changing circumstances and growing frustration, evolving Nazi policies would generally become increasingly lethal.
More problematic and contested in current scholarship is the relationship between the ideologues and the rest of German society. Did virtually all Germans share with the same intensity and priority the conviction of the ideologues about the need to eliminate the Jews, as Daniel Goldhagen has argued. Or were the “redemptive” antisemites (to borrow Saul Friedländer’s phrase) only one strand in the tapestry of German society, whose interactions with both the traditional elites and the wider population were key to the de-emancipation, isolation, and impoverishment of German Jewry as necessary steps toward making the mass murder even thinkable much less practicable? I favor an interpretation along the latter line.
To better understand the relationship between Hitler and the antisemitic ideologues on the one hand and German society on the other, a number of “linkages” must be explored. The first such linkage is that between antisemitism and Nazi campaign success. The Nazis sought to portray themselves as a movement devoted to the national interest above the divisive parties devoted to narrow class or sectarian interests. To do so, they needed to offer a number of “buzz words” and themes around which they could build a “coalition of discontent.” While central to Hitler and the party hardcore, antisemitism was only one among a number of such issues and one that was downplayed in the vital campaigns of l930-32. What helped to give these diverse appeals the appearance of coherence and conviction, however, was precisely Hitler’s conviction that they were coherent, because all other problems were in one way or another a manifestation of the Jewish threat(3).
The second linkage was between Hitler’s success and his power to legitimize. Most Germans who voted for Hitler did so to break political gridlock, solve the economic crisis, especially unemployment, and restore Germany’s international standing, not to persecute and murder Jews. Hitler’s perceived political, economic, and international success soon gained broad support and even adulation even among Germans who had not initially supported him. The undoubted popularity of the Nazi regime in turn gained it the standing and autonomy to legitimize and incrementally radicalize its own antisemitic agenda. As William Sheridan Allen has argued, most Germans came to antisemitism through National Socialism and not vice versa.
The third linkage was between attitudes and goals fervently held among segments of German society, especially within the political milieu on the right, and the initial steps of the regime. Rearmament and rejection of Versailles, outlawing the Communist and Socialist Parties and dissolving the labor unions, cracking down on cultural dissidence and the open flaunting of traditional values all found deep resonance within the conservative milieu. Likewise there was the widespread perception on the German right that Jews had gained inordinate influence over German life and that virtually everything that had gone wrong in Germany could be traced in part to the detrimental effect of this pernicious Jewish influence. Thus the initial Nazi measures to de-emancipate the Jews and drive them out of Germany’s political and cultural life found the same eager support as the dismantling of Weimar democracy and the Versailles international order.
A similar linkage between Nazi policies and widespread German attitudes can be found after 1939 as well: wartime patriotism enhancing identification with the regime and polarizing Germans vis-à-vis a more easily dehumanized enemy, pride in military success and the acceptance of new levels of violence, a sense of imperial mission and racial superiority in Eastern Europe, and a crusade against Asiatic and Jewish Bolshevism threatening not only Germany but European civilization.
Taken together this accumulation of linkages created a nexus between the Nazi regime and German society that empowered the ideologues and made the Holocaust possible. Still, if popularity, overlapping goals and shared attitudes were so essential to the regime’s capacity to mobilize the German people, why was this nexus not broken when the regime asked its people to undertake unprecedented actions so contrary to other traditional values and murder millions of innocent men, women, and children? Let us examine more closely how specific groups of managers and ordinary men reacted to and participated in the mass murder.
I use the term “managers”(4) instead of “desk murderers” (Schreibtischtäter) because some of them did not sit behind their desks in Berlin comfortably distanced from events but rather worked in the field and had regular contact with their victims. I would like to consider two such groups: the so-called “Jewish experts” of the German Foreign Office and “ghetto administrators” in the General Government. The Jewish desk of the Foreign Office between 1940 and 1943 was headed by Franz Rademacher who had in succession three key assistants: Herbert Müller, Karl Klingenfuss, and Fritz Gebhardt von Hahn(5). All were born between 1901 and 1911, studied law at the university and sought civil service careers. All conveniently joined the Nazi party between March and May 1933. None joined the SS or were involved in shaping Nazi Jewish policy before their assignment to the Jewish desk. Rademacher, the son of a locomotive engineer, was a self-made man who worked his way through gymnasium and university. He entered the Foreign Office in 1937 and was sent as charge d’affaires to the German embassy in Montevideo. He returned to Germany in the spring of 1940 at his own insistence, after he wife had an affair with one of the interned officers from the scuttled pocket battleship Graf Spee who were regularly entertained at the embassy. Ribbentrop’s political infighter, Undersecretary Martin Luther, had just taken over the internal division, Abteilung Deutschland, of the Foreign Office and secured Rademacher’s assignment to the vacant Jewish desk. Here, Rademacher the ambitious self-made man quickly became the self-made antisemite. Contacting various Nazi Party organizations and publishers, he assembled a library of antisemitic literature. He also made contact with professional antisemites, such as the foreign editor of Streicher’s Der Stürmer, Paul Wurm, who praised Rademacher as “a really good authority on the Jewish question.”
Rademacher’s debut in shaping Jewish policy was sensationally successful. In early June 1940 he proposed through official channels expelling the Jews within the German empire to the French island of Madagascar, and this bizarre idea was adopted by Hitler and the SS within weeks. He was less successful in finding a permanent deputy. Herbert Müller, an old acquaintance, worked in the Jewish desk from November 1941 until April 1942, when after successfully pulling strings he was drafted into the army. While he sought actively to extricate himself from the Jewish desk, however, he did his job. He not only regularly rejected individual requests for emigration but also the shipment of outside relief aid to the Lodz ghetto. “The planned Final Solution for the Jewish question…does not permit that food shipments be made from abroad to Jews in Germany and in the General Government,” he noted. Karl Klingenfuss joined the Jewish desk in July 1942, found the work “unpleasant,” asked for a transfer in October 1942, and was reassigned to the Swiss embassy in early 1943. Only young Fritz Gebhardt von Hahn eagerly took to the work there. He boasted of his new standing “as expert for the Jewish question in the Foreign Office” and complained of other officials who “do not muster sufficient understanding for the necessity of a quick final European solution of the Jewish question.” Whatever their personal feelings and convictions, and the Jewish experts of the Foreign Office clearly differed in this regard, the bureaucratic work that they produced—aside from Rademacher’s splashy initiative on the Madagascar Plan—was virtually indistinguishable. They rejected requests for amelioration, attended interministerial policy meetings, processed the assignment of SS advisers to various countries, and above all facilitated the widening of the net of victims through advocating the inclusion of various categories of foreign Jews in the deportations.
With the ghettoization of Polish Jews in 1940 and 1941, the “ghetto administrator,” like the ministerial “Jewish expert,” became a fixture of the German bureaucracy and “machinery of destruction.” Early ghettoization, such as in Lodz in the spring of 1940, had initially been seen as a preliminary, short-term measure to facilitate expulsion or “ethnic cleansing.” When the intended expulsions stalled, the ghetto administrators were left to cope with the consequences of soaring death rates due to disease and starvation. Different individuals offered different responses. In Lodz, for instance, Alexander Palfinger welcomed the starvation. “Given the mentality of the Jews,” he argued, only the “most extreme exigency” would force them to part with their hidden valuables in return for food. When starvation did not produce Palfinger’s predicted surrender of hidden Jewish wealth but only skyrocketing death rates, he was still pleased. ‘”A rapid dying out of the Jews is for us a matter of total indifference, if not to say desirable…” His rival for control of the Lodz ghetto, Hans Biebow, the ex-coffee importer from Bremen, proposed a different policy. He argued that every effort had to be made “to facilitate the self-maintenance of the Jews through finding them work.” Palfinger disparaged Biebow’s “salesman-like” approach and argued that “especially in the Jewish question the National-Socialist idea…permits no compromise.” But he did not prevail and angrily departed for Warsaw, where he found a like-minded proponent of a starvation policy in Waldemar Schön.
But in Warsaw too Palfinger and Schön encountered opposition. Like Biebow in Lodz, Hans Frank’s economic adviser Dr. Walter Emmerich argued that “the starting point for all economic measures [in the ghetto] has to be the idea of maintaining the capacity of the Jews to live.” The answer was productive labor, which in turn required adequate provisioning. Palfinger blasted Emmerich as an “impractical and unrealistic theoretician” who ignored the basic truth known to every farmer: “A work animal from whom a human being demands output was never the subject of profound contemplation concerning its needs. On the contrary…the one who maintains the animal regulates its food supply according to its productivity.” But once again he was doomed to disappointment, as Schön and Palfinger were replaced by Heinz Auerswald and Max Bischof respectively. In Auerswald’s first meeting with the head of the Warsaw Jewish Council, the 33-year old lawyer assured Adam Czerniakow that “his attitude to the Council was objective and matter of fact, without animosity.”
In the following months Auerswald pursued two policies. He sought to foster a growing ghetto economy on the one hand and to halt the spread of epidemics on the other. While the former involved marginally better provisioning for workers and first a stabilization and then decline in the death rates, the latter involved constricting the ghetto boundaries and imposing the death penalty on Jews caught outside the ghetto walls. Of Palfinger, Ringelblum had noted that he “makes it a practice not to talk to Jews. There are dignitaries like that, who won’t see a Jew to talk with as a matter of principle. They order the windows…kept open because of the stench the Jews make.” In contrast Auerswald had lengthy and unusual conversations with Czerniakow. On one occasion—a remarkable 2 ½ hour meeting--Czerniakow discussed Auerswald’s “historical role and responsibility,” and on another advised him to “listen to the voices of his conscience above all.”
When Nazi policy switched from expulsion to mass murder, the role of the ghetto switched from urban internment camp to a staging ground for deportations to the death camps. Ghetto administrators reacted in different ways. Palfinger, who had departed Warsaw for Galicia, helped to create the horrifically overcrowded Tarnopol ghetto and then destroy it. In Warsaw Auerswald betrayed Czerniakow in denying the latter’s desperate inquiry about the rumored deportations in July l942, but played no role in them. Soon out of a job, he made no attempt on his resume to rewrite his record with hindsight to make it appear as if he had prepared for and contributed to the mass murder. On the contrary, he listed his successes as “improvement of the hygienic situation” and “prevention of an initially feared economic failure” in the ghetto. If Palfinger required no conversion to a policy of mass murder and Auerswald abstained from one, Biebow quickly accommodated himself to the new course. In the spring of 1942, he was in frequent contact with the commandant at Chelmno to ensure the recovery of the valuables and clothing of the murdered Jews for his economic operations in Lodz. But he also wanted to recover “human material” from the destruction process. Thus when the killers swept through the small Jewish communities of the Warthegau outside Lodz, Biebow became personally involved in the selection process to skim off the able-bodied Jews for his own workshops. And in the summer of 1944, as a fitting conclusion to his career as ghetto administrator of Lodz, he persuaded the surviving Jews to board the trains for Auschwitz.
What can be said about the group dynamics of “ordinary” men below the management level who were assigned to kill their Jewish victims face to face? In my study of Reserve Police Battalion 101, I argued that this group of rank and file reserve policemen were the least likely Germans to become Nazi professional killers. They were mostly working class, the milieu from which the Nazis experienced the least success in recruiting party members and voters. They were middle-aged men whose formative years preceded the Nazi seizure of power; they had not been subjected to the Nazi socialization and indoctrination processes of schooling and youth groups. And they were mostly from Hamburg, a cosmopolitan city in which the Nazis had not experienced much success. Despite this class background, age cohort, and geographical origin on the one hand, and despite having a commander who explicitly gave them the freedom to choose not to kill on the other, this battalion of some 500 men nonetheless participated in the shooting of over 38,000 Jews and deported over 45,000 more Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka.
Based on my analysis of 210 post-war interrogations, I argued that the battalion had divided into three groups. First, there was a minority of eager killers who increasingly sought the opportunity to kill by volunteering for firing squads and the so-called “Jew hunts.” Second, there was a group of men who undertook whatever task they were assigned. They did not volunteer, but neither did they confront authority or evade. And third, there was a minority of “evaders” who took up their commander’s offer not to shoot, usually by portraying themselves as “too weak” to kill rather than by condemning the mass killing as criminal and immoral. I estimated that these “evaders” comprised more than 10% but less than 20% of the rank and file. I argued that situational and organizational factors, such as peer pressure, deference to authority, and role adaptation were key. But contrary to some readings of my book, I did not offer this as a monocausal or sufficient explanation. Situational factors had dovetailed with cultural notions about nationalism, war, and presumed racial superiority—notions hardly unique to Germany--as well as a political ambience that had been saturated with the denigration of Jews for the previous 10 years.
My claim that a significant portion of the battalion had evaded personal killing was greeted by some with skepticism. I had been too gullible in accepting the exculpatory claims of the post-war testimonies, it was suggested. Yet subsequent research, based on other kinds of sources, has confirmed that my estimate was, if anything, too cautious. For example, according to the Jewish interpreter for the German gendarmerie station in the town of Mir in Belarus, Oswald Rufeisen, four of 13 Germans were eager killers but another four never took part in killing Jews. From the wartime files of a German police investigation of an unplanned massacre of the Jews in Markincance in the Bialystok district, of the 17 Germans involved, one committed suicide, one protested openly, and possibly as many as three others did not fire their weapons. In contrast, only four Germans eagerly joined the “hunt” for hidden Jews after the massacre.
At every level of the perpetrator hierarchy, we encounter the ideological killers. Over time their ranks were swelled by others who joined them willingly, whether out of career ambition or because they were transformed by what they were doing. Still others did their jobs without perceptible enthusiasm or even with moderate distaste but the linkages that tied them to their country, the Nazi regime, and Hitler nonetheless held. For the significant minority for whom being forced to participate in a program of mass murder might have created sufficient strain to break the linkages, the system proved surprisingly flexible. Through transfer or evasion, they could individually opt out of personal participation without having to challenge or repudiate the regime. A core of eager and committed men, aided by an even larger block of men who complied with the policies of the regime more out of situational and organizational rather than ideological factors, was sufficient to commit genocide. The presence of a minority of men who sought not to participate in the regime’s racial killing was easily accommodated. Indeed, the machinery of destruction worked even more smoothly through allowing the most reluctant participants, on an individual level, to opt out.
- Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, cited from the revised and expanded edition (New York, 1985), 1011.
- Letters of Fritz Jacob to Generalleutnant Querner, 24.4.41, 29.10.41, and 21.6.42, printed in: “Schöne Zeiten.” Judenmord aus der sicht der Täter und Gaffer, ed. by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess (Frankfurt/M., 1988), 148-51.
- Martin Needler, “Hitler’s Anti-Semitism: A Political Appraisal,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 24 (Winter 1960), 668.
- I am grateful to Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, 1995), for the term.
- For details, see: Christopher R. Browning, The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office (New York, 1978).
- For details, see: Christopher R. Browning, Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers (New York, 2000), 155-166.
In April 1975, after a five-year war, the Cambodian Communist movement led by Pol Pot defeated the Khmer Republic regime of the US-backed Marshall Lon Nol. From their rural bases, the Communists seized the capital, Phnom Penh, and took over a country of less than eight million people. These included more than six million Buddhist Khmer, most of whom were rural rice farmers, but who also comprised the country’s urban elite. They also included a number of important ethnic minorities: half a million mostly urban Chinese, many of whom were involved in commerce; a quarter of a million Islamic Cham, many of whom were involved in garden farming and petty trade in the countryside; and 20,000 Vietnamese fisherfolk, artisans and labourers who lived in both towns and villages.
In January 1979, Pol Pot was toppled by a Vietnamese Communist invasion . By this time, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead. More than half a million of these were executed. The rest were killed in approximately equal proportions by starvation or disease.
The victims included 15 per cent of rural Khmer rice-farmers; one quarter of urban Khmer; half of Cambodia’s Chinese; and 35 per cent of the Islamic Cham; each of which perished in various proportions from execution, malnutrition and illness. They also included the entire Vietnamese community, all of whom were executed. In addition they included 20,000 members of the Communist Party and its armed forces, perhaps a quarter of each, all executed for purported treason to Pol Pot’s revolution.
All the 1.7 million victims died according to what the British political philosopher Ted Honderich has described as a peculiarly left-wing historical calculus of violence for prosperity and equality. According to its seductive but fundamentally flawed moral logic, “an impassioned commitment to the oppressed” makes violence, including political killing, “not only permissible but obligatory.” This political violence is justified as essential to make progress towards well-being for all persons without exception. Attempts to argue against such violence on moral grounds is countered by appeal to greater moral necessities.
In other words, given a choice between killing and allowing the continuation of appalling misery and injustice, even a moral person can and should choose killing to alleviate economic suffering and to right social wrongs. Honderich concludes that once this calculus is accepted, no doctrine can give an effective argument against it. The only response to its self-contained logic that the ends justify the means is the pragmatic one that the ends are unachievable, or at least unlikely to be achieved. Pol Pot’s revolution showed precisely that, at the cost of 1.7 million lives. His victims died as a result of his futile attempt to establish the world’s most productive socialism and most equal society, a society without class or national differences. He set out to show that Communism could be made to work according to its most utopian visions and proved that it could not. Thus, even within the parameters of its own limited and perverse moral logic, Pol Potism was evil: its means could not be logically or morally justified because he was achieving the opposite of his ends.
When he took power in 1975, Pol Pot had a very clear idea about what he wanted his revolution to do. He wanted it to reinvigorate and rescue Communism from its past failures by reviving and combining what he saw as all the most radical Marxist, Stalinist, Maoist and Vietnamese Communist traditions. He thought that because his Communism took the best from each revolution, it would be better than them all and overcome the weaknesses that had made them failures. Instead, it only made the outcome even worse.
Pol Pot’s objective was rapidly to transform the country’s entire population into a mass of proletarianized peasants with a Communist culture and capable of high agricultural productivity. He hoped then soon to advance to the creation of society of proletarian equals capable of high industrial productivity.
To reach these goals, Pol Pot’s Communism required:
- deportation of the general urban population into peoples communes that were supposed to triple agricultural production;
- the abolition of markets, money, religion and national difference;
- the construction of railroads, steel mills and hydroelectric dams amidst the rice fields;
- and killing anyone in the population or in the Party who got in the way.
Pol Pot believed this radical package would mean quick prosperity and equality for all Cambodians, all of course EXCEPT those who would not survive the transitional killing and hardship necessary to achieve both goals. He insisted that to achieve wealth and justice as soon as possible, quite a few Cambodians would have to be immediately killed, and many others would have to endure temporary inequalities and economic difficulties. He also authorized the use of murder to keep the project on course until everybody could be persuaded and induced to support it. They would do so once the system was up and running and had begun to produce enough wealth. This would make it possible to abolish temporary inequalities. It would also make it possible to achieve another of Pol Pot’s goals, which was to more than double Cambodia’s population in a very short period of time. The fact that instead the population was significantly reduced reflected the reality that instead of overcoming temporary difficulities and setting the stage for industrial take-off, Pol Pot’s economic policies caused severe agricultural and industrial regression, and thus permanent mass starvation that eventually turned almost everybody against his regime.
Some of the victims of Pol Pot’s project of Marxist political modernization were members of political or ethnic groups who were very intentionally targeted for total extermination because they were thought to be irreconcilably opposed to his Communism: these included the remnants of the defeated Khmer Republic and the whole of the Vietnamese community. Other victims were members of social and ethnic groups who were thought to be likely to resist communization. These included urban Khmer and the Chinese and Cham minorities. These three groups were stigmatized in ways that made them vulnerable to being murdered in increasingly large numbers as Pol Pot’s project failed. They were not originally targeted for extermination, but were defined from the beginning as being in particular need of transformation in order to become fully a part of a prosperous society of equals.
Killings then unexpectedly followed of those who were supposed to have had the most to gain from a prosperity that was not forthcoming: disappointed Khmer peasants. Last but not least came killings of the disillusioned Communist Party and army members who increasingly lost faith in Pol Pot’s project and leadership.
So, some of the killing was pursuant to pre-meditated, carefully planned mass murder campaigns targeting well-defined categories of victims for total elimination. This extermination was carried out under the instructions of a clear chain of command in which Pol Pot ordered the murder of those he specifically identified as especially dangerous enemies of revolutionary progress. Pol Pot believed that all members of the military and political structures of the defeated Khmer Republic had to be killed because they were die-hard “counter-revolutionaries” who might try to retake power and return Cambodia to endless poverty and social division. Cambodia’s Vietnamese were targeted because he was afraid they might act as a fifth column for attempts by Viet Nam to overthrow him and take Cambodia’s revolution down a revisionist path. Their extermination was accompanied by a demonization campaign comparable to Nazi anti-Semitism and Hutu extremist propaganda against Tutsi.
Death by Starvation
Meanwhile, more and more people were dying from starvation and related diseases despite and because of Pol Pot’s long-term policy to create a countryside that would feed all equally well. They died at first because Pol Pot embarked on a path along which he knew some people would have to starve now in order to create agricultural wealth in the future. They died in increasing numbers because Pol Pot initially ignored mounting evidence that such temporary difficulties were lasting much longer than he had envisaged. They died in huge numbers because as the enormity of the catastrophe became clear, he insisted on forcing the population to persevere regardless of the human cost. Moreover, the execution toll rose as the famine worsened because Pol Pot also insisted that anyone who opposed, doubted or “sabotaged” his economic policies was an enemy who should be executed. He authorized his local security forces to carry out these killings as they saw fit.
Creating New People, Killing Enemies
Many of the victims of starvation and related executions were so-called “new people.” These were the urban Khmer, Chinese, Cham and others who were forced to the countryside in 1975. Their violent deportation was supposed to make for equality between town and countryside, between the urban bourgeoisie and the so called “veteran people.” “Veteran people” were the peasants who had lived in Communist-controlled zones before April 1975 and were already organized in cooperatives that Pol Pot wanted to expand into “people’s commune”-type collectives.
Pol Pot’s policy was that new people were to be well-taken care and well-fed by the Communist cadre who ran these cooperatives. The veteran people were supposed to share food with the new people and work hard alongside them to grow rice. Pol Pot also called on the cadre and the veteran people to re-educate the evacuees politically and organize them to work in such a way as to transform them into proletarianized peasants just like everybody else. However, Pol Pot decreed that until this transformation was achieved, new people were to live under a dictatorship of the veteran peasantry that denied them the right to participate in the running of the cooperatives. Cadre were also instructed to screen the new people for incorrigible counter-revolutionaries whom Pol Pot warned existed among them and must be killed.
Regardless of Pol Pot’s hopes, the reality in the countryside was vast political AND economic inequality between new and veteran people that soon showed every sign of becoming permanent. Faced with general famine and given power over new people, most veteran people did not welcome the urban evacuees or share food with them. As new people starved in droves, they at best stood idly by. At worst, the peasants damned them as deserving punishment for their supposedly lazy and decadent urban lifestyles. Similarly, cadre and veteran people overseers sent new people to do the hardest, most dangerous, most malaria-ridden and longest work assignments. This ensured that the malnourished deportees worked themselves to death or died from disease. Many cadre treated new people as not simply as harbouring enemies, but as subhuman beings whose lives were expendable because they would never be capable of making the transformation Pol Pot demanded of them. Certainly, if they complained about being hungry or sick, if they criticized the system and the power-holders who were starving and slave-driving them, or if they “sabotaged” production by being unable to do the work assigned to them, local cadre exercised their authority to execute them.
Because they were relatively less deprived and because many of them were deeply implicated in violence against new people, the veteran people have sometimes been portrayed as beneficiaries of Pol Pot’s revolution and zealous enthusiasts for his Communism. I think this interpretation is mistaken because they, too, could see that Pol Pot’s ends were not being achieved, and, they, too, were victimized by his means. While veteran people as a group exploited and even killed new people, they became more and more unhappy about a regime that was also making them work harder and harder for less and less food. And as Khmer peasants, they did not like the fact that the Communist Party had abolished Buddhism and other village practices that they considered part of their traditional culture. And if they resisted or opposed or criticized any of this, they, too, were vulnerable to execution. Many were eventually killed for such reasons, just like new people.
Chinese, Cham and other “Nationalities” (chun-cheat)
Still, some victims remained more unequal than others, and in proportional terms, the killings of veteran people never approached the figures for the Chinese and Cham minority “nationalities.” Some have inferred from the fact that half of the Chinese and 35 percent of the Cham perished that they were targeted for extermination as such. However, one searches in vain for any anti-Chinese or anti-Cham racialist discourse in internal Pol Pot regime documents or its public pronouncements. In fact, the evidence suggests that Chinese and Cham were targeted not for extermination but for transformation. Like veteran and new Khmer, they were to be transformed into proletarianized peasants with Communist culture and to be subsumed in the new society of prosperity and equality. Their transformation did have additional elements, such as being required to stop using their own languages, but most Chinese and Cham perished the same reasons as Khmer, new and veteran. They died of famine and disease, and they were executed because they complained about hunger and exhaustion and because they resisted or failed to make basically the same transformation as Khmer, such as giving up religion.
Additional proportions of them died:
- first, because stereotypes about their livelihood tarred them as upper class, which meant that more violence was applied to them than to Khmer peasants;
- and, second, because they were required to make a greater transformation than Khmer generally. This meant that cadre concluded even more quickly than they did with regard to Khmer new people that Chinese and Cham were enemies whose survival was not a gain to the revolution and whose death was no loss to it. However, they were not targeted for total extermination in the same way as Khmer Republic remnants and Vietnamese or, for that matter, Jews or Tutsis.
I would add that killings of Chinese and Cham, like the killings of new and veteran Khmer, were NOT carried out through the same narrow and tight chain of command as those of the comprehensively targeted groups like Khmer Republic remnants and Vietnamese. Instead, they were killed by a much looser and more diffuse hierarchical structure of delegated and discretionary authority which had Pol Pot at the top and all of the Party’s local administrative, military and security organs at the bottom. In this structure, Pol Pot instructed those lower down to identify and execute enemies of the revolution under their authority, but in vague and general terms that granted those lower down much latitude to ascertain who was and who was not an enemy. Even thought Pol Pot and others at the top bear ultimate responsibility for what happened, the lower downs certainly were not “just following orders.”
Purging the Party
But here we must also confront a paradox. Although some of these lower-level perpetrators dispatched Khmer Republican remnants, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, new people and complaining veteran Khmer peasants in with gusto, others were not happy about all the killing they were doing or about the regime they were protecting with murder. Indeed, the evidence seems clear that at every level with Pol Pot’s Communist Party and army, there was an ever-growing malaise that reflected an increasing realization on the part of cadre and combatants that Pol Pot’s violence for prosperity and equality, the very violence his subordinates were committing, was not achieving the promised results, that in terms of the regime’s own goals, it was a disaster.
They were therefore killed as “traitors” to Pol Pot’s revolution through a chain of command in which he presided more or less directly over the secret Security Office S21 (known as Tuol Sleng). S21 executed at least 14,000 people, most of them Communist Party members or members of the Party’s armed forces. They included many members of the top Party leadership, long-time associates of Pol Pot whom he concluded he could no longer trust to support his project, as well as many lower downs.
Other alleged traitors within the revolutionary ranks were killed in the field by forces under Pol Pot’s more or less direct command. These victims were overwhelmingly Khmer. Like the earlier killings of the Khmer Republic elite, their purge showed that for Pol Pot, political orientation was more important than ethnicity. Being culturally or “racially” Khmer was no protection: treason to his revolution was political, and could be committed by anyone suspected of disloyalty to his correct political line.
Pol Potism was an effort to construct a highly advanced socialism. In his system, the only way anyone’s life could have any value was if he or she could make the transformations and achieve the production and other goals Pol Pot demanded of them as part of the effort to construct his dream society. The penalty for refusal or failure was death. Ultimately, hardly anyone attained the ideal, and thus almost everyone was subject to execution. Some, like the Khmer Republic remnants and Vietnamese, never had a chance because they were deemed ineligible to try. After them, negatively stereotyped social and ethnic groups perished in the highest proportions because they had the greatest transformation to make and their supposedly temporary inequality put them in a severely disadvantaged position. But even positively stereotyped and originally privileged groups, including members of the Communist Party itself, became more and more vulnerable as the system went more and more wrong.
In the Cambodian case, the use of evil means to achieve good intentions justified crimes against humanity and led to something close to genocide. All this tells that when violence is deemed legitimate as a means of advancing equality and prosperity, all communities, collectivities and individuals are at risk. Pol Pot and other senior Cambodian Communist leaders certainly bare primary and ultimate responsibility for the crimes that were committed. But a focus on this level obscures the extent to which the lower downs played a pro-active part in expanding the killings, even if many of them ended up disillusioned and dead or on the purge list before the regime disintegrated. Any historical or legal accounting must take full account of the importance their role while recognizing the existence of ambiguities in some cases.
I’m going to devote the balance of my presentation to Rwanda, where, as many of you know, some 500,000 to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were massacred in 1994 in three months of concentrated slaughter.
I was in Rwanda during that period and had some vivid eye-witness impressions, which I’ll share with you, but before I do so, I want to make a couple of general observations about Africa as a whole. Rwanda has achieved a stature in our historical memory of the last decade, appropriately so, as a unique crime. It was a state-orchestrated genocide now widely recognized in the press and in the councils of governments around the world and in any number of excellent books that have been published in the last several years, a calculated mass slaughter orchestrated on high by what was then the Hutu-dominated Rwandan state.
In that sense, Rwanda seemed to belie the widespread stereotype that many Americans and Westerners in general have about Africa. When we think about ethnic conflict, there’s a widespread sense that Africans are killing each other because of exotic ancient hatreds, inscrutable animosities that seem not to adhere to any recognizable logic. Rwanda, by contrast, clearly organized from on high, carried out by tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of ordinary men, as Christopher Browning would put it. That is an accurate conception of Rwanda.
The point I’d like to leave you with is that that does not make Rwanda unique in Africa. All of Africa’s conflicts are orchestrated from on high. All of Africa’s ethnic massacres have a recognizable logic to them. They are barbaric, they are evil, but they are not exotic. In my own book, I examine ethnic conflicts in Liberia, in Zaire Congo, in South Africa, in Sudan and Uganda, in addition to Rwanda, and in each case, as in Rwanda, you have tyrants struggling to hold on to power, manipulating grievances, magnifying grievances, deploying ethnically based police and militias using hate-filled propaganda to mobilize people on behalf of a cunning and avaricious political aspirant.
Ethnic conflict in Africa all across the continent, as in Rwanda, is a product of tyranny, and it’s very important to remember that.
Another point to bear in mind -- a great deal of attention in recent years devoted to Rwanda has focused on the failure of the West, including the United States, to intervene, to stop the massacres. When the opportunity to do so was at hand, indeed the Clinton administration failed deplorably, as Samantha Powers has documented compellingly in her new book, which I commend to you all and as Philip Gourevitch likewise has documented dismayingly in his book.
The United States counseled the United Nations not to intervene, indeed essentially blocked the United Nations from intervening to stop the massacres in 1994. Deplorable as that is, I would only add that that failure of the United States in 1994 is of a piece with a long history of engagement in Africa where our error, if it can be categorized as that, was not so much a failure to intervene to save lives as enlightened Westerners, but on the contrary, to actually contribute to the problems that have given rise to ethnic conflict, and specifically a century-long history of backing tyrants and backing financial interests that have contributed to the problems that have yielded widespread ethnic conflicts across Africa.
So those two points I would leave with you before I turn to Rwanda. Rwanda was unique in many ways, but the element of political calculation was not among them nor, in my view, was the depth of evil. So let me turn then to Rwanda.
My wife and I were in Rwanda in May and June of 1994, and we had an opportunity to come to appreciate many of the elements of genocide in Rwanda that bear striking parallels with what Christopher Browning has just described in Nazi Germany; many parallels in Rwanda, not the least of which was the existence of tyranny.
In the case of Rwanda, the fundamental story line, the fundamental plot line in Rwanda was an ethnically based, lawless tyranny of Hutu-dominated -- lawless tyranny struggling to hold onto power, and using ethnicity and targeting an ethnic group as a means of mobilizing political and military support for the purposes of holding on to power.
The head of state in 1994, a man named Juvenal Habyarimana, was killed in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, and that death, now widely believed to have been perpetrated by his own allies, triggered the genocide, and over a period of barely a hundred days, just three months, as I say, some 500,000 to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and a limited number of Hutus accused of collaborating with Tutsis were slaughtered, mostly by machete.
It was a low-tech mass slaughter perpetrated by tens of thousands of ordinary men, one of the unique features of the Rwandan genocide; the participation of tens if not hundreds of thousands of mostly peasants, many of them illiterate, most of whom had never killed before, most of whom had no record of criminal activity, who were somehow mobilized into what were called the Interhamwe militia. These were essentially death squads, village-based death squads, who, over a period of days managed to go very much like police reserve battalion 101, from village to village, door to door, herding ethnic Tutsis -- men, women, and children -- taking them into the banana groves and hacking them to death with machetes, and in some cases, hammers and clubs with nails in them -- horrifically barbaric mass slaughter carried out face to face, hand to hand.
Let me just draw a couple of the parallels with the Nazi genocide, some of which have been highlighted by Mr. Browning. Indeed, he has spoken of and written about the participation of ideologues, managers, and ordinary men. Certainly in my own research, and based on the reporting I did at the time and since in Rwanda, all three elements played key roles in Rwanda.
There was an element of ideology, what was called Hutu power. Many key players in the Rwanda genocide were scholars and intellectuals who produced an elaborate racial ideology with roots in the Belgian colonial era. There’s a long history of racial ideology going back over a period of a century that was adapted into a hate-filled ideology perpetrated primarily by radio, and there’s a very vivid parallel with the Nazi era. There’s a man currently on trial in Tanzania named Ferdinand Nahamana, who was essentially Rwanda’s Goebbels. Some of you may have seen a piece over the weekend by Marlee Simons in The New York Times on the trial of the propagandists. It’s called the Propaganda Trial in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in which three individuals who are responsible for creating and broadcasting radio propaganda are on trial for war crimes and inciting genocide. So there was that element. There were ideologues, there were propagandists, there were virulent racists who played a key role in creating the ideology that underlay the genocide in Rwanda.
Then there was a second layer. Mr. Browning would call them the managers. I actually refer to them in my own book as middle management of the genocide, and I have a chapter in my book about a gentleman named Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was tried for genocide and convicted in the first international conviction for Genocide in an international trial in history. (Bear in mind that at the time of the Nuremberg trials, there was no criminal statute for genocide either in domestic or international law.)
Jean-Paul Akayesu was the first man convicted of genocide in an international trial. Mr. Akayesu was a small-town mayor, 44 years old, no history of bigotry, no history of criminality, no history of political activism of any kind, who at the time of the genocide actually opposed the killings for the first two weeks, and then famously, in an act of what appears to be opportunism and political calculation of his own political advancement, seemed to detect which way the wind was blowing in Rwanda and made a calculation that he was going to join up with the death squads.
He famously put on a camouflage jacket, stood on a platform with the leader of one of the death squads and said, “I’m with them,” and with that, his entire community of Hutus immediately joined the fray and participated in the killing of some 2,000 ethnic Tutsis in this tiny rural village of Taba in remote western Rwanda.
I write about Mr. Akayesu. Most of you’ve probably never heard of him. He’s a very small figure in the big scheme of things, by no means a senior figure in the genocide. He personified what came to be understood as the middle management of the genocide in Rwanda, and that’s one of the parallels that is worth highlighting Rwanda: by all accounts, and certainly I experienced it firsthand, Rwanda is a rigidly hierarchical society.
The Rwandan state, going back to the Belgian era, and this is embedded in its culture, is organized down to the last province, the last commune, the last village, and the last block of huts in a rigidly based hierarchy that made it possible for ordinary peasants to be mobilized into efficient killing squads in a matter of days.
Another element again analogous to the history of Germany and pointed out by Mr. Browning, when you use the term “culture,” the culture of obedience -- very much in evidence in Rwanda during the genocide, with deep roots in Rwandan culture, and Jean-Paul Akayesu personified that culture. He made the calculation that it was in his interest to follow the leaders of the Hutu party, and as soon as the mayor of this small village made a decision to go along with the genocide, all the Hutus in his village immediately joined, and there was virtually no dissent.
I had my own small experience, which is stuck in my mind – of returning to Rwanda for a couple of weeks in 1998, in part to cover the Akayesu trial. I visited some of the prisons in Rwanda where more than 100,000 Hutus accused of participating in the genocide -- accused of being genocidaires as they’re called – were then, and are still mostly living in appallingly overcrowded, disease-ridden, stench-filled prisons across the country. I cannot describe to you how horrendous these conditions are. Overpowering stench of filth and sweat overcomes you when you walk into these prisons, and you go into the sleeping dormitories, where tiny slits of light barely illuminate the sort of chicken coop-style decks that the prisoners sleep on.
And as your eyes adjust, you suddenly realize there are dozens of eyes surrounding you, a lone white boy, wandering into one of these prisons. I was being guided around this prison by one of the accused killers, a leader of one of these death squads who had been in prison for four years with no prospect of a trial any time soon, and I asked him, as an American would be inclined to ask, “Isn’t there any violence in this place?”
Here are all these accused mass murderers trapped in this jail like snakes in a bottle. “Is there ever any violence?” My guide looked at me and said, “No, no, there’s no violence in here. Violence is prohibited.”
All these mass murderers -- if they’re prohibited from participating in violence, there’s no violence. He seemed to require no further explanation, and the explanation was given me without a hint of violence. It really is a chilling culture of obedience in Rwanda, and it’s impossible to explain the killing without that.
I would add another element of the Rwandan culture, and this is analogous to ethnic conflicts across the continent, critical to understanding ethnic conflict in Africa, at any rate, and that is the culture of impunity. Rwanda was a lawless state dominated by what was in a sense a mafia enterprise. The Rwandan state was essentially a criminal enterprise. It was involved in all sorts of criminal rackets, from weapons smuggling and diamond smuggling to marijuana cultivation; the severing and sale of mountain gorilla arms and legs.
The head of state, Juvenal Habyarimana, had two brothers-in-law: one was the manager of the central bank; the other was the manager of the black market. Between them, they were able to take a cut off every single hard currency transaction taking place in their country. So essentially a lawless state, a mafia enterprise.
We think of tribalism as being exotic. Tribes in Africa are really no different than ethnic groups all over the world. The big difference is that in a lawless state, in a lawless environment, where the law of the jungle reigns, ethnicity is a badge of protection.
Ethnicity is a source of legitimacy for leaders, but it is a source of protection and vengeance for those who, in the absence of legitimate law enforcement and legitimate institutions of justice and accountability, depend on ethnicity for their own protection. Very important to remember the culture of impunity.
Now, let me just, in the brief time I have left, draw a couple of important distinctions between the genocide in Rwanda and the genocide in Europe. Very important to remember that not all genocides are alike, and in the case of Rwanda -- although indeed it was a genocide, as I say, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis deliberately targeted for extermination -- the historical context in which the genocide occurred in Central Africa is fundamentally different than the historical context in Central Europe.
As Stephen Heder was pointing out at lunch when we were talking earlier, the Tutsis were not the Jews of Africa. Philip Gourevitch, who many of you who have studied this will be familiar with his in many ways excellent book, is one who is inclined to characterize the Tutsis as the Jews of Africa. My own opinion, and indeed that of many specialists in the region, is that he got it wrong in that regard. You were saying it might be more accurate to say the Tutsis were the Vietnamese of Africa.
The Tutsis were in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi historically a dominant class dating back to the colonial era. They were elevated to a position of privilege in a system which you find in analogous examples across the continent, a system of indirect rule.
The Tutsis, a minority of barely 15 percent of the population, dominated the vast majority of Hutus for nearly a century on behalf of the Belgian colonizers. They were viewed as collaborators with colonial rule, elevated to positions of economic and bureaucratic advantage and military advantage, and up through well into the 1990s in neighboring Burundi, Tutsis dominated the Hutus in a system that was often characterized as apartheid-like military domination.
So whereas in Central Europe, the Jews were never armed; whereas in Central Europe, there was no Jewish conspiracy, there was no history of Jewish domination, there was no aspiration of Jewish domination, in Rwanda and in Central Africa generally, a long history of Tutsi domination. To put it in its crudest, simplest terms historically, the Tutsis were the bad guys.
There were stereotypes and envy and, importantly, fear of the Tutsis that the Hutu propagandas exploited. There was bigotry. It is impossible to characterize the genocide in Rwanda without referring to bigotry, but it was a bigotry born of history, born of an experience of domination and exploitation, which the propagandists in Rwanda were able to use to their own advantage. And looking just across the border at Burundi, neighboring Burundi, there had in fact been Tutsi-perpetrated genocides.
Genocide -- I use the word advisedly. It is a word that has been used to characterize the murder of between 100,000 and 200,000 Hutus in Burundi in 1972. Tens of thousands more murdered in 1988, and then as recently as 1993 some 30,000 to 50,000 Burundian Hutus slaughtered by Burundian Tutsis in 1993, a year before the genocide in Rwanda.
So if you could try to imagine as a parallel if in Central Europe in the 1930s, Austria was a Jewish-dominated military dictatorship in which Jews had slaughtered tens of thousands of Austrians in the decades prior to 1939, that would be a closer parallel to what happened in Rwanda.
I won’t take it much further than that except to say that the lesson to infer from that is not that genocide didn’t occur, not that Hutus weren’t accountable for the genocide, but it raises questions about the moral and maybe even legal culpability of the Tutsi military leadership that in 1990 embarked on an ethnically based uprising, armed uprising, against the Hutu dictatorship in Rwanda. It was entirely foreseeable that an ethnically based armed uprising in Rwanda would lead to widespread mass slaughter of innocent Tutsi civilians, for which that insurgency lacked the wherewithal to protect them.
That’s significant not so much on moral grounds, but for those, including the United States, including, alas, my colleague Philip Gourevitch, for whom I have great respect for but who became something of an apostle for the Tutsi military dictatorship, embracing them as victims of genocide -- failed to see how that Tutsi dictatorship, leadership, once it ceased power in 1994, wound up embarking on one military campaign after another in neighboring Zaire, where we’ve now seen between one and two million civilian casualties in what is now Congo.
So I’ll leave you with that thought. Genocide, yes, but not all genocides are alike.