Book Review: Perpetrators and Perpetration of Mass Violence: Action, Motivations and Dynamics
Timothy Williams and Susanne Buckley-Zistel, eds. Perpetrators and Perpetration of Mass Violence: Action, Motivations and Dynamics. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.
This multi-disciplinary volume on perpetrators consists of 11 chapters by scholars in history, anthropology, sociology, comparative genocide, conflict studies, gender studies, and international relations. What connects them is an emphasis on putting “perpetrators on centre stage” (p. 1) through a micro-level study of genocide and mass violence. An “action” framework guides most of the contributions in order to understand better the dynamics and motivations that draw people into acts of violence. The assumption here is that people become perpetrators by their actions in a given context of violence rather than being, for example, a pathological killer or ideological fanatic.
In a concise Introduction the editors discuss earlier models of perpetrator research that have focused on individual biographies, on ideologically-driven perpetration (ethnic hatred, antisemitism, etc.), on social dynamics, or on opportunism. Not entirely rejecting earlier research but rather building on it, this volume suggests that an action-focused model brings into view the various levels of people’s agency during violent conflicts. Ideological hatred, for example, can motivate people, but rarely does ideology, according to Williams and Buckley-Zistel, function as an “all-encompassing” (p. 5) explanation. In genocides or other forms of mass-violence most people are not defined by a static role but act in varied ways in response to particular situations. They can be “perpetrators but also victims, bystanders, rescuers and so on” (p. 3). Such fluidity can explain the often observed ordinariness—rather than an abnormal disposition—of people who commit acts of severe harm and violence. An action-centered framework, which resists a dichotomous view of people as either perpetrators or non-perpetrators, emphasizes “situated agency” (p. 5) and lends itself to a comparative approach.
Seven case studies exemplify how an action framework sheds new (comparative) light on the dynamics and motivations of acts of perpetration. They include three chapters on the Nazi regime and the Holocaust (complicity of German civil servants; Wehrmacht letters from the Soviet front; a reassessment of ordinary Poles during the Holocaust), two chapters on civil wars (Cambodia and the Ivory Coast), and two chapters on gender and violence (Rwanda and former Yugoslavia). Refreshingly, most of these chapters do not go over already covered ground but insert additional factors and perspectives that complicate the analysis of perpetrators. In the case of sexual violence in former Yugoslavia, a close reading of court trials from the International Criminal Court reveals three distinct narrative patterns employed by male perpetrators to deny, explain, or justify their behavior: chivalry (they were seduced into sex), opportunism (acting out sadistic impulses), and remorse (admitting wrongdoing). In the case of Rwanda, the author team reports on an empirical study on women’s participation in the genocide. The team concludes that women’s participation had been more widespread than commonly assumed, though their crimes mostly fell into the Gacaca trials’ third category of “property crimes” rather than lethal physical harm (p. 146).
In the case of civil war, Daniel Bultmann investigates the motifs of rank-and-file Cambodian male combatants fighting against the Vietnamese occupation. Rather than explaining their participation in civil war as a wish to kill and die for a greater cause, he suggests the men’s lower social milieu rendered them obedient to power structures. Bultmann calls this dynamic “symbolic violence,” which he describes as “misrecognized obedience whereby an arbitrarily imposed symbolic power [is] accepted as legitimate” (p. 112). Jesper Bjarnesen makes a related argument for the Burkinabe fighters in the Ivorian crisis. Less than ideologically committed to fighting a civil war, these young men considered combat as a normal way of making a living. They were searching for labor. Hence, Bjarnesen interprets military recruitment as a “form of labor migration” (p. 182).
Darren O’Byrne’s chapter on German civil servants in the Third Reich comes closest to what is more conventionally known as Täterforschung (perpetrator research) in German. He investigates four civil service administrators working in the German Justice Ministry, the Reich Chancellery, the Labor Ministry, and the Education Ministry respectively. Acknowledging that these men ideologically supported the regime but occasionally went against it, O’Byrne states that his analysis shows “that it was possible for a person to be a perpetrator in one situation and not in another” (p. 95). This observation sounds rather banal: during a twelve-year reign of a dictatorial and eventually genocidal regime one would not expect complicit men to act evil all the time. When O’Byrne writes in a concluding sentence that “these men were both critical of the regime and yet actively complicit in its crimes” (p. 96), it might be more prudent to say that these men were “critical of certain aspects of the regime” but did not oppose any of its fundamental assumptions.
There are also not many surprises in David Harrisville’s analysis of letters sent home by German soldiers fighting on the Eastern front. These Wehrmacht letters have been examined in previous studies, though the sheer volume of them—an estimated “forty billion” (p. 118)—certainly deserve our attention. Harrisville identifies in these letters personal legitimization strategies, euphemisms, and racist assumptions, all of which function as a way to portray oneself not a criminal but as a “decent” (p. 125) human being navigating extraordinarily harsh conditions. “Each soldier nurtured a particular set of rationales to justify his behavior,” thus asserting the “legitimacy of the war” in general and lowering his own “inhibitions toward criminal violence” (p. 129).
A remarkable and daring piece of scholarship is offered by Tomasz Frydel, who reassesses the role of ordinary Poles during the Holocaust. He enters this thorny issue through the infamous Judenjagd, the hunting and killing of fugitive Jews. Germans conducted these lethal raids themselves but also coerced Polish peasant society into these hunts. Rather than assuming that these Polish perpetrators were chiefly motivated by antisemitism, Frydel carefully reconstructs the context within which such co-optation was possible. Those hunts, Frydel explains, did not only target Jews but were conducted against a number of groups: escaped Soviet POWs, partisans, German army deserters, Roma, and also fellow Polish villagers who wanted to evade German forced labor. German occupation forces created constant fear through a tightly woven surveillance and enforcement net, with modest incentives but draconian punishment, and by making Polish auxiliary forces in the countryside responsible for compliance with German orders. Frydel also mentions individuals who acted as Nazi informers for purely personal gains, and this included some Polish-Jewish informers. “The complex reality examined here cannot be poured into the mold of antisemitism alone,” Frydel concludes, but must be considered a “system of pressures” that “informed the actions of the perpetrators” (p. 200).
The wide range of these case studies invites but also complicates comparison. One may ask, for example, how the genocidal situation in Rwanda or the Holocaust compares with civil war combatants in Cambodia and the Ivory Coast, or whether a clear-enough distinction has been drawn between perpetrators of mass violence and regular soldiers. In a short concluding chapter, Scott Straus raises a few critical questions, wondering, for example, whether soldiers in state-sanctioned wars should be a subject of perpetrator studies. He also asks whether the term “perpetrator” is a sufficiently “useful analytical category” (p. 207) and whether a comparative study should compare “perpetrators to perpetrators or perpetrators to non-perpetrators” (p. 209).
The reader will find some answers to these questions in the volume’s conceptual section that precedes the seven case studies mentioned above. In two separate chapters, Timothy Williams and Jonathan Leader Maynard propose helpful typologies of perpetration that systematize the actions of individuals in violent contexts. Maynard’s typology ranges from devotees to a genocidal ideology to antagonists (opponents) to such ideologies. Williams, on the other hand, suggests types of actions in a genocidal context that need to be measured by proximity and distance to the actual killing sites and by the degree to which individuals identify (and hence act upon) genocidal ideology. His chart distinguishes twelve nuanced categories of action (rather than personality types) that help to assess an individual’s involvement in perpetration.
The Introduction’s repeated claim that “only” (pp. 2, 5) an action analysis makes it possible to compare and understand perpetration dynamics is questionable; perhaps it can be read as an all-too-eager claim for proposing a new theoretical framework. The volume certainly opens many doors. It also raises a number of questions, as Straus points out in the final chapter. In the end, though, Straus commends the book as a “wonderful, rich contribution to a research on perpetrators and the perpetration of violence” (p. 209). This reviewer agrees with his judgment.
Northern Arizona University