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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

The Origins of Genocide

The Panelists


"I was shocked as a student to discover that Nazi Germany existed. I was in love with German culture, I studied in Germany, and suddenly my German school pals took me to Dachau. In this modern, decent, civilized country, how could this happen?"

Claudia Koonz

Claudia Koonz

Claudia Koonz is professor of history at Duke University. Her research focuses on twentieth century German history, women's history, and genocide. She is the author of two books about Nazi Germany, Mothers in the Fatherland and The Nazi Conscience. Professor Koonz also serves as co-director of the Duke Refugee Action Project and is the current president of the Berkshire Conference for Women Historians.


"I am part of the human race, and genocide is the destruction of particular groups of people in the human race. My contribution to the prevention of genocide is documenting what happened in the past, exposing the processes that made genocide happen."

Edward Kissi

Edward Kissi

Edward Kissi is associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida. Born and raised in Ghana, Africa, Professor Kissi has been a Fellow at the Genocide Studies Program at Yale and the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University. Professor Kissi is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and is the author of a current paper examining the recent genocides in Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.


The Discussion

Why does genocide happen?

KISSI: Genocide is an organized and deliberate attempt often on the part of a state or groups of people acting on behalf of a state to completely wipe out a group of people from the face of the earth.

Genocide happens through a combination of factors: 1) ethnic prejudice, racism, and other forms of hatred; 2) fear of the other; 3) extreme forms of nationalism; 4) radical and absurd ideas of social change; 5) myth-making—just simply the idea of creating mythologies around a group, constructing the group as the embodiment of all evil; and 6) the desire on the part of the state to engage in extreme propaganda against the group that motivates large numbers of people to go out and destroy that particular group.

KOONZ: And when there's a war, the leaders intent on genocide know they can get away with it. They have impunity. And that means that even in peacetime—for example, the Sudan—leaders calculate that no powerful nation will stop them. That is partly why genocide happens, too, because of bystander nations.

KISSI: What war does is provide the cover under which perpetrators proceed to destroy a group that has already been demonized. And it is also during wartime that people consider patriotism and nationalism as essential frameworks within which they demonstrate their loyalty to a State.

For the average German, how did they come to see the Jews as enemies?

KOONZ: It didn't happen quickly. Jews were not arrested in large roundups until 1938. The ground was laid incrementally very slowly, with a newspaper article here, a conference there, e.g.: a conference to take away all Jewish influence from the legal tradition, to expel all Jewish physicians from social health insurance policies.

Gradually, step-by-step, over four hundred individual bureaucratic measures were passed. And each time people said, "Well, it's not that much worse." It's the incremental nature of this process that's so frightening. And Jews, for their part, began to withdraw more and more from their neighbors. They began to be suspicious.

And when they began to withdraw, their neighbors said, "Oh, see, they're withdrawing. They must be guilty."

KISSI: In many cases, in many instances of genocide, victims are dehumanized. First, the humanity of the victim group has to be withdrawn from it before perpetrators can proceed to destroy the group without remorse. We stop seeing them as other human beings that are embodiment of flesh and blood.

For instance, in Nazi Germany, the Jews were presented to the German public as vermin or lice. In Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot used to describe western-educated intellectuals as microbes. In Rwanda, in 1994, the Hutus were constructed as cockroaches and snakes.

So very often the victim group is portrayed in animal metaphors that reduce their humanity to a level that allows perpetrators to proceed to destroy them. They are often presented as a threat to the dominant group of perpetrators in the society. They are also presented as a degenerate species of humankind whose elimination is necessary for that society to develop and progress.

What happened to the Tutsis in present-day Rwanda, and how did they come to be seen as the enemy?

KISSI: From April 6 to July 15, 1984, about 800,000 Tutsis, plus other Hutu ethnic groups who sympathized with them, were systematically hunted down, hacked to death, shot, thrown into rivers… killed.

There are a variety of processes beneath this reality. The Hutus and the Tutsis, two very important ethnic groups in Rwanda, had lived for very long time in close amity with one another.

On April 6 the President of Rwanda, a Hutu by ethnicity, was killed. His plane was shot down. Nobody knows now who committed that deed, but I suspect extreme Hutu nationalists within his government who wanted an opportunity to start a process of genocide against the Tutsis because they did not want to share power with them.

There were also others who proceeded to eliminate Tutsis for a variety of reasons—economic motivations as well. For example, there is new research about individuals who went out and eliminated Tutsi people in order to possess their cattle and their houses and other [possessions]. Somebody killed a Tutsi because he owed him one hundred Rwandan francs, which is the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.

So genocide provided the opportunity for people to achieve a variety of objectives.

What is the role of education and propaganda in the history of genocide?

KISSI: Education is a process of inculcation of behavior. If we look at what happened in Nazi Germany and what happened in Rwanda and the role that young unemployed youth played in these two genocides, it becomes very important for young people to be very careful about what they study—and to develop a critical and analytic mind that allows them to separate reality from mythology.

In Rwanda in 1994, for instance, there were a considerable number of unemployed young people who developed a Moped [motor scooter] mentality that made them reduce killing into a social sport. Many of them went out with their machetes, brandishing them under the influence of narcotics, set up roadblocks, and then engaged in killing as if it were a sport.

One very important thing also was the role of the media. Rwanda was a democratic society at the time to the extent that free speech was a central aspect of democracy. And the media, particularly Radio RTLM, engaged in incendiary speeches and high-level propaganda that proclaimed the Tutsi people as foreign invaders who were not a part of Rwandan society but historically have migrated from Ethiopia. For the Hutus, then, it seemed like a patriotic duty on their part to just simply go and eliminate their Tutsi neighbors.

KOONZ: Young people today have something that Germans did not have in the 1930s, and that is they have the Internet. They have a free press. We have the freest press in this world. And young people today learn to use it.

Germans were closed in an information environment that kept them cut off from alternatives. They weren't encouraged to travel to democratic countries or listen to the British Broadcasting Service. Broadcast was strictly forbidden by law. You could get put in prison for listening to the BBC. They [the Germans] didn't have a free flow of information.

We, today, have access to many different media and many different opinions that put us in a different category than the Germans in the 1930s.

KISSI: But there is a need for them [young people], while respecting authority, to question information. And it is the questioning of information, the critical examination of information that is required for young people to develop a collective awareness of the fact that the insecurity of one individual in society is the absence of peace for everybody.

KOONZ: A good education teaches kids to question their education, to question authority—to find out what happened. To look in the past, to look at the occasions in American history when our government—convinced it was right—virtually exterminated American Indians, enslaved millions of Africans coming to this country against their will. To be alert to the many forms that genocide can take.

What are the elements in society that can prevent genocide from happening?

KISSI: I am tempted to give you three important examples of things that should exist in a society for genocide to be prevented. Religious morality is one. But Rwanda was a religious society. It was 90% Catholic and then 10% Muslim and yet, this is a society that within hundred days eliminated between 800,000 and one million people.

I could say democracy should probably be another element. But Rwanda was a democratic society to the extent that there was free press, and people had the opportunity to express themselves without hindrance. It was that democratic value that existed in Rwandan society that allowed newspapers and radio stations the freedom to spread hate speech.

So the only thing that I am left with in answer to your question, is that democracy does not cut it. Religious morality does not cut it. Free press does not cut it. All three even facilitate genocide.

Perhaps the only element that could to be in a society for genocide to be prevented is a collective sense of awareness that our individual security is also important for the betterment of the entire society. And, therefore, eliminating one individual because that individual has an ethnic affinity or religious belief that is different from you is, indeed, dangerous to the survival of the society.

KOONZ: I'd like to answer this question with one element that Professor Kissi didn't mention—the international community. Early, swift, decisive intervention is terribly important because we need a force capable of intervening early to stop genocide, to send the signal to the leaders, "You cannot do this with impunity. You will pay. It's to your enlightened self-interest to stop."