The Genocidal Mindset

Ralph Zuljan

Perhaps the most important consequence of the Second World War was the acceptance of what may be termed genocidal practices as legitimate means of warfare. This did not happen overnight, and there is still a social conception of ethics and warfare that denies that it has happened at all, but by the time the war ended atomic bombs and ballistic missiles were a reality. Mass killings in the context of war were also a reality. In the end, the psychological distancing individuals achieved through the bureaucratic and technological developments produced during the war made genocidal behavior universally conceivable in the context of a modern industrialized state at war.

This was a radical reversal of the trend in modern warfare before World War II. For over two hundred years prior, from about the time that professional standing armies were developed, there had been a trend towards a formal distinction between combatants (military personnel) and noncombatants (civilians) which viewed the former as acceptable targets, and the latter as unacceptable targets of warfare. However, by the time of the Great War the physical distance achieved by some forms of combat suggested that an eventual shift in this attitude would take place. World War II confirmed this change and normalized the genocidal extremes made possible by the distancing effects of the bureaucratic form, when combined with technological innovations, for the purpose of killing.

Distancing allowed individuals to disassociate their actions from the consequences those actions imposed upon others. Artillery crews fired at coordinates on a map, not the people located there. A submariner launched torpedoes at ships -- filled with people he would never see. A bombardier concentrated on an accurate release of the bomb load, not the deadly results of doing so for the population of the center being targeted. At the most extreme, a death camp doctor making a "selection" concentrated on the fitness of the individual before him, not the implication of sending someone to the "showers" -- and certain death. But for many individuals, even for those in the military organizations engaged in combat, they never even saw the face of the enemy they were supposedly fighting.

Freeman Dyson, a planner with Bomber Command in England during the war, confessed in his autobiographical account that "After the war ended, I read reports of the trials of men who had been high up in the Eichmann organization. They had sat in their offices, writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I went free. I felt a certain sympathy for these men. Probably many of them loathed the SS as much as I loathed Bomber Command, but they, too, had not had the courage to speak out. Probably many of them, like me, lived through the whole six years of the war without ever seeing a dead human being" (Weapons and Hope, 120).

While most people would comfortably condemn the lack of moral courage that Dyson mentions, the moral dilemma would not be so readily dispensed with if such persons were placed in the organizational context in which it took place. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who conducted a now famous series of postwar experiments into the willingness of individuals to do harm to others as a consequence of obedience to authority, noted that "even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the grounds that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides..." (Obedience to Authority, 11). Milgram's psychological experiments demonstrated beyond doubt that "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process" (6). Even so, the idea that it could have happened here -- and in an other form did happen here -- is an ethically devastating conclusion that very few have come to terms with.

During the war, the sophistication of bureaucratic organization made hitherto unthinkable possibilities thinkable through the distancing of the individuals engaged in tasks assigned to the organization as a whole. The war gave rise to several bureaucracies dedicated to killing an objectively defined enemy on a mass scale. This is the uncomfortable link between the Holocaust and strategic bombing; Himmler, Harris and LeMay had more in common than is generally admissible even in the present day. The target enemy in each case was defined as such without regard to the combatant vs. noncombatant status of the groups of individuals targeted. These bureaucracies were not only tasked with mass killing, they were driven to do so efficiently and technological innovations facilitated the process while ensuring that the psychological distancing of the perpetrators increased as a result. Gas chambers and atomic bombs were both results of a search for superior ways of killing large numbers of individuals collectively. The fact that such results were realized confirmed to the collective and individual conscientiousness a change in the meaning of war.

For the individuals who lived through it, therefore, the Second World War produced a social transformation with which we have yet to come to terms. There is no meaningful way of describing the sum total impact of this event without becoming clinical. There is no way to absorb the individual experiences of the millions of people who endured the direful events of the war without a descent into madness. Distancing was necessary at the time and remains necessary if we are to avoid that descent, but it has produced a generally depressed and somewhat nihilistic world view as we try to reconcile what was, and what is, with what our ethical sense suggests should be.

Originally published in "World War II" at on September 1, 1999.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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