Great Atrocity: The Psychology of Genocide

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Great Atrocity: The Psychology of Genocide
Great Atrocity: The Psychology of Genocide

According to generally accepted data, during the Armenian Genocide, exactly 106 years ago, about 1.5 million people died, during the Holocaust - six million. But the death of millions is not a statistic, but a tragedy multiplied by a million. Especially when it comes to atrocities that are committed against the elderly, women and children. What makes one people exterminate another? Understanding the psychology of genocide.


Armenians call the massacre of their ancestors at the beginning of the last century a Great Atrocity. It is really great. And not only because Armenians are not the most numerous people on the planet. The horror that these people experienced cannot be measured. And although the peak of the genocide came in 1915, the extermination of Armenians began at the end of the 19th century. In those years in the Ottoman Empire, where the latter lived, there was already an image of the Armenian as a cunning and successful person who would not miss his own (despite the fact that most Armenians lived rather poorly and were engaged in agriculture).

A similar portrait, as you know, was drawn by the Germans in relation to the Jews in Nazi Germany. The situation was aggravated by the fact of different religions: Turks were Muslims, Armenians were Christians. And when in 1914 the Ottoman army suffered a crushing defeat in the Caucasus from Russian soldiers, who were also Christians, Turkish generals threw out all their rage on the local Christian population, that is, primarily on the Armenians. At first, their property was simply stolen, and then they put this business on a "legal" track - a policy of "honest" weaning of the property acquired in favor of the state with clear descriptions and proven equipment. And again we see parallels with the times of the Third Reich.

The degree of atrocities with which they killed not only men, but also women, old people, and children did not differ either. The killings were often carried out with special cynicism and composure. One of the worst episodes took place on October 24, 1916 in the Deir Zor area. According to the testimony of one of the Armenians who managed to survive, on that ill-fated day, the head of the police, by the name of Mustafa Sidki, ordered about two thousand Armenian orphans to be taken to the bank of the Euphrates River. First, they tied their hands and feet, and then threw them two by two into the river. At the same time, Mustafa himself sneered and clearly enjoyed what was happening.


Another case of terrible massacre took place in the Kemakh gorge, along which the Euphrates also flows. Before hundreds of Armenian children were thrown there, they were brutally stabbed to death.

It is impossible to talk a lot about such horrors, and there is no need - it is enough to look at the photographs, which depict the gallows with the hanged people, the Armenian quarters destroyed to the ground. Or charred wooden skeletons, among which are human skulls - the result of when entire villages were herded into one house, which was burned with living people inside. There are many photographs of old people and children who are being taken to areas unsuitable for living. People rode standing in the wild closeness, like cattle. Those who did not have time to die on the road were simply landed on a lifeless section of the road, where they inevitably died of hunger and thirst.


The Great Atrocity is considered the second most studied act of mass murder after the Holocaust. But if the denial of the latter in Russia and most European countries provides for criminal punishment, then the Armenian genocide is still not recognized even by some countries, including Turkey itself. The United States recognized him only in October 2019.The political reasons for not accepting the Armenian genocide are complex and due to historical realities. Let's try to understand the psychological background.

"Normal people

Genocide is a crime where there are many not only victims, but also criminals. This fact excludes the version that such mass murders are carried out by mentally healthy people. Although the inhuman cruelty with which they are committed makes it tempting to attribute it to maniacs. The atrocities committed by generally mentally normal people are a common feature that distinguishes all acts of genocide. Moreover, even those who today pick up a pistol and shoot, for example, their classmates, are considered mentally healthy. Among them there are very few psychotics - those who see hallucinations and hear voices. On the contrary, they have a clear mind, an analytical mind, and the ability to reason soundly and calmly. Before doing something, they think over all the details for a long time and carry out the plan quite successfully. Such people know how to think logically, but their logic is different from ours.


And they are also subject to the so-called belief in a just world - a cognitive distortion, a concept that was developed by Canadian psychologist Melvin Lerner in the late 1960s. According to her, most people tend to believe that the world around them is immanently just. They are sure that evil will surely be punished, that to those who commit bad deeds, everything will certainly return like a boomerang, that hard work will necessarily lead to success, and the crook will eventually be left with nothing.


Therefore, such people are sure that the victims of any calamity - from rape, murder and natural disasters - are themselves to blame for what happened (“put on a short skirt - provoked the rapist”, “God punished them - apparently, they sinned a lot”). That is, if a nation is called upon to exterminate, it means that they themselves deserve it. This confirms the fact that after the world learned about the horrors of the Holocaust, an increase in anti-Semitism was recorded in the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition.

This belief is due to the fact that very many, especially psychologically immature people, find it difficult to accept the likelihood of injustice in the world. That the one who suffers may not receive any "reward" for it. However, internally guessing about something like this, many save themselves by believing in the afterlife, where "everyone will be rewarded according to his deeds." Interestingly, the participants in the massacres who are confident in a "just world" do not think that they themselves will be punished for their atrocities. On the contrary, like modern religious terrorists, they are convinced that they are fulfilling their duty, their "sacred" mission, that justice is done with their hands, because they themselves have suffered for so long through the fault of those who are being killed.

The psychological mechanism of splitting helps to commit atrocities and at the same time remain a "good" person in your mind. Such a person, like an executioner, sort of separates "work" from "personal life": here I kill, and here I live like a respectable citizen.

It is clear that such people are extremely embittered. They have been accumulating rage and anger since childhood. First, these feelings relate to parents or close environment, then - to the outside world. Another feature that distinguishes them is a sense of inferiority and envy of people who are more successful, from their point of view. The latter often become objects of mass murder (a reason to once again recall the cases of the execution of their fellow students by American students-losers). Feeling inner worthlessness, more than anything else, they strive for fame and domination. Therefore, mass executions are often carried out by young, undeveloped men. The same murders of Armenians were carried out, as a rule, by students of theological schools - young, fanatical youths from 12 to 25 years old.


However, the feeling of inner inferiority, in fact, has little to do with age: it appears in a child in deep childhood - as a result of destructive relationships with parents or people who played their role. In the process of growing up, this feeling can only be corrected, for example, by some personal achievement, but not always eradicated. Therefore, not all young people are capable of carrying out mass killings. And, on the contrary, many of those who have matured long ago are capable. By the way, it was the feeling of inferiority that prompted a huge number of Germans in the first third of the last century to turn their eyes to fascism - and, as a result, to the brutal extermination of Jews.

As mentioned above, the desire for approval and fame plays a significant role. After all, one more side always participates in acts of genocide, which, as a rule, remains in the shadows - the witnesses. Moreover, there are much more of them than pogromists or arsonists. They can watch what is happening in silence, but more often than not, such actions cause overwhelming approval. Therefore, those who carry out genocide have an additional incentive to kill - after all, it goes off with a bang.

“Naturally, not all people have the same inclination to participate in acts of genocide. The likelihood of participation is increased by authoritarianism, poor education, low self-esteem, low level of social adaptation, feeling like an outsider and a failure. Participants in pogroms are people who do not know how to work on delayed motivation, they demand results immediately, "write the authors of the textbook" Political Psychology ", Russian politician and psychologist Leonid Gozman and professor, head of the Department of Sociology and Psychology of Politics, Faculty of Political Science, Moscow State University, Elena Shestopal.

Hard times

No one argues that the genocide was caused at the same time by political and economic reasons, the clash of interests of large commercial structures, the struggle of the elites, and so on. “Many are inclined to believe that the criminal government or extremist demagogues, as it were,“seduce”society,“infecting”people with crazy and cruel ideas. But genocide never occurs out of nowhere. In order for completely normal, respectable people to suddenly begin to kill their neighbors who speak a different language or pray to another God, with whom they had lived together for many years, albeit without much love, it is not enough for a criminal or a maniac to appear in the presidential palace,”they continue the authors of the textbook.

This is understandable, because there are always radicals in the political arena, but by no means in all cases their ideas come to the fore. Therefore, speaking of genocide, the American psychologist Irwin Staub introduced the concept of "hard times", which, in his opinion, always precede an act of mass aggression against a certain group of people. At the same time, “hard times” is not always understood as a socio-economic crisis: it is enough for the population to feel hopelessness, depressive state for a long time, a feeling that there are enemies around who supposedly harm the country, religion or people.

During this time, an abscess of aggression accumulates, which then opens up and leads to genocide. By the way, the presence of a common external enemy is a prerequisite for the start of mass killings. The enemy is seen not only as the one who needs revenge, but also the one, with the murder of which it seems it will become easier. One more condition: the forces of the "enemy" should be significantly inferior. After all, you cannot attack a large nation or a group of people - they may respond - and relatively small communities are an easy target.

“Genocide is impossible without a keen sense of hatred towards the people or religion, intended for the role of the victim,” write Gozman and Shestopal. - This hatred should be so strong that it allows a person to break even the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" and continue to consider himself fully worthy of the Kingdom of God. This hatred is nurtured and developed for a long time.

Its roots are in school textbooks, which tell about how wonderful the life of my ancestors was in the past, when there were no "them" yet, how powerful and just my state was before "they" came or even attacked, about what terrible conspiracies "they" have always built against my country. The roots of hatred lie in the habitual and, as it were, natural, everyday discrimination: in benches "only for whites", in jokes about Ukrainians or Muscovites, in offensive nicknames. The roots of hatred are in wild ideas linking crime with any one ethnic group, in pseudoscientific publications that justify the fact that “they” do not deserve any other attitude”.

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