Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust

Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust

Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust

Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust

Synopsis

When and why do groups target each other for extermination? How do seemingly normal people become participants in genocide? Why do some individuals come to the rescue of members of targeted groups, while others just passively observe their victimization? And how do perpetrators and bystanders later come to terms with the choices that they made? These questions have long vexed scholars and laypeople alike, and they have not decreased in urgency as we enter the twenty-first century.In this book--the first collection of essays representing social psychological perspectives on genocide and the Holocaust-- prominent social psychologists use the principles derived from contemporary research in their field to try to shed light on the behavior of the perpetrators of genocide. Theprimary focus of this volume is on the Holocaust, but the conclusions reached have relevance for attempts to understand any episode of mass killing. Among the topics covered are how crises and dificult life conditions might set the stage for violent intergroup conflict; why some groups are more likely than others to be selected as scapegoats; how certain cultural values and beliefs could facilitate the initiation of genocide; the roles of conformity and obedience to authority in shapingbehavior; how engaging in violent behavior makes it easier to for one to aggress again; the evidence for a "genocide-prone" personality; and how perpetrators deceive themselves about what they have done. The book does not culminate in a grand theory of intergroup violence; instead, it seeks to provide thereader with new ways of making sense of the horrors of genocide. In other words, the goal of all of the contributors is to provide us with at least some of the knowledge that we will need to anticipate and prevent future such tragic episodes.

Excerpt

The idea for this book evolved over the course of two meetings (1997 and 1998) of the Social Psychologists of Chicago (SPOC). At those meetings, we individually presented papers that were later expanded into our chapters in this book. Besides discovering a common interest in the central themes of this volume, we also found that we shared a concern that social psychologists were not making their voices heard in public debates about genocide and the Holocaust. At the time, there was much public and academic discussion of two monographs that are cited quite a bit in this book: Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The discussion centered around what caused Holocaust perpetrators to act as they did, with special attention devoted to how perpetrators construed their own behavior and the extent to which they had been affected by powerful situational forces. What was being discussed, in other words, was the social psychology of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, when any social-psychological research was cited, it tended to be quite dated. And much to our distress, few actual social psychologists seemed to be entering into the public discourse.

We resolved to do something about that state of affairs and set out to see whether contemporary work being done by social psychologists could speak to the issues that were being (and continue to be) so passionately debated by students of the Holocaust. We were not disappointed. The first concrete result of our efforts was a symposium at the annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, in Lexington, Kentucky, in October 1998 (“Social-Psychological Perspectives on Genocide: Understanding Perpetrator Behavior”). Two other contributors to this volume (Irv Staub and Bob Zajonc) also participated in that symposium, along with John Darley. The next result of our efforts is the book you are holding in your hands. Needless to say, it will not answer all your questions about why one group of people would resolve to exterminate their neighbors. But we do believe that when you finish reading the chapters in this volume, you will have gained a deeper understanding of the personal, social, and cultural factors that can interact in such a way as to trigger the horrors of genocide.

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