Academic journal article Human Organization

The Perpetrator-Bystander-Victim Constellation: Rethinking Genocidal Relationships

Academic journal article Human Organization

The Perpetrator-Bystander-Victim Constellation: Rethinking Genocidal Relationships

Article excerpt

The actions, reactions, and motivations of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders are the focus of Holocaust and genocide research. The greatest emphasis has always been on the perpetrators, however, and the examination of the role of bystanders-and even the definition of the term itself-has been relatively neglected. This article explores the complex interrelationships within and among these three groups, with the groups being viewed as covering broad and dynamic spectra of levels of involvement, resistance, agreement, and opposition vis-à-vis the destruction process as opposed to being distinct, static entities. The authors begin by elucidating our understanding of the roles, relationships, and attributes among and within the different groups through the development of a model of the inherent system. Each component of the perpetrator-bystander-victim model developed by the authors is then examined and discussed in generic terms, stressing the scalable nature of the model. The usefulness of this model is then analyzed through its application to a brief empirical case study of the interrelationships among actors involved in the implementation of ghettoization in one city-Budapest-in one month-June 1944-in Second World War Europe.

Key words: Holocaust, genocide, complexity, applied anthropology

There is a photograph in the USHMM photo archives from the western Hungarian town of Körmend. It shows Körmend's Jews being force-marched through the main street of the town in the early summer of 1944 (Figure 1). It is predominantly a photograph of victims who were shortly thereafter deported by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it is also a photograph of perpetrators and bystanders. Walking to the side of the column of Jews are Hungarian gendarme officers policing the action, and watching everything are groups of non-Jewish inhabitants of the town. There is also, of course, the unknown photographer who recorded the scene from the upper-floor window of an apartment block overlooking the street. As we look at the photograph, we too are drawn into the role of bystander, sharing the photographer's gaze. The actions, reactions, and motivations of these three groups (i.e., perpetrators, victims, and bystanders) are the focus of Holocaust research, with-broadly speaking-a greater emphasis on the perpetrators in Anglo-German writing and on the victims in Israeli historiography. The examination of the role of bystanders-and even the definition of the term itself-is relatively neglected within the vast literature on the Holocaust (Barnett 1999:xiii-xiv). This article is primarily not an attempt to remedy that lacunae but to explore the complex interrelationships between these three groups.

Writing in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, Raul Hilberg (1992:ix)-whose pioneering work did much to shape academic study of the Holocaust-defined the 'perpetrator' as anyone who "played a specific role in the formulation or implementation of antiJewish measures." He divided this group into two subsets: ascending newcomers and familiar functionaries. Rather than defining the 'victim', Hilberg (1992:x) characterized them in terms of their fate, identifying the victim group as an amorphous mass that was constantly identifiable, talliable, and exposed to the destruction process. Because they are predominantly remembered for their murder, Holocaust scholars have been adverse to dividing this group into separate components, even though distinct segments are clearly distinguishable and stratifiable (Hilberg 1992:x), and even though there is a growing literature that draws specific attention to the importance of gender in understanding different victim experiences (Katz and Ringelheim 1983; Rittner and Roth 1993; Ofer and Weitzman 1998; Grossman 2002; Baer and Goldenberg 2003). This situation has also led the victim group to become an almost invisible entity with little individuality. Hilberg (1992:xi) suggests that most people were neither victims nor perpetrators, but people who "saw or heard something of the event. …

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