The Holocaust was a man-made event, as have been the many other acts of genocide and mass killing that stain our history. Indeed, one of the most haunting questions that these acts of mass killing pose to us all is, quite simply, “How were they humanly possible?” When confronting the awesome task of trying to explain the behavior of the genocidal perpetrators, however, scholars have not reached any consensus. One group of answers to that inevitable question has focused on particularities. What culture, society, or nation, what ideology, historical prejudice, or ethnic hatred, what psychological profile or cluster of personality traits, what unusual situation or special circumstance is to be deemed the cause of such aberrant human behavior? The underlying assumption to this approach is that there is a fatal flaw, a major deviation from the norm, that must be discovered to account for it.
Given that most societies do not commit genocide and most people do not become genocidal killers, there is an intuitive common sense to such an approach. If “extraordinary evil” is not the norm either historically or in our everyday experience, then its source must be found in some abnormality particular to those peoples and societies that do perpetrate “extraordinary evil.” Such a commonsense assumption is also comforting. We look for flaws in others, not latent potentials within ourselves. For surely “we” and “our” society could not do what the perpetrators and their societies have done.