Why was the 20th century so violent

Main topic: emotions and violence in the 20th century

Susanne Karstedt:
"I assume that it is not easy for people to use violence."

With this simple thesis, the criminologist Susanne Karstedt questions an assumption that has been considered a certainty among psychologists and social scientists since Hannah Arendt's famous book on the banality of evil: that the civilizational rules with which societies keep violence under control happen very quickly everywhere can be overridden. That it only takes a few bureaucratic orders to be able to murder masses of people.

Hannah Arendt had formulated her thesis in view of the Eichmann trial. In the face of a perpetrator who neither presented himself to the court in Jerusalem as ideologically motivated nor showed any kind of pleasure in violence. Who simply sent millions of people to their deaths from his desk. The genocide appeared not as the result of ardent lust for murder, but as a cold bureaucratic act.

In several studies at the University of Leeds, Susanne Karstedt compared the crime of the Holocaust and the Eichmann type of perpetrator to other genocides of the 20th century and the perpetrators that occurred there. Their result: the Holocaust has remained an absolutely exceptional case.

Susanne Karstedt:
"Even in the series of genocides, Armenia, Cambodia, the Holocaust occupies a special position, precisely because ... because it was organized so massively by the state, because there was a type of industrial killing in which nobody was directly involved, so to speak Auschwitz is a peculiarity of the Holocaust. But the way it was carried out, the Holocaust determined our thinking a lot about the fact that there is, so to speak, a pure transmission model, that there is an ideology on the part of the state very easily penetrated downwards and then, above all, implemented in violence. And that is not the case. "

On the contrary, says Susanne Karstedt: In order for racial hatred or other resentments to turn into mass murders, the perpetrators need a high degree of emotional energy. And this energy can even be demonstrated in many seemingly normal men who were involved in massacres in the wake of National Socialism and the Second World War.

Since the Wehrmacht exhibition at the latest, a broad public has known about the crimes of the so-called Einsatzgruppen. They comprised simple soldiers of all ages, educated and uneducated, devout Christians and avowed Nazis, townspeople and villagers. They were responsible for executions on all fronts, of Jews, partisans, children and women.

Thomas Kühne, historian and Holocaust researcher at Clark University in Massachu-setts, has reconstructed some of these crimes and above all asked himself what might have been going on in the psyche of the perpetrators.
Thomas Kühne:
"The whole point is that in these groups of perpetrators a common feeling arises that a crime has been committed, that in what we do as a group, we break the bridges to established morality, to civil society, that the bridges to this society are broken that there is no going back. That is the decisive factor. "

Violence welds together, concludes Thomas Kühne. The fact that a close sense of community developed in the task forces even surprised those involved.

The first time, they would often have discussed whether they should carry out the order to kill and, if so, how. But after the first shots were fired, no one wanted to stand back and one after the other was drawn into the intoxication of violence. In the evenings, the task forces would often have celebrated together, with the feeling that they had mastered a difficult task in a friendly manner.

Thomas Kühne:
"In any case, feelings of strength, of power, of collective power played a decisive role. You have to imagine that, about established norms, the command not to kill, especially not to kill civilians, yourself To be able to collectively override this commandment creates a tremendous feeling of power. "

To be able to produce such feelings of power was the strength of the National Socialist movement from the start. During his time as NSDAP Gauleiter of Berlin, Jo-seph Goebbels always noted in his diaries how much the mood in the SA units rose after every battle in the hall and after every argument with the police. The SA members had evidently accumulated a lot of anger and frustration about their poor economic situation and were looking for an outlet for it.

They couldn't find that with the Democrats, explains Dagmar Ellerbrock, who is working on the final phase of the Weimar Republic at the Max Planck Institute for Educational Research at the Max Planck Institute for Educational Research.

Dagmar Ellerbrock:
"We know that the SPD in particular sent its supporters out into the open, if you knew that street fights were going on, if you knew there was a demonstration to pull them out of these confrontations. to avoid this violent confrontation. "

The SPD and other democrats thus acted responsibly in terms of state policy. But on the emotional level, they left the field to the opponents of democracy. While their own supporters became more and more subdued and despondent, the Nazis rose into an emotional high mood, especially since the police only acted half-heartedly against them.

Only when it has gained an emotional dominance can a violent movement turn over to actually committing massacres or genocides. According to Susanne Karstedt, this is not only proven by the example of the National Socialists. This can also be recorded in the case of Srebrenica, where the Bosnian Serbs only committed their massacre after they had taken the weapons from the UN protection force and thus humiliated them.

Conversely, according to Susanne Karstedt, the investigation of outbreaks of violence in Africa indicates that massacres can be stopped or prevented if brutal armies or militias encounter determined resistance.

Susanne Karstedt:
"In Rwanda, for example, when the mayors have clearly identified the people who have called for violence, if they have erected street barricades, if they have been able to assert themselves in the end, then there has not been any violence. Or only to relatively reduced acts of violence. "

However, Susanne Karstedt adds that intervening against violent criminals must be decisive and powerful in order to break their emotional dominance.

Susanne Karstedt:
"These are processes that develop incredibly quickly. When you look at how quickly it goes, that a mayor who initially set up barricades suddenly loses control of the radical militias and youth groups that arrive. When they think twice that in Rwanda 800,000 people were probably killed in just under three months, that is fast, that is incredibly fast. "


In the case of the Hutu massacres of the Tutsi in Rwanda, the UN should have been much more determined to side with the peaceful forces, says Susanne Karstedt. After all, the UN Security Council has learned from it to equip blue helmet troops with a more robust mandate and more weapons today.

External interventions can at best keep violent groups in check. They can hardly have a preventive effect and prevent a violent mood from developing in the first place. But where does the willingness to use violence come from?

Thomas Scheff:
"Our basic emotions are genetically inherited, they have not changed in human history. That is why we all have a willingness to aggression. But that does not mean that we act or react the same way over and over again that we have to respond with violence every time we feel anger or hurt. Feelings are not a direct drive to act. They are signals and we can learn how to react to these signals. "

The sociologist Thomas Scheff has been studying the connection between shame and violence at the University of California at Santa Barbara for decades. Because for him shame is the determining feeling in human communities.

Thomas Scheff:
"Shame is a moral feeling, all societies and all morals are based on shame. If we behave inappropriately as children, our parents shame us with censure and withdrawal of love. That hurts and that's why we try to never let it happen again. In this respect Shame has a constructive effect, we learn to integrate ourselves socially with it. But when we are excessively ashamed and can no longer bear this feeling, we start to suppress it and look for an outlet to get rid of the shame it is often destructive. "

Those who are repeatedly bullied in school may seek revenge on their classmates. Those who are repeatedly humiliated by unemployment may be looking for a scapegoat for the economic misery. Violence can then become an outlet for the pent-up feelings, but the fear of being shamed again can hold you back.

Shame seems to be at least an important regulator of violence. Because anyone who no longer feels ashamed when using violence feels empowered to kill, confirms Susanne Karstedt based on the story of the lynching of white southerners of black citizens in the USA.

Susanne Karstedt:
"People sent postcards from these events and said that this happened here with us and that I can be seen on the left."

One could consider this to be unwise, says the criminologist, who is publicly accusing themselves of being involved in a crime? But this helped the white southerners to continue their lynching for decades.

Susanne Karstedt:
"You need a lot of moral support for this, you need legitimation, you also have to be told that what you did was right, that was not wrong, and I think that sending postcards is a sign that people assure themselves that this was right after all. Where they participated or what they saw, that this is justifiable, morally justifiable, also from their own group. And that it also helps them to overcome feelings of shame and guilt. "

If the community reacts with shame and not with consent, the perpetrators can be stopped. That happened in the USA during the Vietnam War, when images of massacres like the one in My Lai surfaced in the media and delegitimized the GIs' approach. In the end, the US Army had to withdraw.

In the Second World War, German society was not capable of such shameful self-regulation, although reports of atrocities at the front leaked out back then, too, reports Thomas Kühne.

Thomas Kühne:
"You have to imagine that the soldiers talked about what the SS did, the shootings of Jews, etc., that did not remain a secret. In this way, a great national complicity arose. That is a very central factor that explains Why the Germans resigned, let's say in 1943, when the great defeats began with Stalingrad in the East, why the Germans continued to fight so bitterly there, both the soldiers and the home front. The reason for this is the awareness, Belonging to a huge national crime community and the awareness that there is no turning back, that there is no way out. Soldiers and members of the so-called home front, including women, express this explicitly in letters or diaries. We can only fight. "

In the event of defeat, the Germans feared the revenge of their opponents. That is why the war and the genocide were intensified.

Since the horror of the Holocaust spread in Germany, educators in this country have been looking for concepts to make future generations sensitive to the suffering of the victims.

Juliane Brauer:
"That is because Theodor W. Adorno said in 1966 that Auschwitz was possible because there was this social coldness, that is, this indifference to others, the ignorance. And then one can follow in the literature how it is considered what can memorials do today and that is of course historical knowledge transfer, historical education, but it is also about emotional education. This feeling, which is the focus there, is empathy. "

However, Juliane Brauer from the research focus on the history of feelings does not see the empathy as a panacea. It is true that the encounter with contemporary witnesses motivated many members of the post-war generations to come to terms with the past of their family, their place of residence or their company down to the smallest detail. At the same time, however, there are always young people who reacted defensively to the victims' stories and who might even show empathy with the perpetrators.

Juliane Brauer:
"They can of course be interested in it, oh, how did they do it? That's interesting. I already know that from memorial education, how is it technically possible to build stoves that burn so many people? That's the way it is Questions that seem so repulsive to us and which actually aim at the young people pursuing their own interests and not following this morally coded way of learning about the Holocaust. "

Giving such young people an awareness of the injustice of concentration camps and genocide is a long process with many discussions at home, in school and perhaps also in memorials, emphasizes Juliane Brauer.

But many young people experience such conversations less and less. A large part of their communication now takes place via the media. Violence is practically common there. The social psychologist Barbara Krahé from the University of Potsdam is investigating how this affects young people.

Barbara Krahé:
"When you talk to young people, for example, they often say, yes, I play violent computer games to harden myself so that I'm tough in real life. That is definitely something that users reflect on that it has this function. And we also find that aggressive thoughts are easier to call up when people deal intensively with violence in the media and that aggressive behavior also increases. "

From numerous empirical studies, Barbara Krahé draws the conclusion that young people increasingly regard violence as normal and inevitable if they consume brutal images in the media every day.

Barbara Krahé
"That is because of the way violence is often presented. Think, for example, of violence as it occurs in comics. Someone is shot at or run over with a car and then he jumps up again. In a lot of depictions of violence that are not news or show real crimes, violence is portrayed with positive consequences or directly linked, so that in a video game, for example, you win or progress the more people or characters you have killed. "

Such current tendencies do not indicate that people in the 21st century should be better prepared emotionally against outbreaks of violence than they were in the 20th century - even if Dagmar Ellerbrock, who held the conference at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin for Educated research conducted, this hope does not want to give up.

Dagmar Ellerbrock:
"Our hope is that if we understand violence more precisely, if we above all better understand the factors why people feel drawn to acts of violence, why they enter circles of escalation of violence, that we can use this knowledge for violence prevention and for peace education."

Concrete strategies on how atrocities might be prevented in the future, however, were not yet discernible at the conference. A follow-up conference is therefore planned for October with peace researchers and educators, among others, at which the practical consequences will be discussed.