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The Banality of Genocide

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010. "The Banality of Genocide" is based on a talk Konstanty Gebert delivered at the first annual Humanity in Action International Conference in Amsterdam on July 2, 2010.


General Roméo Dallaire was the commander of the UN military force sent into Rwanda to prevent a new outbreak of the civil war and monitor the implementation of the peace process. What he discovered was a genocide in preparation. His efforts to warn the international community to act against the genocide proved fruitless, and he became the powerless witness to what was the concluding genocide of the 20th century—the century that brought us genocide.

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire notes a strange piece of information that came into his hands in February 1994 in Kigali. One of his informants told him that teachers in schools in Rwanda had been instructed by the Ministry of Education to draw up lists of Tutsi and Hutu students and pass these on to the Ministry.

The Tutsi and the Hutu were the two main socio-ethnic groups in Rwanda, not ethnic groups in the European sense. Both Tutsi and Hutu share the same culture, same religion and same background. In Rwanda’s extremely complex social system, these were originally two different social groups. They were permutated into ethnic groups under Belgian colonial rule, and every adult Rwandan had to carry an ID card that contained the mention of his or her ethnicity: Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, the third, tiniest group.

However, children did not carry  ID cards. Therefore, in order to know which children to kill, the government—which was preparing the genocide—had to have lists of names. And this is why the teachers were asked to draw up lists of Tutsi and Hutu students. 

I often think about those teachers. I imagine myself being a teacher in Kigali in 1994, and receiving the circular from the Ministry of Education. There are so many rational reasons that the Ministry might have been asking for this information. So why not provide it? When genocide happens, the final perpetrators of the genocide are the people who actually go there and kill, or chop people to pieces, or put people into gas chambers, or starve people to death—depending on the technology of the genocide. But for a genocide to be possible at all, it needs those teachers. It needs us. The preparatory period for the genocide, the one that precedes the actual murder, is one in which the institutions of a normal, functioning state and civil society are being used to prepare the murder.

Klemperer, a German linguist, wrote a fascinating book about the coming and growth of Nazism in Germany in the interwar period called Lingua Tertii Imperii, “The Language of the Third Empire,” meaning the Third Reich. In his book, Klemperer—a German philologist of Jewish extraction, who, somewhat by surprise, finds himself labeled as a Jew and then has to suffer what the Jews have to suffer—documents the develop- ment of public language in Germany. He notes with some amusement that the term“Jew,” which was a religious or possibly an ethnic designation, had acquired legal meaning. Once you are classified as a Jew, there are certain things you are not allowed to do and other things that you have to do. He notes funny jokes that would arise in Germany when Jews became  a legal category, because how do you decide who is a Jew? Just what percentage of Jewish blood do you have? And what is Jewish blood anyway?

But then “Jew” becomes part of the accepted language. He notes that once, inadvertently, in a public park, he sat on a bench marked as forbidden for Jews. A sweet old lady passing by noticed this and pointed this out to him. “Sir, you’re sitting on the wrong bench. You’re not allowed to sit here.” That sweet lady, of course, had no idea at all that her action, in a very small way, was making the genocide possible by internalizing it and making her own the mental categories and ideas that stood behind the genocide.

In Germany, the interesting thing about Hitler’s anti-Semitism is that it starts out with an almost clinical detachment. Some of you might have read Mein Kampf. If you have not, read it. It is available in libraries. It is interesting. It is a terribly disappointing book in a way. It is horribly, badly written and, frankly, stupid. You think, “And this book changed the world? In a horrible way, but changed the world?” It does not make sense. But the interesting thing that you will find in Mein Kampf is Hitler’s approach to the Jews. He says that in the way that a doctor who wants to save a human being has to be merciless towards the bacteria that make the human being sick, politicians who want to save Western civilization have to be merciless against the Jewish bacteria. In one of his asides, Hitler writes: “It’s no fault of the Jew that he is a Jew, but it is no fault of huma beings that they want to be rid of the Jewish bacteria that are destroying them. It’s nothing personal. It’s just another implementation of the Enlightenment idea that we, the government, are responsible for improving the lot of society. If there is a group that refuses to be re-socialized for the common good, or stands in the way of the common good, it is indeed a good thing to have this group eliminated.”

This is why the analogy that people sometimes make between genocides—which are a 20th-cen- tury phenomenon—and massacres, which have been the standard fare of human history since time immemorial, is false. Read descriptions of massacres. Medieval chronicles are full of them. What you will almost universally discover is that your usual massacre is relatively short-lived. The city has been besieged for months, it finally falls, the conquering army enters, and then it does what conquering armies do: murders, rapes and loots. The murder, rape and looting goes on for three days, four days or five days – but, ultimately, there can be too much of a good thing. How many people are you going to torture, rape and murder before you are fed up? Eventually, after you are satiated, you will let whoever survives live. The idea of massacre is about immediate gratification. Once your feelings, your lusts are gratified, there is really no reason to continue—until next time, at least. The historically accepted way of making amends for having participated  in a massacre was to then make religious donations to the temple, church, or mosque. This implies the people making such donations felt some kind of moral unease.

I remember having a conversation last year in Kigali, Rwanda, with a gentleman who had just emerged from jail having been sentenced for thirteen years for participation in the genocide. Very sweet gentleman; we had a very nice talk over some beers. He was explaining to me—he had not read Mein Kampf—but he told me: “You know, you know how we call the Tutsis? We call them inyenzi, cockroaches. Do you think it is just by chance that his particular group gets called cockroaches? You know, in one newspaper there was a very good article I recommend you read. It says, ‘The way that the cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly, an inyenzi will always remain an inyenzi.’ In court I was framed, I didn’t kill anybody - but you know they accuse us of being murderers. Mister, believe me, the people who did the work”— that is the term he used, l’travail, the work—“they worked hard. It is hard, physical labor. It was no fun at all, but somebody had to do it, because people have the right not to live with  cockroaches, inyenzi, in their homes.”

This was more or less the same language I heard in Bosnia from the perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide. It was described, in the starkest of details, in a book by Christopher Browning, the American historian  of the Shoah, called Ordinary Men. Brown tells the history of Reserve Police Battalion 101 from the city of Hamburg. The battalion, in the summer of 1942 around the small Polish town of Józefów, murdered some 25,000 Jews. The battalion was a reserve police battalion. This was not the Gestapo, this was not the SS nor was this even the Wehrmacht. It was middle-aged gentlemen, aged 45 and up, too old to be drafted, who were taken into the police battalion and sent to occupied Poland to do their police work, which, in this case, meant killing Jews. They came from all walks of life. They could have been teachers, clerks, engineers, bus-drivers or longshoremen, almost all of them married with children.

The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, when orders came that they were to execute the Jews, were given a choice by their commanders. They said,“If you don’t think you are up to it, you can say that you will not participate and you will be transferred  to another unit.” There was no penalty attached. Nobody went to jail  for refusing to murder people. The worst that would happen would be that you were transferred to another unit. These were not fanatics. These were not ideologues. These were you and I; these were ordinary men. There were a few cases of people refusing, but for the most part they did not want to let the others down. It was simply not decent, not fair, to let the others do the dirty work while you enjoyed a more privileged posting. Bottom line: these were moral people, who did what they did not because they lusted for murder, but because they felt solidarity with others. They did it for what they believed is a moral purpose: the betterment of humanity. The elimination of the Jews served to improve the lot of humanity.

They thought of themselves in heroic terms. In a famous speech given to the top SS leadership in the Polish occupied city of Poznań in 1943, Heinrich Himmler said, “We are all here because we have all participated in a glorious page of German history, which will never be written. It will never be written because we cannot expect lesser men to understand the nobility and the glory of the enterprise, but it is a noble and glorious enterprise.” This is just as the killers of the Tutsi in Rwanda believed they were par- ticipating in the glorious enterprise, even if they had no fun at all. And they had no fun at all. There was  the occasional cow you could loot, occasional woman you could rape or someone you didn’t like whom you could murder, but chopping people to death with machetes is very hard, physical labor. If you have to do it day-in and day-out, nine to five (it was very well organized), it is no  fun at all. You do it because you are a moral person, because you believe that somebody has to do the hard work for the greater common good. Ultimately, because you believe the government has the right to ask you which children in your classroom are Tutsi and which are Hutu.

This is what I would call, referring to Hannah Arendt’s ground-breaking work on the Eichmann trial when she wrote The Banality of Evil, the banality of genocide. In a way, mass- murders and massacres—which also occur in our times as they occurred throughout history—are not banal. They are extraordinary events that both the perpetrators and the victims conceptualize as extraordinary events. Genocide, in a way, is incipient in the everyday institutions of a well-organized state and a well-organized civil society. Once we accept the principle that the government, which is responsible for the common good, has the right to conduct certain actions concerning certain special groups of people, the first step has been made.

Going back to Rwanda, which I find a fascinating case: the Tutsi and the Hutu were part of an extremely complex social structure that included categories such as access to power and type of labor done. It was not ethnic in any measurable sense. Those groups share the same language, the same culture, they have no traditions that one group came from here and the other group came from there. Essentially—and I am simplifying it very drastically—if you were a farmer, you were probably Hutu, and if you were a herder you were probably Tutsi. It was by and large better to be Tutsi than to be Hutu, because the kings were always Tutsi.

The Belgians took over Rwanda in 1919 as war compensation from Germany, something I find very sweet: the taking of a third country as compensation from a second country to the first country. Belgium had been thoroughly shocked by the revelation of the horrors of Belgian rule in the Congo, and the Belgian approach to Rwanda was: “This time we’re going to do it right.” They did most of the right things: they built hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and educated Rwandan kids. They found this unholy mess of  Tutsi and Hutu, a terribly complex situation. They decided that this should be set right scientifically.

For ten years, teams of anthropologists from Belgium would crisscross Rwanda measuring the angle of people’s noses, the curliness of their hair and the color of their eyes, scientifically, finally to ascertain who is Tutsi and who is Hutu. Their identities were put on their ID cards: Enough of this African mess of somebody being Tutsi today and Hutu tomorrow.

Those ID cards were a European invention brought into Rwanda with the best possible intentions. But without the ID cards with either a Tutsi or Hutu mark, the genocide would not have been possible. Thanks to the wonderful introduction of European science, it became very simple to conduct a genocide. ID cards alone could not do it. Belgians brought formal European education to Rwanda, and were very good at it. They taught  the history of Rwanda. Rwanda was an oral society. There was no written history, only vague myths. Belgians brought European science and history to Rwanda, and they taught the history of Rwanda the way they thought it happened.

There was a completely invented history, thought-up by John Speke, a British adventurer who was the first European to enter Rwanda in the mid-19th century. Speke noticed that some Rwandans are taller than others and have slightly lighter skins. These are obviously “whiter” Rwandans, and this explains why they have a state. They have almost-white people. So he decided that the Tutsis, a greater number of whom were tall and light-skinned compared to the Hutus, were really invaders from the north—maybe from Ethiopia, maybe from the Mediterranean coast, from closer to Europe, from closer to civilization—who had come south and conquered this barbaric country, and that is why it has a state system. There is not a shred of evidence for that. Not one popular legend, not one belief about invaders from the north, nothing. It’s pure fiction.

This is the fiction the Belgians taught in schools. They taught mainly Tutsi children, because the Tutsi of course are whiter and therefore better, that they are a superior race. By virtue of being superior, they have the right and the destiny to rule over the Hutus. As you can possibly understand, the Hutu did not very much enjoy being told they were an inferior race.

After World War II, Belgium continued to run Rwanda, but Belgium had a major internal change of system: the Flemish majority, which had been dominated by the Walloon minority, gained power. Most of the personnel sent from Belgium to Rwanda were Catholic missionaries, often from Flanders. They started viewing the situation in Rwanda through the prism of  the situation in Belgium. You had a majority, the Hutu, who were oppressed by a minority. It is time for the majority to stand up. The same Belgians who first taught the Tutsi that they are a superior race and the Hutu that they are an inferior race, then started teaching the Hutu: You are a majority! You have democratic rights! You should be the masters of the land and they, the foreign invaders, should know their place.

The first massacres on a mass scale occurred on the last months of Belgian rule in Rwanda, and the Belgians let it happen: it was just the majority asserting itself. All this was a European import. The idea that Rwanda was some kind of “typical African massacre” (some people seem to think “it massacres” in Africa the way it rains in England—it is just  the natural way of things) is ridiculous. All this was a European import.

The final element, to clinch it all, was the media. After 1989, the French, who had taken over from the Belgians the patronage over formerly independent Rwanda, forced the then-Rwandan dictator General Habyarimana to liberalize laws on the media, liberalize laws on the parties and create a democracy. Very soon a populist broadsheet appeared called Kangura. “Kangura” in Kinyarwanda means “wake him up.” Some of you might hear echoes of things that Klemperer described: Deutschland erwache. Wake him up!

Kangura was teaching its mainly Hutu readership the evils of the Tutsi. There is even a text published in Kangura called “The Ten Commandments of the Hutu.” It says that the Hutus must know that the Tutsis, all of them, are enemies who try to dominate the Hutu people. Two or three of the commandments are specifically about Tutsi women, who are particularly dangerous.

Tutsi women corrupt Hutu males by pulling them away from their racial solidarity. Again, this recalls a myth you can find very easily in the German anti-Semitic propaganda of the ‘20s and ‘30s. “The Ten Commandments” stress that all Hutus must consider all Tutsis evil.

Without this combination—modern science, modern education and modern media—the Rwandan genocide could not have happened. All those institutions are part of a legacy of the Enlightenment. It would be, of course, extremely easy to bash the Enlightenment as such, to show just how evil this entire enterprise has been. The fact that there is a pathological consequence of something doesn’t make that something pathological. It needs, however, to make us terribly aware of the incipient dangers in seemingly innocent things. What we are taught in schools about ourselves and about others is not innocent. It is not innocent when, in the media, we start reading about a certain group (ethnic, religious, sexual, whatever) described as animals or insects.

Language is one of the key elements here. It was fascinating to see my Rwandan friends, who had not heard of Klemperer, read him and say, “But this is about us! This is how it happened here!”

There is one more thing about language, and on this I would like to conclude. There is one more perverse aspect to the history of genocide. Genocide can become a success story. If you look at the public reception of the Shoah, of the extermination of the Jews by the Germans in World War II, it is in fact a success story. Never before in human history had the suffering of an oppressed group been universally recognized the way that group recognizes it itself. The history of Jewish suffering the way the Jews remember it has become the universal history of Jewish suffering. This had never happened before. This is an incredible success, and everybody envies the Jews their success.

If you go out on the street, not necessarily only here in Amsterdam, but  in any major European capital, and you ask about the Holocaust, most people will know that the Holocaust was about the Germans killing the Jews. If you conduct a public opinion poll about who killed whom in Rwanda, was the Tutsis killing Hutu or the Hutu killing Tutsis – and  does it matter? – probably, most of the responses will be: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” To this very day the Armenians cannot get their genocide recognized by the descendants of the perpetrators. The Shoah is recognized. The Shoah is remembered the ways Jews remember it and it has generated something which I, slightly perversely, call “Shoah-envy,” “Holocaust-envy.” I would more than happily trade the success story for the six million, but nobody’s offering.

The bottom line is that this trivialization of the Holocaust trivializes not only the term, but also the very concept. This not only insults the memory of the victims; it makes us insensitive to the chance that we might witness another genocide—probably not in Europe, although the one before last, in Rwanda, was in Europe, in Bosnia. Just as we need to be very vigilant and very sensitive to forerunners of genocide in public discourse and public institutions, we must be vigilant and sensitive to the banalization of the term and of the concept in public discourse.

Finally, genocide is one of the great contributions of the 20th century to the history of mankind. This is a novel phenomenon. It did not occur before, but I fear this is not the last that we’ve heard of it. It is so easy and, unless you have the bad luck of losing a war in the process, you can probably get away with it. The German leaders lost a war and got Nuremberg. The Hutu genocidaires lost a war, and some of them are on trial while others are on the run.

Because it is easy, because it stems from so much of the logic of the Enlightenment state and because you can get away with it, we will see more of it. The only thing that really stands between a genocide happening and not, is this teacher who gets a directive from the Ministry of Education: Draw up a list of Hutu and Tutsi students in your class. Imagine being that teacher, and imagine telling yourself: “Hell no, I’m not going to do this, and no I don’t need to explain my motives. They better explain why they want this information in the first place.” What we need are not good civil servants who will perform the instructions from the Ministry. What we need are people who will not do things that feel wrong, even if they look right. Be those people.


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About the Author

Konstanty Gebert became well known in Poland during the early 1980s as the editor and columnist of KOS Fortnightly and other underground publications under the pen name of Dawid Warszawski, which he still uses. In 1989 he covered the round table Solidarity-government talks on transition to democracy, and joined the new independent daily Gazeta Wyborcza, where he is a columnist and international reporter, writing about the Middle East, the Balkans, human rights, and Jewish issues. Gebert has published almost two thousand articles in the Polish press, and his work has been widely published abroad, in The Guardian (London), Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris), MicroMega (Rome), Respekt (Prague), Magyar Naranc (Budapest), Svijet (Sarajevo), Maariv [Tel Aviv), New Republic (New York), The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles), The Walrus (Toronto), Die Welt (Berlin), The Moscow Times (Moscow).


Gerbet, Konstanty. "The Banality of Genocide." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 133-143. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.
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