How do ordinary people participate in horrendous acts of slaughter that they should normally find morally repulsive? This was one of the questions Jeff Rossman, a history professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, posed in his summer session course on the atrocities of the 20th century.
In his two-week course, “Why Did They Kill? Understanding Perpetrators of Genocide,” held from June 10 to 21, Rossman focused on one aspect of mass atrocity. “We were trying to understand the motives of the perpetrators – not just the leaders, but the rank-and-file as well – of one-sided, state-sponsored mass violence,” he said.
Rossman and his students explored some of the mass killings in the 20th century, including the genocide of minority Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the genocides perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, the genocide perpetrated against Rwandan Tutsis in 1994 and the mass violence that occurred under Iosif Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Tse-Tung in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia.
The course covered these events through works of scholarship, including “Eichmann in Jerusalem” by Hannah Arendt, “Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning and “Why Did They Kill?” by Alexander Hinton, and through documentary films on the Armenian genocide, the Eichmann trial, and the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
“We read many texts that get inside the heads of the perpetrators,” Rossman said. “What motivates them, the leaders and the followers?”
When the class ended, Rossman said he wanted his students to be able to discuss why the 20th century was so riven by state-sponsored mass violence and why so many ordinary people participated.
“Ordinary people like us, with moral choice,” Rossman said. “We have to refrain from thinking of them as monsters and examine the factors that regimes use to secure compliance, to motivate individuals to commit immoral acts. We are not excusing it, but trying to understand how ordinary people come to engage in mass atrocity..”
Rossman acknowledged that genocide is a grim subject, but he said that students of the current generation are interested in mass violence and why states engage in it.
“They want to understand what these episodes were about and they also want to think about prevention,” he said.
Kay Aujla, a fourth-year commerce and history major in the McIntire School of Commerce and the College, said she took the class because she wanted to understand genocide “and help prevent it from occurring in the future.”
“I think this course helped me understand the fragility of certain country climates,” she said. “In doing so, for example, establishing more social enterprise businesses in those nations that better meet the needs of the people while boosting their economy can help decrease the possibility of genocidal situations from occurring.”
Rossman said today’s students often have studied the experience of victims of the Holocaust and other mass atrocities, while his course focused on perpetrators.
“I found that while I was generally informed on many of genocides discussed in the class, I knew very little or nothing about why many of the leaders and individual perpetrators gave and carried out orders resulting in millions of deaths,” said Nicholas Masters, a rising second-year student who has not yet declared a major. “I was incredibly interested as to what made the leaders and soldiers of genocidal regimes tick and how they came to the conclusion that genocide was the proper response to their problems.
“The class has granted me a deeper understanding into the choices leaders and ordinary people make when being placed in certain situations,” he said. “The one thing that truly shook me about this class was how uncompromising and almost mechanical perpetrators of genocide generally were. While some expressed remorse over their actions, many of the individuals we studied truly believed in a sort of pseudo-scientific racism, which, in their minds, validated their heinous actions.”
Rossman said he liked the intensity and focus of two-week courses after teaching them during the January term. And it has been a learning experience for him.
“Teaching a course like this reminds one that we are blessed to live in a time and place that enables us to study episodes of human suffering, the scale of which are virtually unimaginable,” he said. “While the topic is a dark one, it gives perspective.”
Rossman is currently writing a book on mass violence under Stalin, and this class gives him an opportunity to situate his research in a broader, even global, context.. Rossman has studied Stalinism since graduate school, and teaches courses at U.Va. on the history of genocide and the Soviet Union..
“The Soviet regime is a fascinating case in which the effort to create a ’perfect’ society – a utopia – resulted, paradoxically, in the creation of a grim dystopia,” he said. “The ideals of the Russian Revolution appealed to many in Russia and in the West, but the result was catastrophic.”