From Pathological Altruism to Pathological Obedience
pp.. 225-236 in Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson (editors) in
Pathological Altruism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
Low self-control, which is a major
covariate of criminal behavior, appears
early in life and is relatively stable over
the life course.
Levels of self-control may vary across
historical periods as people become more
sensitive to socially intrusive behavior.
The perplexing levels of obedience
in major genocides do not reflect
deficiencies in self-control but suggest
the oversocialization of the internal
executive function by external social
This chapter proposes an explanation of genocide
based on a pair of pathologies: pathological altru-
ism and pathological obedience. Pathological
altruism is reflected in the pursuit of mass murder
to further the aspirations of political elites. In the
1994 Rwandan case, the senior Hutu politicians
and generals planned the total physical destruc-
tion of the Tutsi minority, ostensively to protect
the beleaguered Hutus from the feudal repres-
sion of the traditional Tutsi chiefs (Dallaire 2003;
Melvern 2006). The “liberation of the oppressed
masses” resulted in the murder of approximately
500,000 to 1 million Rwandans (Brannigan &
Jones 2009). However, the pathological altruism
would not have been possible without the ready
cooperation of the rank and file of the civil
service and the political followers who imple-
mented the genocidal policies. I call this patho-
logical obedience. Without such complicity, the
policies would fail. On the issue of elite motiva-
tion, Barbara Oakley (2008) has advocated a neu-
roscientific and genetically based model to
explain the motives of lethal leaders such as
Milosevic, and Stalin, who are described as high-
functioning manipulative individuals with subclinical
symptoms of borderline and
This chapter complements Oakley’s analysis
by focusing on the mass mobilization and ready
cooperation of people who are obviously not psy-
chopathic but who participate in mass murder
nonetheless. In their studies of German police
battalions, Browning (1992) referred to the per-
petrators as “ordinary men,” whereas Goldhagen
(1996) called them “ordinary Germans.” Both
pointed to the mobilization of rank-and-file
masses in the Nazi scheme to decimate the
European Jews. Where Goldhagen emphasized
extreme “eliminationist anti-Semitism” in the
minds of the perpetrators, Browning offered a
more nuanced account based of the variability of
motives among the perpetrators (also see Pendas,
2006, p. 295).
This compliance was explained by Stanley
Milgram in a disturbing series of experiments
analyzing the obedience of ordinary subjects to
an authority figure. Milgram argued that indi-
viduals who joined a bureaucracy under the
supervision of an authority figure entered an
“agentic state” in which they automatically sur-
rendered their autonomy and individual respon-
sibility. Milgram (1974, p. 133) speculated that
this “alteration of attitude” from self-directed
autonomy to a form of automatism had a biologi-
cal foundation: “there is certainly an alteration
in the internal operations of the person, and
these, no doubt, reduce to shifts in patterns of
neural functioning.” At the time when he wrote,
tools did not exist to explore such processes.
Our contemporary understanding of the devel-
opment of neural executive functions makes it
unlikely that such a radical loss of autonomy or
self-control is based primarily on situational
pressures. Nonetheless, the problem of the agen-
tic state remains.
My proposal is based on one of the most
important perspectives in contemporary crimi-
nology—control theory (Gottfredson & Hirschi,
1990). Control theory argues that crime is sup-
pressed by teaching children self-control, and
that in the absence of effective socialization, chil-
dren will be more likely to resort to the use
of aggression and fraud in the pursuit of self-
interest as they grow older. Evidence suggests
that differences in self-control are inculcated
early in life, persist over the life-course and, once
established, are stable and highly resistant to fur-
ther change (Moffitt, 1993). Persons who do not
acquire self-control early in life are unlikely to
acquire it as adults. The criminological literature
makes a bolder claim regarding self-control that
is outlined in the work of Norbert Elias (1996).
Elias argues that societies differ in the extent to
which they inculcate self-control, and that such
differences shed light on the mobilization prob-
lem at the heart of the scope, speed, and effective-
ness of genocide.
In this chapter, I proceed as follows. First,
I describe Elias’s theory of the civilizing process
and its relationship to changing levels of self-
control in European societies. Second, I summa-
rize his later analysis of the rise of the Nazis and
the roots of “barbarism” in German national
development that represents, for Elias, a reversal
of the civilizing process. Third, I apply the model
to the 1994 Rwandan case. Fourth, I examine the
significance of the concept of habitus, which per-
mits us to understand how levels of self-control
could change across history while being relatively
stable over the life cycle. Finally, I propose that
Milgram’s agentic state be reexamined, not as a
universal psychological condition, but as a spe-
cific historical development that sheds light on
45 pathological obedience.
ELIAS ON CIVILIZATION
AND CHANGES IN LEVELS
At the individual level, Elias argues that, over the
last seven or eight centuries, Europeans became
increasingly governed by impulse control. As the
social structures changed, Europeans became
more prone to feelings of delicacy, sensitivity, and
courtesy—reflecting the cultural impact on the
brain’s executive function and attentional mecha-
nisms (Han & Northoff 2007). At the collective
level, Elias tracks changes in the rise and evolu-
tion of societies from feudalism to the Renais-
sance and modern sovereign states. The power
struggles over this period resulted in the nop-
olization of the right to use force by the absolute
monarch. The absorption of the warrior classes
during feudalism into the courts of the major
feudal lords was associated with a “pacification”
of emotional life. Force was increasingly replaced
by diplomacy; sexual frankness by romantic love;
and lust, pillage, and mayhem by the cultivation
of taste, music, and poetry. Likewise, the initial
conflicts between knights, the town bourgeoisie,
and the emerging monarchs were superseded by
deeper forms of social integration that were
achieved by the adoption of courtly, that is,
courteous behavior. Economic and political coop-
eration was intensified by the money economy.
This increasing interdependency created an
imperative to transfer impulse control from
courtly society increasingly down to the masses
of the population. This took centuries.
What, then, is the importance of Elias’s theory
of self-control? What we treat today as a normal
level of self-control is a socially inculcated habit
that has evolved gradually and almost impercep-
tibly over time. As Garland (1990, p. 222) observes,
“the civilizing process produces individuals of
heightened sensibilities whose psychological struc-
tures are heavily loaded with restraints, self-
controls and inhibitions”—the same factors that
are thought to be critical in crime prevention in
children today. For Elias, the course and direc-
tion of conduct toward civilization was not inex-
orable and could be subject to reversals. In his
second major work, The Germans (1996), Elias
Societies differ in the extent to which
they inculcate self-control—such differ-
ences shed light on the mobilization
problem at the heart of the scope, speed
and effectiveness of genocide.
What we treat today as a normal level of
self-control is a socially inculcated habit
that has evolved gradually and almost
imperceptibly over time.
examined how the Holocaust could have occurred
the emerging middle class. Making the Germans
in one of the most cultured nations of Europe.
BARBARISM AND THE GERMANS
Elias argues that every modern European nation’s
history becomes incorporated to some degree
in the emotional life of its citizens as they are
weaned on memories of their collective victories
and defeats. Kuperman (2001) argues similarly
that tribal identities and their histories are
more salient than national identities in modern
African countries, presumably because they have
no collective memories of acting as nations. Both
suggest that history becomes embedded in per-
sonality. The Germans were initially united in
the first reich after the establishment of the Holy
Roman Empire. However, unlike French and
English societies, the unification of the German-
speaking peoples was delayed until late in the
19th century. In addition, the unification was
erected on a tradition of Prussian militarism
marked by antagonism to democratic institutions
and values. The German’s first national achieve-
ment in modern times as Germans was the con-
quest of France in 1871. Elias described the
victory of the German armies over France as “at
the same time a victory of the German nobility
over the German middle class” (1996, p. 145). By
this, he meant the political development of 19th-
century Germany was largely conservative or
reactionary. Prussian military traditions were
idealized, and not only among the middle classes.
The university student societies cultivated duel-
ing, and facial scars from such honor contests
were worn with pride. Max Weber noted (1968,
p. 211): “It is well known that the student frater-
nities constitute the typical social education of
aspirants for nonmilitary offices, sinecures, and
the liberal professions of high social standing.
The ‘academic freedom’ of dueling, drinking, and
class cutting stems from a time when other kinds
of freedoms did not exist in Germany.”
After the Great War, the Allies enforced a
humiliating peace treaty on the Germans. Many
were traumatized. The democratic government
created in the post-war Weimar republic was
openly opposed by the freikorps, who assassi-
nated liberal politicians by the hundreds and
undermined the democratization of the republic
(Brenner, 2001, p. 72). Hitler’s promise of a “third
reich” based on racial purity replaced the unify-
ing attraction of the German aristocracy. Having
a strong man in charge reverberated well with a
tradition in which militaristic ideals dominated
masters of all of Europe was a political fantasy
that appealed to a people whose historical pres-
tige was a distant memory.
What was the average German’s emotional
outlook after the defeat? Political autonomy and
individual self-control were eschewed in favor
of external or social control. Elias argues that:
“Many Germans cheerfully shed the burden of
having to control themselves and shoulder the
responsibility for their own lives” (1996, p. 383).
State control inhibited the full development of
self-control (p. 384). In the Nazi state, there was
little overt opposition to racial politics since the
“self-control of the mass of the German people in
all matters of public concern, remained highly
dependent on the state” (p. 386). “The Germans
never ceased to obey” (p. 387). The Fuhrer became
like a shaman who took the burden of failure off
the shoulders of the German masses and prom-
ised them historical fulfillment. Where England
and France increasingly had made heightened
levels of self-control a prerogative of the individ-
ual, in Elias’s view, German development placed
autonomy in the hands of elites.
This explains the paradox of Browning’s find-
ings in Ordinary Men. Compliance in mass
murder did not require that the perpetrators of
mass murder be ideological extremists. The per-
petrators of genocide were more likely to comply
with orders to kill because of their sense of obli-
gation to their immediate comrades and superi-
ors, because they did not want to appear as weak
and effeminate, and because killing was a duty
required to protect the Reich from its enemies.
This is consistent with the impoverished sense
of autonomy that was created over decades by
German political institutions, and which was
reinforced by the Nazi dictatorship. It did not
matter that the Order police who carried out the
final solution in Poland came to political matu-
rity before the Nazis; they had the same mentality
as the young men who joined the student frater-
nities before the Great War and the soldiers who
formed the freikorps after it. As Browning (1998
Afterword) notes, being anti-Semitic was equiva-
lent to being antidemocratic, antimodern, and
anticosmopolitan. A specific animosity against
the Jews was not required. Nor was it necessary
to secure obedience through fear of retribution.
If Elias is correct, history had created a mentality
that valorized militarism and state violence.
Can Elias’s model of collective social control
apply elsewhere? We explore evidence from
Rwanda based, in part, on the author’s fieldwork
CONTINUITIES IN SOCIAL
René Lemarchand (1994) noted the highly obe-
dient nature of Hutus during the 1972 genocide
in Burundi. Well-educated Hutus were sum-
moned to Tutsi police stations for questioning.
Despite the fact that these Hutus were known to
go missing, others continued to comply with
orders to appear. In this fashion, some 200,000
Hutus were murdered by Tutsi police and army
units. Is this simple obedience of the Milgram
variety? My view is that Milgram’s “agentic state”
had historical origins both in Germany and
There had been a history of obligatory rela-
tionships in the Rwandan kingdom linking Hutu
peasants and Tutsi rulers prior to colonial con-
tact that may help explain this level of compli-
ance. Tutsi aristocrats would extend largesse in
the form of cattle to Hutu farmers in exchange
for their loyalty. These client–sponsor relation-
ships took many forms of exchange and were
aptly characterized in the title of Newbury’s
(1988) history of the period, The Cohesion of
Oppression. Newbury described a tightly knit set
of hierarchical interrelationships based on mutual
gifts and service that had the effect of oppressing
the bottom rung of those who entered into them.
The Belgium colonial powers used these client
relationships under colonial rule to administer
the colony. Tutsi power over the Hutu would
be exploited to promote Hutu participation in
unpaid or corvée labor. The 1920s and 1930s were
“the time of whips” (Jefremovas, 2002, p. 68),
when exploitation of the Hutu intensified, and
when the boundaries between Tutsis and Hutus
were defined immutably by the identity cards
that fixed everyone’s lineage. With the transfer of
colonial rule to the postcolonial republic, the
Tutsi chiefs were routed. They were replaced by a
tight hierarchy of Hutu chiefs and administra-
tors. The obedience noted by Lemarchand earlier
had a long institutional history. The patron–client
dependency had become a feature of tribal
extending back into the 19th century
The administrative system was further refined
by President Habyarimana in the second republic
(1973–1994). The political consequences of the
hierarchical system were profound. Under the
presidency, the country was divided into ten
provinces administered by préfects or governors
appointed by the president. The provinces were
subdivided into sous-préfectures, each combin-
ing four or five communes and run by sous-
préfect. These were divided into communes
(counties) each run by a mayor or burgomaster.
(Twagilimana, 2003, p. 161). The counties were
divided into sectors governed by an elected coun-
cilor. Below the sector was the “cell” or hamlet
governed by a group of five residents, one of
whom was designated the head or the “responsi-
ble” who reported to the sector council. As a
result, there was a tight vertical integration of
power from the president to the individual ham-
lets. Every political position represented the
president. According to Mamdani (2001, p. 144)
“the prefect was like the colonial chief: he decided
how many acres of coffee should be cultivated in
each commune . . . . He alone was responsible for
public order and tranquility.” The burgomasters
were like colonial subchiefs demanding “gifts in
return for administrative services, from settling a
case to penning a signature” (Mamdani, 2001).
Anyone living on one of the traditional hills
required the mayor’s permission to apply for a
job or school outside the commune (Twagilimana,
2003, p. 162). The burgomaster was a gatekeeper
for individual advancement through education
and employment. As a result of the administra-
tive structure, dependency was the paramount
feature of Rwandan society. Rwandan society was
totalitarian, but obedience was not enforced by
terrorism or fear of reprisal, but by the ingrained
supervisory hierarchy (Figure 16.1).
The consequences of this were startling in
terms of the population’s mobilization. Given the
tight vertical administration of the population, it
was virtually unthinkable for individuals to
refuse the demands from commune and hamlet
politicians to pick up machetes and to “uproot
the cockroaches.” The perpetrators were told
where to assemble in the mornings and where to
undertake searches of the marshes and mountains
The perpetrators of genocide were more
likely to comply with orders to kill
because of their sense of obligation to
their immediate comrades and superiors,
because they did not want to appear as
weak and effeminate, and because kill-
ing was a duty required to protect the
Reich from its enemies.
TABLE 16.1 A SELECTIVE CHRONOLOGY OF RWANDA
of the 1800s
Emergence of a unified state under Tutsi feudal control over Hutu and Twa populations
1899 German colonial presence is established; replaced by Belgium in 1916.
1924–1935 Belgium administrative reforms reduce traditional Hutu obligations of service and gifts to Tutsi
chiefs and replaces these with a head-tax and obligations of service to the colonial authorities
represented by the traditional chiefs.
Government introduces widespread introduction of coffee trees to create an export crop. These are
later supplemented by widespread cultivation of tea and sisal. Plantation, road construction, and
irrigation control requires mandatory service from Hutus.
1935 Registration of population by lineage crystallizes the caste division of Rwandan society. Hutu social
advancement is effectively blocked.
1957 The Hutu Manifesto challenges the social, economic, and political monopoly of the minority Tutsi.
1959 Open rebellion of Hutu against the Tutsi chiefs. Thousands of Tutsi huts are burned and tens of
thousands flee the country. A state of emergency is declared.
1960 Twenty-two thousand Tutsis are displaced by conflict and exiled. The Tutsi king is deposed, and the
nation becomes a republic.
1961 Provisional government of Hutus established without any representation of minority Tutsis.
1962 Exiled Tutsis strike back across borders from Burundi and Uganda. Two thousand Tutsis are
massacred in retaliation.
1963 Up to 20,000 Tutsis are massacred in retaliation for further cross-border raids.
1972 Up to 200,000 Hutus are massacred in neighboring Burundi by Tutsi police and security forces.
1973 New massacres of Tutsis. A coup d’état by Juvenal Habyarimana replaces the first Hutu dictator,
1990 Tutsi led-RPF invades Rwanda from Uganda. Four hundred Tutsis massacred in retaliation in
Kibilira; 10,000 suspects arrested nation-wide.
1991 Between January and March, up to 1,000 Bagogwe Tutsi are massacred in northern Rwanda.
1992 In March hundreds (if not thousands) of Tutsis are massacred at Bugesera by mobs and policemen.
In August, several hundred Tutsis were massacred in Kibuye.
1993 In February, several hundred Tutsis were massacred in Gisenyi.
1994 Beginning in April, an estimated 800,000 were massacred across Rwanda.
1994 In July, the RPF defeated the national army. This resulted in an exodus of some 2 million Hutus into
Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania.
1996–2002 Incursions by the RPF into Zaire/Congo resulted in several million further deaths, primarily
Based on Dorsey, Learthen (1994). Historical dictionary of Rwanda, Lantham MD: Scarecrow Press; and Twagilimana, A. (2007). A historical
dictionary of Rwanda, Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press.
for fleeing Tutsis. At the end of the day, they were
summoned back from the killing with whistles
by officials who were ever-present to organize the
slaughter (Hatzfeld, 2005). Most accounts report
that the period of killing lasted 3 months and
ended with the occupation of Kigali, the capital
city, by the Rwanda Patriotic Front under the
command of General Kagame. However, evi-
dence suggests that in most places the killing was
completed much more quickly. Ibuka (1991), the
national survivor’s association, reports that 80%
of those murdered were actually dispatched
within 2 weeks of the destruction of Habyarimana’s
plane on April 6. Most people were already dead
before the United Nations passed its first resolu-
tion to deal with the situation on April 21. For the
events to have proceeded so quickly, the level of
popular participation in the killings was neces-
sarily massive. Rwanda had become an “agentic
Reports of the gacaca courts designed to try
perpetrators in their own communities suggest
that, by 2008, over 1,000,000 prosecutions had
been initiated (Musoni, 2009). This also gives
Power succession in Rwanda
Consolidation of a unified state
Under the minority Tutsi
Numerous obligation of service by
Hutu majority to Tutsi chiefs
Caste segregation of groups by
economic roles: Hutu farmers vs
Tutsis groomed for executive roles
In Belgium colonial rule
Identity cards freeze mobility
Hutus impressed into involuntary
Violent substitution of Hutu power
for colonial power
Exile of tens of thousands of Tutsis
Tutsi massacred in 1961, 1962, 1962
1973, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and
FIGURE 16.1 Three major periods characterize Rwandan political control: those in which the Tutsis, Europeans, and ﬁnally,
the Hutus, were dominant.
some indication of the extent of the mobilization.
When the Hutus were told to join the exodus with
the Hutu government and armed forces into Zaire,
they obeyed and departed in their millions—set-
ting the stage for a much larger genocide against
Hutus by the Tutsi and Congo armies between
1996 and 2002 (Lemarchand, 2009, p. 69ff).
At this point, it is important to reflect on the
nature of the crimes committed during the geno-
cide, and crimes of a more individual nature. What
is surprising is that ordinary people could be
recruited for enormously bloody acts of murder
and rape, that they were recruited from the ranks
of ordinary people, and that, generally speaking,
they could return to society, like the German
perpetrators after World War II, without appre-
hension that they would continue to offend. These
observations are inconsistent with patterns of
serious offenders who, due to elevated levels of
impulsivity, tend to offend over the entire life
cycle. Evidence suggests that people who do
not learn self-control by age 8 or 10 have a life-
long risk of higher levels of impulsive behaviour,
including misconduct. These patterns are notori-
ously resistant to interventions later in life
that are designed to change such preferences
(i.e., deterrence and/or rehabilitation). The reason
for this is that child–parent interactions help
“shape the brain.” Goldberg and Bougakov (2010,
p. 408) suggest that “it is possible that social stimu-
lation is to the development of the frontal cortex
what visual stimulation is to the development of the
occipital cortex.” Whatever develops by way of self-
control is preserved due to neural myelinization.
There are two problems. The main explana-
tion of crime in control theory—low self-control
and persistent impulsiveness—has little relevance
to our understanding of genocidal obedience.
Also, a major element of Elias’s later work appears
incorrect. When he alleges that the Germans
reverted to “barbarism,” this is not the spontane-
ous, emotional conduct that marked the early
feudal period, nor is it the infantilism of an unso-
cialized child. It is my hypothesis that the ease
with which the Rwandans and the Germans
entered the agentic state suggests, not a failure of
socialization (the usual control approach) but
Pathological obedience appears to be
based on the development of a mental-
ity that reﬂects long-term patterns of
afﬁliation that inculcate a suppression of
self-control in which the executive func-
tion cedes its autonomy to external
sources of direction.
that they are/were oversocialized. Pathological than those found today. The evidence for this was
obedience appears to be based on the develop-
ment of a mentality that reflects long-term pat-
terns of affiliation that inculcate a suppression of
self-control in which the executive function cedes
its autonomy to external sources of direction.
I suspect this is a cultural achievement, but it
likely has neurological implications since the
brutality entailed by genocidal behavior does
not appear to arouse the same levels of anxiety
that would attend violence that is personally ini-
tiated. The peculiarity of the emotional state of
the génocidaires in Rwandan prisons was their
general lack of contrition, remorse, or guilt.
Pendas noted the same reaction among the
Auschwitz guards during their trials. Milgram
seems to be thinking of this when he noted that
“for a man to feel responsible for his actions, he
must sense that the behavior has flowed from ‘the
self ’. . . subjects have precisely the opposite views
of their actions” (1973, p. 146). They murder out
of loyalty and duty. In this view, the agentic state
is not a failure of socialization or a reversion to
barbarity but an oversocialization in which the
actor cedes self-control and the executive func-
tion to a “superego.”
The term habitus is used by social theorists to
connote regularities in social habits that “go with-
out saying,” or (in Elias’s use of the term), which
form a group’s “second nature.” These patterns
of behavior typically present without reflection
and appear natural, but can change dramatically
over time—such as the level of impulse control
required by society. Such control of behavior
operates below the level of consciousness. The
medieval period that Elias describes was marked
by a spontaneity that would become inappropri-
ate in bourgeois or town society.
Elias’s observations are reminiscent of Daly
and Wilson’s (1988, p. 123ff) descriptions of
“trivial altercations” among unmarried, unem-
ployed young males—the leading cause of male-
on-male homicide in contemporary society.
Persons known to one another exchange verbal
insults, a fight ensues, a weapon appears, and
someone is killed. Often, the deaths are victim-
precipitated. The outcomes are unpredictable, and
the conflicts are typically unplanned. This form of
emotional spontaneity was legion in the English
feudal towns in the 13th and 14th centuries and
resulted in levels of homicide many times higher
meticulously catalogued by Ted Gurr (1981),
who based his findings on about 30 historical
estimates of homicide recorded in court records
and coroner reports in various cities, towns, and
counties in England over the period 1200–1900.
Manuel Eisner (2003, p. 95ff) updated Gurr’s
database with 390 estimates of homicide from
Europe over the same period. Consistent with
Elias’s analysis of self-control, patterns of homi-
cide declined dramatically from about 20 homi-
cides per 100,000 population in the 13th century
to about 2 per 100,000 by 1800.
It seems reasonable to infer that the evidence
of stability in low self-control offenders, and the
versatility of that misconduct, implies, as noted
earlier, some nontransitory change in the pre-
frontal cortex that “fixes” the level of self-control.
This mechanism appears to be one of inhibition
since low self-control or impulsiveness and spon-
taneity are the consequences that arise from a
failure to inculcate habits of self-restraint
(Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990, pp. 94–97). Self-
control inhibits the spontaneity of hedonism and
cultivates “executive control” that permits the
person to anticipate the future, respond to
changes in the environment, and develop self-
awareness (Goldberg & Bougakov, 2010, p. 404).
If neocortical development explains the sta-
bility of self-control over the life cycle, I would
suggest a different process explains the changes
in levels of self-control over time: habitus. It is
not necessary to speculate on genetic changes
across generations that explain changing levels of
self-control. The changing mechanisms for self-
control over the last seven or eight centuries do
imply ontogenetic changes in the brain’s biologi-
cal structure, particularly as a result of the pro-
cess of the child’s mimicry and identification
with parents. The preference for self-restraint, or
for changes in how restraint is manifested, could
reproduce itself as a meme (Dawkins, 1976) and
would survive across successive generations due
to the short-term social advantages it conferred.
Memes associated with self-control are precari-
ous because they do not have a genotypic conti-
nuity across successive generations.
The spread of a meme related to changes in
self-restraint obviously depends on a number of
factors, including the development and teaching
of beliefs and practices designed to inculcate
habits ofself-regulation. Wilson (1985, pp. 229–233)
argues that in early 19th-century North America,
the migrant European society invested in social
institutions designed to create “character.” He
refers to the Second Great Awakening, the Sunday
school movement, the YMCA, and most impor-
tant of all, the Temperance Movement (what
Wilson refers to as “the single most important
attempt to fundamentally change social behav-
ior according to a plan”). There was a dramatic
decline in per capita consumption of beverage
alcohol throughout the 19th century, and a
longer-term decline in homicide that reached
its nadir in the United States by the middle of
the 20th century. Eisner’s European data show a
similar trough in homicide around 1950 (Eisner,
2003, p. 88). Wilson (1985, pp. 234–240) and
Eisner suggest that the long-term decline in
homicide was largely a result of social invest-
ments in self-restraint.
This chapter proposed an explanation of geno-
cide based on a pair of pathologies: pathological
altruism and pathological obedience. Genocide
may be advanced as an elite policy undertaken
to defend a race or a nation (the Aryans or the
Hutus) and hence advocated for altruistic reasons.
I argued that, typically, such policies advance the
careers and aspirations of the political elite. The
paradox is that the magnitude of the crime of
genocide requires significant mobilization of
people who may not share the elite’s political
views—what I’ve called pathological obedience.
I have explored a hypothesis for pathological
obedience grounded in control theory.
My conclusions here are based on case stud-
ies of specific societies. They do not preclude the
examination of self-control mechanisms that
arise in other cultures that may be more (or less)
stringent that the Eliasian model. Elias argued
that the civilizing processes at the collective
and historical level are subject to what he
described as reversions to “barbarity.” We rejected
this model since the “reversions” have none
of the spontaneity of action attributed to feudal
violence, nor do they appear infantile. On the
contrary, the rigid patterns of mass mobilization
suggest that such persons are oversocialized.
This analysis suggests that, in each case, the
societies that hosted the genocide had
experienced overdevelopment of dependency on
external, hierarchical sources of control that made
significant portions of the population vulnerable
to recruitment to mass murder with minimum
moral reservations. The habitus of Nazi Germany
and the Rwandan Republic after decolonization
removed the solution of intergroup conflict from
the scope and capacity of individuals in favor of
the political decisions of the elite. As a result,
there was massive participation in genocidal
murder without much evidence of individual
guilt, remorse, or contrition. If anything, mass
murder appears to be undertaken as a duty and
carried out with righteousness, not as sullen sub-
mission to authority.
By way of illustration, Hatzfeld (2005) records
the celebrations in Rwanda during the time of
mass killings in which the killers spent their eve-
nings drinking beer and dining on the goats and
cows of those they had killed. In The Good Old
Days Klee, Dressen, and Riess (1996) record the
celebrations of the mass murderers in the German
officers’ clubs. Bruchfeld and Levine (1998, p. 3)
record the last day of 20 Scandinavian children
in April 1945 who had been used in medical
experiments in the Neuengamme concentration
camp in Hamburg. They were hanged with their
French caregivers from the plumbing pipes in
the cellar of their school. “When all the children
were dead, schnapps and cigarettes were doled
out to the SS men present. Then it was time for
the next group to be hanged—this time 20 Soviet
prisoners of war.”
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