Staub, Ervin: The Roots of Evil – The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1992)

The Roots of Evil - Ervin Staub

Some books are life-changing. The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub is one of them in my life. I was at one of those life-choices that we sometimes make. Studying psychology cleared up a lot of questions in my mind. When we got to Staub’s look at the horrible choices some of us make (either as a group or as an individual) I saw how caught I had been in group-thinking that makes “Us” look so much better than “Them”.

Genocide, mass killing, torture and war. Psychology, socialization and culture. How does one go from being a regular, boring person to being a torturer of citizens of ones own country? How did Hitler get an average population of humans to participate in invasion and genocide? Is there such a thing as “EVIL”?

In this clip Stephen Fry discusses the importance of language in the mass-extermination of eight million people during World War II in Europe. (At the bottom of this post see Staub’s lecture in Stockholm.)

My father’s father was a Prisoner of War during the Occupation here in Norway. During his time at Grini (one of the POW camps) he was tortured for information regarding his cell-mates. Not the kind of cell-mates you have in prison, but the kind you have when you participate in resistance against those you consider your oppressors. He was part of the Communist underground.

Torture is one of the many practices of war that Staub discusses in The Roots of Evil. He shows us how the torturer is habituated to the specialized kind of violence that torture is and he shows us that these torturers are simply people. Some of them probably enjoyed their work more than others, but the rest were trained to see the torturee as an object/non-human/sub-human that held needed information.

After the war, the US was incredibly strict about some of the rules for receiving Marshall aid. One of them was a fight against the Evil of Communism. My war-hero grandfather remained an unsung hero due to his political views. He was harassed by employers and spied on by our Norwegian surveillance department. There again propaganda reared its ugly head and lessened his value as a human being.

Source: History Lists
Roman destruction of Carthage | Source: History Lists

Humanity’s mass exterminations of groups of people follows us through history. The practice of killing all of the men above a certain age while keeping women and younger children alive goes at the very least back to our earliest written records. According to Ben Kiernan, “The First Genocide” happened around 149-146 BC (Jones, 2006). This was the Roman destruction of Carthage. In 2015 the United Nations called the Islamic State out on the IS attempt to wipe out the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

So! Nothing new. According to Staub, we need to learn to interpret early warning signs in order to avoid getting to a point where genocide happens. By that time, it will be too late. According to Staub cultural and social patterns and historical circumstances are vital in understanding whether a country, a people or a belief is in the danger zone. And are there ever plenty of traps that people can fall into (even those who are aware of the dangers):

  • Cultural stereotyping
  • Cultural devaluation
  • Societal self-concept
  • Moral exclusion
  • A need for connection
  • Authority orientation
  • Personal and group goals
  • “Better world” ideologies
  • Justification
  • Moral equilibrium, and so on.

Within this conceptual framework, Staub then considers the behavior of perpetrators and bystanders in four historical situations:

  1. Holocaust (his primary example)
  2. Genocide of Armenians in Turkey
  3. Genocide in Cambodia
  4. Disappearances in Argentina

Is there hope. Perhaps and it depends. It has taken us thousands of years to not learn a single thing from history. People like Ervin Staub have warned us against a repetition of gruesome actions. Perhaps the secret lies in people like Staub being able to write about terrors and publish his writings. Once people like Staub begin disappearing from the public arena, we must really begin to worry. Until then, we can only hope that by learning some of the warning signs and recognizing that we, ourselves, are also potentially people who do terrible things, will keep us from them.

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