Dr. Robert Jay Lifton — one of leading Jewish-American scholars in the field of genocide and the internationally renowned author of several books, including “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” and “The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and the Nuclear Threat” – believes that the Serbian aggression against the Bosniak people between 1992-95 constituted the Genocide. On 28 February 1993, in an interview to Associated Press, Dr. Lifton concluded:
“What’s happening there [in Bosnia] merits the use of the word genocide. There is an effort to systematically destroy an entire group. It’s even been conceptualized by Serbian nationalists as so-called ‘ethnic cleansing.’ That term signifies mass killing, mass relocation, and that does constitute genocide.”
Serbs Used Nazi Model for the Bosnian Genocide
By Dr. Robert Jay Lifton
Fourteen years after the publication of this book, Nazi doctors continue to inhabit my mind. I remember them as unexceptional men who had been part of the most extreme killing project — the most extreme human degradation — in a highly murderous century. More than that, the overarching Nazi principle they epitomized — the principle of killing to heat– has continued to reverberate all too frequently in more recent genocidal behavior in various parts of the world.
One thinks immediately of the “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Although it was smaller in scale, there was much in this killing that resembled the Nazi model. The similarity went beyond images of emaciated men in camps awaiting their deaths, beyond even the extensive testimonies of the slaughter and humiliation of members of the victimized groups (in this case including systematic rape of Bosniak women, sometimes with family members forced to watch).
The deeper similarity lay in the combination of a mystical ideology of ethnic nationalism with intense paramilitary brutality. Like that of the Nazis, the Serbian ideology was one of personal and collective revitalization: of overcoming perceived historical wounds going back to the two world wars of the twentieth century. Those would could only be healed by annihilating the designated victims [in this case, Bosniaks]. Also parallel to the Nazis has been the central role of Serb intellectuals. Indeed, the murderous ideology of ethnic cleansing on behalf of a Greater Serbia emerged from members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences. Hence the Nazi-like division of labor between professional killers and killing professionals.
But there was one important way in which Serb ethnic cleansing deviated from the Nazi model. Almost from its beginning it was made visible everywhere by means of the mass media revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. Anyone with a television set was exposed daily to suffering victims and marauding Serb killers. Later the Internet would further disseminate details throughout the world.
My own reaction to the early images resembled that of many others — an uneasy mixture of horror, anger, and shame. But in addition, it seemed to me so close to what I had observed in Nazi behavior, so much an expression of what I had come to call (in collaboration with Eric Markusen) a “genocidal mentality,” that I felt impelled to take a public stand in favor of intervening to stop the killing. I worked with a small group of professionals on a UN-centered plan for doing so, and a few of us went to Washington to press our views on members of Congress and their staffs and on assistants in the vice-presidents’ office. We and other such groups experienced little success for a variety of reasons having to do with presidential resistance and domestic American politics. It seemed that the visibility of genocide did no necessarily put an end to it.
Certainly the Nazis’ mass killing had no such clear exposure. It was meant to be kept secret from the outside world. The nazis could control their environments sufficiently for the cover-up to be at least partially effective. While evidence of genocide was present from the beginning, it could be sufficiently blurred and manipulated to enable Germans and others to mobilize their tendencies toward denial and numbing — to, so to speak, both know and “not know” about mass killing. Within their own circles, the Nazis were ambivalent about how much to reveal about what they were doing. Whatever the genocidal passions of Hitler, Himmler, and other leaders, many if not most in the movement were considered ideologically unready for such killing. This partial suppression of information enabled Nazi doctors to view Auschwitz as a “separate planet,” where ordinary morality did not apply, and thereby to overcome doubts in their minds about their participation in killing. The cover-up, whatever its limitations, contributed to the success and extent of Nazi murder.
For a time it looked as though the greater visibility of Serb ethnic cleansing would bring about a halt to that process. The killing was noted early: what was delayed, and delayed again, was an agreed means of international intervention. That reluctance to intervene — not only in Yugoslavia but in Rwanda in the 1990s and in Cambodia two decades earlier — has been an ongoing scandal. But with the Serbs, the idea of intervention was always an issue, and not only because victims were Europeans. The visibility of the killing rendered people throughout the world self-conscious bystanders who had to cope with, or at least fend off, feelings of great discomfort about what was happening. That ubiquity of bystanders eventually contributed to intervention, even though the measures taken to interrupt the genocide were problematic in themselves. To be sure, the frequency of televised horrors can have an opposite effect, can bring about resistance to such images in the form of sustained psychic numbing. But those same images helped maintain bystander discomfort as a continuous prod to intervention.
All this points to a more general issue that has been insufficiently examined in connection with genocide: perpetrators’ control over knowledge of what they do or have done. Their omnipotent claim to the ownership of death and life is extended to an ownership of truth. When Hitler asked his infamous rhetorical question, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” he was referring of course to what he believed was the world’s short memory about such matters. But he was also declaring a dominion over knowledge and truth, over how the world would respond to the kind of mass killing on which he was embarked. That stance is by no means absent in Serb perpetrators, who create their own narratives that insistently negate the murderous behavior that so much of the world has observed.
While ideological fanatics are crucial to setting up the structures and the dynamic of mass killing, very ordinary people, holding only bits and pieces of that ideology, can be effectively absorbed into these draconian structures. Such socialization to genocide in no way diminishes individual responsibility for one’s action. But because of it, genocide becomes a graver problem than previously imagined, a more doable individual and collective project. This kind of awareness can help us greatly in our continuing efforts to combat mass killing and to create more decent societies. That being so, there may be much to be said for Nazi doctors continuing to inhabit our minds.
You can read more in the latest (2000) edition of Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s book “The Nazi doctors: medical killing and the psychology of genocide.”