The Details of Genocide

Why is it that when a large group is intent on exterminating some other group, they go through seemingly elaborate means of extermination? The best example would be the European concentration camps of the 1940s–weren’t they something of a logistical headache? Why isn’t the Rwandan/19th Century American model (“kill them, all of them, quickly, and leave them where they lay”) more common?

If I hold sway in a group that basically has carte blanche to destroy some smaller group, I’m probably going to recommend just fencing them in and letting starvation happen. Were Jewish Europeans really that valuable to the war effort?

Well, for the Nazis, it was important to at least look somewhat legit, and that’s why the real nasty Final Solution phase of the Holocaust didn’t happen until later in the war when they were desperate, rather than back in the 30s when things seemed to be going okay for Germany.

Other than that, I’m not so sure I agree with your premise. Are most genocides like the Holocaust? Or are they more like Rwanda? I’m thinking the latter is more common.

Yeah, you’re probably right.

Read up on the Einsatzgruppen, Heinrich Himmler’s first try at the solution to the Jewish Problem, or whatever name you prefer. This was a group of special soldiers who would go into an area after the Nazis took over and attempt to round up the usual suspects and eliminate them. It was a pre-death camp attempt.

It took a lot of bullets, left a huge amount of rotting corpses, traumatized the troops involved, and didn’t work very well. See Babi Yar. Apparently exterminating huge numbers of people is a logistical nightmare.

This led to the death camps, gassing, crematoriums, etc.

I warn you that this is not a pleasant subject to inform yourself about.

At some times and places in WWII the Nazis attempted to extract the maximum amount of labor for the minimum amount of food from certain groups, such as the Jews. It wasn’t just about killing them, it was about extracting the maximum use from them.

Of course, in other locations it was just about killing them.

Like Dallas Jones says, it’s not a happy subject…

The Nazis are known and reviled for their meticulous records and elaborate planning of the Final Solution precisely because it was so different from other genocides. Historically, most genocides have been more on the Rwandan model, and have looked to outsiders like a combination of the chaos of war and collective madness. The slow, deliberate extermination of groups of people made Nazi Germany uniquely evil.

These two points especially. Soldiers in the field will fight furiously against attackers, and will commit massacres against civilians in retaliation for perceived offensives (guerrilla activity, etc.) But unless they’re outright psychopaths, even highly indoctrinated troops will eventually sour against continual slaughter of helpless innocent victims. Consider that before the Holocaust, none of the bloody pogroms over the centuries had ever turned into a methodical quest to exterminate the Jewish race. Most normal human beings have inhibitions against killing, at least wantonly, that soldiers’ training has to overcome.

The extermination camps had not only efficiency in mind but were carefully designed to minimize the impact of the deaths on the camp personnel. The guards who herded inmates into the “showers” didn’t see what happened afterwards. The men who pulled a lever to release poison gas did so remotely. The prisoners and their guards who removed and disposed of the bodies didn’t see them before their deaths and didn’t personally kill them. Everyone involved could cognitively disassociate from the process and tell themselves that they were “just doing their job”, one cog in an impersonal machine.

If I were an Evil Overlord, and wanted my Legions of Doom to eradicate populations, I would have a secret operative group actually keep the rebels armed, so that they could keep fighting back until my LoD wiped them out. And maybe have a special corp of sociopaths to do the really dirty mop-up work.