Small Wars Journal

The Perverse Political Logic of Genocide

Fri, 12/25/2020 - 4:07pm

The Perverse Political Logic of Genocide

Avi Dravid

At face value, genocide appears to be a fundamentally irrational act, ripping apart the very fabric of society for little demonstrable gain. Indeed, the term conjures images of mindless killing and pathological bloodlust. Hannah Arendt famously asserted that the Nazi extermination camp could not be understood in utilitarian terms, as it reflected an irrational and paranoid worldview that was divorced from any broader strategic calculus.[1] While there are certainly elements of irrationality in genocide, this article argues that genocide is often viewed as rational by those who perpetrate it, though these rationales seem perverse and inscrutable from the outside. From the top-down, political elites inflame ethnic sentiments and encourage genocidal violence as a means of preventing challenges to their privileged position, pushing back against the threats posed by democratization and popular mobilization. Genocide serves a dual function, eliminating the political opposition while also mollifying the masses. At the grassroots level, civilian perpetrators are often motivated by economic considerations, in addition to fears of punishment and retribution.

Genocide and Ethnicity 

            Genocide is often portrayed as the product of a breakdown in the social order, releasing violent primal forces.[2] This strand of thought is especially prominent in primordialist views of ethnicity, such as those espoused by Robert Kaplan[3] and Samuel Huntington.[4] In this formulation, ethnicity and culture are the sources of immutable divisions that cause conflict; as a corollary, genocide is viewed as an irrational yet inevitable consequence of ‘ancestral hatreds.’ However, this theory ignores the fact that many conflicting ethnic groups have peacefully coexisted throughout history. Understanding the conditions that allow for ethnic violence to escalate requires a closer examination of the instrumentalization of ethnicity. The differential distribution of power and resources along ethnic lines attributes new salience to previously unimportant identity categories, while also conferring legitimacy to members of the political elite who claim to be defending the interests of their group.[5] Notably, the construction and consolidation of ethnicity sometimes involves the use of violence against a cultural ‘other,’ treating this group as a useful scapegoat.[6] This cynical logic also explains why some governments resort to genocide to strengthen their authority, as will be discussed later. 

            Genocide is not a sudden rupture – it requires extensive planning and preparation. This fact belies its supposedly irrational nature, as those who meticulously plan the carnage have specific targets and objectives.[7] Well before the start of the Rwandan genocide, the Interahamwe were receiving support, small arms, and training on how to identify and eliminate Tutsi targets.[8] Perpetrators of genocide often engage in a twisted form of cost-benefit analysis to determine the “optimal” moment to begin killing. Helen Fein observes that genocides are more likely to take place during a period of crisis, as these conditions improve the likelihood of “success.”[9] This suggests that those who commit genocide are well aware of the risks and expected benefits. 

Top-Down Motivations

            By drawing upon selective readings of history, the elite attempt to manipulate ethnic sentiments in their favor. The internal enemy identified by prominent politicians does not need to pose a material threat to the nation in question. If the majority ethnic group accepts this constructed definition of the enemy, appeals to ethnicity will have significant resonance, conferring a type of affective political legitimacy that stems from the visceral affinity towards one’s ethnic group.[10] Genocide is simply the most extreme instantiation of this ethnic politics, channeling ethnic allegiances into mass political violence in service of elite interests. 

The deliberate and widescale use of violence against a specific ethnic group is often an attempt to consolidate the power of the incumbent regime and forestall challenges to its legitimacy. Members of the political elite frequently use this survival strategy in countries undergoing democratization.[11] In this context, the ruling elite fear losing their privileges, incentivizing the use of ethnonationalist appeals to maintain their position of power and derail the democratic transition.[12] The desire to stay in control takes on a new urgency in states that lack the rule of law, as the elite fear reprisals by previously marginalized groups. 

Mahmood Mamdani argues that the Rwandan Genocide is a product of intentional political strategies adopted by the ruling elite.[13] During the early 1990s, the Rwandan government faced a multitude of challenges to its legitimacy. The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had made significant incursions into government-controlled territory, threatening the survival of the Hutu-dominated political order.[14] The 1993 Arusha Accords attempted to mediate between the rebels and the government, establishing a ceasefire and instituting a power-sharing agreement.[15] Concurrently, a severe agricultural crisis and rapid structural adjustment had plunged Rwanda into economic malaise.[16] In order to maintain their power amidst these headwinds, hardline Hutus orchestrated a genocide against both the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus sympathetic to the Arusha Accords. The genocide served an instrumental purpose, eliminating internal sources of opposition while also deflecting attention from the successive failures of the Hutu elite. 

Similar strategies relying on the militarization of ethnic groups and the instrumental use of genocide can be observed in Sudan.[17] The forcible relocation and extermination of recalcitrant communities has become a core feature of the Sudanese government’s counterinsurgency efforts in Darfur. This case is flagged as further evidence that genocide is an intentional strategic choice, used in pursuit of rational political objectives. 

Bottom-Up Motivations

            Though the elite certainly play a role in instigating genocide, top-down political agendas alone cannot explain why civilians readily turn against their neighbors. Genocide is often characterized by the extreme decentralization of violence, outsourcing the act of killing to informal militias and private groups. Given the collective action problem inherent in mobilizing the populace for genocide, it is important to understand how individual rationalities and motivations feed into mass political violence. Without any personal benefit, few would be motivated to actively participate. 

            The drive for physical security pushes some civilians to take up arms against the ethnic ‘other,’ fearing that inaction would give the upper hand to an internal enemy intent on causing harm. The specter of the Rwandan Patriotic Front taking Kigali reinforced Hutu solidarity vis-à-vis the grossly exaggerated threat of an internal Tutsi enemy.[18] In the eyes of the génocidaires, leaving any survivors posed an unacceptable level of risk, given the possibility of reprisals. Rallying around their own ethnic group against the ‘alien’ Tutsis, Hutu extremists committed genocide in the belief that they were improving their relative security, motivated by fears of Tutsi political domination.[19]

Economic factors also play a role in individual rationales for participating in genocide. For instance, in Rwanda, many Interahamwe were unemployed men with few economic prospects.[20] Peter Uvin describes Rwanda as a “structurally violent” society in which development aid and meaningful employment were only available to the well-connected.[21] The genocide represented an escape from these daily deprivations, providing an opportunity to accumulate land and resources.[22]

Not all perpetrators are motivated by the same set of economic considerations. In the context of the colonies of North and South America, Henry Theriault notes the complexity of aims in the displacement and slaughter of indigenous tribes.[23] Whereas some killings were done in the name of pacification, others were carried out to secure ranching land.[24] Notably, many of these destructive acts were carried out by private groups such as families and businesses, oftentimes acting independently of central authorities. Within a genocide, there is ample space for individuals to brutally act upon their own economic interests, contributing to the overall levels of violence.

            Some civilians participate in genocide because they fear punishment by the core perpetrators themselves. During the Guatemalan military government’s genocide against the indigenous population, many Mayan highlanders participated in the Civil Patrols that were responsible for unspeakable acts of violence.[25] Those who joined did so because they feared collective punishment for refusing to cooperate.[26] Genocidal violence can be self-sustaining, as those who have already killed civilians may continue to do so in the hopes that there is no one left to point the finger during future prosecutions. 

Concluding Thoughts 

            Claims of irrationality vis-à-vis genocide justify non-intervention, as policymakers resign themselves to the idea that there is nothing that can be done. By painting ethnic violence as a product of ancient enmities, Western nations are also able to obscure their role in creating the political conditions that have often allowed for genocide in the first place. The Belgian colonial legacy of scientific racism and classification is directly responsible for contemporary Hutu-Tutsi tensions, introducing a system of ethnic identity cards that made it possible for Hutu génocidaires to identify their targets.[27] The militarized tribalism of Sudan is an extension of the British strategy of divide-and-rule, which conferred material privileges to certain groups and politicized ethnic identities.[28] In Guatemala, the dogmatic anti-communism of the United States gave the military junta the pretense to murder thousands of ethnic Mayas in its campaign against subversive groups.[29]

Recognizing that there are elements of rationality in genocide does not excuse violent behavior. On the contrary, acknowledging this fact makes it possible to address the underlying motivations that drive mass violence. Genocide is an active choice that reflects a wide range of strategic objectives and personal motivations, responding to a particular set of political conditions. Reducing it to an exclusively irrational act fundamentally misunderstands the reasons why it happens.


Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Professors William Reno (Northwestern University) and David Keen (LSE) for their support and guidance throughout the years. I am also grateful to the US-UK Fulbright Commission and the London School of Economics for their generous support during my time in the United Kingdom. 




[1] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951.

[2] Keen, David. Complex emergencies. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.  

[3] Kaplan, Robert D. “The Coming Anarchy.” The Atlantic, February 1994.

[4] Huntington, Samuel P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22-49. Accessed December 16, 2020. doi:10.2307/20045621.

[5] Turton, David. “War and Ethnicity: Global Connections and Local Violence in North East Africa and Former Yugoslavia.” Oxford Development Studies 25, no. 1 (February 1997): 77–94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lemarchand, Rene. “Rwanda: The Rationality of Genocide.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 23, no. 2 (1995): 8.

[8] African Rights. Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance. London: African Rights, 1994.

[9] Fein, Helen. "Accounting for Genocide after 1945: Theories and Some Findings." International Journal on Group Rights 1, no. 2 (1993): 79-106. Accessed December 16, 2020.

[10] Turton, “War and Ethnicity,” 1997.

[11] Mansfield, Edward D., and Jack Snyder. "Democratization and the Danger of War." International Security 20, no. 1 (1995): 5-38. Accessed December 16, 2020. doi:10.2307/2539213.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2001. Accessed December 16, 2020. doi: 10.2307/j.ctt6wq0vm.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Uvin, Peter. “Rwanda: The Social Roots of Genocide.” In War, Hunger, and Displacement: Volume 2, 159–86. Oxford University Press, 2000.

[17] De Waal, Alexander. War in Darfur and the Search for Peace. Harvard: Global Equity Initiative, 2007.

[18] Lemarchand, “Rwanda: The Rationality of Genocide,” 1995.

[19] Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, 2001.

[20] African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, 1994.

[21] Uvin, “Rwanda: The Social Roots of Genocide,” 2000.

[22] Prunier, Gérard. Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

[23] Theriault, Henry C. "Genocidal Mutation and the Challenge of Definition.” Metaphilosophy 41, no. 4 (2010): 481-524. Accessed December 16, 2020.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Zur, Judith. Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala. New York: Avalon Publishing, 1998.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Uvin, “Rwanda: The Social Roots of Genocide,” 2000.

[28] De Waal, War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, 2007.

[29] Zur, Violent Memories, 1998.

About the Author(s)

Avi Dravid recently graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in International Development & Humanitarian Emergencies. He is the recipient of the 2019-2020 US-UK Fulbright Commission/London School of Economics Postgraduate Award. Prior to his time at LSE, he studied at Northwestern University, graduating with a degree in biology and political science. Avi is especially interested in the nexus between health and conflict, and has conducted research on humanitarian aid delivery in the Horn of Africa. He currently works in the healthcare field and plans to attend medical school, with the goal of practicing medicine in complex emergencies.