Reflections: Genocide, the darker side to the Human Psyche

Abigail Le Fevre, Third Year Historian, reflects on her recent studies of Genocide in history:

There will always be a fascination with the morbid. Its ability to represent something familiar yet challenge what we perceive to be ‘normal’ continues to capture the interests of many. Consider the following extract taken from Why Bosnia, containing an interview with a Serbian Officer from the Balkan Wars.

‘Look, there are some things you don’t go around telling everybody. But I’ll tell you, it’s not a pretty sight to watch a circular saw go through human flesh. The way it snarls through the bones.’ [1]

Retelling his involvement in the massacre of Muslim minorities in the village of Zvornik- Bosnia, the Serbian official’s rhetoric is striking. This quote, which I encountered for the first time while studying the Bosnian genocide this term, evoked a sense of shock and anger that was difficult to separate from an analytical mindset. When one finally overcomes the graphic imagery, however, the quote is able to reveal much more than the physical act of killing. We, as historians, are given a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the mindset of a perpetrator, to try and provide an answer to the unanswerable question within genocide- why?

Would it be correct to suggest that the mind of a perpetrator evolves during childhood as argued by Steven Baum? [2] Would we side more with Christopher Browning who argues that perpetrators are often ‘ordinary men?’ [3] Or do we see such behaviours as psychotic impulses displaced into forms of wide spread violence?

Studying genocide this year has reminded me that the darker areas of history can be highly emotive and personal. Close engagement with oral testimony has the ability to re-personalise large narratives such as that of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the Cambodian genocide. By actively researching and seeking out answers to the ‘why’ question, I felt my own attitudes starting to be challenged too.

In a context in which a ‘national, ethic, racial or religious group’ was being ‘destroyed’ with ‘intent’, as outlined by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, what category would I find myself in? [4] Would I become a bystander, witnessing events from afar to protect social upstanding, a rescuer, or even a perpetrator? While I don’t think one can ever fully have a response to this, it remains true that studying genocide with these questions in mind is just as important as the analytical ones. Looking closely at genocides throughout the twentieth century this term has taught us not only about the past, but also about ourselves.


[1] R. Ali and L. Lifschultz (eds.) Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War (Connecticut, 1993), 101.

[2] S. Baum, The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers (Cambridge, 2008), 123.

[3] C. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland (Chicago, 2001), 75.

[4] A. Hinton, Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (Oxford, 2002), 43.

Quick History: Talking about the past with busy people

By Dr Emily Baughan

History takes time. As historians, we can spend years on a piece of research: reading the work of other scholars, visiting archives and libraries, and writing our findings into books and journal articles. Once that’s done, more time passes. It can often take a few more years for a book or article to make it into print. It sometimes all feels like a terribly slow process.

My research is on people who work quickly: humanitarians. I explore the efforts made by NGO Save the Children to aid children in the conflict-riven early-twentieth century. Seeking to halt the spread of disease, feed starving populations and shelter millions of refugees during and after two world wars, humanitarians could not work fast enough. Delays cost lives.

I want the research that I’ve done into past humanitarian principles and practices to help contemporary NGOs to reflect upon what they do in the present day. Yet, moving constantly from crisis to crisis, now, as in the past, humanitarian organisations have little time for refection.

Lengthy journal articles and detailed monographs aren’t appropriate ways to communicate with busy humanitarians. If we want to work with NGOs, historians need to find different ways to speak about the past.  To do this, I recently gave a short talk about my research to the Global Programmes Leadership Team at Save the Children.  (After I’d spoken, the discussion was moving on to Ebola prevention strategies and the Syrian refugee crisis. I certainly didn’t want to take up too of the meeting!) Although time was short, the audience were interested. History is a key feature of Save the Children’s organisational identity. Its staff has a proud sense of the heritage of the organisation, which was founded in 1919 as one of Britain’s first ‘international’ charities.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Like many humanitarian organisations, Save the Children has turned its history into a compelling ‘origins story’ through a focus on a single ‘great individual’, Eglantyne Jebb. The story goes that the saintly Jebb created Save the Children after the First World War as an expression of her unique vision of compassion and concern for ‘all the world’s children’.  This ‘origins story’ is not just an oversimplification. It’s actually wrong. Save the Children was formed not by Jebb, but by her younger sister, feminist socialist Dorothy Buxton.  Its early work expressed not only ‘compassion’, but also Buxton’s radical vision of international solidarity.

By remembering Eglantyne Jebb as its founder, rather than her radical sister Dorothy Buxton, Save the Children has promoted a myth about the nature of humanitarian work: that it should be uncontroversial and apolitical. In fact, for Save the Children’s founder Dorothy Buxton, concern for others could not be separated from broader critiques of the structures and systems which have caused their suffering.

As a historian, it certainly isn’t my job to advise on present day humanitarian policy or practice. But, by demythologising the past, perhaps what I can do is free NGOs up to think in new ways. If we accept that the humanitarian mission was, at its inception, deeply political, this may enable present day organisations to understand their work as radical and themselves as challenging not only the effects of poverty, but also its causes.  By focusing my talk to the Global Programmes Team at Save the Children on the life and legacy of Dorothy Buxton, I could open up a conversation about the nature of humanitarianism in the present day.

In their recent History Manifesto,Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue that in order for history to have impact beyond the academy, historians should focus on big picture, longue durée histories. Communicating with Save the Children I did the opposite. I used a short life-story, told quickly, to ask important questions to busy people.

Past Matter, Object 8: Cufflinks

Past Matter objects return with the cufflinks of Gordon Barrett, PhD student in History, who explains below how their previous owner fuelled his interest in the past.


A relative gave this pair of cufflinks to me when I was fifteen years old and they have been one of my most treasured possessions ever since. He was one of the first cohort of pilots in the British Army’s new Glider Pilot Regiment during the Second World War, and took part in the ill-fated airborne invasions of Sicily in July 1943 (Operation Ladbroke) and Arnhem in 1944 (Operation Market Garden). In later life, he also went on to write two books and give talks about being a wartime glider pilot. I was lucky enough to get to talk with him at some length about his experiences while visiting the UK on a family vacation from Canada. I found myself entirely engrossed by what he had to say, and keen to know more about the things he discussed. These cufflinks are a tangible anchor for me to person who helped stoke my interest in contemporary history. They serve as a powerful reminder to me not only of him as a person, but also of his passion for discussing about the recent past.


Undercover Undergraduate

I was staring at the Alps through the window of the plane, waiting to touch down in Italy for my very first academic conference. Interning with Josie McLellan on her Women, Work, and Value research network (, I had been granted a peek into the shadowy abyss of academia by the way of a two day conference on the subject in Florence, Italy. Ostensibly, the aim was to gather content for a series of public workshops on ‘Women and Work’, which was the purpose of my internship. In practice, while trying to get my friends as excited as me about the said workshops, I could never help dropping in my four day, Italian ‘business trip’. ‘You’re so lucky to be jetting off for a minibreak!’ said my envious friends. ‘No, it’s for work’, I replied, sounding about as convinced as they did.

When I pictured an academic conference, I couldn’t help but imagine a sea of geriatric men in tweed suits (with elbow patches, obviously), in a wood panelled, draughty library, ferociously debating the finer points of an argument made by a world-famous historian I had never heard of.  This was despite the conference being organised by Josie, about as far from a crusty elderly man as its possible to be, and the name of the conference making it obvious this conference was going to be a little more gender inclusive than my imaginings.

Firstly, even the location made this conference a far cry from what I had envisioned. Cold and draught, Tuscany in October is not. The research network was lucky enough to be hosted by the EUI campus in Florence, in a stunning building once the seat of the Spanish ambassador, set in rolling hills under a perfectly blue sky (as I write this, looking out at a bleak sky from the Hawthorns, it seems like a distant dream). Several academics stressed to me I should not expect this from every conference! Aesthetics aside, it was really interesting to see another university so different from my own- the university was postgraduate only, and truly international with students all over Europe and supervisors being required to speak at least two European languages. And as for the canteen, let’s just say that their freshly made gnocchi trumped the Refectory’s jacket potatoes.


Yet another shock was the academics themselves. Yes, maybe with ‘Women, work and Value’ in the title, it was possible this conference might have some female representation. But 31 female academics out of 33? It was actually a completely inspiring setting to be in- only 20% of senior academics are female nationally¸ so it was nice not to be in the minority for once, and to see so many intelligent female academics with interesting research- many of them in their twenties and thirties. Delegates also came from an astonishing range of countries, from Finland to the USA to Lithuania to Croatia. Those who didn’t speak English as a first language probably still speak more eloquent English than I do.

And I was definitely wrong about the content of the lecture being crusty scholars I had never heard of. Most of the content was unfamiliar to me, but I hugely enjoyed how current, relevant, and varied the work in question was- from housewives and factory workers to drummers and reality TV stars. I know gender history is a relatively recent development of historical study, and it was so refreshing to see a wide range of interesting research focussing on women’s contributions.


All these academics researched along a vaguely similar theme, and I was anxious during coffee breaks and lunch not to interfere with any ground-breaking developments that could be sparked with face to face interaction. Here I was wrong again. Yes, a lot of the conversations centred around the talks we heard throughout the days. But a lot of the time, these high level academics were simply chatting about the weather, university, and other relative frivolities- a lot like students really, right down to the frequenting of a nearby bar in the evening. Not to mention a use of social media- it seemed every academic at the conference was frenetically tweeting interesting aspects of the conference (complete with official conference hashtag, of course).  Meanwhile I, supposedly of the social media generation, slid aside my old-school notebook and glumly realised they all have far more followers than I do.

So what did I learn from my first conference? That conferences are actually vibrant places where academics learn from each other’s research, But only after they’ve caught up on all the other news that happened while they were in the library doing that research, and followed each other on Twitter. Oh and of course, all conferences take place in beautiful old houses in the Mediterranean. Right?


If you want to hear more about this exciting research network feel free to have a look at the links below:

Sarah Brodie (left, project intern and blog author), with Graihagh Goode (project intern).

Sarah Brodie (left, project intern and blog author), with Graihagh Goode (project intern).

Sarah Brodie is one of the undergraduate public engagement interns on the Women, Work and Value Research Network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.