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.