A guide to everyday psychology


Political mass murder and Genocide (book chapter extract; 2015).

The leaders who order mass murder

   When we think of political mass murder and genocide, we nearly always visualize ‘rogue states’ under the leadership of all-powerful dictatorial leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Bokassa, or Stalin. This tendency to stereotype political mass murderer isn’t always unhelpful, because it suggests that large-scale mass murders and genocides might be completely explained in terms of the peculiarities of state leaders.

We need to recognise that political mass murder can only take place with the enthusiastic participation of many people other than the murderous leader. When a leader holds beliefs that require mass murder, those beliefs are always shared by others in the executive.

   Having noted that caveat, are there any characteristics common to all state leaders that help us to understand political mass murder?

Can Historians or Psychological analysts give us an answer?

   Explanations for political mass murder often take the form of a socio-political-historical analysis of a given country, or the ‘psychoanalysis’/‘profiling’ of its tyrannical leader. So, when historians account for the appalling things that happened during the Nazi era, for example, the events are often explained in terms of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the anomalies of the Treaty of Versailles, the historical position of Jewry in Europe – and a range of other non-psychological factors.

   In contrast, psychologists (and most commonly, psychoanalysts) account for the Nazi mass murders through individual psychological analyses of Adolf Hitler and his immediate followers – Eichmann the organizer; Himmler the narcissist; Bormann the psychopath, etc. etc.

But fascinating as these analyses are, neither approach – socio-political or psycho-profiling – will ever give us a comprehensive psychological understanding of mass murder… Why not?

   First, the socio-political frameworks within which mass murders have taken place have varied hugely. I would venture that the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, the My Lai massacre, the Malmedy massacre, the tribal massacres in Rwanda, and the sectarian massacres in seventeenth century Ireland have no useful socio-political similarities.

   Second, and equally, psycho-profiling the background and upbringing of one tyrant (even if such a thing were possible) might tell us absolutely nothing about the background and upbringing of another… The upbringing of Adolf Hitler will probably share little with the upbringing of Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot and – as some like to argue – Tony Blair.

   In short, neither political history nor the psychological deconstruction of an individual tyrant is likely provide a useful model that tells us why mass murders are carried out in very different times and places. This is especially true when political mass murders are carried out in situations that do not fall into the category of ‘dictatorship’ at all.

And even if we could fully understand the historical-social-political background to some given mass murder, and even if we could unravel the psychological dynamics of some given tyrant, this knowledge would still be inadequate… If we are to fully understand genocide and mass murder, we must also understand the psychological processes that shape the behaviour of everyone involved – including the middle-ranking individuals who organise the trains and the people who actually pull the triggers. And we must also understand why so many of us simply stand by while it happens. Political mass murder requires participation, or at least passive acquiescence, from the bottom to the top – and during the course of this chapter we must take a detailed look at all these participants.

   But most explanations of political mass murder and genocide emphasise the political leaders. So, what part do the leaders actually play in mass murder? There are usually two favoured explanations for the behaviour of state leaders who initiate genocide or mass murder – one is that they are insane and the other is that they are evil.


Is there any evidence that the despots and tyrants who order mass murders are as insane as popular legend tends to suggest?

   We often think of political leaders who order political mass murders as deranged and paranoid madmen. The image has much superficial appeal: the willingness to order mass murder is, surely, proof in itself of insanity?

  Well, we can interview none of them now; most of history’s despots are dead… and living despots have always proved less than candid when giving interviews. Accordingly, if we are to learn anything useful about the sanity of history’s tyrants, we are heavily reliant on historical biography – but such sources have to be treated with caution. The quest for something new to say has driven many historians towards fashionable revisionism and daft analyses. Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944, for example, fashionably retro-diagnoses Field Marshal Montgomery with autism. Diagnoses of long-dead people that the diagnostician/commentator has never actually met are, at best, foolish and presumptuous – and might well distract from the truth.

But setting those caveats aside for a moment, is there any strong historical/biographical evidence to suggest that history’s despots were mad – and paranoid, in particular?

   The early lives of the top-level Nazi political leaders (luminaries such as Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Bormann, and Kaltenbrunner) provide useful examples here because they are relatively well documented.

All seem to have had remarkably unremarkable backgrounds. Most of the best-known Nazi leaders were of middle standing social order: Himmler was a schoolteacher; Kaltenbrunner and Seyss-Inquart were lawyers; Heydrich was an aesthete, Olympic athlete and notable ‘man of action’; Bormann was an estate manager. Some in the Nazi elite were aristocrats and others were bar-room brawlers . They were a quite unexceptional and diverse group.

Accounts of the Nazi leaders’ early lives reveal no obvious signs of insanity. None was noted for extreme violence, or pulling the wings off flies, as a child – or even noted for being a victim of unusual violence.

Nor is there any compelling evidence of insanity in the families of history’s political mass murderers. As far as it is possible to judge, no political mass murderers are known to have had parents with mental illnesses so severe that they could not lead normal lives. Meanwhile, looking at it from the other end of the telescope, most of the descendants of history’s political mass murderers also seem to have led quiet and normal lives.

Tellingly, there is no evidence that any of the German leaders who escaped to South America after the war behaved insanely once they got there – and overnight recoveries are rare in mental illness.

  Whichever way we look, the evidence for insanity is scant.

But if they are not insane, why do tyrants often display apparently paranoid behaviour?

   Perhaps the characteristic common to all despots, and the feature that is most frequently taken as evidence of their insanity and ‘paranoia’, is that they seem to trust nobody. All tyrants set up secret police services… and they spy upon and round up, political opponents, personal enemies and enemies of the state. Surely, this is evidence of insane paranoia?

   Well, it is undoubtedly repressive. But, when such behaviour is judged in its political context, it is often far more rational than it is insane. Adolf Hitler, for example, was the subject of at least three serious attempts to assassinate him and countless plots to depose him, beginning almost from the inception of the Third Reich. And Hitler was an elected leader.

Despots, especially those who have secured power through revolutionary means, often are the subjects of plots. So, to characterise their repressive counter-measures as ‘paranoid’ (in the sense of a mental illness), is unhelpful in understanding their behaviour. Josef Stalin, perhaps history’s most ‘paranoid’ dictator, emerged from a political system that was founded on the principle of constant revolution!

It may be comforting to dismiss history’s tyrants as deluded paranoiacs, but doing so misses the central point: tyrants often reach their fears and suspicions by the same rational means as the rest of us. And when they fear other people, it sometimes is because those people really are out to get them.

Do tyrants become insane as a result of stress?

   Although there is very little evidence to suggest that history’s tyrants and political mass murderers were clinically insane when they assumed office, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some had become divorced from reality by the time they died, or by the time their regimes collapsed. Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa and Adolf Hitler offer clear examples of mental decline – and it is not too fanciful to suppose that the years of stress caused by being a despot led to that mental collapse in some cases.

   But interesting as the effect of stress on the sanity of dictators is in its own right, it provides only a marginal account for political mass murder… Many despots who ordered mass murders never showed any signs of insanity or mental collapse (Saddam Hussein and most of Hitler’s immediate subordinates provide examples here; Field Marshal Keitel had perhaps the most stressful job of all within the apparatus of the Third Reich, and yet he remained completely ‘normal’ throughout). And even the tyrants who did show obvious mental decline in their later years had started murdering people long before that decline. The insanity did not cause the murdering.

The balance of the evidence suggests that insanity does not offer a comprehensive, straightforward or useable explanation for the behaviour of history’s worst tyrants or their immediate subordinates. Even those reputedly ‘maddest’ of all despotic tyrants, Hitler, Idi Amin, Bokassa and Pol Pot, displayed no early signs of insanity.

   And yet, these – seemingly – completely sane men participated enthusiastically in the calculated murder of millions of people.


So, if they are not clinically paranoid or insane, are leaders who order political mass murder simply ‘evil’?

   As I have suggested several times in this book, moralistic terms such as ‘evil’ (alongside ‘brave’, ‘cowardly’ and ‘good’) are worthless in a psychological analysis because they are value-judgements. They only tell us something definite about the values of the person using them. Avoiding value judgement – or at least being aware of its restrictions – is essential for any objective analysis.

Today, most people would describe slavery as ‘evil’ – no question or debate about that. But does that mean that we must now re-classify as ‘evil’ all the highly esteemed national ‘heroes’ who enabled it throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Were Robert E Lee, George Washington, Horatio Nelson and George III all evil, for example? Well, it is an interesting moral debate. The crucial point, psychologically speaking, is that the label doesn’t take us closer to understanding the causes of slavery.

 So, for those seeking to understand mass murder, the label ‘evil’ takes us nowhere. As we have noted already, the concepts of intolerance and indifference, and the psychological processes that can create them in any one of us, is the key to understanding our capacity for mass murder.

   So, if we cannot meaningfully account for genocide and political mass murder in terms of a leader’s madness, paranoia or evil, do state leaders share any common characteristics? And, if so, which of these might lead to a state leader becoming a mass murderer?

What do all political leaders have in common – and what are the shared characteristics of leaders who order acts of mass murder?

   All political leaders share a number of important (and often self-fulfilling) characteristics. These include being ambitious, well-educated (or self-educated), skilled in communication, strong-willed and imbued with a profound sense of self-belief. Political leadership is intensely competitive – and aspirants without all these qualities (as well as a keen and mean political edge) will not make it to the top. This is true irrespective of political orientation.

   In the 2015 British general election campaign, much was made of Ed Miliband’s earlier rivalry with his brother for leadership of the Labour Party. Ed was accused, by Conservative Party politician Michael Fallon, of ‘stabbing his brother in the back’. Other commentators also echoed this view. But the simple reality is that no political leader ever gets to the top without being competitive enough to fight for it. Mr Fallon, likewise, needed to overcome a few hopeful aspirants to secure his perch (Defence Secretary).

The seemingly unlikely election of rank-outsider Jeremy Corbyn as new Labour leader reflects a simple reality: a winner needs conviction and a profound sense of self-belief to become a political leader. A leader also needs a hard political edge to hold onto the chair. Time will reveal if Mr Corbyn has that latter characteristic.

Are all leaders a bit psychopathic?

Quite a few modern writers argue that all successful leadership requires an element of psychopathy. Some writers even sell courses to business managers designed to assist aspiring leaders to seek out their ‘inner psychopath’.

The relationship between leadership, psychopathy and psychopathic brain types is examined closely in Chapter 11. In my view, the belief that great leaders and tyrants have psychopathic brains enabling them to be ruthless is, at very best, wildly simplistic – and unproven. It is true that all successful leaders – of every political leaning – must be willing to kick ass. But there are important additional characteristics that cause leaders, democratically elected or revolutionary, to become despots – and perhaps become leaders capable of ordering mass murders.

In my view, these additional characteristics are likely to include the following:

  • A learned belief that the pursuit of important national objectives can justify extreme methods.
  • A keen and learned sense of duty to (or compassion for) their nation, or to a particular section of it – together with a belief that the national interest and the interests of the leader are the same.
  • A sense of self-belief so strong that it amounts to a conviction about individual destiny.

   So, could any political leader, in extreme circumstances, evolve into a tyrant – and a political mass murderer? To some extent, this depends on the nature of those extreme circumstances and the social learning of that leader. But all political leaders have a strong sense of identity with something – which might be their nation state or their class origins. And they did not get to the very top without being willing to fight for those beliefs.

   Historical precedent seems to suggest that it is reasonably commonplace for ‘normal’ leaders to develop into oppressive tyrants when they believe that socio-political circumstances require it. The government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, for example, became increasingly intolerant over the years – and where it was once merely oppressive, it eventually become murderous. Even Adolf Hitler’s government began by ‘only’ imprisoning its enemies and political opponents, with occasional assassinations. The policy of mass murder came later.

   Both Hitler and Mugabe evolved into mass murderers, as circumstances deteriorated and they became increasingly convinced that the interests of their nations were the same as their own interests – and needed to be safeguarded by extreme methods. Very few governments in history have become more liberal during their periods of office.

   Even leaders of liberal societies sometimes allow extreme circumstances to justify extreme methods. In Britain, anxiety about terrorists encouraged some in the British parliament to seek lengthier detention without charge or trial (increasing it from twenty-eight days to three months).

Despite its absolute constitutional commitments not to do so, the American government of George W. Bush opened a detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 to intern ‘unlawful combatants’ without trial, and has even used torture on them. Despite similar laws forbidding it, other liberal Western governments have also engaged in torture – by contracting it out to other countries. Curfews and martial law have frequently been imposed on American cities.

The lesson is simple: as soon as any government leaders believe that they are acting in the national interest, they assume the right and even a duty to behave repressively. We delude ourselves if we think that such things are solely the prerogative of manifestly despotic governments. Even in a democracy, the leader’s definitions of ‘national safety’ are hard to resist… And once on that path, the exigencies of ‘war’ demand, and justify, extreme responses.

   The summary execution of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who happened to look vaguely Middle Eastern, and the white-wash enquiry that followed his killing stand as clear illustrations of how even the most liberal governments will, in extreme circumstances, support their security services when the security services adopt a policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. We’ll come back to the death of Mr Menezes shortly, in a slightly different context.

Cognitive dissonance

   One final question we need to address here is this: how do political leaders who order mass murder sleep at night? Surely, if they are not mad or bad, then they must be subject to the same guilt as anybody else? The answer to this question lies in fundamental psychological processes that operate in all of us – and chief among them are our capacities for selective perception and rationalising (or self-justifying) the things we do.

   Leaders with a strong sense of national duty and a strong sense of their own absolute importance to national security have little difficulty in finding justifications for ‘necessary’ killings. The process is no different from the way we all justify rather more trivial things to ourselves – jumping traffic queues, petty theft, killing insects or fiddling our insurance claims and tax returns. It’s only a question of scale. For all leaders, the safety of their state comes first – and securing its safety might result, very sadly, in collateral victims.

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