The Genocidal Impulse:

Why Nations Kill Other Nations

By Richard Morrock

In her presentation to the 1998 convention of the International Psychohistory Association, Dr. Alice Miller posed the question of why Germany, with its long history of anti-Semitism, did not instigate a Holocaust during World War One, when much of Eastern Europe was under its control. What follows is my attempt to answer that question in terms of the one major difference in the German state of mind between that war and the next: in World War Two, the Germans were aware of the possibility of defeat. And in 1945, that would have meant not merely the loss of some distant colonies; rather, the Germans were led by Hitler to believe that defeat would result in the annihilation of the German nation.

There have been many cases of genocide during the twentieth century. Not all are equally familiar to Americans. The U.S. government sponsored a museum devoted to the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide, but still speaks of "allegations" of the mass murder of Armenians by the Turks, now our NATO allies.1 Our media blame Pol Pot for the transformation of once-peaceful Cambodia into a slaughterhouse in which 2 million people died out of 8 million; but they never hint that some of these deaths were attributable to our own client regimes, and to our massive aerial bombardment of defenseless Cambodian villages. Notwithstanding its sanctimonious war against Milosevic's Serbia, the United States has long since lost the moral high ground on this issue.

Typically, genocide has been blamed by the experts on either ideology or genes. We are innocent lambs, led astray by the persuasive powers of a few evil men like Hitler or Pol Pot; or else we are killer apes, expressing nothing but our true nature when we create horrors like Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng. Let me offer a third explanation, a psychohistorical one, which does not insist that human beings are inherently dupes or demons.

The genocidal impulse, I would argue, is an expression of feelings which were repressed in childhood, but remain intact in the unconscious feelings of terror, rage, and need. When social conditions permit, these repressed feelings take the form of mass murder of officially sanctioned victims. Take away the repressed pain, and the Hitlers and Pol Pots would end up as isolated mountebanks, preaching their doctrines to non-existent audiences; take away the historical setting that sanctions the sacrifice of entire ethnic groups, and the perpetrators would be forced to find other outlets for their urges. An explanation for genocide is not psychohistorical unless it is both psychological and historical; I am calling for trading in reductionist explanations for interactionist ones.

In good times, demagogues attract little following. This does not mean that the psychological pain they address is absent, since it typically originates in the nuclear family decades earlier; it only means that conditions are not ripe for its political expression. Millions of Americans are intensely prejudiced against blacks, and not a few still entertain murderous fantasies about Jews; but only a handful joined George Lincoln Rockwell's tiny American Nazi Party, which openly advocated violence against these two groups. Yet, had there been a serious depression during the 1960's, Rockwell's following might have increased a thousand-fold. Obviously, economic collapse does not cause people to be traumatized twenty years previously, but by creating a potential threat to the system, it causes ruling elites to play the role of enablers, backing the radical right to save them from the radical left.

We must recognize the influence of childhood traumas, including birth traumas, on those who fall prey as adults to the demagogy of bloodthirsty fanatics. We must also not ignore school systems, which play a key role in socializing future members of society, sometimes traumatizing them in the bargain. Finally, we must not overlook the political and social conditions which lead to genocide. The conditions under which Arthur Janov's "unreal self," the person we had to be in order to be loved,2 becomes Lloyd deMause's "social alter," who can find meaning and purpose in life through the persecution of others.

Genocide is a situation in which "ordinary Germans" or ordinary Turks, Yugoslavs, Cambodians, or even Americans begin to act like psychopaths. This group, who commit evil acts with the full understanding of what they are doing, have not received sufficient attention from academics or clinicians. Robert Lindner's famous popular book, The Fifty-Minute Hour, in which two of his five cases fit the definition of psychopath, was superficial and unreliable. Hervey Cleckley's The Mask of Sanity4 supposedly about psychopaths, was a collection of case studies of people who appeared to be manic-depressives.

The problem is that psychopaths do not often come to the attention of clinicians, aside from a few atypical cases such as attempted presidential assassin John Hinckley, "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, and homosexual cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Psychopaths rarely seek treatment, and most clinicians would be reluctant to take them on as patients. They don't even suffer from their past traumas; they make others suffer instead.

What we know about Dahmer and Berkowitz indicates that their crimes were not all that inexplicable. Berkowitz had been given up for adoption at birth. As a young man, stationed in Korea with the army, he took repeated doses of LSD. When he left the army, he sought out his biological mother, and they established a cordial relationship. However, when he began his killing spree, he singled out women with shoulder-length, dark hair, just like his birth mother. He might have survived the trauma of abandonment, had the LSD not blown away the remainder of his fragile defense system. The howling of a neighbor's dog triggered the feelings of loneliness and abandonment, sending Berkowitz into his murderous state.5

Dahmer came from an affluent family, but his mother was a borderline psychotic. His scientist father spent little time at home. Jeffrey began to be neglected at age six, when his parents had another son. While his mother was pregnant, she let Jeffrey put his ear against her stomach to listen to the sound of his unborn brother's heartbeat. Once the younger boy was born, however, she withdrew all interest from her first child.

Dahmer was so neglected by his parents that they didn't even realize that he was an alcoholic by age 12. When he was 18, his parents were on the brink of divorce, living in separate parts of the large family home. Neither bothered to inform Jeffrey when they moved out, simultaneously but separately, to get away from each other. Jeffrey woke up one day to find that the rest of his family had disappeared, leaving him with the house and no means of support. It was shortly afterward that he committed his first murder.

As a young adult, Dahmer would sometimes reenact the childhood scene with his victims, putting his ear against their stomach to listen to the sounds. His annihilation of his victims' bodies was presaged by his childhood pastime of dissolving the bodies of animals in acid, a hobby that took up much of his time. Squirrels, raccoons, and even neighborhood dogs would disappear, and he would bury their remains in his back yard. It appears that he was acting out a wish to annihilate his younger brother, so that his place as the center of his mother's attention would be restored.6

Love and respect produce neurotransmitters in the brain, and the lack of these transmitters is correlated with increased levels of violence in experimental mice.7 Each of the major neurotransmitters appears to be connected with a specific mind state. Dopamine is associated with joy; norepinephrine with feelings of fear and danger; endorphine with love; and serotonin with a more indefinable set of feelings associated with status and accomplishment. Receptors in the brain take up these neurotransmitters, with different receptors acting on each of the transmitters. The relationship between the number of receptors and the amount of neurotransmitter seems to be complex, but the implication is that the particular combination of neurotransmitters in a child's brain fixes the pattern of receptors that continues into adulthood, and that the adult, if deprived of the desired level of a particular neurotransmitter, will go to great lengths to seek out experiences that produce it. Sometimes these experiences are endorsed by society; sometimes the individual has to seek out an obscure subculture; and sometimes he has to act out in an anti-social way, risking imprisonment or even death. But the need for the depleted neurotransmitter is as strong as any addict's craving for his drug.

Consequently, we have people whose norepinephrine imbalance leads them to ride roller coasters, engage in risky sports, read ghost stories, and attend every horror film released by Hollywood. Those with low endorphin levels may immerse themselves in extreme forms of conventional religion, become easy prey for "love-bombing" cults, or engage in compulsive sexual activity. Serotonin shortages may compel people to become violent criminals who thrill at the thought of holding, however briefly, life-and-death power over others; or they may become scientists or researchers eager to discover important things unknown to the rest of the world; or they may even turn into racists who convince themselves that they are inherently superior. Whatever their obvious differences, these three groups have one thing in common: they believe that they have been unfairly deprived of status.

If it is possible to explain psychological and even social events clear down to the molecular level, as I maintain here. This is not the same as holding to a reductionist paradigm which would argue that "chemical imbalances" are the cause of disturbed behavior. What the biological reductionists consistently overlook are the psychosocial causes of the chemical imbalances. If the individual has too many receptors, or too little neuro-transmitter, in his brain, we should not attribute this to the random act of some indifferent deity, but to threatening, abusive, neglectful, over-protective, strict, or excessively demanding child-rearing practices. Murderers whether of individuals or entire nations do not come out of happy homes.

Violent acts may give the perpetrator a rush of serotonin, leading him to disregard the consequences. A few years ago, four men gang-raped and brutally beat a woman in Queens. Finished with their victim, they tossed her out of their van near a shopping center, with witnesses around, and then drove to a nearby diner for something to eat. Their behavior in the diner was so boisterous that the manager, who hadn't heard about the rape, thought that they might have been about to rob him, and called the police. The criminals were arrested when the police identified their van in the diner's parking lot.

It was more than a bit foolish for this thuggish crew to call attention to themselves while they were still only a few blocks from the crime scene, but the subjective experience was so intense that they disregarded the possibility of being caught. Similar responses are seen in lynch mobs, from the photographs taken at the time. The killers do not look like people forced to take unpleasant measures in order to protect their communities from criminals--their own rationalizations for their sadistic acts. Instead, they look like they are having a good time.

Just as individual murders differ in their causes and circumstances, so do acts of genocide. The three types of genocide I distinguish are the instrumental, the assimilative, and the atavistic, each of which have their roots in a particular repressed emotion.

  • Instrumental genocide involves the slaughter of a group of people over the issue of resources: Belgians killing Congolese in order to control the rubber and diamonds of Central Africa; French killing Algerians in order to retain the Sahara's oil fields; Japanese killing Chinese to obtain China's vast commercial markets for their cheap and shoddy (at the time) manufactured goods; or Americans killing Vietnamese so that U.S. corporations could continue to profit from their investments in the "third world" without fear of revolution.

    Instrumental genocide requires the least input from the perpetrators' unconscious. They are simply drafted, or hired, and sent overseas to "do a job" in the name of their country. Public opinion at home is informed that the genocide is actually a noble mission to bring "civilization," or "prosperity," or "freedom" to some benighted foreigners, who would eagerly surrender if they could only see what was good for them.

    Underlying instrumental genocide is repressed need. While the average citizen of an imperial power stands to gain little from overseas adventures, the economic benefits that are derived from the war are misperceived as accruing to the many rather than the few. Profits, markets and resources become symbols of whatever was withheld from us in childhood. Little wonder that affluent societies---such as France and the United States in the 1960s---found it difficult to persuade their youth to fight in their colonial wars. In contrast, eight years of costly fighting in China produced no anti-war movement in Japan. The slogan of "co-prosperity" had too strong an appeal to the common Japanese, whose standards of living were still low until the postwar era.

  • Assimilative genocide is the extermination of one group by another which derives from it. The victims are what I term an "origin folk." Examples of assimilative genocide would be the massacre of Hindus by Pakistani Muslims in Bangladesh, the slaughter of southern Sudanese by northerners, and the persecution of Native Americans in Central America by right-wing governments and their U.S.-trained death squads. Whereas instrumental genocide often involves killers and victims from different racial groups, assimilative genocide features warring groups sharing a common ancestry, but which evolved in different directions. The victims are those who clung to their tribal identity, while the perpetrators adopted the identity of an alien conqueror.

    Assimilative genocide, psychologically, is the expression of feelings of fear--both of punishment and annihilation, the latter being primarily a birth memory. The stricter the childhood upbringing, the greater the likelihood that the adults will engage in such actions. The trigger is a perceived threat to the national identity--from social revolution, ethnic separatism, or annexation by a neighboring country. The greater the pain in childhood, the greater the need for identification in adult life with such broader groups as nation or religion.

    For those from particularly dysfunctional families, protecting the nation or the religion from enemies becomes a near-obsession. The persecution of origin-folk is isomorphic to the neurotic's repression of his real self, in order to gain the approval of others.

  • Most dramatic of all is atavistic genocide, in which the perpetrators turn on a group which has played the role of a mentor. This represents the expression of buried anger, although fear undoubtedly plays a part as well. The classic example of atavistic genocide is the Nazi Holocaust, directed against a group of people who were held responsible for both Christianity and Marxism. The fear that the German bourgeoisie had of Marxism is understandable, in light of the left-wing revolution which nearly took power in Germany--and which did succeed briefly in Bavaria, subsequently the cradle of National Socialism. The rejection of Christianity--a more subtle process--appears to have derived from the unexpected defeat Germany suffered in World War One, during which the Germans were repeatedly told that God was on their side. The persecution of the Jews was, in part, a symbolic attack on a failed God.

    Cognitive dissonance seems to play an important role in triggering atavistic genocide. People are taught certain concepts about their countries, from which they often derive unwarranted but comforting conclusions: "My country is strong; therefore I am safe," or "My country is weak; therefore I am good." When a strong country is defeated (Germany in 1918, America in 1975), it can shatter the self-image of the nation. To the extent that people's personal defenses are bound up with the national mythology, an unexpected outcome of a war can produce a markedly paranoid reaction. Witness our own militia, fantasizing that their government is plotting to do to them what America did to the Vietnamese.

    Another example of atavistic genocide is Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge--which had been assisted by Vietnam in its rise to power--was particularly ruthless in its persecution of the large ethnic Vietnamese minority, which played a major role in the local communist movement.

    Atavistic genocide appears to be something akin to a reaction formation, in Freud's terminology. The Cambodians turned against Communism even while claiming that they were the purest of Marxist-Leninists. The Nazis were defending against their anger toward the Kaiser, who had dragged his nation into a costly and unsuccessful war--as well as toward God, who had let Germany down. German culture did not permit anger against a monarch. No king has ever been assassinated in all German history; Hitler's shocked declaration that the 1944 attempt on his life was unprecedented was no egotistical exaggeration.8 Rather than target their rulers, Germans historically preferred to attack the Jews instead.

The legend of the "Jew Suss," which the Nazis made extensive use of in their propaganda, was based on an actual historical event. Suss was a Jewish financier who had loaned money to an unpopular king. He was murdered by nobles who couldn't bring themselves to to turn on their ruler, whom they were really angry at. The incident served as a paradigm for much of German history.

Anger was not the only repressed emotion involved in the Holocaust. The persecution of weak and defenseless groups is an expression of buried fear, and when the persecution reaches the level of genocide, the fear that motivates it is usually the fear of annihilation.9 Some of this comes from birth trauma, which is particularly strong in Catholic areas of Europe, where women are taught from childhood that their sexual feelings should be disowned.

It should nor surprise us that Austrians were vastly overrepresented among Nazi war criminals, one historian estimating that they may have been responsible for half of all the atrocities.10 Severe childhood upbringing--Alice Miller's poisonous pedagogy--can also arouse such fears, as can unexpected defeat (or victory) in war. All of these factors work together, and given so many psychological causes, it should not be surprising that the Holocaust is distinctive, even among instances of genocide, for having no rational motives.

Just as Germans in the 1930s displaced their anger against their fallen rulers toward Jewish scapegoats, so did the Khmer Rouge displace its rage against the United States toward neighboring Vietnam. But whereas the Jews were a scattered and powerless people, the Vietnamese had just defeated the world's leading superpower. It would appear that the Cambodians, raised in a society with little military tradition, were motivated far more by repressed anger than repressed fear.

Members of weak nations usually do not learn to repress fear, but Cambodia's devout Buddhism was probably related to the repression of anger. Unlike the Germans, the Cambodians directed their hatred upward, against a relatively powerful target, rather than downward against a weaker one.

Common to most cases of genocide is the projection of one's own intentions onto the victims. just as Hitler claimed that the Jews were out to rule the world, even while he planned his own world conquest, so did the Cambodians attribute expansionist ambitions to Vietnam, although it was the Khmer Rouge which actually sought to annex territory from its neighbors. There is a parallel with serial killer John Wayne Gacy--who projected his own despised qualities onto his young male victims before killing them."

This brings us to Kosovo, where Bill Clinton insists that his dramatic escalation of what was originally a minor conflict was the only way to avoid a major war. Addressing the nation as the attacks on Serbia began, Clinton stated that two world wars had begun "in the Balkans," as if Serbia bore responsibility for Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. Only the next day did he remember that the Serbs had been the victims of genocide themselves at Hitler's hands.

In fact, Milosevic's mass expulsion of Kosovo's Albanian population is not the first time ethnic cleansing has taken place in that territory. During World War Two, the Kosovo Albanians slaughtered their Serb neighbors, with Axis support.12 The royalist resistance movement, the Chetniks, carried out reprisals against the Albanians, but Tito's victory allowed for the creation of an autonomous Kosovo region in a federated, albeit Communist, Yugoslavia. Genuine autonomy took many years to be implemented, but that was due to the poisoned relations between Serbs and Albanians, which dated back to Turkish times.

Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power stemmed from Serb resentment toward Albanian discrimination against Kosovo's Serb minority, a detail that has gone unnoticed in the outside world. Serbia's unilateral revocation of Kosovo's autonomy provoked the armed resistance by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), but the guerrillas have less popular support than the moderates, led by Ibrahim Rugova. Economic conditions in Albania are so bad that most Kosovars, whatever their sentiments toward the Serbs, would not be keen on irredentism. With little mass support, it was hardly surprising that the KLA was willing to accept Clinton's peace plan.

Clinton has reassured the American people that Milosevic's expulsion of the Kosovars would have taken place even if the United States had not begun its air attacks. What, then, stopped Milosevic from expelling the Albanian minority when Clinton was embroiled in the impeachment process, unable to rally the country or the world against Belgrade? The evidence indicates that the purge was a response to NATO's action. America's overreaction to Pearl Harbor, when we deported 100,000 Japanese-Americans, was similar in origin.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Kosovo conflict is Clinton's description of Milosevic as a man whose heart has turned to stone. Perhaps this is true, but it is eerily reminiscent of what his former aide, George Stephanopoulos, said about Clinton himself in a televised interview only a week or so before. Clinton's soft, warm exterior, Stephanopoulos remarked, masked a tough, hard interior.

Clinton's rocky marriage has probably been shattered by the public humiliation of his wife in the Monica Lewinsky scandal--witness her eagerness to establish a residence in New York State, to run for the Senate, while her husband is still in Washington. In bombing Serbia, Clinton is probably trying to shore up the shaky peace settlement in neighboring Bosnia, so that his greatest foreign policy achievement does not fall apart until he is safely out of the White House. But it appears as if he is also projecting his own hated qualities onto a convenient poison container.

Richard Morrock is Vice President of the International Psychohistorical Association. He is presently working on a book tentatively entitled, In the Shadows of Infamy about Charles Willoughby, Chief of Intelligence Service under General MacArthur. The author taught political science at Wagner College in New York and at Cal State University at Dominguez Hills near Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared is the Fall, 1999 issue of the Journal of Psychohistory.


1. Richard Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 1986, p.150 n
2. Arthur Janov, Prisoners of Pain, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1980, pp. 39-41.
3. Robert Lindner, The Fifty-Minute Hour, Bantam, New York, 1954, pp. 1-47 passim, and 119-155 passim..
4. Hervey Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity, New American Library, New York, 1982..
5. David Abrahamsen, Confessions of Son of Sam, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, pp. 116-117.
6. Joel Norris, Jeffrey Dahmer, Pinnacle, New York, 1992, passim.
7. Debra Niehoff, The Biology of Violence, The Free Press, New York, 1999, p. 13 7.
8. Fritz Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 185..
9. Branamir Anzulovic, Heavenly Serbia, New York University Press, 1997, pp. 3-4..
10. John Weiss, The Ideology of Death, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996, p. 387..
11. J. Reid Meloy, The Psychopathic Mind, Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1997, pp. 147-148..
12. Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans (Vol. 2), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1982, p. 275..

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