8 Teaching Genocide

Cathryn van Kessel

By combining the ideas of Arendt and Becker, educators can focus on how we all are capable of not only thoughtlessly contributing to atrocities but also even killing others out of heroic joy.

Hannah Arendt has given us much insight into a process of evil. Specifically, evil intent is not required to do an evil deed. What, then, begins the process of evil? For Arendt (1963/2006), this evil is a form of thoughtlessness—the banality of evil. As Arendt (1977) stated over a decade after her initial exploration of mundane evil: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or to do either evil or good” (p. 180). From Arendt we know that ordinary people can contribute to great harm simply by going about their business and failing to consider how they are part of harmful system. She illustrated this idea with Adolf Eichmann, who we now know was not the best choice for her theory (Stangneth, 2015); however, there are countless others who could serve as exemplars of banal evil, such as Christopher Browning’s (1993) work on reserve police battalions.

While Arendt revealed how we can perpetuate evil without intending it,  explained why sometimes ordinary people can indeed purposely do evil deeds. Those who threaten our worldview are evils that must be eradicated. Becker talks about fetishizing fear by localizing all of one’s fear and anxiety into a single, manageable source. We often marginalized groups, but we can any group as the embodiment of evil. We take all that threatens to overwhelm us, confine it to a particular group of people, cause, ideology, or, in some cases a specific person, which is then labelled as evil. Our heroic quest, then, is to annihilate it. One’s own group is “pure and good” and others “are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality” (Becker, 1975, p. 93). We have seen this in the Nazis conceptualizing Jews as infectious vermin, and the Hutus labelling the Tutsis as cockroaches.

We need to arrange our curriculum in ways that encourage the study of ordinary people like ourselves. Students, particularly high school students, are more than capable of understanding the theories of Arendt and Becker. We can ask students to attend to the complexities of how genocides have happened, and continue to happen. There are some who perpetuate genocide in very banal ways, others who feel compelled to be obedient and deflect responsibility to the authority figure, and then there are those who fetishize evil and participate in the killing with glee. For some, more than one of these dispositions might be operating in the same person more or less over time. As Hatzfield (2006) found in his interviews with those who perpetuated the Rwandan genocide, there were all sorts of factors that led someone to participate in genocide.

Recommended Reading

Arendt, H. (1977). The life of the mind: Thinking (vol. 1). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.

Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1963)

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York NY: Free Press.

Browning, C. R. (1993). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Hatzfeld, J. (2006). Machete season: The killers in Rwanda speak (L. Coverdale, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original work published in 2003)

Minnich, E. (2014). The evil of banality: Arendt revisited. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 13, 158-179. doi:10.1177/1474022213513543

Stangneth, B. (2015). Eichmann before Jerusalem: The unexamined life of a mass murderer. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

van Kessel, C., & Crowley, R. M. (2017). Villainification and evil in social studies education. Theory & Research in Social Education, 95(4), 427-455. doi:10.1080/00933104.2017.1285734

van Kessel, C. (2018). Banal and fetishized evil: Implicating ordinary folk in genocide education. Journal of International Social Studies, 8(2), 160-171.

(Created by C. van Kessel, 2018)

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The Grim Educator by Cathryn van Kessel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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