Politicians, generals, corporate directors, and ordinary men and women had a direct relationship to the evils of the twentieth century. Individuals, soldiers, CEOs, and government administrators did various things that we can now recognize as fundamentally evil. So we might be tempted to summarize the evils of the past as “large numbers of people doing inexcusable things to other people”.
However, this formula is entirely insufficient. It is true that the great evils of the twentieth century were committed by individuals, but the evils they committed could not have been carried out without the workings of the large social systems that motivated them, organized them, and mobilized them. Armies, states, intelligence services, corporations, government agencies — all of these were part of the social and causal processes involved in the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, and the rape of Nanking. Moreover, these vast collective evils could not have occurred in the absence of supporting institutions and organizations. A Hitler or a Stalin ranting on a soapbox may be able to inspire a crowd of listeners to commit mayhem and pogroms through artful charisma, and violence may spread beyond the earshot of the original spark. (The Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 had some of this character.) But these kinds of collective violence are inherently episodic and limited — unlike the systematic, sustained, and determined murder of eastern European Jews by the Nazi state, or the despoliation and starvation of Ukrainian peasants by the Soviet state in 1932. It is all but axiomatic that largescale and sustained evil requires a strong institutional infrastructure.
It is true that individuals are the actors in history. And therefore it is true as well that we need the research of social psychologists — perhaps even new kinds of social psychology — to understand how ordinary people could come to commit mass murder against their neighbors and fellow human beings. This is one reason why the works of Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men and Jan Gross in Neighbors are so important: these historians throw the spotlight on the actions of “ordinary” participants in evil. But the lessons we learn from these studies are in one sense a dead end, if we are interested in making genocide impossible in the future: they demonstrate chiefly that “ordinary men and women” can be brought to commit atrocities against fellow human beings. This is a dead end in a specific sense: we might despair of ever changing this fact about human capacity for atrocious violence.
But this point invites us to broaden the lens a bit and ask about the institutional settings within which such evils are likely or unlikely to occur. What makes individuals more prone to act in an evil way against other persons? What kinds of “institutions of consciousness-shaping” prepare men and women for acts of murderous hate? How does propaganda — state-originated or Fox News — work to cultivate the inner worlds of individuals in such a way as to lead them to hate, despise, and fear other individuals? How are anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, or anti-LGBTQ bigotry transmitted into the consciousness and thoughts of individuals in a society? How did radio broadcasts influence massacre in Rwanda (link)? And crucially — whose work is being carried out through those propaganda institutions? Who benefits from the cultivation of hate in a population?
A second important group of questions concerns how the diffuse antagonisms and hatreds of separate individuals get marshaled into effective collective action. What transforms a hateful population into a hate group capable of collective action? What are the local and regional informal social organizations through which the latent hate and antagonisms of certain individuals are brought together for plans of action — through neo-Nazi organizations in Europe, White Supremacist organizations in the US, right-wing extremist populist organizations throughout the world? How does Hindu nationalism become a disciplined force for violent action in India? The insurrection in the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 was not spontaneous; so how was it organized and mobilized?
We can also ask whether there are informal social organizations that can have the effect of reducing hate and antagonism — organizations that work within civil society and within specific communities to establish a basis of trust and mutual acceptance across racial, religious, or gender lines. Both sets of questions are very familiar within the literature of social contention, including McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention and McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency.
But we also must recognize that the most massive evils of the twentieth century were not self-organized riots, pogroms, or uprisings. Rather, they were the result of determined and documented state actions, carried out by intricate bureaucracies of murder and enslavement. So, for example, it is critical to understand the role that the NKVD played within the Soviet state in carrying out the Terror of the 1930s, the starvation campaign of the 1930s, and the deployment of the labor camps of the Gulag. How did the bureaucracy of murder and enslavement work in the Soviet state? Likewise, how were the policy decisions of the Wannsee Conference of 1942 carried out? (Adolph Eichmann served as recording secretary of the meeting; link.) How was the plan of mass murder transformed into Aktions, camps, alliances with collaborators, new mass killing techniques, railroad schedules, and deceptions? It seems evident that totalitarian states are well prepared to orchestrate evil on a mass scale.
Here again — are there political institutions that can make evil less likely? What are some of the political and legal arrangements that make mass murder and atrocity more difficult to carry out by a determined dictator? Timothy Snyder emphasizes in Black Earth that the Final Solution depended on “smashed states” and the destruction of the rule of law. Is this a clue for the future of humanity: that it is of the greatest importance to establish and defend the rule of law?
These considerations suggest that intensive research in the social sciences is still needed to lay bare the workings of the organizations, agencies, and states of regimes that committed atrocious plans and actions. Political scientists, organizational theorists, and sociologists need to help us understand better the way in which many states in the twentieth century attempted and succeeded in committing atrocious and inexcusable actions against their neighbors and their own peoples. And can stronger national and international structures be designed that serve as real impediments to evil actions in the future?
These various questions about social and political institutions and their role within the “infrastructure of evil” are crucial if we are to envision a future in which evils like the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the Holocaust will not recur. The crucial point is the role of a secure and enforceable rule of law, embodying the rights of all individuals. If China had a secure system of individual rights and rule of law, would one million Uyghurs be in “re-education” camps today? If courageous Chinese lawyers and independent judges were able to compel the Chinese government to cease its actions against the Uyghurs, would this contemporary evil have ever come about? So we might say: to ensure that great evil does not recur in our futures, we need to strive courageously to maintain the institutions of law and constitution that constrain even the most awful would-be tyrants.