What are the key differences between the roles of perpetrators in Nazi Germany and Rwandan Genocide?


Genocide and Mass murder do not just happen overnight, although each case has its own uniqueness, there are always underlying reasons that can be attributed to the reasons perpetrators of genocide commit such horrific atrocities. The Rwandan and the Holocaust genocides are two of the most disturbing human tragedies of modern times, in terms of the scale of the killings, and the way in which they were carried out. The essay question asks about the key differences of the roles of perpetrators, in this case Rwanda and the Holocaust genocides. I feel that this essay will not make sense if I only look the differences only, so rather than exploring their differences only, the essay will explore their differences as well as what they have in common.

Furthermore, it would not be right just to examine the key differences of the perpetrators of these two cases without first knowing the underlying causes of their crimes. First, this essay examines the crises that led the genocide in Rwanda and Nazi Germany respectively; than the essay will identify the perpetrators in each case study and point out the role they played in implementing the genocide. And finally, the essay examines the key differences and similarities of the two perpetrators in my case studies

Crises that led the genocide in Rwanda and Nazi Germany

There are many explanations and interpretations of the root cause of the Rwandan genocide, namely demographic and ethnic conflict, economic and socials crises, and colonialism (Hintjens, 1999, p.243). My argument is that, although all these crises were facilitating factor, the root cause of Rwandan genocide can directly be attributed to German and Belgian colonial policies (Man, 2005). The Hutu and Tutsi lived peacefully side by side for generations (Valentino, 2004) , it was the colonial policies of ‘divide and rule’ that encouraged and paved the way for the ethnic hatred and conflict that led the 1994 genocide. The Belgian colonialism favoured and elevated the Tutsi and marginalized the Hutu, (Man, 2005, p.443) this led to a ‘political struggle after the colonialist have gone’ (Valentino, 2004, p.178) this further led Hutus believe that their salvations will not be achieved without the extermination of their Tutsi country men. (Barnett, 2002)

Further, Belgian colonialism introduced identity cards that showed each individual’s ethnicity; this system clearly identified who is Hutu and who is Tutsi. This led the racialization of the two groups (Valentino, 2004, p.178)

Gourevitch explains how “The identity cards made it virtually impossible for Hutus to become Tutsi, and permitted the Belgians to perfect the administration of an apartheid system rooted in the myth of Tutsi superiority” (Gourevitch, 1999, p.57) Therefore the ethnic separation is a major factor that contributed the genocide of Tutsis. Mahmoud Mamdani states that before one tries to eradicate his enemies, one needs to define and identify it (Mamdani, 2001, p.9). It was the colonial policy of identifying one’s ethnicity on ID cards that allowed many Tutsi victims to be easily identified and got killed. Mamdani further argues that ‘the Rwandan genocide thus needs to be thought of within the logic of colonialism’ (Mamdani, 2001, p.9)

While I emphasised the importance of colonial role in Rwandan genocide, another valid view that one cannot ignore is the notion that economic crisis contributed or paved the way for the genocide. The austerity measures imposed by the IMF and World Bank precipitated the population into poverty (Kamola, 2007) furthermore, the fall of coffee prices in international market has deteriorated the nation’s economy this further ‘exacerbated simmering ethnic tension and accelerated the process of genocide’ (chossudovsky, 1999, p.938).

In contrast there were no ethnic conflict in Germany, Jews did not fight with the German people, nor did they perpetrate a mass murder (lemarchand, 2008). The motive behind their mass murder was deep rooted and premeditated (Lemarchand, 2008). None the less, there were series of crisis that paved the way for the making of the holocaust, for example the social and economic crises that followed immediately after the defeat of the WW1 (Hintjens, 1999, p.242), and the growing resentment against Jews by the Nazis and their sympathisers. ‘Historians have offered increasingly complex analyses of economic and political forces that preceded the Holocaust and presumably contributed to it’ (Staub, 1989, p.32).

Although Hitler’s hatred for Jews is evident in his Book Mein Kemp, there are arguments amongst historian whether such hatred is adequate enough to explain the holocaust (Kershaw, 2000) ‘given a background of widespread racial anti-Semitism and ideological hatred of Jews in Germany’ (Kershaw, 2000, p.103) But, ultimately it was the Nazi ideology that led to the making of the Holocaust. (Valentino, 2004, p.169) Unlike Rwanda where the genocide was based on ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi, the Nazi Genocide was motivated by ‘ideological rooted in an illusionary world of Nazi imagination, where an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world was opposed to a parallel Aryan quest’ (Bauer, 2002, p.48)


To perpetrate is ‘to carry out or commit a harmful, illegal, or immoral action’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2011) perpetrators in both Rwanda and the Nazi Germany did exactly the same but in different ways. But who are these perpetrators who committed these heinous crimes? A clear explanation of this question requires a theoretical explanation; Functionalism and Intentionlism offer such explanations.

Functionalist states that the Rwandan genocide was not premeditated as perpetrators ‘did not plan genocide policies until several months before the genocide’ (Wienerlibrary, 2011) also the Arusha Peace agreements was a factor in carrying out the genocide because the ‘ potential loss of power felt by the Hutu dominated government following the signing of the agreement’ (ibid) whereas intentionlist argue that the mass murder of the Tutusi was planned well before the 1994 genocide. Unlike Nazi Holocaust the Rwandan perpetrators were easy to identify, because they did not try to hide their intentions. The political role played by the late president Habyarimana was clear, his ‘redefinition of national identity along the racial and ethnic lines as well as rallying his fellow Hutu ethnic group against minority Tutsi became the prelude for later implementation of 1994 genocide’ (Hintjens, 1999, p.242)

For the Holocaust, there are different interpretations of identifying the Holocaust perpetrators, Intentionlist theory offers different views from that of functionalist, it identifies perpetrates as the Nazi elites. They believed that it was Hitler’s intention and objective to exterminate the Jews as early as 1919 (Kershaw, 2000). In other words it was an order from the highest ‘evil elite’. Other interpretations say that ‘there was no extermination plan by Hitler, but the plan of annihilation of the Jews gradually developed institutionally and in practice out of individual actions down to early 1942 and gained determinative character after the construction of the concentration camps in Poland’ (Kershaw, 2000, pp.40-42) in contrast, the functionalist spreads responsibility rather than blame the ‘evil elite’ as main perpetrators. They see Nazi policies as a ‘series of ad hoc response of splintered and disorderly government machinery’ (Kershaw, 2000, p.96)

The difference

The Rwandan and Holocaust genocides are two of the most heinous crimes against humanity of modern times (Lemarchand, 2002). Each of them is important in its own right; however they differ in many ways. The genocide in Rwanda is indeed different form that of the holocaust, because Rwandan genocide is a product of ethnic conflict, but most importantly a product of a civil war in which Hutu wanted to settle a score with their Tutsi country men, this is a unique to Rwanda.

The perpetrator’s motive in Rwandan genocide can be regarded as ‘retributive’, because the Hutu felt that the political process that was negotiated Tanzanian town of Arusha could threaten their interest. (fein, 1999, p.160) (Newbury, 2003, pp.135-45) There are several factors that make this genocide ‘retributive’ one factor is the historic victimization of Hutus by the colonial rulers as well as the Tutsi monarchy in the past helped contribute the Hutu’s transformation from being victims to perpetrators. Another factor would be the economic and political crises the regime faced in early 1990s; the structural adjustment placed by IMF further exacerbated the situation of the country (Lemarchand, 2002). But most importantly, the Tutsi dominated RPF’s (Rwandan Patriotic Front) troops which marched into Rwanda from Uganda increased the hostilities between the two groups and certainly, resulted anti-Tutsi campaign (Lemarchand, 2002). (Lemarchand, 2002a) therefore, ‘Their mutation from victims to killers is inscribed in the complex history of Tutsi domination and colonial rule’ (Lemarchand, 2002a, p.307).

And finally unlike, the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide was engineered by the regime and its elites, it was facilitated by the ‘local authorities’ and executed by the public. It was highly planned in its implementations and it was retributive in this sense (Nash, 2007) And as Valentino (2004) pointed out, there two explanations as to way ordinary Hutus turned into perpetrators and took part the mass killing of their fellow Tutsi, the first reason is thought to be ‘obedience to authority’, and second is ‘Rwanda’s unique system of peacetime civilian mobilization campaigns for public works’ (Valentino, 2004, p.37)

Indeed the Rwandan genocide was unique in its own right, because the scale of the killing was more shocking than might have been anticipated. In spite of the “Never Again” pledge by international community to prevent genocide following the Holocaust, such pledges did not materialise (Jones, 2010). Unlike the Holocaust, there was clear evidence that the international community was aware of the tell-tale signs of the Rwandan crisis, because ‘numerous warnings of impending genocide were transmitted’ through NGOs and UN organizations. (Jones, 2010, p.346) (Amnesty international, 1992).

Not only are the ‘roles’ of the perpetrators of both cases are different in some respect, but that the perpetrators themselves are different, for example although the Nazis may have initiated the killing of the Jews, there were people who were not Nazis that contributed the mass killings of the Jews, for example the Jews in France would probably never have been sent to their deaths, were it not for the decision of the then French government to agree the deportations of its Jews population (telegraph.co.uk, 2009) We cannot call these people bystanders nor can we call them victims, indeed they were perpetrators even though they did not shed any blood. Evidence suggests that ‘the Nazi officials did not force them to betray their fellow citizens, but that anti-Semitic persecution was carried out willingly’ (telegraph.co.uk, 2009).

Coincidently, it was the same government that was accused of ‘playing an active role’ in the Rwandan genocide (BBC, 2008). Because France was aware of the worsening condition of Rwanda both pre-genocide and during the genocide. France ‘maintained good relations with the elites that eventually perpetrated the genocide’ (Kroslak, 2007, p.4) therefore ‘government documents and interviews support the arguments that the French government bears responsibility for its inaction in relation to the prevention and suppression of the genocide’ (Kroslak, 2007, p.4) therefore, although France did not actively took part the killing of the Tutus in this case it was both a bystander and a perpetrator.

Unlike Rwandan Genocide the Holocaust was not retributive in nature, nor it was caused by ethnic conflict and certainly the Nazi perpetrators were not victims which turned perpetrators, it was deep rooted Nazi belief to wipe out the Jews of Europe it was deep rooted Nazi racist and anti-Semitic ideology (Lemarchand, 2002). Unlike The Rwandan genocide, the holocaust was all about ideology rather than retributive. Intentionlist argue that it was Hitler and his elites that planned and perpetrated the genocide, (Kershaw, 2000, p.98) however Daniel Goldhagen argues that anti-Semitism ideology was deeply embedded in the German culture and it was the same ‘anti-Semitism that led the perpetrators to consent to killing Jews’ (Goldhagen, 1996) in other words Goldhagen targets the entire German populations rather than the few elites.

Unlike Rwandan genocide, the mass killings of the Jews was physically carried out by German ‘military, its police’, and even military of friendly countries and none German populations (ibid) this makes the holocaust a unique in its own right. Because it was state led policy to ‘annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people’ (Roth, 2009, p.27) furthermore, whereas the RPF rebels invaded Rwanda before the genocide took place with the support of a neighbouring country namely Uganda, the Jews in Germany did not ‘invade Germany with the military support of any country’ (Lemarchand, 2009, p.91) a conclusion one can draw here is that, the Tutsis along with the RPF were more threatening than the Jews of Germany.

Other key differences between these two cases are; the Tutsi population in Rwanda was roughly 14 per cent, in comparison to Jews in Germany which were a much smaller. All the killings against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus took place within Rwanda, whereas most of the killing of Jews took place outside Germany. What is particularly unique about Rwandan perpetrators is the scale and speed of their killings, and of the Hutu’s determination to wipe out the entire Tutus population. Nearly a million Tutsis were killed in hundred days, whereas the six million holocaust victims lasted up to four years. (Straus, 2009, p.279) And the ‘The relevant social, economic, and political structures of Rwanda—in terms of class structure, industrialization, economic activities, education, polity, political party formation, and political leadership, were all varied fairly considerably’ (Straus, 2009, p.279)

In Rwanda the perpetrator’s method of killing was simple but effective. Unlike the industrial killings of the holocaust, it was ‘low-tech’ in nature (Straus, 2006). The mass killing was not as organized as that of the holocaust, this is because most of the killing took place different parts of rural areas of the country, simple tools such as machetes and hoes were used to kill almost a million people within short time (Straus, 2006), compared to the millions killed in the holocaust. Furthermore, the killing was carried out in public, it was ‘crowd-enforced and neighbour sometimes killed neighbour’ (Straus, 2006, p.1)

Common similarities

The Rwandan and Holocaust genocide cannot be easily compared as each case is unique in its own right. However they do have something in common, in both cases propaganda played a major factor for the preparation and implementations of the genocide. In both cases, international community failed to protect the Jews and Tutus, despite clear sings of impending genocide (Amnesty international, 1992). And in both cases the roots of genocide can be linked to the combination of revolution, war and economic and political crises prior to the genocide (Lemarchand, 2002), But most importantly, their major similarities are ‘the extent of ideological and military preparation prior to genocide, and in the systematic use of conspiracy theories and myths to justify covert plans for slaughter’ (Hintjens, 1999, p.2)0

In conclusion, this essay has argued that, it is not simple task to just state the differences of Rwandan and Holocaust genocides without first understanding and examining the underlying causes that led some of our fellow human beings to commit such heinous crimes under the watchful of the so called international community. Having acknowledged other factors such as social and ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi that contributed the Rwandan genocide; this essay argued it’s the policies of colonialism, and IMF’s neoliberal economic structural adjustment that paved the way for 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Similarly, economic and social crises are also factors that contributed the Holocaust genocide, but the Nazi policies towards the Jews outweigh these factors, because social and economic crisis alone cannot justify the heinous crime against the Jews of Europe. The essay further argued that whereas the Rwandan genocide was retributive, the Holocaust was an ideology ‘rooted in an illusionary world of Nazi imagination, where an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world was opposed to a parallel Aryan quest’ (Bauer, 2002, p.48).

Although Both Rwandan and Holocaust genocide are unique in their own rights they share similarities and at the same time greatly differ. One important aspect of their similarities is the role of perpetrators played in the both genocides. France as a perpetrator (though not directly took part in the killing) collaborated with the Nazis by deporting and handing over hundreds of Jews to Nazi. Coincidently, it’s the French government that also played an important role in the Rwandan genocide by giving diplomatic support and military aid to the Rwanda government whose soldiers and agents perpetrated a crime against humanity. Despite the international community’s never again pledge, mass murder and genocides continue to take place under watchful eyes of international community.


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