The Killing Compartments

Why do some regimes commit mass murder, and how do they always find willing participants? That is the terrible question sociologist Abram de Swaan has set out to tackle.

Original title
The Killing Compartments
Abram de Swaan

Philosopher Hannah Arendt described war criminal Adolf Eichmann as the very embodiment of ‘the banality of evil’, just another ordinary man, even though she knew he had been a fanatical Nazi Jew hunter. Arendt’s view seemed borne out by American psychologist Stanley Milgram, who staged an experiment which showed that many people were prepared to inflict what appeared to be dangerous electric shocks on a ‘student’ (in reality an actor). In fact, however, as De Swaan points out, more than a third of participants in that experiment refused to continue at some point.

With his erudition and analytical skill, De Swaan brings us a step closer to discov­ering why one person becomes a war criminal while another does not, arguing that it depends not merely on circumstance but on personality. Mass murderers are more likely to have served in the army or police, or to have a violent criminal past. Genocidaires, as De Swaan calls them, tend to be obedient to their superiors and loyal to their comrades. They are often also devoted to their families. Almost all deny responsibility for their atrocities and they hardly ever display remorse, shame or empathy. They rarely show any pity for their victims and are unwilling or unable to identify with them. Looking back on their outrageous crimes, they have a tendency to say: ‘Yes, but that wasn’t me; I was a different person then.’

It is not enough to look at mass murder­ers in isolation. They need to be placed in the wider social context of a society going through a process of compartmentalization that separates the target group from the regime’s approved people at all levels: in the dominant culture, in social institutions, in everyday interaction and in people’s minds. This approach allows us to identify four different modes of mass annihilation: victors’ frenzy, rule by terror, losers’ triumph and megapogroms.

De Swaan has written the first sociology of mass murder.

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De Swaan illustrates his discussion of this complex subject with concrete examples. His argument is clear, logical, and soundly constructed. It is also bold. In most studies of genocide the consensus is that ordinary people can commit extraor­dinary evil and that the perpetrators’ own past hardly matters. De Swaan’s focus on precisely those personal stories is what makes his book so fascinating: ‘Even mass murderers are persons, in many respects different persons, distinct like everyone else.’

  • Provides an overall framework for an understanding of genocide as an outcome of the compartmentalization of society.

  • Presents a typology of twentieth-century episodes of mass annihilation in order to aid our understanding of specific instances.

  • Explores the mind-set of massmurderers.

De Swaan commands respect for the sharpness of his observations in the field, the way he sets it all down and the shrewdness of his arguments.


One of De Swaan’s great qualities is his insatiable curiosity, which ultimately goes far beyond the boundaries of his field of study. His work has enriched not only sociol¬ogy but Dutch essay writing.

Jury report, P.C. Hooft Prize
Abram de Swaan
Abram de Swaan (b. 1942) was awarded the prestigious position of University Professor of Social Science at the University of Amsterdam in 2001, where he is now emeritus professor.
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