Episode 99 – How People Become Perpetrators with Alette Smeulers

Alette Smeuler, Professor of International Crimes at the University of Groningen. (Photo: University of Groningen)

How do ordinary citizens become perpetrators able to commit mass atrocities? This week we sit down with Alette Smeulers, Professor of International Crimes at the University of Groningen to discuss just that.

In her book Perpetrators of mass atrocities: terribly and terrifyingly normal? Alette studies events including the genocides in Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as the wars in former Yugoslavia, Syria and Iraq, and asked the question, who are these people?

Who is able to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and terrorism? Alette says many perpetrators are ordinary people, “just like you and me.”

“That intrigued me. How and under what circumstances would I be able to do what they did? That is how I started my research.”

In her book Alette outlines 14 different types of perpetrators and explains that even though some perpetrators are violent and sadistic people, most fall into the category of ‘perpetrator’ due to the extraordinary events and the social context surrounding them at the time.  

In this week’s episode, Alette highlights this by explaining what happened in Rwanda. “We are very much affected by the people around us. Because even neighbours, friends, people who got along very well in the past, started to kill each other. Because many people are just too afraid to go against the group.”

For more on Alette’s insights and her research into what transforms people into perpetrators, take a listen to her podcast Terribly and Terrifyingly normal?

This week Alette says she always recommends looking at the ICTY court case of Drazen Erdemovic. A soldier in the Bosnian Serb army, Erdemovic took part in the Srebrenica massacre but handed himself in and was the first person to enter a guilty plea at the tribunal.

And as the movie The Zone of Interest in currently out in cinemas, she recommends reading the autobiography, Commandant of Auschwitz : The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. Hoess was taken prisoner after the Second World War and was ordered to write his autobiography between his trial and execution.