Auschwitz and the Holocaust

The horrible images of Auschwitz shortly after it was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945 shocked the world. How could this have happened? Who is responsible? How can people be so cruel? Till this very day many people still wonder about these question and the Holocaust is by many people still seen as the worst crime of the century. The extent to which the Holocaust was planned and organized and the industrialized way in which it was executed makes the Holocaust up till this day unique. But what about the perpetrators? How did they experience Auschwitz and who are they? Their crimes can without doubt be considered cruel and sadistic but were they all sadists? Some were but most weren’t. Most perpetrators were very ordinary and otherwise law abiding citizens who just followed orders and believed that by doing so they were protecting their country. Almost all perpetrators were shocked when they arrived in Auschwitz – which they considered – to use the words of one perpetrator – the ‘anus mundi’. But after their first initial shock they started to get used to the suffering of the victims and the horror surrounding the place. They dehumanized their victims and believed they deserved to be treated the way they were treated. They used euphemisms to describe their murderous tasks and focused on the technical perfection of their task rather than on the moral questions it might raise. In the eyes of the perpetrators only the leaders like Hitler, Himmler and Goering can be held responsible – they themselves were bound by their oath to Hitler and had to obey orders. Their only responsibility was towards their superiors and to fulfil their task. They believed they could not be held responsible for the overall outcome of the genocidal policy.

In his autobiography camp commander Hoess stated: ‘whether the reasons behind the extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion.’ Hoess merely considered himself responsible for fulfilling his duty and obeying the orders he was given: ‘I myself dared not admit to such doubt. In order to make my subordinates carry on with their task, it was psychologically essential that I myself appear convinced of the necessity for this gruesome harsh order. I had to exercise intense self-control in order to prevent my innermost doubts and feelings of oppression from becoming apparent. I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feelings. I might not even look away when afraid lest my natural emotions got the upper hand. I had to watch coldly while the mothers with laughing or crying children went into the gas chambers. My pity was so great that I longed to vanish from the scene; yet I might not show the slightest trace of emotion. I had to see everything – I had to do all this because I was the one to whom everybody looked.’[cited from R. Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, World, New York, 1959, p. 173).


Core Publications

  • Smeulers, A. (1996). Auschwitz and the Holocaust through the eyes of the perpetrators, 50 Driemaandelijks Tijdschrift van de Stichting Auschwitz, 23-55.
  • Smeulers, A. & W. Werner (2009). The banality of evil on trial, in: C. Stahn & L. van den Herik (Eds.) Future perspectives on international criminal justice, TMC Asser Instituut: Cambridge University Press, 24-43.

Former Yugoslavia

The war in former Yugoslavia started in 1991. Especially the images of the emaciated men behind barbed wires in the prison camp in Omarska shocked the world. After WW II and the terrible images of Auschwitz political leaders had pledged that this would never happen again, but it did. It happened again and not just in a faraway place but in Europe’s backyard. This was something many had not believed to be possible. But it happened: the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians; ethnic cleansing; mass rapes and the killing of 7000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995 were just some of the many crimes committed during the war in former Yugoslavia. How could this have happened? After the death of Tito, Yugoslavia fell apart and a war broke out in which the many ethnic groups started to fight and kill each other. One of the explanations for this violence was that the Serbian government entered into a symbiotic relationship with criminals and paramilitary units which led to a normalization of crime and violence. While society usually inhibits people from criminal behaviour, in Serbia the process was reversed. Propaganda contained the neutralization techniques that allowed people to condone and even approve violent and criminal behaviour. The reversal of the moral order led to a situation in which war criminals such as Arkan were believed to be war heroes.

Core Publication 

  • Weerdesteijn, M. & A. Smeulers (2011). Propaganda en paramilitairen – de normalisatie van geweld in het Servië van de jaren negentig, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie 53(4), 328-344.



In 1994 in Rwanda just prior to the genocide the Tutsi minority was referred to as a violent and dangerous minority group which was about to commit genocide. In reality it were a group of Hutu extremists who planned to commit a genocide on the Tutsis. A propaganda machine was fully operational, thousands of machetes were ordered and lists of Tutsis who were to be killed were compiled. The plane crash in which president Habyarimana was killed in the night of 6 to 7 April 1994 was the final trigger to the genocide and the country changed overnight. Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana a moderate Hutu and 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed, roadblocks were erected and Radio Milles Collines called out lists of Tutsis who had to be killed. Tutsis were considered to be the enemies and in order to protect the country and their nation the Hutus were required to kill all Tutsis. Killer groups consisting of 1-2 extremists, usually members of the Interahamwe and between 10-100 ordinary civilians set out to search, rape and kill Tutsis. The genocide lasted for 3 months in which 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu’s were killed. Never before had so many people been killed so fast in a genocide and never before was the violence so cruel and the ordinary population so massively involved. In Rwanda we interviewed 24 perpetrators of the genocide and concluded that explanation of this extremely violent genocide can be found in the social dynamics and social interaction at the time of the genocide rather than in ethnic hatred.

Core publication:

  • Smeulers, A. & L. Hoex (2010). Studying the Micro-dynamics of the Rwandan genocide, British Journal of Criminology, 50(3), 435-454.(read more)
  • Bijleveld, C., A. Morssinkhof, A. Smeulers (2009). Counting the countless – rape victimisation during the Rwandan genocide, International criminal justice review 19:2. 208-224.


Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror

The pictures of the mistreatment and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the American public when pictures of the abuse were shown on national television in the CBS program called 60 Minutes. Charles Graner, Lynddie England and Sabrina Harman featured prominently in these pictures. President George Bush immediately called the perpetrators who featured in the pictures rotten apples for whom there was no place in the American army. The violations committed at Abu Ghraib were however not just isolated incidents. The abuse was widespread and a direct consequence of the War on Terror launched by the US government after 9/11. The attack on the US killed almost 3000 people and had an enormous impact on the US in particular and the Western world in general. First of all because the attack came as a complete surprise and the chosen form was unprecedented in the world (hijacking planes and using these planes as bombs and to fly straight into buildings with the hijacked plane). The impact was also so immense because it was featured live on television how the second plane flew right into the second twin tower about 20 minutes after the first twin tower had been hit. The attack caught the US completely by surprise and George Bush and his administration wanted to do whatever was needed to arrest and punish those responsible for these attacks. In order to prevent such attacks in the future the War on Terror was launched. In our research we found that the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib was an inevitable outcome of the War on Terror. The American administration wanted to do whatever was necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks on US soil and got the support of the population in this aim. Many alleged terrorists were arrested and put in prison and the Taliban in Afghanistan was attacked as being one of the close allies of Al Qaeda. The US government used neutralization techniques in its political rhetoric in order to justify and legitimize the violence. The rights of the prisoners were suspended with the excuse that they were illegal enemy combatants who had no rights. Recruits from the army were told that they had to fight terrorism and protect American values with all necessary means. In this atmosphere in which violence was gradually legitimized and the use of extreme measures officially condoned and approved, the measures which were meant to be used in extreme situations only became standard operating procedure. The fact that the abovementioned recruits took pictures of the abuse they committed is telling and showed that they were not aware that this behaviour is completely unacceptable and illegal.

Core publications

  • Smeulers, A. & S. van Niekerk (2009). Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror – a case against Donald Rumsfeld?, Crime, Law and Social Change 51(3-4), 327-349. read more
  • Smeulers, A. (2011). Standard operating procedure, in: F. Koenraadt & R. Wolleswinkel (Red.). Homo ludens en humaan strafrecht – funderen – vergelijken – onderwijzen, Den Haag: Boom Lemma Uitgevers, 257-270.