Jedwabne: Genocide Often Occurs By Popular Action

We tend to think of violent genocide as occurring at the hands of jackbooted thugs from one extremist political movement or another. The reality is often more prosaic: goaded by the pains of diversity, locals take it upon themselves to remove the Other, as happened in the formerly Russian-occupied Polish village of Jedwabne:

After being controlled by Russia for two years, Jedwabne, a small town in northeastern Poland, was captured by Germany on June 22, 1941. One of the first questions the Poles asked the Nazis, their new rulers, was if it was permitted to kill the Jews.

According to Jan Gross’s book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, the Nazis tried to persuade the Poles to keep at least one Jewish family from each profession, but the Poles responded, “We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive.”

Gross writes that Jedwabne’s mayor agreed to help facilitate a massacre and that Poles from local villages came in to watch and celebrate the event as a holiday. About half the men of Jedwabne’s 1,600 Catholic community participated in torturing Jedwabne’s 1,600 member Jewish community, corralling them into a barn, which was then set ablaze.

In future times, people may see genocide and democide as the complex monsters that they are: driven not so much by political reality but by day-to-day frustrations and the tendency of different groups to behave in different ways, causing resentment. In many Russian-occupied areas, the natives identified Jews with the Communist party, in part because so many Jews were Communists:

While in 1934 38.5% of the top officials in the NKVD were Jews, this number was decreased to 31.9% in July 1937, 3.9% in September 1938 and 3.5% in January 1940.

This may simply reflect cultural differences: for most of the world, Communism is a tempting ideology, although traditional European cultures have resisted it, and so members of foreign groups would be more prone to join those parties. In addition, as minority groups, they cannot identify with the majority and so are drawn to anti-majoritarian politics such as socialism and its parent, egalitarianism.

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