Since the start of the twentieth century, over eighty million people have died in large-scale “atrocity crimes” – campaigns of organized violence against civilians (or other protected populations such as prisoners of war) that constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. While they have declined somewhat since the end of the Cold War, such mass atrocities continue to recur around the world: most obviously in recent killings by Russian military forces in Ukraine, but also in Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and numerous other states within the last decade.

These crimes are hard to comprehend. Many assume that mass atrocities simply reflect the “dark side of man”: a natural propensity to violence unleashed whenever war and disorder peel away the civilizing institutions of well-functioning societies. But this view is widely rejected by specialist scholars. If anything, as psychologists Rebecca Littman and Elizabeth Levy Paluck summarise, “military history and scientific evidence show that most people avoid physically harming others, even at personal cost.” Mass atrocities are not spontaneous and inevitable consequences of social breakdown, but the result of deliberate political choices by certain leaders of states, military units, or non-state armed groups.

In trying to better explain mass atrocities, a key debate amongst scholars concerns the role of ideology. Many paradigmatic cases – the Holocaust, Stalin’s Great Terror, Mao’s Cultural Revolution – were perpetrated by avowedly ideological regimes with radical totalitarian goals. In consequence, early scholars of totalitarianism and genocide in the Cold War era often presumed that ideology was the foundation on which campaigns of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity were built. For these scholars, fascist and communist ideologies were crucial because they encouraged seething hatreds of political enemies and radical utopian ambitions to remake society – both of which encouraged a resort to extreme violence.

Yet this ideology-centric picture of mass atrocities has been heavily challenged over the last three decades. There have been two main lines of attack. First, research on “rank and file participants” in mass atrocities consistently finds that only a minority resemble ideologically committed “true believers.” Most appear guided by a range of motives, including fairly unreflective obedience to authority figures, conformity to group behaviour, and personal greed – all operating in a context where violence becomes routinized and habituated. That picture is most famously associated with Christopher Browning’s hugely influential Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, but it has been extended across a wide range of authors and cases: Scott Straus, Lee Ann Fujii and Omar McDoom on the Rwandan Genocide, Alexander Hinton and Timothy Williams on Cambodia, Chip Gagnon and Jordan Kiper on Serbia, and many others.

Second, the idea that political leaders implement mass atrocities to realise longstanding and grandiose ideological goals has been challenged by research showing both a) the haphazard and erratic decision-making that often leads to large-scale killing, and b) the more prosaic, self-interested, “pragmatic” functions the violence often serves. Even in the Holocaust, where Adolf Hitler had long harboured hatred towards Jews and fantasies of their elimination, the Nazis did not come to power with a clearly formulated plan for extermination. The actual genocide of the Jews emerged out of a complex path of what historian Hans Mommsen’s famously labelled “cumulative radicalization,” in which careerism, plunder and self-interest were often as important as ideological belief. 

This is even clearer in more “typical” mass atrocities seen in war. The prevailing view in modern conflict scholarship is that such atrocities are typically a brutal but comprehensible tool that states and armed groups use to achieve military victory and maintain political control. Why did Serbian and Croatian forces commit ethnic cleansing in the wars in Yugoslavia? Not out of ancient hatreds or longstanding racist plans to purify society, but as a strategy for securing territory and whipping up nationalist support for political leaders. Why did Islamist rebel groups commit atrocities against civilians in Algeria in the late 1990s? Not in a fanatical campaign of wanton destruction, but as a strategy for controlling civilian populations in areas where the rebels operated. Why have even liberal democracies killed civilians in large numbers by aerial bombardment in Germany, Japan, Korea and Vietnam? Not because of deep ideological goals, but as a wartime strategy to try and weaken the enemy and force them to surrender.

This research has led many scholars to conclude that ideology, while not irrelevant, is actually of limited importance in mass atrocities. Perhaps Russian military atrocities in Ukraine, for example, have little to do with Russian ultraconservative nationalism, and simply reflect brutal efforts to cow Ukrainians into submission. Perhaps killings by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq were not primarily efforts to implement a jihadist moral and political order, but a ruthless way of deterring resistance to the self-proclaimed caliphate.

Yet the claim that mass atrocities are just brutally rational tools for winning wars, securing power, or otherwise ruthlessly advancing self-interest – tools we might expect people of any ideological stripe to employ – also doesn’t seem plausible. In many famous cases, including Josef Stalin’s Great Terror, Serbian ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav Wars, brutal atrocities by the Islamic State, the 1971 mass killing in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), or the Rwandan Genocide, the violence ultimately proved costly for perpetrators, and was an unnecessary, wildly disproportionate, and ineffective response to any actual crisis they faced. Moreover, the patterns of violence often adhered to ideological justifications and rationales – targeting certain individuals or groups and employing certain methods – even when these made little sense pragmatically. Even in cases where some logical function for the violence can be identified, there is almost always an equally logical case (let alone a more ethical one) for pursuing alternative, less extreme political strategies. This all suggests that ideology matters. But how?

The problem with both the traditional ideology-centric picture of mass atrocities and the rather “unideological” picture of more recent scholarship is that they both rely on a flawed understanding of ideology: as an elaborate, rigid, well-specified, and idealistic belief-system that shapes behaviour via high levels of ideological commitment. Decades of research have now shown that few actual fascists, communists, liberals, socialists, conservatives, nationalists and so on possess this extremely demanding kind of intellectually systematic worldview. One could conclude that none of these people are really ideological: but that seems like a perverse effort to maintain our preconceptions about ideology even when they don’t fit the evidence (after all, everyone agrees that fascism and communism are ideologies). We should instead correct our preconceptions. Ideologies are generally loose bundles of concepts, narratives, values, and preferences that influence how people act in politics in tandem with other causal factors, not rigidly defined blueprints for political action.

Understanding ideology in this way, I have spent over a decade researching its role in mass violence, in particular focusing on four main cases: Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, the Allied Area Bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II, the Guatemalan Civil War betwen 1978 and 1983, and the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. My research produced two main sets of findings.

First, while only a minority of atrocity perpetrators are deeply ideologically committed, most are still influenced by ideology in important ways. The initiation and implementation of atrocities always depends on some sort of ‘justificatory narrative’ about the violence and the crisis context in which it occurs – and that narrative is rooted in the prevailing ideological orientation of the perpetrating regime or armed group. Even if most perpetrators are not deeply committed to that underlying ideological orientation, most still accept the justificatory narrative it generates to some meaningful degree. Many participants in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936-38, for example, had little deep understanding of the complexities of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Yet they did generally accept the Soviet regime’s narrative of class enemies and capitalist conspiracies that was rooted in Stalin’s brand of that ideology. As the Soviet war poet Konstantin Simonov later put it: “Doubts simply never came to my mind because there was no alternative: either [the victims] were guilty or what was happening was utterly incomprehensible.” Such justificatory narratives also have subtler effects: reshaping prevailing social norms in ways that incentivize participation in violence even when individuals may not privately believe in the narrative. In military units and far-right death squads in Guatemala, for example, ultraconservative anti-communist and militarist ideology underpinned a set of norms – contemptuous of victim’s rights and adulatory of brutal violence in service to the state – very different than those of most military or police units around the world. Those ideological norms pressured squad members to participate in killings, irrespective of their level of private ideological commitment.

Second, these justificatory narratives are not principally rooted in extreme ideological goals or hatreds, as is so often assumed. On the contrary, they mainly revolve around utterly familiar claims about security – with perpetrators justifying and organizing the violence around claims of crisis, war, self-defence, soldierly duty, punishing criminals, and neutralizing threats. Yet all these claims are rooted in extreme ideological interpretations of the security crises that perpetrators faced – without such an extreme interpretation, more moderate decisionmakers would not have resorted to mass atrocity. Recent scholarship is right, in other words, in claiming that perpetrators commit atrocities in pursuit of relatively pragmatic goals. But the resort to extreme violence in pursuit of these goals is rooted in perpetrators’ distinctive ideological worldview. The threats perpetrators see themselves as responding to are often wholly imagined or wildly exaggerated. The actual effectiveness of the violence is often pathetically feeble compared to perpetrators’ expectations. The conflation of horrific brutality with patriotic military duty is encouraged by perpetrators’ distinctive ideological interpretations of war and the enemy. It is these extreme ideological understandings of security, rather than extreme ideological goals to transform society, that matter most in explaining the willingness of certain different regimes and groups to commit atrocities.

While reliable data is still patchy, these findings can help make sense of contemporary atrocities – such as those committed by the Russian military in Ukraine. Many analysts have long presented Russian President Vladimir Putin, and contemporary Russian politics, as unideological: “opportunistic,” “kleptocratic,” but essentially “pragmatic.” That analysis ran into deep trouble with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year. Ukraine presented little military threat to Russia and was not about to join NATO. By invading, Putin hugely increased European solidarity, encouraged Sweden and Finland to join NATO, prompted a massive rise in defence spending in Germany, triggered a flood of advanced Western military technology into Ukraine, and expended a remarkable portion of Russia’s best soldiers and equipment for little meaningful control over Ukraine’s territory. Specifically with respect to atrocities, Russia’s forces have engaged in brutal violence against Ukrainian civilians that has failed to secure control of the territory or break the morale of the population. Those failures are unsurprising, since research on this kind of “indiscriminate” targeting of civilians suggests that it rarely works, and often proves counterproductive.

Ideology does not explain everything here but, in interaction with strategic and political context, it is crucial. The image of Putin as blandly unideological misses both key continuities in his thinking about Russia as an embattled great power, and his slow ideological drift over the 2000s and 2010s as Russia’s “conservative culture war”, in political scientist David Lewis’ words, “had a gradual impact on official thinking.” Russian foreign policy and military elites have increasingly presented Ukraine as a fake nation, Western proxy, and a state in which the ‘real’ pro-Russian Ukrainian society has been taken over by a ‘neo-Nazi’ coup (i.e. the February 2014 Maidan Revolution in which pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych was ousted). This shapes the elite’s understanding of Russia’s interests and goals in Ukraine, while contributing to systematic distortions in the intelligence the elite produces and receives. Just as important is the ideological orientation of the Russian military, which has for decades – most notably in Chechnya – been doctrinally contemptuous of the kind of limited warfare called for by international law, and seen attacks on the ‘social fabric’ of ‘the enemy’ as a crucial part of contemporary warfare. 

Are Russian political and military leaders, and ordinary soldiers on the ground, all ideologically committed to these claims and doctrines? Surely not. But such ideas are at least partially endorsed by influential decision makers and wrapped into prevailing state institutions and discourses, while alternatives are silenced or delegitimised as pro-Western sell-outs. Collectively, this creates an ideological infrastructure for Russian politics quite different to that found in most societies or conflicts most of the time–one with a propensity to encourage atrocities in times of perceived crisis.

This is a pattern found across similar cases. Mass atrocities have complex and multiple causes. But, as in Ukraine, they consistently depend on some sort of justificatory narrative rooted in a regime’s or group’s prevailing ideological worldviews and institutions. Understanding and countering such narratives is vital if we are to better predict, interpret, and prevent the worst campaigns of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide that continue to blight 21st Century world politics.

(Editor’s Note: This article is based on the author’s book “Ideology and Mass Killing: The Radicalized Security Politics of Genocide and Deadly Atrocities” (Oxford University Press, 2022). Full details can be found here. Just Security readers can use the offer code ASFLYQ6 at checkout to receive 30% off the book).

IMAGE: Photo via Getty Images.