Answers to atrocities

From amnesia - to amnesty


By Nils Christie

 There is no single answer to atrocities. To grasp the multitude of possibilities, I will suggest a scale of possible answers; from at the one end the total amnesia, then silence, truth-seeking, punishment and restoration, -and at the other end of the scale amnesty; that is where authorities officially declare that amnesia is to take place.


It is obvious that none of us could have survived with a memory of all we might have remembered. It had meant an overload. We do not register all writings on those walls we pass. And if we register, we remember only a fragment. It is also obvious that we are highly selective in what we see, in what we store, and in what we re-call. What is seen as abortion to the doctor might be perceived as killing by the priest, to some women it might be a moment of great relief, to others the utmost of sin, hidden behind stonewalls in the mind. (2.) We perceive selectively, we remember selectively, we recall selectively. We construct. We are human beings.

I was a child in an occupied country during World War II. Did the usual things. Followed the rules: Never fraternise with a German soldier or a Norwegian Nazi-member. There were big signs in streetcars and buses announcing that it was strictly forbidden, and punished by imprisonment, to remain standing in the carrier if there was an empty seat next to a soldier. So, I was a good Norwegian and remained standing. Nevertheless, I can not remember  from the time it happened that the Jews were deported, I can not remember one single comment about it in my generally patriotic circles. The Jews were apprehended by the ordinary Norwegian police. Since they were so many, one hundred ordinary taxies were used for the transport to the ship that brought them to Germany. I suppose the drivers soon forgot this episode in their life. When the few survivors came home from the camps, they came to a country that to some extent had forgotten that they ever had been there. And their property was mostly gone. It was not until 1996 they – or mostly their children and grandchildren - got a decent compensation.


Silence is the next, and probably the most common answer to atrocities.  Silence, because there are nobody around to listen. Isolation of the victim is one of the major features in social systems where illegitimate violence is applied. The mechanism can be observed in cases of battered women. Husbands in such cases tend to isolate wife and children, see to it that they have no close friends or relatives near by. Kids are not allowed to take friends home. There is nobody to tell. Or may be nothing to tell. The dinner was not ready when he came home that day or the meat not quite tender. May be the husband had reasons for his anger. Her intellectual need for an explanation is directed towards own deficiencies and silences her protest. To change this, it is essential that she comes out of the isolation, gets access to an audience that will not strengthen her man’s definition of the situation.

So also in concentration camps. Those unable to see themselves as enemies of the oppressors seemed to be worse off than militant opponents carrying a cause.  They had nothing to say, except that it all was a terrible misunderstanding. But most prisoners struggled to break the silence, to convey the truth to those outside the camps. The milk-bucket from the ghetto in Lodz is a moving example. Lodz is the big industrialised city roughly halfway between Krakow and Warsaw. Throughout all the turmoil in the ghetto, a newspaper was every day printed there in three copies. A few days before the last transport left in 1944, one copy of all the volumes were hidden in a bucket, buried, regained after the war, and then published in the terrible/wonderful book by Lucjan Dobroszycki: “The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944” (Yale University Press 1984). Also here the victims got a voice.

There are no ends to attempts by oppressors to silence their victims. Nor are there ends to the continuous struggles to break the silence. To me, Mauricio Rosencoff is a prime example. He is from Uruguay. For eleven years he - and ten other men - were kept under complete isolation by the military junta of the country. International attention prevented their killing, but not the torture and the totality of their isolation. In periods, they got nearly no water. To survive, they had to drink their own urine. To survive as human beings, nearly all of them engaged in some sort of artistic activity. The one who did not turned insane, just as intended by the junta. Mauricio Rosencoff wrote poetry in his head. At one stage, he got hold of a piece of a pencil and little by little he was able to smuggle out his poems on small bits of paper. When he was released, he found he had become a famous poet in Uruguay. They treated us as dogs, said Mauricio. But we did not bark back. At a seminar in Oslo on torture, Mauricio took part. So did a man who had acted as a torturer in Uruguay. One day this man was given the task to work on a person from his own street. He saw a man like himself, and fled the country. After the seminar, Mauricio and the former torturer went out for a coffee.

Seeking the truth

From the situation of battered women, newspapers in milk-buckets, and seminars on torture, it is only a small step to the Truth-Commission of South Africa and the numerous similar commissions in Latin-America. There is nothing mysterious here, only systematic attempts to break the silence combined with thrust in the strength of truth. Bishop Tutu was central in creating an arena for exposure. People forced into unbelievable degradations in the form of physical and mental pain were given the opportunity to tell their tales. They could do so eye to eye with their oppressors. And what is essential, independent of all the critique that has also hit the commissions: They were given the opportunity to concentrate on what they had seen, what they had experienced, and not on the matter of revenge, particularly not on the task of getting anybody formally sentenced.

Some of this was also essential elements in the situation of the oppressors. Mostly they appeared before the Truth-Commission as an alternative to being brought into a penal court. When they talked, they talked under stress. And they had much to defend, - self-respect, - honour. But they had agreed to break the silence, to participate, to expose what they knew. And they could talk in a frame that was not determined by legal constraints.

Did they tell the truth?

We will never be able to know. But we are able to compare two systems. We can compare the Truth-Commissions to the ordinary penal courts, and ask; what type of information comes out of these two social systems, what sort of answers to atrocities do they produce?

Several elements are clearly different.

First, the goals of the whole operation are basically different. Penal law is oriented towards finding responsibility, or guilt. This gets consequences for the pattern of thinking within the institution. Penal law is build up on dichotomies, guilty or not guilty. A decision “half guilty” does not count. It is the decision of either-or that counts. Truth-Commissions, they are in a way relieved from the dichotomies. They can think in continuums; it was bad what he did, awful, but certain acts were OK. If the total picture was of a character that made him “guilty”, that is not central in the description.

Within penal law it has also to be a personalised guilt. Not a “system-guilt”, not a historical development, but the behaviour of one specific person. Once more we see that the Truth-Commissions have more to play on, greater possibilities for raising questions closer to a sociologically oriented understanding of the phenomena.

In addition to decisions on guilt, the essence of the penal process is delivery of pain. In much writing on penal law this is camouflaged; pain and sufferings are not elaborated on. The system is filled with euphemisms; prisons are called institutions, cells are in my country called rooms, prisoners are called inmates, guards are called “betjenter” which literally means those who serves other people. Nonetheless, even in countries without torture and capital punishment, we know that delivery of pain is an essential part of the whole operation. But pain makes this a serious matter. Most states develop mechanisms to control it. The emphasis on equality is one such mechanism. Equal pain to equal crimes. But crimes are seldom equal, and offenders are rarely identical twins. Central within penal law is therefore the striving towards ways of handling the differences, particularly by reducing the number of factors to be taken into consideration. This is primarily done through elaborate systems of training or socialisation into what sort of information which is accepted as “relevant information”. Legal training is to large extent training in relevance, or may be more precise, in irrelevance. Many among us have been in situations where we have been told by our lawyers that what we think of as our best arguments in a legal conflict should not be mentioned at all in court. The judge would think we were out of our mind, and that the lawyer was a bad one by bringing in what to us was the essence of the case. Again, it is probably necessary in a legal system to have established some sort of agreement on relevance. But this is not necessarily good for exposure of the total story of what happened.

Compared to this, the Truth-Commissions stand in a more free position. It is an arena for exposure, for complaints, for emotional displays, - and also for denials. But the central point is the exposure of what happened, not decision about later delivery of pain.

For the purpose of preventing errors in the delivery of pain, the penal law arrangements – when they are functioning properly, and sometimes they are not - are probably the best that can be invented. But when it comes to a more thorough exposure of what happened, my preliminary conclusion will be that  Truth-Commissions – if they are functioning properly, and again sometimes they are not -probably are  better instruments than  penal courts. (3)

Justice done

But of course, penal courts are not only for exposure of atrocities. They are instruments for the creation of justice. One element in that justice is to let the guilty ones receive the intended pain. The question here is simply: How is it possible to revenge atrocities of these types, revenge evil acts of a quality and quantity not met in ordinary life?

Not far from Krakow is Auschwitz and next to that one the major death-camp; Birkenau. Where the railway-tracks ends in Lager Birkenau, a gallows was raised after World War II. Here they hang the Commander. (4)

I have never been able to understand it. One life against one and a half million! One broken neck against all these suffocated, starved to death, or plainly killed in that camp. To me, the execution became a sort of denigration of the 1.5 million victims. Their worth became, for each of them, 1.5 millionth of the worth of the Commander.

But what else could be done? So asked my Polish colleagues when I far back in time exposed my doubt. And I had no answer, except this: Maybe a trial had to be carried out. Day after day survivors would have to reveal what happened. All sorts of victims would have to express their despair, rage and wish for vengeance. The Commander would also express his position, his reasons then, and now, in front of the survivors and his judges.

But then, for the judge, if he was a free judge and not only an executioner hired by the rulers, what should he in the end decide?

One possibility, and that would be my preference, would be that he should express as follows to the Camp-Commander: You have clearly done it. You have administered the death of more than a million human beings. You are guilty. Your acts are morally repulsive to an extent above what can be imagined. We have heard it. All in the civilised world will get to know about your horrible acts carried out at this horrible place. No more can be said and done. Go away in shame.

But of course, I know that could not happen. I had, in the beginning of the 1960-ies long talks with professor Batawia in Warsaw. He was professor in forensic psychiatry, and had carried out long conversations with the commander of one of the large concentration camps, I have forgotten which one, it was probably Rudolf Höss. We compared notes. I had worked in the same field, interviewing guards who tortured and killed in Nacht und Nebel (Night- and Fog) -camps in the North of Norway. We found that we had two common experiences. First, none of us had met any monsters from the camps. Bad news for those hoping to find beasts behind the atrocities; by and large they are not there. Secondly, neither the Polish, nor the Norwegian society was particularly interested in getting aquatinted with our results. Batawia was flatly forbidden to publish, my small articles were ignored. It was not until a new generation had grown up I could publish the whole report in the form of a book. With closeness to the atrocities, it was not analysis that was asked for, but revenge.

The execution of an idea

But nonetheless, they might have been right, those who hung the commander. They did not only hang the commander, but a whole system. His broken neck symbolised a broken idea. It was the nazi-ideology that was hanged in those gallows. Societies need clear and fast answers when their most fundamental values have been under attack such as in the nazi area.

I agree, of course I agree, how could I not. But nonetheless, in a little corner of my sociological conscience lurks some doubts. We kill the commander, yes. We even killed the major initiators after Nuremberg. We exterminate the evil ideas and their major carriers, swift, unanimously. We make it crystal-clear that certain acts, -genocide and extermination of unwanted minorities, are crimes so far out that no mercy is possible. My doubts are only: Do we thereby hit the whole target? By hanging the commander and also those bosses in Nuremberg, a good feeling of accomplishment is created, vengeance, often called justice, is carried out, but at the same time, the discussion of related phenomena is efficiently closed.

The commander was guilty, and from a legal point he certainly deserved his destiny. But nonetheless, at the very same time he also functioned as a scapegoat, as did his chiefs hang in Nuremberg. Behind them were some untamed force, protected by the penal actions against their carriers. Atrocities met with individual punishments might prevent the development of a more full understanding of these forces and of the phenomena in general. It was not until 1989 we got into the deep layers of understanding of the concentration camps with Zygmunt Baumans book on “Modernity and the Holocaust”.

By hanging commanders, and while the judges in Nuremberg focused on finding personal guilt for atrocities, other phenomena were left in peace, left to grow. Three themes were not discussed in Nuremberg:

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Dresden was made into a no-town in less than 24 hours, and with at least 135 000 victims. It has later been difficult to find rational military reasons for their extinction.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made into churchyards with one atom bomb to each town. The reasons behind these mass-killings of civilians seem unclear; - no one - even if they tried - got the question up in Nuremberg or before any other international court. It has been difficult to find rational military reasons for what happened. A better founded hypothesis seems to be that the dropping of the bombs was intended as a sign of warning to the USSR, - a glorious introduction to the cold war.

And then the GULAG’s. Of course they could not be discussed in Nuremberg with a prominent Russian among the judges. But while they decided on death in Nuremberg, the GULAG’s bulged.

Preventing atrocities

But by hanging the individuals most closely related to the atrocities, we re-establish certain standards. We teach everybody a lesson. Mass-killers will end in the gallows. Maybe we are preventing other people from going into the service of evil forces.

These are the standard arguments for all severe punishments. And I am afraid they have even less validity here than in more ordinary cases. Perpetrators of this type of evil acts see themselves as servants of states, most often of national states surrounded by aggressors. Or they are just functionaries, as Adolph Eichman in his office, or they see themselves as soldiers in an inevitable and also just war, as when secret forces from Israel kill or kidnap persons far outside the border of the Middle East. In my country, we shot the chief-traitor Vidkun Quisling after World War II. It is not reasonable to think that this will influence the next potential traitor. The situation will be another, the cause will be another. And the next person in, he will, while he acts, see himself as an obvious winner. It is the bandits at the other side, which will be brought to court.

International penal courts

The Nuremberg court was clearly a court established by the winners. It was a military court, and international only in the meaning that the four judges came from the four major countries that defeated Germany. And it was a court deciding over an enemy that had suffered total defeat.

In more recent attempts to establish international standards, this is to some extent changed. Some courts have gone international. The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague is the most recent example. The International Criminal Court will come in action when 60 countries have ratified. Up to now, 36 have done so. These are or will be civil courts with judges and prosecutors from several different countries. This represents long steps forward, compared to Nuremberg. But some basic problems with penal courts remain.

While I was preparing this essay, Yugoslavian authorities came under enormous pressure to send Milosevic to The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Milosevic was at this point in prison in Belgrade, waiting for trial. (5) If the government send him to The Hague, they would receive money from the West to rebuild the country. If they only brought him to court at home, they would receive nothing. They sent him, and received next day a promise for money. 11,9 billion dollars against one piece Milosevic. It happened on June 28th, the very same day where Serbs memorise the catastrophy in a war against the Turks in the 14th Century. The prosecution raised the claim to get Milosevic to The Hague before the NATO-war against Yugoslavia had come to an end. It seems probable that these claims prolonged the war. After the war, the claims from the prosecutor have created considerable internal instability in the country. The president of the Yugoslavia was strongly against the deportation. The Supreme Court of Yugoslavia had not finished their discussion on the legality of the case. The same turmoil, by the same reasons, takes place in Croatia this week.

In addition to these concrete problems we meet in Balkan just these days, three principal problems mar the international courts of the type we meet in The Hague:

First: Western legal order emphasises values of being sentenced by equals and according to laws given by elected representatives. Even within the most tranquil among national states, these values are not always adhered to. Or maybe I should rather say: They are never fully realised. Jury-members as well as judges are nearly always older, better educated, and of more prominent class-background than those they are to decide over. Laws are mostly better suited to control the poor than the rich, and to control those without power more than those with power, and they are given by and for the more successful citizens of the population. With international courts or tribunals, it is even more difficult to play according to the basic rules of the game. It will not be a drama according to national laws, it will not be a trial carried out by national judges, and it will not be trial by an ordinary jury. In my little country, 80 000 collaborators were convicted after World War II. Of course no nazi-members served as prosecutors, jury-members or judges. They were by definition not worth listening to. The winners decide the aftermath of wars. There was never much talk about Genocide when Europe took hold of Africa and America. Not until these days come claims from Africans or Indians for Truth-Commissions. This break with normal procedure is both inevitable and wanted when a dictator from a terror-regime is brought before the international court. But it becomes a burden to the legitimacy of the international court in cases where the suspect comes from a more ordinary functioning state.

Second: Values of impartiality and fairness are emphasised in Western legal systems. Equality is here an important element. Equal results in equal cases. But then equality not only in what comes out of court, but also in what goes in. Again, this is an ideal not always adhered to in national courts, - it might sometimes prove less risky to steal the bank than rob the cashier. But again, international courts have extraordinary problems. Large and powerful states, and small with good connection to the large ones, are obviously better protected against being brought before international courts than small states without power and/or with miserable connections to the great powers. It was the total losers that hung in Nuremberg. As to later developments, it is difficult not to express a certain surprise not to have been able to register any call for the former president Tudjman from Croatia in The Hague. When the International Criminal Court comes into being, new problems will arise. Turks might be expected there, due to their treatment of Kurds. Suharto might be a suitable candidate from Indonesia. Some might even expect Kissinger in one of these courts one day, and also Sharon for both old and new acts, and not only asked for by Belgian courts. Some Russian generals might also be asked to come to answer for their methods in Tsjetsjenia. It is not without interest that none of the nations these prominent persons come from have ratified their acceptance of the International Criminal Court.

The third problem with the international courts is the question of relevance. I have already discussed this problem. To create equality, lawyers have strong wishes to eliminate what shall be discussed in courts, to concentrate on certain elements. But international courts are close to international politics. Sharon will claim that his state was in danger, his acts must be seen as an answer to this. Milosevic will – if he decides to defend himself before a court he claims is illegal - probably say that the Kosovo-Albanians were trained and supported by CIA, and that the whole NATO-operation was intended to weaken Yugoslavia and give access  to territories further East in Europe. It is therefore NATO, not he that ought to stand for trial. But courts are badly suited to handle these statements. They will retreat to statements of relevance and, just as in ordinary court-cases, not open for what the accused persons see as their most important arguments. But thereby they also expose their basic weakness in telling us what happened.

I have no definite answers to the problems here raised. What I can not hide, and will not hide, is scepticism regarding international penal law as answers to atrocities. Penal law creates always restrictions on the flow of information, and is therefore not the best instrument in clarifying what happened. International penal law is inevitably the law of the winners, and therefore of dubious utility in attempts to create social peace. It is an instrument to describe parts of what happened in the past. But we need systems that look forward. We need instruments that both clarify the past, and help the future. Systems for restoration might be one answer.


But can restoration take place after years of oppression; years of killings and rape, maybe also serious attempts of genocide? Of course not completely. Husbands are killed, those raped are left with their scars and may be also with children intentionally forced on them by the enemy. Or they are, as travellers in my country - it is a gypsy-related group - brought in a situation where they are sterilised, or their children are brought to unknown addresses by the authorities. These evil acts can never be undone.

Particularly complicated in Europe just now is a situation as the present one in Kosovo; with highly deplorable Serbian acts, with highly deplorable Western interference, and also with highly deplorable Kosovo-Albanian acts. Before the bombing, there were 1 300 international peace-observers in Kosovo. They were withdrawn, so the bombing might commence. Most observers seems to agree that 13 000 international peace-observers would have kept peace in Kosovo, and thus prevented bombs and the flight of 800 000 civilians. To day, there are 45 000 soldiers in the province.

There are two ways to meet the Kosovo-conflict. It is the usual penal one; kill the killers, or hurt them. Or help conflicting parties to meet, create an arena where they can tell their stories, expose their grievances, and then slowly, may be after many, many attempts, come to some sort of common understanding of what happened, and what might be done in attempts to alleviate the situation.

The utmost of naiveté?

Not quite. A very strong influence on modern penal policy these days stem from native traditions in New Zealand, Australia, and from native Indian culture, particularly in Canada, but also in the USA. It has become clear how heavily native youngsters are over-represented in modern prisons. Thereby the need for returning to the old ways of coping with conflicts has been exposed. These old ways are based on mediation. In relatively egalitarian societies far away from central authorities, it is close to obvious that punishment might lead to civil war, just as punishments on the international arena without one central power can lead to renew old conflicts and warfare. In such societies, it becomes essential to restore the situations and thereby preserve social systems. Restore is an Old-Norse term. It means, literally, to rise up once more those wooden stocks – staur - that have fallen down, or more poetically, to rebuild the house. These activities represent a negation of ideals from penal law. If blame and shame is to be applied, it has to be in the form of re-integrative shaming. If an offender is clearly defined, emphasis is put on how he or she can repair the damage, materially or symbolically, and not on how that offender can be brought to suffer. Restorative meetings of this type is in many ways a further development of Truth-Commissions.

Not possible in the Balkan-region?

I met that statement in Tirana, the capital of Albania, some years back in time. It was a huge meeting with hundreds of participants. The theme was how to get blood-vengeance come to a stop. Impossible, said several of the participants. We are so proud, therefore the rules of blood-vengeance have to be obeyed. Then rose a huge, white-haired man. I later learned he had served as a general in the guerrilla against the Italian occupants, and later in the army. But that was far back in time. Now he said: I have been imprisoned for so many years under Hoxa (the former ruler of Albania). Now it is over. I feel no hatred. Albanians are not that way, they are not a peculiar sort. The discussion immediately came to an end. The project on mediation is by now well established in Albania.

Not possible when monsters are behind the atrocities!

Having worked with crime and punishment most of my life, I have to confess that I never have met any monster. I could not find them among killers in concentration-camps, nor have I met anyone later. There are people I dislike, but none that are completely impossible to reach, at least for some important seconds. My basic supposition is that most people are as most people. We have all been infants and cared for.  We have, as Cooley sees it, had a common experience of being nursed by someone. This common experience is what makes it possible for us to understand the plot in the Greek drama, 2000 years back as well as persons behind recent atrocities.

But when the acts are unbelievable. Genocide?

Many nations are based on genocide, my own included. Norway made an attempt to exterminate the Sami people and culture to the best of our abilities. But in the 1990ies the remaining Sami’s  got their own Parliament. It was as compensation for a particularly ugly destruction of one of their major salmon-rivers. Quite recently the University of Oslo, which is my university, has also given back to the Sami a whole assembly of sculls. It was the physical anthropologists who had them, exhibited for years not far away from my office. Several of them had been executed for sorcery, some for opposition against Norwegian authorities. I admit that these sins are old and small-scale compared to white mans behaviour in Africa or America. But not small for the Sami population, confronting what they might have seen as Norwegian monsters.

What I try to say, is that atrocities are common phenomena. It is important for our understanding of them that their answers are not monopolised as a property of one nation or one category of victims. They are general features of human history, a part of our destiny. Most nations have been involved, as victims or as perpetrators, most often as both. This makes it important to include atrocities into the normality of abnormality. We must find ways of both prevention and reaction to atrocities where we mobilise the ordinary stock of knowledge on how to handle social conflicts.

The importance of not having answers

My major conclusion from attempts to find answers to atrocities is that there are no easy answers in individual cases, and maybe no good answers in general. This sounds negative, and is intended so. Pretensions to have answers might be counterproductive. There are many vested interests behind claims of having the good answers. So much is launched as answers to atrocities, which actually increase chances for further atrocities. Penal action might strengthen certain nations, or forces within those nations, but weaken others. They might also carry the seeds for new atrocities. International courts, deviating so much from ordinary ideals for courts, might prevent a deeper understanding of the forces behind mass-scale killings. A conclusion that there are no good answers to atrocities, is not a heroic one: It is not one that will initiate strong actions, or immediately create new barricades against evil forces. But may be an admittance of the non-existence of good answers is a foundation to build peace on. If the hunt for good answers is a vain one, we are forced back to ordinary ways of handling conflicts. Particularly we have to tap experience from peace-research and civil ways of handling conflicts. We have to live with sorrow and misery in the shadow of atrocities. But – if you forgive me for expressing my own morality – we must at the same time also try out some old-fashioned ways in solving conflict, restore - and forgive, may be even before the culprits have moved so far as to ask for it. We do not want amnesia. But after all have been brought to the surface, imprinted into all minds and all human history, we might in the end have no better final solution than amnesties.

1. Thanks to Hedda Giertsen, Ragnhild Hennum, Kristin Hobson and Lill Scherdin for helpful comments.

2.  “ the mind”, - a term which significantly enough means just memory, or in old-Norse “minne”.

3. One reservation: This is an ideal-typical picture. Some Truth-Commissions have worked under highly unfavourable conditions, politically and/or economically. They have thereby experienced trouble, as penal courts in the same situation also would have experienced.

4.  This is as I remember it. In the book Auschwitz, Interpress, Warshaw 1985 p. 188, I find that Rudolf Höss was hanged April 1947 outside the building from where he had governed the camp

5. Milosevic might be a bad man, and also be found guilty. I have no opinion on that.


Bauman, Zygmunt 1989, Modernity and the holocaust. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Dobroszycki, Lucjan 1984, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Loz, Maria and Andrzej Zybertowicz 2001, Privatising the Police State. St. Maartins Press N.Y.

11. juli 2001


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