War is as old as humanity but, paradoxically, its savagery has always been limited by laws. In the Middle Ages, no fighting took place on holy days. Today, conventions confer rights upon prisoners and ban, for example, the use of chemical weapons. War is organized savagery.

War is one thing, but barbarism is another, a recognition that led to the notion of a war crime—an inhuman and illegal transgression into savagery. This transgression, the move from war to war crimes, became evident in the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1916, an unspeakable act of violence for which a new word had to be created: genocide, a word coined by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer from, as it happens, Lviv, in Ukraine. In genocide, adversaries are killed because of who they are: Armenians, later Jews, and later still Tutsis in Rwanda and Bosnians in Serbia. Now, Ukrainians are being tortured and executed by Russians simply because they are Ukrainians. We have unimpeachable testimony of this: common graves, civilians executed with hands tied, torture chambers.

To be clear, nothing would dispose a Russian soldier a priori, just because he is Russian, to kill in cold blood a mass of Ukrainian civilians. These crimes cannot be understood as part of a classical military strategy; they do nothing to advance the Russian cause. Nor is there anything in Russian civilization or in the Russian character that would predispose someone to shift into a barbaric kind of warfare. In the same way, nothing in German civilization would have allowed us to anticipate the Germans’ extermination of the Jews. In both cases, the barbarism is not spontaneous; it does not arise within the soul of a people; rather, it is organized, structured, and calculated by leaders.

In all these cases, in circumstances as distinct as those in Germany, Rwanda, Armenia, or Ukraine, we find a machinery of barbarism with no particular relation to one or another culture. It has been perfectly demonstrated and analyzed during trials for genocide, particularly in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The barbarism always stands on two foundations: the bureaucratization of the killers and the dehumanization of the victims.

The killers are persuaded, by their superiors, that they are not killers. Eichmann stated that he was simply executing orders and that, as a responsible bureaucrat, he would have found it unthinkable to fail to obey orders. His crime thus was no crime but an ordinary action committed by an ordinary functionary. This is what led the philosopher Hannah Arendt to invent the controversial concept of the banality of evil. If we took Arendt’s position, then no one would ever be guilty, except Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Vladimir Putin. In any case, courts such as those in Nuremberg, La Haye, and Arusha have not been persuaded by Arendt’s interpretation: by law, the executors themselves are indeed guilty, for it is their duty to refuse to carry out barbaric orders. This jurisprudence will apply someday in Ukraine’s case. The bureaucratization of murder is essential to barbarism, but it is not an excuse.

The other foundation of the barbarism is the dehumanization of victims. Authorities deliberately deny the humanity of the other: Armenians, Jews, Tutsis, and Ukrainians are no longer quite human. Hutu leaders in Rwanda likened the Tutsis to cockroaches, just as the Nazis depicted Jews as monstrous, blood-sucking animals. From the moment the other is seen as vermin, extermination becomes a matter of public health. The expression “ethnic cleansing,” which entered common usage during the barbarism in Yugoslavia, corresponds to this dehumanization: not only is killing not a crime; it is also legitimate, because necessary. This is the key to understanding why Putin treats the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis: these are not people but monsters to eradicate. Thus the machinery of barbarism is put into place.

Some may object that the massacres in Ukraine are the result of battles that go badly for the aggressor, that the Russians are barbarous only because of confusion, panic, alcohol, and the desertion of their officers. These may well be contributing factors to barbarism, but they do not explain it. The similarity of crimes in Ukraine (torture, common graves, execution of bound civilians) illustrates that these are not chance occurrences but results of a preconceived method: the same horrific scenes reproduced in different places demonstrate that what is at work is the machinery of barbarism.

Our conclusions should be clear. Ukrainians and their allies might have been able to negotiate with Russian leaders, but negotiation is not possible with Russian barbarians. A postwar period remains as yet undiscernible. But when it comes, it must bring with it the consequences that pertained post-Holocaust and post-Yugoslavia: condemnation of the machinery of barbarism and conviction of its executors.

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images


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