Mass Manipulation and Genocide:
The Myth of Propaganda in the Balkans and Rwanda
War and conquest have been among the most enduring traits of humankind throughout the ages. While we would all like to believe that we are, by nature, a peaceful species, we still understand there are some things worth fighting for, and given the appropriate context, there are some things worth killing for. As reasoning beings, we hope that if violence is the only option it is for a clear and legitimate purpose. That is why it was so confounding to hear of such heinous acts of senseless violence as stories from Germany began to emerge after World War II. The world shuddered as the actions of Hitler’s henchmen attempting to eradicate entire ethnic groups were revealed. It was inconceivable: what could incite such a large group of people towards genocide? What could inspire such hatred, such bloodlust? People were shocked, and for generations most of humanity has taken a hard line approach to acts of genocide: “never again.” But it has happened again. As the world witnessed similar atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda during the early to mid-1990s, we are again left with a truly flummoxing question: Why?
There are no easy answers to questions of genocide. We can only hope to find common threads that might shed glimmers of light on the darkest corners of human activity, to try to understand what could drive people to such extreme measures. Cleary, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia the social and political structures set the stage for the ensuing atrocities. The wake of colonialism and communism, respectively, had left these two regions unstable and vulnerable to the agendas of extremist politicians. And as Hitler demonstrated during his jingoistic romp through Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, the shrill voice of propaganda tools can rapidly spread messages of hatred and intolerance, effectively mobilizing populations and even inspire murderous actions that would be otherwise unthinkable. Indeed, the propaganda employed through various media was instrumental in the rise of nationalism and the fomenting of fear and ethnic hatred in the Balkans and in Rwanda. It is clear that propaganda is a powerful tool and its implementation played a significant role in these conflicts, but the extent of that role is less certain. Does propaganda alone have the power to incite genocide and ethnic cleansing? Are certain media more effective in achieving extremist goals than others? Could we stop genocides before they start by identifying and targeting outlets of propaganda? As this paper will demonstrate, the social, political and economic climates of nations in question—in this case, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—determine how effective state-sponsored propaganda is at crystallizing divisions among people and inspiring one group to attempt to eradicate another.
Before we can understand how propaganda operates, it is important to define exactly what we mean by “propaganda.” The...