From April through mid-July of 1994, the small African nation of Rwanda was the site of nearly one million systematic murders of men, women, and children suspected to be ethnically Tutsi, Tutsi supporters, or otherwise threats to the government. In the aftermath of the genocide, academics have theorized a variety of explanations for how high unemployment, extreme poverty, and political instability combined to cause “the Hutus” to take revenge on “the Tutsis” through violence and murder . Yet these daunting numbers and totalizing statistics create an image of two distinct factions blindly attacking each other, which is far from the reality of the situation. Carried out mostly by machete and through local militias, the Rwandan genocide is perhaps one of the most personal (that is, intimate) in history. It follows that, to truly understand the genocide’s cause, one must examine the mentality of Rwandans on the individual level at the time.

In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram was also interested in understanding obedience and its role in the Holocaust. He theorized that the power of authority plays a large role in coercing individuals to action and therefore conducted a series of experiments at Yale University aimed to answer the question, “How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?” (Milgram 4). While the environment in which genocide takes place may be drastically different from the laboratory of Milgram’s experiments, the fundamental question I have cited remains the same. Significantly, Milgram’s findings have traditionally been written about with a strongly individualized approach, highlighting excerpts of debriefings and analyzing how the background of particular participants influenced their thinking. On the other hand, the Rwandan genocide has historically been represented as a conflict between two homogeneous groups. By juxtaposing findings from the Milgram experiment with the individual stories of two Hutus – one who resisted calls to violence and one who obeyed them – I hope to create a gateway through which we can come closer to realizing the complex factors surrounding each Rwandan’s choice of actions on the eve of genocide. While high-level administrators engineered the violence “to resist political change which they perceived as threatening”, the immediate actors carrying it out had far different motivations, ranging from misplaced morality to group conformity (Prunier 242).

In April 1994, seven Tutsi pastors wrote a desperate letter to their superior Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana from the confines of their church complex in the Kibuyu region of Rwanda. It stated, among other things, “We wish to inform you that […] tomorrow we will be killed along with our families” (Gourevich 42). Ethnically Hutu, Pastor Ntakirutimana had distinguished himself at the outbreak of fighting by encouraging the local hidden Tutsi population to find shelter in his building, yet quickly his followers began to feel deceived. Pastor Ntakirutimana and his son were frequently seen conversing with the Hutu Power militia and Presidential Guard, and eventually it was his son who announced their execution date. In response to their letter, one survivor recalls, the Pastor wrote “Your problem has already found a solution. You must die” while another remembers, “You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you” (Gourevich 28). On April 16, 1994, Hutu military entered the supposed sanctuary and indiscriminately slaughtered nearly all 8,000 refugees – men, women, and children – in the church and hospital complex of Mugonero. The few who survived succeeded only by concealing themselves under corpses and fleeing after dark.

In the same month that Pastor Ntakirutimana delivered his refugees into the hands of the Hutu military, Paul Rusesabagina, an ethnic Hutu and temporary manager of the upscale Hotel des Milles Collines faced a decision of his own. Beginning April 7, this international tourist destination had been flooded with Tutsi and anti-Hutu Power supporters fearing for their lives (“Leave”). From the beginning, “Rusesabagina spent his days buying lives of Tutsis with liquor, reasoning, persuading, so that each band of killers who came to the hotel to take out various Tutsis on their lists for killing somehow ended up going away” (“Share”). Through newspaper interviews and telephone calls to leaders in Belgium and the United States, Rusesabagina secured National Police protection of his hotel. In two separate incidents, officials of the Department of Military Intelligence informed Rusesabagina that his occupants would be massacred by day’s end, and to evict them as soon as possible. Not bowing to the pressure, he instead contacted the French Foreign Ministry using a hidden fax line to inform and pressure the United Nations about the threats. Both times the situation was diffused. At the end of the hundred days of genocide, all his guests had survived unharmed, and Rusesabagina has become synonymous with heroism during the Rwandan genocide.

Milgram’s experiment on obedience serves as the central point of analysis for both Rusesabagina and Pastor Ntakirutimana in this paper, so let us first describe its method. In Milgram’s experiment, volunteers in the lab were introduced to another supposed volunteer who was actually a confederate of Milgram’s. Through a rigged drawing, the volunteer would be designated the “teacher” while the confederate actor would be the “learner.” The teacher, after being given a sample 45-volt electrical shock, was given a list of questions to ask and instructed to give the learner increasing levels of electrical shock for incorrect answers by pushing a switch on a generator. The switch panel was labeled with voltages from 15 (“SLIGHT SHOCK”) to 450 volts (“XX”). Unbeknownst to him, the machine did not function. The learner was hidden from view in a room next door, and as the shock level increased, he would begin to complain of the pain until eventually demanding to be let out, screaming, and falling silent with no response, which was treated as a wrong answer. Contrary to the expectations of psychologists Milgram polled beforehand, a stunning 65 percent of subjects completed the experiment, “delivering” lethal 450-volt shocks. In order to fully understand what the experiment tells us about how Rwandans could become killers of their own neighbors, we must look closer at the ways in which subjects read various messages into the experimental procedure, allowing obedience to become easier.

In response to the first three protests by the teacher to stop the experiment, experimenters were directed to say, “The experiment requires that you continue” (Milgram 21), thus implicitly placing responsibility on neither himself nor the volunteer but rather the name of science. Misplaced responsibility is exactly what allowed Milgram’s subjects – and many who participated in the Rwandan genocide – to continue. As Milgram reasons: “Most subjects in the experiment see their behavior in a larger context that is benevolent and useful to society – the pursuit of scientific truth” (9). A source as impartial as science is not likely to purposefully endanger lives, and thus many volunteers dutifully continued. Placed in a similar situation being demanded by the government to murder known Tutsis, “[m]any Rwandans say that they killed because authorities told them to kill” (“Leave”). Indeed, for months a barrage of radio and other government-controlled media reports expounded upon the evils of the Tutsi ethnic group and “involved explicit and regular incitations to mass murder, constant verbal attacks on Tutsi, the publication of lists with the names of hundreds of people-to-be-killed, threats to anyone having relations with Tutsi, etc” (Uvin 110). Having been subjected to such discourse every day, Pastor Ntakirutimana came to give in to its call. Furthermore, whereas Milgram’s subjects faced no actual physical threat if they were to end the experiment, the pastor very well could have jeopardized his life by not turning his church over to the militia. Not satisfied with the response from its regular military members, the government also created “civilian self-defense” militias which armed and trained ordinary citizens and then ordered them to kill the Tutsi and their Hutu sympathizers. For some perpetrators of the genocide, the prospect of increasing their own wellbeing or that or their nation overall through displacement of Tutsis was a large draw.

Neither were the killers in Rwanda as devoid of morality as they seemed, a fact illustrated by Milgram’s volunteers who readily accepted that the experimenter would be responsible for the learner’s injuries. Volunteers, assured that they were not at fault, felt themselves protected in their actions and continued with less guilt. Many Hutu militia members and other participants in the Rwandan killings have also frequently insisted they were merely carrying out orders handed down from above, an mindset easier to understand when viewed in light of pre-colonial Rwanda’s “strong tradition of unquestioning obedience to authority” that was “reinforced by both the German and the Belgian colonial administrations” (Prunier 241-42). In his own defense, Pastor Ntakirutimana himself claimed to be helpless in the face of authority. Though the church complex was his own, when the mayor of Mugonero said there was nothing to be done, he believed him and fled (Gourevich 41). Although legally, the experimenter’s culpability and the Rwandans’ powerlessness against authority might stand, as political psychologists John Sabini and Maury Silver note, ethical blame cannot be transferred to others. Referring to Milgram’s subjects they ask, “Yet how could the experimenter take upon himself their responsibility? Responsibility is not property that can be borrowed, shared, loaned, or repossessed” (197). Citing someone else as the cause of one’s actions cannot alter the reality that those very actions were taken by one’s own hands, whether it is directly axing hundreds of Tutsi to death or experimentally delivering a fatal shock to a fellow volunteer. The reasoning is illogical, however, “the essence of obedience consists of the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions” (Milgram xiii). In fact, Milgram’s findings show that in these situations, the participant no longer thinks of the larger, deadly implications of his actions, but instead his “moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him” to carry out the task at hand (8, emphasis added).

Finally, the ways in which Milgram’s experiment was designed to break down individuals’ resistance to the task asked of them can be seen at work in the Rwandan genocide as well. The gradual escalation in the severity of the task being asked of both Milgram’s volunteers and Habyarimana’s Hutus is what allowed them to eventually reach their shocking potentials. By only increasing the voltage delivered by 15 after each incorrect answer, Milgram’s teachers found difficulty in deciding when it was appropriate to stop. With each shock was only slightly higher than the last, and repetition making the task easier, little justification existed for stopping at any given point rather than just before or just afterwards. In the same fashion, many who began killing with certain reservations eventually lost them. “Some became more hardened with experience and learned how to slaughter even those whom they had once refused to harm” (“Leave”). Tutsi neighbors and friends later became as worthy of death as the Rwandan Patriotic Front fighter. The extent of atrocities reached the point where one UNAMIR officer said, “I had seen war before, but I had never seen a woman carrying a baby on her back kill another woman with a baby on her back” (as qtd in “Leave”). With each successive task executed, both Milgram’s subjects and the Rwandan killers became increasingly desensitized to their actions as their superiors continued demanding more of them.

Further eroding the Pastor’s resistance was the complicity of so many around him that he, too, thought nothing of cooperating with the militia. Milgram’s explanation of group conformity to defy the experimenter in one variation of his experiment can be applied to the Pastor’s situation in reverse. In the experiment, participants were influenced by two rebelling confederates into believing that rebellion was normal or proper and thus acted similarly in order not to be seen disapprovingly by their peers (Milgram 120). In the Pastor’s case, not only was almost everyone around him obeying the Hutu Power government, but a third, related principle of division of responsibility further assuaged any fears he might have had about his conduct: because so many other people were involved in the genocide throughout the country, any moral authority that might have held sway over the Pastor diminished in power. When evenly dispersed between him and the militia, the question of moral responsibility became insignificant. Amongst the general Rwandan public, even, Human Rights Watch found that “[s]ome who refused at the start became convinced to act when all authorities seemed to speak with one voice, when the leaders of their parties joined with administrators to demand their participation and when the military stood behind, ready to intimidate those who hesitated” (“Leave”).

One final variable which likely broke any resolve Pastor Ntakirutimana might have had to not abandon his congregation was the perpetual dehumanization of Tutsis in daily Hutu Power rhetoric. From the beginning of the conflict, extremists circulated the Hutu Ten Commandments that depicted all Tutsis and their sympathizers as evil. Ultimately, “[i]t was designed to marginalize the Tutsis and create an atmosphere in which their mass destruction would be acceptable, almost inevitable” (Fergal 10). Although Milgram did not explicitly study the effect of dehumanization in his experiments, he did vary the proximity of the learner to the subject and found that when the victim was segregated and out of view and earshot, subjects completed the shocks at a higher rate, a rough approximation to the psychological distance created between an aggressor and his dehumanized victim (Milgram 22-23). Because Pastor Ntakirutimana did not have to actively participate in the murder himself, instead resting safely out of town with his family, the psychological burden of his actions likely was lighter and easier to bear. Thus, the less like him the refugees became, the easier it was for him to allow for their murder to pass.

But if dehumanization, group conformity, and escalation of tasks work to break down resistance, when we turn to Rusesbagina’s story we must ask what bolsters resistance. Some might say proximity, as was the case in Milgram’s experiments. Rusesbagina, as temporary manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines, himself lived with the refugees to oversee the protection of his building, making it much more difficult for him to give in to the demands of the Hutu Power authorities. Just as distancing the subjects resulted in a higher rate of obedience in Milgram’s experiments, bringing them closer together decreased the rate. Proximity to victims creates a more awkward and socially unacceptable situation wherein participants are simultaneously exposed to direct judgment by both the nearby victim and the presiding authority, making an “acceptable” action difficult. In his own analysis, Milgram views the decision-making process as an internal struggle of strain and buffers. For disobedient subjects, the strain of the experimenter’s demands, living up to one’s side of a contract, and furthering the cause of science vie against a sense of morality for the subject’s obedience. Buffer actions, such as teachers hinting the correct answer, are attempts to ease the internal discomfort, but ultimately subjects are driven to end the experiment. The particulars of Rusesbagina’s situation, however, complicate any direct comparisons. Yes, Rusesbagina possessed strong morals and empathy for those who were suffering in his hotel, just as Milgram’s subjects often recalled feeling sorry for the victim if they were ever in the same position (Milgram 51). He also resorted to the ordinarily immoral act of bribery to creatively cope with his situation and buy off bloodthirsty soldiers with alcohol. However, as a well-educated Hutu man in a high-paying occupation, he had little to gain from replacing his Tutsti neighbors and likely was not as susceptible to the Tutsi-dehumanizing radio propaganda. Additionally, he was faced with a third, competing authority (the first being his conscience and the second the militia) of his manager and the international company that owned the hotel. As an employee and caretaker, he was responsible for maintaining the image of Hotel des Milles Collines, a concern whose importance cannot be underestimated in retrospect. Despite these deficiencies in Milgram’s experiment to perfectly explain Rusesbagina’s situation, it is clear that in this case a strong moral consciousness was able to outweigh immoral authority and provide the possibility of hope for individuals facing similar choices in the future.

By beginning to understand the actions of Pastor Ntakirutimana and Paul Rusesbagina as individuals first, psychology helps shed light on how great atrocities like the Rwandan genocide can occur. It is neither the result of immutable dogma nor mechanistic orders but rather the accumulation of thousands of individual actions. Psychology, however, cannot model everything and still remains imperfectly restricted to the confines of the laboratory. While focusing primarily on the stories of Ntakirutimana and Rusesbagina, I must also acknowledge a third category that I have only mentioned tangentially and which does as neatly parallel the Milgram experiment: that of the ordinary Hutu peasant-turned-militia member. Facing bleak prospects for the future when the genocide began, these individuals were even more susceptible to the incitement tactics that allowed for Pastor Ntakirutimana’s complicity. However, the breakdown of resistance that includes a transfer of responsibility, dehumanization of the victim, and gradual escalation in severity of tasks is offset in each militia member by the same factors of proximity that led Rusesbagina to disobey. The act of personally confronting each Tutsi to be killed and repeatedly hacking him to death with a machete counteracts the tendency towards obedience to an incalculable degree.

Looking back, one can only speculate as to the relative strength of each factor in people’s decisions of whether or not to kill. Despite the questions that remain unanswered by science, I believe that overall, viewing the Rwandan genocide in light of Milgram’s experiment reminds us that at the heart of great atrocities lies the actions and pressures of ordinary individuals. As the authors of a retrospective on disobedience in the Milgram experiment state, “if we believe that ordinary people […] can act counter to such streams of destruction, then every one of us may be able to mitigate the harmful consequences of some future malevolent regime” (Modigliani 108). And although the majority of people who find themselves at a crossroads between morality and obedience give in to the latter, the actions of a few courageous people with firm convictions who have refused to compromise themselves assures us of the possibility of a better future.

Works Cited

“A Share in the Genocide.” Rev. of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch. The Guardian 13 Mar. 1999.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Picador, 1999.

Keane, Fergal. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey. London: Viking, 1995.

“Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda”. Human Rights Watch. 1999.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Modigliani, Andre and Francois Rochat. “Captain Paul Grueninger : The Chief of Police who Saved Jewish Refugees by Refusing to Do His Duty”. Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Ed. Thomas Blass. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Newbury, David. “Understanding Genocide.” African Studies Review 41.1 (1998): 73-97.

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

Sabini, John P., and Maury Silver. “Destroying the Innocent with a Clear Conscience: A Sociopsychology of the Holocaust.” Political Psychology: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Neil J. Kressel. 1st ed. New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Uvin, Peter. “Prejudice, Crisis, and Genocide in Rwanda.”African Studies Review40.2 (1997): 91-115.