History Shows the Tipping Point for Mass Murder is Closer Than You Might Think

Steven Gambardella
5 min readNov 10, 2022


Jewish children with their school teachers in Jedwabne, Poland, 1933. (Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons).

It has always rings hollow to me when people are accused of “inhumanity” when they partake in organized murder.

Dehumanization is a very human phenomenon. We choose who of our kind must be relegated out of it. It starts in the denial of the full humanness of a people, lurking in generalizations, epithets and discriminations. It also proceeds any form of mass murder.

According to the philosopher David Livingstone Smith, dehumanization is a psychological mechanism that’s required to overcome the deep-seated inhibition to kill other human beings.

Dehumanisation is a long process that doesn’t often culminate in murder. But when it does lead to murder, it happens slowly, then all at once.

But even the “at once” of mass murder, when the threshold has been crossed, requires some performance to make it seem legitimate. Human beings construct rituals to murder at scale.

Some mark of guilt is ritually attached to those about to be scapegoated. They are forced to perform the fictional guilt that is foisted upon them.

When the people of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbours in the summer of 1941, they forced them to do unusual things.

On the morning of the pogrom on July 10, the Jewish population had no idea what was going to happen. But there were an unusually large number of peasants travelling into the town from surrounding villages and hamlets.

The Jews were told to report into the market square for some cleaning duty – one of the frequent humiliations they had been subjected to for decades, even centuries, throughout many towns and cities in Europe.

But this time was different. Crowds had amassed around the square, expectations had been set.

As they pulled up weeds from between cobblestones, the Jews were beaten. They were ordered to do “ridiculous” exercises — forced to jump up and lay down, they were marched around the streets, ordered to stand in rivers with the waterline up to their necks.

Forty or so men were made to dismember a statue of Lenin and then carry heavy pieces on a wooden stretcher to a…



Steven Gambardella

I am a history PhD sharing the lessons of philosophy and history with practical benefits for your life and work. Get in touch: