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Last Updated: 05/23/2006
Culture, Conflict, and Death
Günter Bierbrauer

According to new theorizing in social psychology, the main function of culture is to alleviate anxiety caused by the awareness of our eventual death. In this framework, culture and religion offer answers to the meaning of life in the face of our mortality. Faith in ones own cultural world-view provides protection from the fear of death. If people feel that their religion or other cultural world-views are threatened by other religions or conceptions of culture they can be mobilized and seem to be ready to fight or even die for their beliefs.

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You may be wondering about the title of this little essay. Perhaps the connection of the first two concepts - “culture” and “conflict” - makes sense to you. The third concept -“death” - in connection with “culture” may surprise you. In the following I will focus on the intricate relationship between culture and death. By this, I refer to new theoretical developments in psychology known as “Terror Management Theory” that elucidates the relationship between culture and death.

First, I shall speak about the traditional understanding of culture and how culture became a key element in current ethno-political conflicts. I shall argue that the dynamics of these conflicts cannot be understood without the role that culture plays in our attempts to understand the meaning of our lives and death.

Culture and conflict

By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century culture and cultural identity became key elements in ethno-political conflicts. By ethno-political conflicts I mean all forms of aggression, in particular genocide, which are carried out against other groups because they are perceived to be different in terms of their ethnicity or cultural or religious beliefs.

News about ethnic massacres and suicide bombers who sacrifice their lives in the name of Allah has become a daily routine. Gradually, we are becoming insensitive to the repeating terror. The daily victims both in Iraq, Israel and Palestine are only a very small fraction of what the world has on its conscience. The conservative estimates begin at 100 million non-military causalities in the last century alone, this is an average of about 3000 a day (Dutton, Boyanowsky & Bond, 2005).

In the 20th century, the numbers of human victims of mass slaughter bourgeoned. According to Gilbert (1994) in 1914, over one million Armenians were massacred or died from brutalities inflicted upon them by the Turks. In addition to 20 million Eastern European war dead, the Nazis systematically eliminated about six million Jews, five million gypsies and civilians in Eastern Europe, and others between 1933 and 1945. Stalin masterminded the killing or starvation of up to 30 million “dissenters” in the Soviet Union. In 1945, on entering the eastern part of Germany, the Russian army killed 2.5 million civilians. Mao Zhe Dung oversaw the killing of up to 20 million in China. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot killed 2.5 million “educated people” in Cambodia between 1974 and 1978. Hutus killed approximately 800.000 people, most of them Tutsis, in just 100 days. Sadam Hussein orchestrated the killing of Kurds and “dissenters,” while in Bosnia, the Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic carried out “ethnic cleansing” of non-Serbs.

The unspeakable horrors of these events and of many other collective atrocities such as in Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Lidice, Malmedy, Oradour-surj-Glane, Babi Yar and too many others, leave us mute as we are unable to comprehend why human beings mass murder their fellow humans apparently without any remorse or feelings of guilt or shame.

The question of why these mass killings happen has two families of answers. One answer is given in terms of geo-political antecedents such as contending nations or governments fighting because of territorial aspirations. These were the causes of major wars in the past. This, however, does not tell us why violence and atrocity emerges as part of ethnic or ideological conflicts most often within and much less between countries. Nor does it tell us under what circumstances ordinary members of otherwise peaceful collectivities come to take part in massive slaughter and unspeakable atrocities. The second answer - and the answer to this question - is traditionally given in terms of men’s human nature (Bierbrauer, 2003).

Günter Bierbrauer is a professor of Psychology at the University of Osnabrueck, Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University. His teaching and research interests span social, legal and cross-cultural psychology. –the topics covered in his publications are related to social cognition, conformity, conflict management, justice, acculturation and peace research. He has held various teaching and research appointments worldwide.