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I'd like to know what kind of difference there is between these three synonyms?

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die imstande sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die in der Lage sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen vermögen.

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    Brother 4: »Was sind das bloß für Leute, die fähig sind, solche Gräueltaten zu vollbringen.« (»Greuel« is old spelling) – Pollitzer Jul 14 '19 at 11:34
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The differences between the sentences are subtle. Let's pull them apart! First:

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die imstande sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die in der Lage sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die fähig sind, solche Gräueltaten zu vollbringen.

Imstande, in der Lage sein, and fähig sein can all be translated with being able to do. The connotation however is different:

  • imstande is usually associated with mental capacity, and experience. Mostly with a negative connotation.
  • in der Lage sein is usually associated with health, bodily capacity, and circumstances.
  • fähig sein is has a meaning close to imstande, however it is positively connotated.

Here are a few example sentences:

Chef (zweifelnd): Fühlst du dich imstande das Projekt alleine zu leiten?

Auch wenn er mich schlägt, wäre ich nicht imstande meinen Freund zu verlassen.

(nach einem Unfall) Bist du in der Lage aufzustehen?

Nachdem ich mein Studium beendet hatte, war ich endlich in der Lage zu Hause auszuziehen.

Polizist: Aufgrund der Drogen ist er nicht mehr in der Lage nach Hause zu fahren.

Chef (zuversichtlich): Fühlst du dich fähig das Projekt alleine zu leiten?

Using this for a translation, we end up with:

Just, who are these people, who are (mentally/emotionally) capable of committing these atrocities.

Just, who are these people, who are in the position of committing these atrocities.

Just, who are these people, who have the ability of committing these atrocities.

As you might notice, the second sentence is weird. However, that's the same as in German. Being that you ask about multiple persons, it is unlikely that you are asking about their health. Thus, only the circumstances are left for the meaning of in der Lage sein.

The third sentence is similar to the first one, but more neutral in its assertion.

Second:

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen vermögen.

Unfortunately I cannot explain why, but my language feeling tells me, that the sentence actually should be:

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die vermögen solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

Putting the verb at the end sounds somewhat weird...

Anyways, vermögen is close in meaning to in der Lage sein, and mostly asking about circumstances. Yet, it is rarely used nowadays, and usually used with the meaning: being able to do something despite the circumstances. For example:

(in der Zombieapokalypse) Ich hätte es nicht vermocht meine Tochter zu erschießen.

Therefore, the translation is something like:

Just, who are these people, who have what is required to commit these atrocities.

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    "fähig sein" is more skill related than "in der Lage sein" in my opinion. Putting "vermögen" at the end is totally valid. – shaedrich Aug 7 '19 at 12:20
  • As for a simple everday expression, you could say "Wer kann so etwas tun?" or more naturally: "Wer tut denn sowas?" – Cacambo Jan 2 '20 at 9:14
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I would say that the second sentence is not meaningful. "In der Lage sein" concerns the exterior of the person as in "the person has the money to be cruel." But if I understand you correctly you want to say something about the internal person, the personality, the values of that person. The first and the third construction do not make that distinction. Though, the third is a bit archaic.

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  • M. E. sind die inneren Befindlichkeiten, Fähigkeiten und Kenntnisse einer Person Teil der Lage, die Handlungen gestattet oder nicht. – user unknown Jul 15 '19 at 22:49
  • Wie wäre es aber mit "in die Lage verzetzen"? Das spricht schon dafür, dass sich "in der Lage sein" auch auf die Umstände bezieht, die eine Handlung entweder möglich oder unmöglich machen. – Dan Jul 15 '19 at 23:43
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Was sind das bloß für Leute, die imstande sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

"are capable of"

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die in der Lage sind, solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen.

"are/were able to". It refers to the circumstances and means to do somethihng. Compare: I was able to make it to the railway station earlier as the weather conditions allowed faster riding. This is also the reason why it seems wrong in your context.

Was sind das bloß für Leute, die solche Greueltaten zu vollbringen vermögen.

In this case the meaning is "general capability" of doing something.

So the odd one out is "in der Lage sein", which refers rather to particular circumstances, under which it is possible. Compare: "jemanden in die Lage versetzen, etwas zu tun".

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