A deadly and dark desire to classify

A Century of Genocide

January 2, 2004

Genocide is the most imaginable affront to the liberal sensibility and the Whiggish belief in the inevitability of progress. As the American historian Eric Weitz notes in his new comparative study A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation , genocides "challenge our hope for peaceful, tolerant coexistence among diverse peoples; they raise the deepest fears that the modern world we inhabit is not a site of continual improvement in the human condition". What is more, one might add that, while late-20th-century genocides may generally have been carried out in remote and "alien" places, genocide was first conceived and practised, as we know it, in the bosom of the West. Europe in the 20th century was, as Mark Mazower put it recently, a "dark continent", and genocide by extension is as authentically European as croissants, borscht or dumplings.

Given the complexity of the subject, Weitz's project, as the author himself admits, is a courageous one. In a book of about 250 pages of text, each genocide cannot be covered in more than about 50 pages and, to make life even more difficult, Weitz expresses a historian's scepticism for the "large-scale generalisations" of social and political science; he prefers the historian's "propensity for detail, nuance and contingency".

Nevertheless, Weitz is conscious of having "violated one of the historian's cardinal rules" - to restrict oneself to those fields where one is familiar with the relevant languages and primary sources. That this caveat will also apply to many of his reviewers, including this one, must be taken as read.

A project of such scope will inevitably be executed imperfectly, or it will not be done at all.

With this in mind, A Century of Genocide has much to offer. It will serve as an excellent first introduction to Lenin and Stalin's crimes, the Holocaust, the Cambodian massacres of the 1970s and the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia that accompanied the drive to create an ethnically pure and geographically contiguous rump state in the 1990s. As might be expected from an expert on German communism, Weitz is strongest on the Third Reich, but the chapters on the Bolsheviks and the Khmer Rouge are also very lucid; and while there are some imprecisions in his Yugoslav case study, the author still captures the essence of the "Greater Serb" project extremely well. Of course, there are some important bibliographical gaps, but, by and large, the author has successfully grounded his study in the vast secondary literature.

In the end, the success of A Century of Genocide will rest not so much on the coherence and authority of the individual case studies as on the surplus value that the comparative approach generates. In each case, albeit in different ways, Weitz sees "race" and "nation", "the primary categories of political and social organisation" in the modern age, as the driving force behind the pursuit of a Utopian vision, from which all forms of dissent have been purged. Thus in the Soviet case, the aim was the elimination of supposed counter-revolutionary elements, be they in their class or, increasingly, their racial incarnations. After all, Weitz points out, Stalin murdered not merely old Bolsheviks, prosperous peasants ( kulaks ) and bourgeois but also cumulatively millions of Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, Tartars, Chechens and even Jews who were perceived to threaten the regime not only by virtue of what they had done, or might do, but of what they were. In the Nazi case, genocide was directed against the corrupting power of the Jew, who along with other non-Aryan elements such as gypsies, the handicapped and, to a lesser extent, Slavs, were to be purged from Germany and German-occupied Europe.

Likewise, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia sought to root out the "new" people, urban population, educated, political opponents and especially the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minorities, all of whom were believed to be hostile to the Cambodian revolution. Finally, in the former Yugoslavia, Weitz notes that whereas their Croat and Muslim opponents also engaged in ethnic cleansing, only the protagonists of a "Greater Serbia" embarked on a genocidal campaign to remove all traces of non-Serb population and heritage. In the Soviet, Nazi and Cambodian cases, the number of victims runs to millions. For the former Yugoslavia, the figures vary between tens and hundreds of thousands; the fact that millions, the majority of them Muslims, were deported is beyond doubt.

Essential to all four genocides, the author shows in some of the most compelling passages in the book, was an obsession with "classification", without which the population could not be "read" or "made legible". Thus the Soviet state distinguished between different forms of peasantry, the wealthiest of whom - kulaks - they lumped in among capitalists, bourgeois, the clergy and servants of the old tsarist regime, as lishentsy , social and political outcasts. The Nazis, of course, pursued racial classification on a truly monumental scale, most notoriously through the Nuremberg laws. The Khmer Rouge, for its part, systematically divided the population into good "old" elements and bad "new" elements. In the Serb case, there was a less systematic but nonetheless concerted strategy of "identifying" the Muslim through census affiliation, name or religious practice in preparation for murder or, more often, expulsion.

Weitz also brings out the "popular" dimension of all four genocides very well. Far from being secret impersonal enterprises, he argues, they were all very much dependent on the collaboration of large sections of the population in the denunciation, marginalisation and removal or murder of target groups. Tens or hundreds of thousands of ordinary people participated in the Stalinist crimes, the Holocaust, the purges of the Khmer Rouge and the ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims, which was not even notionally secret, though efforts were undertaken to conceal some of the grosser abuses in the concentration camps.

There are two principal difficulties with this volume. First, the admirable quest for abstraction often ends in banality. It comes as no surprise, for example, to learn that the perpetrators all "moved around with the swagger of power, clothed in the uniform of the revolution, and partook of the material benefits afforded those on the winning side"; nor is it a revelation that "the killers took control of a defined space, whether a building, camp, neighbourhood, train car or field".

Second, the desire to stay within the United Nations Convention on Genocide of 1948, which defined genocide as the intent to destroy "in whole or in part" a racial, national, ethnic or religious group, is too restrictive. It did not - at the insistence of the Soviet Union - include genocide carried out on a class basis. It is for this reason that Weitz emphasises the "national" character of the communist genocides in Cambodia and the Soviet Union. As a result, his introduction, though reasonably full on other 19th-century cranks, hardly engages with Marx, and not sufficiently with the socially eliminationist implications of his project. After all, the quest for virtue and equality killed as many, if not more, people in the last century as the chimera of "race and nation".

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge, and fellow in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation

Author - Eric D. Weitz
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 360
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 691 00913 9

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