Genocide before the Holocaust

January 14, 2010

The word "genocide" was coined by the Polish-born Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943. Taking its roots from Greek and Latin, it describes the targeted and intentional killing or destruction of a racial, ethnic or religious group. It properly entered the language of international law in 1948 with the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the United Nations General Assembly.

Cathie Carmichael's Genocide before the Holocaust examines a number of different instances of ethnic, religious and nationalistic violence in Europe (loosely defined and focusing mostly on the east) from the late 19th century until 1941. Most of these instances can be described as genocidal in character and intent. However, Carmichael's examination does not fall into the trap of applying the term in an anachronistic and forced manner. Instead, it busies itself with a detailed analysis of particular historical events.

Carmichael writes: "We can only really understand these events in their genuine historical context, although universal theories about human behaviour in extremis as well as the impact of propaganda and literary ideas are clearly very necessary to develop. Generally, I remain sceptical as to how far we can compare genocides, or, indeed, human suffering." This does not, however, stop her from reaching, as she puts it, "tentative conclusions" about ideas of race, religion, nationhood, citizenship and the place and situation of minorities in an ever-more-globalised world.

The book is impressive in its geographical and historical scope. Its focus on ethnic, religious and national mass violence oscillates around the decline and break-up of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires. Within this, Carmichael pays particular attention to the plight of Jews in Imperial Russia and Ukraine, and Armenians and Muslims in the Caucasus and the Balkans.

She examines different manifestations of ethnic and cultural discourses including: the decline of the empires; the increasingly problematic need to define a citizen and/or a member of a nation; colonial discourse (although this discussion could have been further developed) and the apartheid-like running of subjugated states; religion; literary inspirations for and treatment of mass, group-oriented violence; as well as questions of the legal dimension of nationalism, exclusion and institutionalised prejudice and persecution.

Carmichael notes that "as the regimes changed in Russia, Turkey and the Balkans, so notions about citizenship changed. This did not just happen in these regions, but was a contestation about the nature of modernity itself. In an increasingly globalised system - which would be a fair way to describe the long 19th century up to the First World War - a person could be a citizen of one state and have interests in another simultaneously."

The emphasis on different, sometimes opportunistic and dangerous, definitions of citizenship and cultural and historical belonging provides Carmichael with an opportunity to examine a variety of perspectives and insights as to where these notions originated. This, however, does not prevent her from reaching more general conclusions: "If globalisation implied movement of peoples, religious and political ideas, capital, culture and loyalties, then population elimination represented a full-scale attack on that very process of globalisation."

This book's greatest shortcomings are its inadequate length and reliance on secondary literature, but these could be seen as emblematic of an enterprise trying to cover such large and diverse historical and geographical material. Carmichael's argument occasionally gets lost in the multitude of direct quotations and presentations of other historians' ideas. It would be fascinating to see these ideas critiqued in more detail in a larger work.

Despite this, Genocide before the Holocaust provides an informed, useful and insightful overview of ethnic and religious persecutions of minorities in the period it considers.

Genocide before the Holocaust

By Cathie Carmichael. Yale University Press, 288pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300121179. Published 28 August 2009

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