Slain on altar of national fervour

Genocide in the Age of the Nation State Volume One - Genocide in the Age of the Nation State Volume Two - The Great Game of Genocide
September 22, 2006

Are mass murder and ethnic cleansing the essential foundations of the modern state? asks William Rubinstein

The study of genocide has emerged as one of the most contentious and - if this is the right word - popular growth areas in recent historical research. This flows from the centrality of the Jewish Holocaust to the modern consciousness of evil, as well as from the range of other murderous catastrophes during the past century in Armenian Turkey, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere. The questions at the heart of genocide - can it be defined accurately? how does it arise? can it be prevented? - have spawned an ever-growing array of books, articles, journals and conferences in a subject notable for the extreme controversy these have often generated.

Mark Levene of Warwick University, a highly regarded scholar of this subject, is engaged in a four-volume study of genocide, the first two of which are out now. The first one, The Meaning of Genocide , is an extended, wide-ranging discourse on the innumerable definitional difficulties in coming to terms with the many ambiguities of the term. The book is marked by a high level of intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge, although it is often necessarily controversial. In essence, Levene identifies genocide as a by-product of modern state development.

He briefly discusses non-Western and pre-modern examples of genocide, such as the massacres carried out by Shaka in southern Africa, but his conclusions come down firmly on the side of those who argue that genocide primarily grows out of "radical state development" and "the historical transformations of human societies worldwide as a politically and economically interacting and universal system of modern - mostly nation - states... At the outset it was the avant-garde modernising states, usually in their colonial or imperial guise, who were its prime exponent. Later it was primarily their foremost global challengers, later on, all manner of postcolonial polities."

This volume is consistently interesting and obviously an important contribution to the subject, although the work is arguably too discursive, its contents arranged in a series of extended discussions about the various definitional modes that have been proposed for understanding genocide.

The second volume, The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide , deals at length with European conquests of the frontier in America, Australasia and elsewhere. Much here is of considerable originality - for example, a discussion of the conquest of the Baltic areas by the Teutonic knights.

More original still is an extended discussion of the situation in the French Vendee in 1794, when the Revolutionary general Francois Westermann carried out a systematic slaughter of the population while suppressing an antirevolutionary insurrection, leaving perhaps 130,000 dead. Levene appears to see this slaughter as inherent in the modernising tendencies of the French Revolution.

There are also extended discussions of the notorious suppression of the Hereros in southwest Africa and the crushing of a Muslim revolt in western China in the 1870s, which will be novel to most readers.

Nevertheless, like any discussion of this controversial subject, Levene's interpretation is often problematical. As with many other historians of genocide, Levene may be too willing to see genocide as an inherent component of Western state-building when it is arguably no such thing.

Virtually all the infamous examples of genocide that occurred between 1914 and 1980 grew, plainly and immediately or indirectly, out of the First World War and its consequences: the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Jewish Holocaust and the other enormities of Nazi rule, Soviet communism and then, in China and Cambodia, Asian communism. It is as certain as any historical counterfactual can possibly be that none of these would have occurred in the absence of the Great War, which, by destroying the elite structure of most of Central and Eastern Europe, granted power to fringe political movements and leaders who would have remained in complete obscurity if normal prewar politics had continued.

Whatever Germany's deeply rooted anti-Semitism and authoritarianism, it seems impossible that Hitler would have come to power were it not for the Great War, the defeat of 1918, the semi-legitimacy of Weimar and the Great Depression. Indeed, without the First World War, it seems unlikely that there would even have been a concept of genocide. Nor is it the case that modern Western state-building is normally, or often, marked by genocide.

Bismarck's "small Germany" (excluding Austria), which existed between 1871 and the mid-1930s, was constructed and maintained without the deliberate killing of a single civilian.

Levene also ranges widely to consider genocide in the colonial world. He is well aware of the argument, put by Steven Katz and others, that the introduction of virulent diseases by Europeans was responsible for most of the sharp decline in indigenous numbers in the Americas and Australia, but he argues that such a view fails to take into account the "repeated abuse, rape and massacre, the scorched-earth destruction... the starvation, induced trauma and psychic numbing" that invariably (in his view) accompanied European settlement in these places. Levene enters here into an extremely emotive area and appears to be far too one-sided. There is no mention of the type of society the Europeans were likely to find when they arrived.

Levene is far too sensible to indulge in the "myth of the noble savage", but his silence may be read as an implicit endorsement of such a view. What about Aztec Mexico, where human sacrifice was at the heart of society, with about 15,000 sacrifices a year, or 150,000 per decade? The dedication of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán in 1487 was accompanied by at least 14,000 human sacrifices, which some experts increase to 78,000. The royal court there included a zoo in which animals fed on the remains of the sacrifice victims, a "skull rack" with 60,000 skulls of these victims and "apartments for human freaks", in the words of Stuart Fiedel. It is inconceivable that the Spanish would not have suppressed this monstrous society, and by any moral standards they were perfectly right to do so.

Levene refers in a footnote to the debate launched by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle about European killings of Tasmanian Aborigines. Using on meticulous research, Windschuttle found that no more than about 120 Tasmanian Aborigines were killed by Europeans. Levene refers to Windschuttle's book as a "whitewash", but offers not an iota of evidence for this description and fails to note Windschuttle's exposure of shoddy, if not overtly fraudulent, research by previous historians who made claims for much higher levels of killings of Aborigines by whites that appear to be clearly exaggerated. This is admittedly an area of great controversy, but Levene is far from neutral.

Many of these arguments have been made in the context of the "uniqueness" of the Jewish Holocaust. This debate has aroused fierce controversy, arguably exceeding in passion any other historical debate (as in Alan Rosenbaum's edited collection Is the Holocaust Unique? ) . Levene sensibly steers a middle course, accepting that the Jewish Holocaust was unique in many respects, especially in its refusal to make exceptions of virtually any Jews and in the relentless assembly-line like nature of the Nazi killing machine. But he also notes that other mass murders probably claimed more victims and were arguably just as horrible. He shrewdly observes that the Jewish Holocaust has created a "victimology" in which other groups have been keen to show that they also suffered catastrophically from past slaughters and - implicitly, if not explicitly stated - that they, too, are entitled to the moral credibility that has unquestionably come to the post-1945 Jewish world in sympathy for their suffering.

Donald Bloxham's The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Empire is a detailed and sophisticated account of the Armenian genocide of 1915, placed in the wider context of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This first-class work offers much new material and is probably the most detailed and complex account in English of these terrible events. Many of its conclusions are surprising, while others may not be welcomed by all historians who have participated in the study and debates about the Armenian catastrophe. Bloxham, for example, finds that Germany's role in the Armenian genocide, often highlighted as significant and a direct precursor to the Nazi Holocaust, has been exaggerated and overstated: "Evidence is non-existent of German approval of the Turkish measures once it was known what they ultimately meant."

Bloxham is more careful than most historians to note the often-overlooked fact of anti-Muslim "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans and Crete, which drove 1.5 million Muslims from these areas between the mid-1870s and 1914.

He also places the Armenian genocide in the context of the fact that it arose as a response to a Russian invasion of eastern Anatolia in 1914-15, a fact often omitted from accounts of these events.

The book provides a detailed history of the radicalisation of the Committee of Union and Progress (the "Young Turks"), noting that the outbreak of the war was crucial to this process.

Bloxham's work may indeed be seen by some pro-Armenian historians as at least moderately pro-Turk, in the sense that it offers a three-dimensional account of these events rather than being an automatic condemnation of the Ottomans. It is indeed difficult to make full sense of these events, and Bloxham has probably struck just the right note. The major leaders of the CUP and its genocide - Ahmed Cemal, Enver Pasha and Talaat Bey - still remain among the most faceless and anonymous of modern mass-murderers, a not-unimportant reason for the mystery and controversy that surrounds these events.

William Rubinstein is professor of history, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Genocide in the Age of the Nation State Volume One: The Meaning of Genocide

Author - Mark Levene
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Pages - 266
Price - £24.50
ISBN - 1 85043 752 1

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