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The specter of genocide : mass murder in historical perspective

by Robert Gellately; Ben Kiernan;

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Genocidal Tendencies: Review of Conventions & Essays by C.N. Bush   (2013-01-21)

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by greycat


          The following is a précis written for an advanced graduate colloquium on modern world history at San José State University during the Fall 2012 semester. It is a comparative essay of four sources, which include:

  • United Nations. “Convention on the Preservation and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”. Accessed 2012/11/05 from

  • Weitz, Eric. “The Modernity of Genocides: War, Race, and Revolution in the Twentieth Century.” The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Eds. Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 53-73.

  • Moses, A. Dirk. Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008.

  • Levene, Mark.  “Why Is the Twentieth Century the Century of Genocide?”  Journal of World History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall, 2000) (pp. 305-336).

Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” and led the effort to have it become an international crime stipulated by the United Nations. Lemkin, Weitz, Moses and Levene all agree that while genocide is a twentieth -century legal term, it is an abhorrent form of overkill that has been with us for a while. Arguably going back to the Romans or Biblical times, the deliberate attempt by one group of people to exterminate another group of people is an age old “problem” that curiously is often seen by those committing the slaughter as a twisted “solution.”  Each of these writers looks at the horror of genocide from a different perspective.  In considering their different insights, we learn that genocide is tied to imperialism, colonialism, Social Darwinism, and hegemonic economic models.  We also learn that it is very difficult to pinpoint any single cause for all known incidents of genocides.  As Eric D. Weitz says “modernity is polyvalent” (Weitz 72).  Put another way, with increasing complexity comes the possibility for increased turmoil and destruction.  I think most historians would agree that the twentieth-century was in fact bloody complicated.
The aggregate thesis of these articles is that genocide has several important characteristics:  (1) genocide is real--it has happened and continues to happen; (2) genocide happens everywhere and is not unique to any one part of the world; (3) genocide can be explained in more than one way and from different perspectives; (4) genocide can take on different forms; (5) genocide is not limited in scope to murder; and (6) genocide is often correlated with crises of nation states.
            The crisis of the modern nation state in the twentieth-century was typically associated with social upheaval related to either the progression towards what has come to be labeled “modernity”, or regression towards “utopia.”  Modernity is exemplified by some combination of: advanced manufacturing and/or technology, division of labor, extensive infrastructure, contemporary medical care, education which is equally available to all children, participation in foreign trade agreements and low levels of poverty and hunger.  Utopia is often considered a mythical ideal characterized by simpler, more peaceful time among a given people prior to their experience of having to make systematic changes to accommodate or react to interactions with an outside group.
            Genocide studies are diverse and do not fall neatly into one intellectual tradition.  Some of the important influences on Weitz, Moses and Levene are Las Casas, Hegel, Tocqueville, Adorno and Sartre.  The United Nations document of international law ratified by members of the United Nations in 1948, resulting largely from the work of Raphael Lemkin, is primarily concerned with defining genocide.  It states in Article II that genocide is entailed by any of several “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religous group” using any of several listed actions.
            Eric Weitz provides examples of distinguished intellectuals who have said that modernity is one, if not the primary, causal factor of genocides of the twentieth-century. In “The Modernity of Genocide,” Weitz doesn’t disagree with them. He refers to modernity as the “nefarious underside of Western societies since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution” and while discussing Zygmunt Bauman’s work Modernity and the
characterizes Bauman’s conclusion as being that “modernity is the Moloch to be feared.”  But Weitz also offers a striking “new synthesis.”  He rightly thinks genocide deserves a more explicit cause and he makes a good case that the historical collusion of violent revolutions with hegemonic racial attitudes resulted in, if not directly caused, some of the “very large cases” of genocide such as those in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Cambodia and Yugoslavia (Weitz, 56).
            A. Dirk Moses traces the intellectual background of Raphael Lemkin using the three keywords of his title: Empire, Colony and Genocide. Moses writes of genocide as a “total social practice” and is concerned with “cultural genocide.”  He reviews the eight techniques which Lemkin offered as characterizing the Nazi assault on Jews.  These included (1) political obliteration, (2) social attacks on intelligentsia, (3) culture wiping, (4) economic disenfranchisement, (5) biological control and population control, (6) physical deprivation, i.e. starvation, torture, abuse, neglect, and (8) religious indoctrination of youth into belief systems of the occupier.  In analyzing these Nazi practices, Moses cautions that careful analysis is the best way too avoid problems associated with “catching a crook” instead of “writing a book.”  It is also noteworthy that Moses makes some subtle distinctions about “colonialism” vs. “colonization.”  Ultimately, Moses concludes that the Jewish Holocaust of WWII was “a multitude of events, that united four different, even contradictory imperial and colonial logics into one terrible paranoid mentality and praxis” (Moses, 40).
            Mark Levene provides an interesting setup for reading Thomas Bender’s book A Nation Among Nations because Levene is interested in genocide as a phenomenon which he characterizes as distinctive in the twentieth century because it is connected to the roles of nation states as being entities capable of both jealousy and zealousness.  He wants to know “What is genocide” and “Why does it occur?” (Levene, 311).  So Levene discusses numerous examples of genocide, including comparisons of fascist vs. communist genocidal tactics and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.  He distinguishes three different types of warfare which can combine in different ways to result in genocide taking place: (i) wars fought between sovereign states who perceive one another as legitimate; (ii) wars fought between a sovereign state and another which is considers “illegitimate”; and (iii) wars fought between a sovereign state and another which it perceives as both illegitimate and as impinging upon or existing within its sphere of influence (Levene, 312-314). Levene also considers the work of Raphael Lemkin and asserts that Lemkin saw the role of modernity regarding genocide as “the ability of international society, with international law as its right arm, to outlaw and ultimately prevent it” (Levene, 306).
            The United Nations’ Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide offers little guidance in actually responding to either an alleged or actual genocide in progress.  Article VI threatens that persons “shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed.”  The past tense verb was committed is the problem as this proposes judgment not justice.  Article VIII is only mildly more threatening, allowing for the “competent organs of the United Nations to take such they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” What we have learned, it seems to me, is that what the international community does is to actively avoid using what I’ve heard news reporters call the g-word because doing so will obligate them heed this very convention, thereby failing to fulfill Lemkin’s goal. The genocidal impulse is a paradox, an irrational yet calculated act. And sadly genocide has become a learned behavior by nation states who have witnessed others using it with little or minor consequence.  Perhaps Lemkin was mistaken, and instead of an “international society” we just have a clique of nations who with a wink and nod allow the worst of human atrocities to continue as long as they generate only a whimper. +++


Genocidal Tendencies: Review of Conventions & Essays from the U.N., Weitz, Moses, and Levene by Christine Newton Bush is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at


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