The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


Book Review by Adam Jones
IDEA Journal, A Journal of Social Issues
Vol. 5, Issue 1, January 2000


Studies in Comparative Genocide
Edited by Levon Chorbajian and George Shirinian
Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 1999. 270 pp.
US $72. ISSN: 1523-1712


Levon Chorbajian notes in the introduction to this valuable volume that "our current state of theorizing about genocide [is] the product of a recent, incomplete and evolving process as well as a contested one" (p. xx). The relative newness of the inquiry -- Chorbajian points out that the "systematic study of genocide ... is only 25 years old" (p. xxi) -- lends the field of comparative genocide studies much of its urgency and vigour. It also accounts, as Chorbajian suggests, for continuing debates over core definitions and applications.

Both the debates and the passionate sense of urgency are amply on display in Studies in Comparative Genocide. The book has its origins in a conference on genocide held in Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia, in 1995. The conference brought together many of the most prominent names in this young field, including Yehuda Bauer, Vahakn Dadrian, Helen Fein, Henry Huttenbach, the Cambodia specialist Ben Kiernan, and Ervin Staub, author of The Roots of Evil. The published papers from the conference, though predictably uneven, represent an exceptional contribution to the theorizing of genocide, and the continuing search for markers and "early warning" signs that might allow outside forces to intervene more intelligently and directly in cases of genocide and other mass atrocities.

In the first part of the book, several scholars revisit the debates that have defined genocide studies thus far. Among these are: What, exactly, is a genocide? Should the Jewish Holocaust (or "holocaust," as some prefer) be viewed as sui generis, or as one genocide among others in the modern age? How central are state power and the conscious intentions of policymakers to the definition and perpetration of genocide?

It is fair to say that the broad trend in recent years has been towards more rather than less inclusive definitions of genocide. The original framing in the U.N. Genocide Convention of 1948 emphasized the destruction of national, ethnic, racial or religious groups, but ignored political collectivities at the insistence of the Soviet delegation . Steven Katz, among others, has sought to redress the oversight by redefining genocide as the "actualization of the intent, however successfully carried out, to murder in its totality any national, ethnic, racial, religious, political, social, gender or economic group, as these groups are defined by the perpetrator, by whatever means." (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. 1, p. 132.) These broader definitions have allowed diverse instances of mass killing, including Stalin's purges, the collectivization crisis in the USSR, the Nazi annihilation of Soviet prisoners-of-war, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to be examined under the genocide rubric.

Katz's influential definition, however, has been criticized for demanding evidence of an intent "to murder in its totality" members of the designated groups (emphasis added). Yehuda Bauer takes Katz to task in the present volume for advancing an "all-inclusive" definition that "then ... becomes very exclusive, because [Katz] defines genocide as being limited to an intent to total murder, a matter that is very difficult to prove." "It is already clear," Bauer adds, "that he sees the [Jewish] Holocaust as the only case in which an intent to total murder can be shown. If this is so, then the Holocaust would be the only case of genocide that can be called by that term. I think it will be difficult to agree with that position." (Bauer, "Comparison of Genocides," ch. 3, p. 34.)

Nonetheless, Katz's case for Holocaust exceptionalism finds its supporters in Studies in Comparative Genocide, not least among them Bauer himself. While acknowledging the wide range of other genocides in the twentieth century (and earlier), Bauer places events such as the Armenian catastrophe of 1915-17, the Nazi killing of Roma (gypsies) or homosexuals, and the slaughter of the native population of the Americas in a different category than the holocaust against the Jews. Among the reasons he advances are the alleged "global and total" character of the extermination of the Jews; the central, bureaucratic coordination of the Nazi genocide; and the "purely ideological" nature of the assault, lacking "a priori pragmatic elements" (p. 39). "There was no reality whatsoever that motivated Nazi measures," Bauer claims. "... The Nazi motivation was illusory, ideological" (p. 40).

This final assertion is somewhat undermined by his subsequent acknowledgment (p. 41) that "The Nazi project was directed against Western civilization as such, and it was almost inevitable that their rebellion against the liberal Western tradition from which they after all had come should turn against one of the major sources of that tradition, its physical carrier -- the Jews." Was this not a "reality," in the twisted minds of the Nazis at least, that helps to explain their particular targeting of European Jews?

Irving Horowitz ("Science, Modernity and Authorized Terror," ch. 2) argues along similar lines, distinguishing (as does Bauer) "between genocide and the Holocaust" (p. 20). Citing the Turks' genocidal campaign against the Armenians and Hitler's mass killing of non-Jewish Poles, he acknowledges that both are "terrible tragedies." But there was "little racism in the ideology that authorized and legitimized the liquidation of large portions of both peoples" (p. 21). And the killing campaigns, while atrocious, did not lead to the extermination of entire populations: while "the Germans doomed the Poles to bondage and slavery ... they condemned the Jews to annihilation" (p. 20). Bauer goes so far as to deny the application of the term "genocide" to events in Rwanda and Burundi, since "despite the brutality and the savagery involved, both the Hutu and Tutsi people survive" (p. 24).

There are numerous difficulties with this analysis. Dismissing the racist and ethnicist elements in, for example, the Turks' targeting of the Armenians seems highly dubious. As James Reid points out in his study of "Conservative Ottomanism as a Source of Genocidal Behaviour" (ch. 5), the prevailing view among Ottoman authorities was "that Armenians in particular were the perpetrators of 'depraved,' that is, tyrannical behaviour, and thus deserved severe punishment." The "tyrannous infidel subject stereotype," in recycled form, served to depict Armenians as belonging en bloc to "a 'terrorist' culture" (p. 61). The Nazi hatred for the Jews was surely more hysterical and highly-ideologized, but this is arguably a difference of degree rather than of kind.

Likewise, while it is true that 90 to 95 percent of Polish Jews were murdered -- surely one of the most complete obliterations of a definable group in human history -- while 90 percent of non-Jewish Poles survived, the issue becomes more muddied if we broaden the context to Nazi-occupied Europe, Europe as a whole, or the entire world. As Yehuda Bauer notes in his contribution, "one must remember that the Nazi project was not carried through, and while one third of the world's Jewish population, probably slightly less than six million, were killed, the other two-thirds were saved by the victory of the Allies" (p. 41). Thus, Jews did manage to survive "as a people." And when one recalls that the Armenian population of Turkey was reduced from approximately 2 million to about 100,000 by the genocide of the Ittihadists (Young Turks), the lines become still harder to draw. This author shares the view of David Stannard, who argued in a powerful contribution to Yehuda Bauer's edited volume Is the Holocaust Unique? that other genocides (Stannard's key example is the extermination of the American "Indians") are indeed comparable to the Jewish holocaust, and may in fact exceed it in terms of demographic destructiveness.

Labelling the annihilation of native populations under colonialism as "genocide" is often attacked on the grounds that the killing was not "intentional." Spanish colonialists, for example, "were obviously interested in using live Indians -- dead Indians could not work" (Bauer, p. 32). But if, as Bauer concedes, the Spaniards' "greed and racist superiority complex vis-a-vis the Indians, as well as their dehumanization of the victims produced a situation in which the native[s] ... were denied any motivation to reproduce or generally withstand the tortures that were inflicted on them" (pp. 32-33), then we have a situation that seems amply in keeping with the U.N.'s original framing of genocide, which included the imposition of measures to prevent births and transfer children of the targeted group.

It is also far from clear whether strict intentionality, let alone direct regime oversight, should govern definitions and interpretations of genocide. Roger Smith's comments in "State Power and Genocidal Intent" (ch. 1) are apposite here. "Sometimes," Smith contends, "... genocidal consequences precede any conscious decision to destroy innocent groups to satisfy one's aims. This is most often the case in the early phases of colonial domination, where through violence, disease and relentless pressure, indigenous peoples are pushed toward extinction. ... The distinction ... between premeditated and unpremeditated genocide is not decisive" (pp. 4-5). In his introduction, Levon Chorbajian cites Israel Charny's comment along similar lines: "it is my conviction that any and all neglectful, exploitative, or abusive bureaucratic procedures, including unintentional failures of will and organization on the part of governments and international systems which result in major patterns of death of masses of human beings ... are to be considered murders of our species, along with actual intentional mass murder" (quoted p. xix).

Some of these issues come to the fore in analyses of the Armenian genocide of 1915-17, which has been fobbed off by successive Turkish governments as either nonexistent, the unintentional byproduct of an international war, or merely local "excesses." As befits papers presented at a conference in Yerevan, it is the Armenian holocaust that receives greatest attention in Studies in Comparative Genocide, with five essays devoted to the subject. Of these, the most trenchant are the contributions from Vahakn Dadrian, probably the world's leading authority on the Armenian events, and Taner Akçam, a Turkish scholar at the Hamburg Institute for Social Sciences.

Dadrian draws on his vast knowledge of the subject to evaluate "The Convergent Roles of the State and Governmental Party in the Armenian Genocide" (ch. 6). His analysis brings out the tangled relationship between the Ittihadist party and the reformist government installed after 1908. This culminated in the crisis of the Balkan War of 1912, which saw Ittihadist extremists succeed "in catapulting themselves into decisive positions within Ittihad's supreme body" (p. 103), and (in 1913) "become the direct and immediate master of the government, appointing Ittihadist luminaries to practically all the cabinet ministry posts" (p. 113). Control over the apparatus of government and state gave the extremists both the ideological cohesion and the bureaucratic resources they required to implement their long-cherished goal of destroying Turkey's Christian minorities.

Taner Akçam's "The Genocide of the Armenians and the Silence of the Turks" (ch. 7) is an extraordinary contribution. Akçam claims as "a Turkish historian" to be "critically approaching this subject for the first time."

"The genocide of the Armenians has been a taboo topic for us Turks for 80 years," he observes. "The 80-year silence has produced such tension and a mountain of prejudice ... that even the development of a common language in which the subject could be discussed is becoming a serious problem." Positioning himself as "a member of that collectivity which produced 'the perpetrators'" of the genocide, Akçam seeks "to explore the topic fully conscious of what it means in this sense 'being a member' and 'bearing collective responsibility'" (all quotes from p. 125). His essay is a reflective and highly critical examination of the construction of Turkish nationalism, which depended both on anathematizing non-Muslim minorities and obliterating the memory of violence against them, the better to buttress a "heroic" creation myth for the modern Turkish state. The background of humiliation and defeat that brought Kemal Ataturk to power was also a crucial factor in both the targeting of Armenians and the wilful neglect of the calamity visited upon them. In a memorable passage (p. 137), Akçam contends that the genocide was the direct result of "the slow but continuous disintegration of the great empire, the military defeats in wars that continued over the years, the loss of tens of thousands of people, a society whose dignity was scorned along with the constant loss of self-worth, overwhelmed by the imagery of a great history, fantasies about recreating the past, the terminal bursting of these dreams, and the inability to absorb and integrate these numerous contradictions."

The concluding section (Part III) of Studies in Comparative Genocide is something of a grab-bag, but for the most part a rewarding one. Frank Sysyn's essay on "The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-3" (ch. 11) attests to the light that can be cast on lesser-known historical events, by carefully expanding the genocide framework to include state strategies beyond direct mass killing. Sysyn manages to convey the horror of the famine (in which upwards of five million Ukrainians died) by concentrating on the magnitude of the cover-up: the atrocities themselves are never plainly detailed. The chapter, with its meaty discursive endnotes, is a polemical jewel, the more so for Sysyn disciplining his obvious passions and outrage throughout. It deserves to be required reading in introductory courses on genocide.

Henry Huttenbach's examination of "The Psychology and Politics of Genocide Denial" (ch. 12) is a briefer but also deeply-felt contribution. In providing an etiology of denial movements and mindsets, Huttenbach includes some eloquent passages on the fate of the Roma in World War Two -- and (as with the Ukrainian case) the relatively recent public resurrection of the genocide that befell them. While those seeking to entrench the famine in Ukraine in historical memory tended during the Cold War to be dismissed as right-wing and reflexively "anti-Soviet," the Roma, according to Huttenbach, "remained a non-people after World War II, as they had been before the war, more or less despised, socially stunted in both East and West Europe, legally marginalized in some countries, refused minority status in others, and virulently persecuted by a few governments and societies ... The Roma tragedy during World War II was never forgotten or ignored, since no one but the Roma remembered. ... Here, then, is an instance of denial terminated, a denial that rested in part on an age-old ethnic prejudice and, in part, on academic myopia and arrogance" (pp. 221-22). He rounds out his analysis with a stinging rebuke of "the proprietary attitudes of those who guard the centrality of the [Jewish] Holocaust and endow it irrationally with absolute exclusivity vis-à-vis the Roma or any other perceived threat to their ideological protection of the Holocaust's uniqueness" (p. 223).

While the industry of denying the Jewish holocaust is well-known, the Turkish government's machinations to disguise the Armenian genocide are somewhat less so. Huttenbach examines both these bleak phenomena, and concludes his essay with an intriguing and little-appreciated case-study of denial: that of Croatia under and after the fascist Ustasha regime, which "sought to rid [Croatia] of its Orthodox Serbian population by the most brutal means." The postwar Tito regime, "for the sake of domestic peace," imposed an "ideologized and camouflaged" history amounting to "a suppression bordering on total denial." The denial became more malevolent under the nationalist government of Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s, with its "numerous uses of Ustasha insignia, uniforms, symbols and rhetoric" (p. 224). Ironically, writes Huttenbach, "while the Croats still semi-deny or rationalize their Ustasha past, Serbs steadfastly deny their contemporary genocidal policies of ethnic cleansing which has victimized both Muslims and Croats" (p. 225).

Franklin Littell ("Breaking the Succession of Evil," ch. 13) begins with a flourish, proclaiming that "an elementary science is appearing for the detection, identification and timely anticipation of genocidal situations" (p. 233). But after a promising discussion of "genocidal culture" and the possibility of developing an "early warning system" for incipient genocides, Littell's essay wanders off track into abstract religious musings and a discussion of competing conceptions of governmental "legitimacy." While instructive at points, the chapter promises more than it delivers.

Stronger is Ervin Staub's concluding essay on "Preventing Genocide." Staub argues among other things that "early and strong reactions by bystander nations" can inhibit the momentum of genocidal movements and perhaps throw them off course. "Unfortunately," he notes, "nations usually remain passive, or even support the perpetrators" (p. 252). The prevention of genocide, Staub asserts, should be grounded in a recognition that "the beginnings of any form of systematic or widespread mistreatment of a particular group is a sign of the probable increase in their mistreatment." But "information about human rights abuses is useful only if it is used" by international organizations and agencies (p. 253). He also offers helpful insights into the challenge of "healing historical antagonisms" between peoples (p. 254), addressing "the severe economic problems, political conflict and social change that new and emerging nations face" (p. 257), and "raising caring children" who "value[e] other people" (p. 259). Some may find such proposals mawkish or overly idealistic, but Staub's frank and heartfelt approach resonates well after the book is closed.

What is notable about most of these concluding contributions is the clarity and cogency of the argument. In contrast with many other exercises in comparative politics and international studies, there is a sense that time is short; that important and often-overlooked data need to be presented; and that discussion and action by policymakers, academics, and the wider public are urgently required. As noted at the beginning of the review, this approach is characteristic of the genocide literature as a whole. While still in its youth, the literature has added inestimably to our understanding of what is perhaps humanity's greatest blight. Studies in Comparative Genocide is a first-rate addition, both encapsulating the state of the field and moving it forward.

Adam Jones, Ph.D., is a professor of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), Mexico City, and executive director of Gendercide Watch.

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