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"
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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