Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Five books on genocide

Norman M. Naimark presently holds the Robert and Florence McDonnell Chair in East European History at Stanford University.

His books include a major study of the Soviet occupation of Germany, The Russians in Germany (Harvard 1995), a comparative study of ethnic cleansing and genocide in 20th Century Europe, Fires of Hatred (Harvard 2001), and Stalin's Genocides (Princeton, 2010).

One of five books on genocide he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Blood and Soil
by Ben Kiernan

Please introduce Ben Kiernan's book for us, and the genocides it covers.

Blood and Soil is an important and courageous attempt to write a world history of genocide "from Sparta to Darfur". Many historians have argued that genocide is a form of mass killing that began only in the 20th century with the advent of the modernist state, extreme nationalist ideologies, mass media and experiences of industrial killing during the world wars. I think Kiernan is right to call this analysis into question, and to describe some episodes of mass killing in earlier centuries as genocide. He also broadens our excessively eurocentric focus on the history of genocide to include Asia in particular, as well as South America and Africa.

What was the earliest genocide we know about?

From Kiernan's point of view – and I agree with him – there is plenty of evidence from the study of prehistoric remains that mass killing was part of human history from the time people first began living together in groups. It's hard to know, of course, whether this would fit a reasonable historical definition of genocide. But certainly some of the episodes described in the Bible or from Homer in ancient Greece can be called genocidal.

Are there features and patterns that all genocides have in common? Or signs that can help us predict and prevent future genocides?

The characteristics of genocide are fairly consistent over time. War is an important precondition, though not a necessary one. Highly controlled authoritarian states, whether modern or pre-modern, have the capacity – one could even say the inclination – to carry out mass murder of a genocidal nature. The tendency of human societies to stereotype groups within or outside those societies as inferior “others”, and then blame their problems on those "others", creates groups of potential victims that political elites can seek to isolate and destroy for their own purposes. Racism and national exclusivity, which are not exclusively modern phenomena, also breed genocidal ideas and actions. If societies stayed out of wars, protected the rights of groups of "others" through the rule of law, refused to tolerate racism and extreme nationalism and maintained democratic checks and balances on their political elites, one could imagine a world without genocide.

How likely is it that human society can achieve this?

Alas, very unlikely indeed!
Read about the other books Naimark tagged at The Browser.

See--The Page 69 Test: Ben Kiernan's Blood and Soil.

--Marshal Zeringue