Democracy and Genocide

In the London Review of Book, Malcolm Bull looks at two new studies of genocide, one by Michael Mann and the other by Mark Levene.

Reasoned defences of most genocides can be constructed on the basis of a conjunction of the just war and social exclusion arguments, for if there is an identifiable social group engaged in total war against you, then it has to be neutralised. The Armenian genocide in 1915 was justified on these grounds, for the Armenians were expected to fight with the Russians in the event of an invasion of Anatolia. Stalin’s classicide was an attempt to deal with counter-revolutionary elements who might have sided with the Whites in the event of a renewed civil war or foreign invasion. A defence of the Holocaust might be constructed along the same lines: the attack on Bolshevism was a just war against an outlaw state ‘driven by slavery and the threat of human sacrifice’; it became a total war in which Jews would probably have taken the Soviet side; their pre-emptive internment was therefore a natural precaution, and their execution an unfortunate necessity at a time of ‘supreme emergency’ when the Red Army threatened the Fatherland. If you accept the just war and social exclusion arguments, then these genocides can only be criticised on the basis that they relied on shaky political analysis. They were, in effect, misjudgments, failures of statesmanship, perhaps.

These are not hypothetical arguments. Orhan Pamuk was until recently awaiting trial for affirming the existence of an Armenian genocide, while the president of Iran has cast doubt on the Holocaust, and floated the idea of relocating the state of Israel in Central Europe. Mann and Levene both see genocide as a modern practice coextensive with the rise of the West, and imply that the Middle East has been relatively insulated from this historical pattern. But as war and democracy march hand in hand into the region, that may change. On Mann’s analysis, the chances of some sort of genocide must be quite high. According to him, murderous ethnic cleansing takes place where the demos is equated with the ethnos. Young democracies are particularly at risk, especially those where ethnicity trumps class as the primary means of social classification. The danger zone is reached when two groups claim the same territory, and they reach the brink either when the weaker group fights rather than submits (perhaps believing it has outside support) or when the stronger thinks it can act with impunity. Genocides do not occur in stable, peaceful environments, but at moments of crisis when the state is in danger. So societies only go over the brink when the perpetrators of the genocide are radicalised by war.