Genocide and Modernity

Adam Lebor reviews 5 new books on genocide, in The Nation:

[Michael] Mann [author of The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing] is wrong, however, to argue that ethnic cleansing is “essentially modern.” It is true that cheap and effective weaponry–none more so than the AK-47 assault rifle–has increased the number of victims and the frequency of conflict. But ethnic cleansing and genocide are arguably merely modern terms for one of humanity’s oldest–and cruelest–pastimes. As long as humans have sought control over resources such as land, water and food supplies, they have been prepared to kill and lay waste to defend their assets. As Mark Levene writes: “The path to genocide is in part, deeply embedded in the human record and…facets of it are actually very evident in ancient, classical, as well as more recent, pre-modern times.” Consider God’s instruction to the twelve tribes when they arrived in what would become the land of Israel, as recorded in Deuteronomy 7:1 and 7:2:

When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.

Not only should the indigenous people be “utterly destroyed”; it was also forbidden to marry either their sons or their daughters. King Saul was commanded to wipe out the Amalekites, “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” The Israelites–if these accounts are accurate–were hardly unique in their enthusiasm for smiting their enemies. As Levene notes: “This was clearly an ancient Near Eastern norm.” Levene, who teaches history at the University of Southampton in Britain, has published the first two volumes of an ambitious four-volume study, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State. This is a discursive rather than a chronological or episodic work. Levene argues that the centrality of the Holocaust has warped scholarly priorities by obscuring the linkage between the extermination of the Jews and earlier genocides. The Holocaust was unique in its industrialization of mass murder but was also part of a grim historical continuum. Hitler himself was well aware of the extermination of the Armenians. In his secret speech to Wehrmacht commanders in August 1939, Hitler lauded Genghis Khan’s killing machine before asking, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Levene suggests that the terror of the Jacobin era in Revolutionary France may be a prototype of later genocides. The thud of the guillotine was a necessary precursor of a sense of “nation-state one-ness,” in which all citizens enjoyed equal rights in a “new secular order” where disobedience, or exclusion, would be answered with death. This echoes Mann’s arguments about the importance of communal identity, whether class or nation-based. But whatever the criteria for membership of the modern body politic, the wretched inhabitants of European colonies were not included.