Genocide questions remain unanswered
THE study of genocide is rapidly emerging into the mainstream as a separate area of expertise but, like any infant, it is still a little unsteady on its feet and uncertain of where it is going. Blood and Soil is an ambitious attempt to create a reference text to form one of the foundations of the discipline, but in this it is only partially successful.
Ben Kiernan, an Australian, has been something of a midwife for this movement. He got off to a shaky start in the 1970s when he failed to recognise the genocidal tendencies of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but after interviewing a number of Cambodian refugees he saw the error of his ways and became one of the regime’s most outspoken critics. He has gone on to become the founding director of the genocide studies program at Yale University.
Kiernan’s aim is to isolate a number of factors he believes are common to nearly all instances of mass murder through history, partly so they can serve as an early warning system against future massacres.
He believes that most, if not all, instances of genocide share one or more of four main ideological traits: racism, territorial expansionism, a cult of antiquity and an agrarian ideal.
Kiernan’s research into the colonial massacres in Ireland, North America, Australia and Africa is impressive and he finds plenty of evidence to support his hypothesis. But the reader is left with
Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur
the nagging question of whether his four factors are primary contributors or secondary manifestations of deeper currents within our history.
Kiernan seems to give too little weight to the economic imperative that drove the colonial powers: they did what they did to make money. This would explain the desire to expand; and coming largely from a pre- industrial society, their metaphors and interests were, perforce, agricultural. The cult of antiquity is an almost universal trait of the sort of arriviste adventurers who typified the colonialists, searching for legitimacy along with their wealth.
It is little wonder that they adopted the model of the Roman slaughter at Carthage with such gusto, particularly the British in Ireland and North America.
Yet there is a significant difference between the Roman experience at Carthage and the colonial experience. The sour old windbag Cato the Censor, with his hectoring repetition ‘‘ Carthage must be destroyed’’ — the sort of Latin only an Anglo- Saxon could love — at least cared enough about the Carthaginians to hate them.
Not so the colonialists who used him for justification. The colonial genocides epitomise George Bernard Shaw’s line that: ‘‘ The worse sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.’’
The Mayans, the Native Americans and the Aborigines got in the way of what the colonists wanted, and because they didn’t matter to them, they died.
There is a qualitative difference between the genocides of the colonial period and those that came after. Once the great powers had finished rubbing out indigenous cultures and colouring in the blank spaces on their maps, the nature of genocide changed.
It is here that Kiernan’s conclusions about the prevalence of expansionism, cults of antiquity, agrarianism and race seem most stretched. Although many of the regimes that carried out massacres in the past 200 years did have expansionist ideologies, the millions they killed were culled predominantly from their own people.
And the perpetrators were mostly revolutionary regimes, a type that throughout history has tried to claim legitimacy by co- opting the past; but only a few have become genocidal. It would have been simpler for Kiernan to say that revolutionary regimes have frequently been responsible for mass murders, rather than
isolating one characteristic shared by almost all arriviste revolutions.
And some of the evidence that he uses to underpin his theory about the prevalence of the agrarian ideal is suspect. He quotes the Nazi Richard Walther Darre’s copious statements linking National Socialism and agriculture, but as Darre was the minister for agriculture, the fact that he was making such linkages is unsurprising.
What Kiernan doesn’t examine is the way in which almost all recent genocidal regimes have conjured an existential threat to justify their actions. The threats have common characteristics, among them the fact that the perceived danger is always portrayed as endangering the nation, when in fact it is a threat to the control of the power elite.
And given that it is universally true that all power elites tend towards self- preservation, there is a different way to look at genocide.
Underlying most of Kiernan’s analysis is the notion that genocide, or at least mass murder, is an aberration that happens only when certain circumstances come together in a perfect storm. But there is a strong school of thought that what genocide studies ought to be looking at is not what spurs to genocide were present at any particular time, but what checks were absent.
It is this train of thought that ultimately informs Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s view that events such as the Bengal famine of 1943 — which killed about three million people and is not mentioned by Kiernan — could have been avoided if its victims had had access to democratic process and a free press.
It is also this train of thought that brought about the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Kiernan discusses the definition of genocide as outlined by the UN, but he does not go into how the convention has functioned in the 50 years since it was passed.
The experiences in Rwanda and Darfur have shown that it has been less than wholly
The colonial powers did what they did to make money
successful, tending to provoke intense debates as to whether a certain set of circumstances qualify as genocide rather than a discussion of how the victims could best be helped.
At 606 pages, with another 118 pages of notes and index, Blood and Soil is a long book, but if it is intended as a reference work, it has some surprising omissions. It seems strange to leave out the depredations of the Mongol hordes or the Albigensian crusade and, even more curiously, the Stolen Generations, which Kiernan has classified as an example of genocide elsewhere.
Kiernan has put a prodigious amount of research into this book, particularly on the colonial massacres, and he has made a significant contribution to an increasingly important debate, but his conclusions are ultimately unsatisfying.
Tim Johnston has reported extensively from central and Southeast Asia.
Enduring horrors: A photograph of a Rwandan child displayed in a gallery of genocide victims at the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda