Geno­cide ques­tions re­main unan­swered

Tim John­ston

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Ben Kier­nan Melbourne Univer­sity Press, 724pp, $ 55

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

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