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The Death That Will Not Die

Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur by Ben Kiernan

Reviewed by Michael Ignatieff
The New Republic Online

A history of genocide is bound to leave a reader with gloomy and misanthropic reflections. This world history of genocide from Sparta to Darfur is no exception. Apparently, we humans will set about exterminating each other whenever we have the means, the motive, and the hope of success. This grand cruelty is one of the defining features of our common humanity, in addition to wisdom, dignity, compassion, and all the rest. Ben Kiernan has provided the most extensive history of our genocidal propensities that I have ever read. He starts his history early, with Roman and Greek massacres of barbarians, and works through the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the exterminating vigor of American settlers toward Indians, the Turkish way with the Armenians, the German way with the Jews, Stalin's way with the Ukrainians, the Khmer Rouge's way with the Cambodians, the Serbs' way with the Muslims, the Hutus' way with the Tutsis, and the Sudanese way with the Darfurians.

If you want to know how it was done, where and when it was done, and how many victims there were, Kiernan has the answers. This is a formidable and important book. I am less certain, however, that Kiernan has gotten to the root of the question that raises the issue of misanthropy: namely, why we do this to our own kind with such lamentable enthusiasm and self-righteousness. We have been asking this question since we began killing each other, but we have also been trying to stop, and our attempts to rein in our genocidal propensities go some way toward redeeming our honor as a species.

Many of our best institutions -- the constitutional state, for example, and its guarantees of equal rights for all -- are prudential responses by wise men and women to their discovery of our predilections for massacre if we are left unconstrained. Responding to the challenge of genocide was a prime motivation for the new institutions created after 1945: the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the International Criminal Court, the state of Israel, and so on. The social harmony achieved in western democracies since 1945 is an achievement in the face of the horror left behind by genocidal ideology. If we now praise multiculturalism and make a virtue out of the fact that people of different races, religions, languages, and cultures live together in most if not all democracies, it is because we take this as a rebuke to a disgraced alternative: one land for one people, to be achieved, if necessary, by slaughter.

Any history of genocide has to be balanced with the history of our halting attempts to take the measure of this propensity in ourselves and to set up dikes, institutional and moral, against the temptation. At the same time, we have to recognize how far we still have to go before we get the terrible temptation under control. The creators of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assumed that juridical denunciation and proscription of the crime would reduce the human propensity to commit the deed. But still the killings go on, even as the International Criminal Court and many states have enacted penalties against genocide and, in the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia, secured the first convictions. So the crime has been proscribed morally, and enforcement measures improve, and yet it continues apace. The abandon with which mass killing continues suggests that something is not sufficient about the judicial response to the crime.

It would be ridiculous to belittle the attempts we have made to bring genocidal killers to courts of law. There are good reasons to bring killers to justice even if we cannot be sure that doing so will reduce the propensity of others to kill. We seek justice against genocide to demonstrate that the victims matter, that their memory is sacred to us, that we stand always with them and never with their butchers. This symbolic function of the judicial response to genocide is always and everywhere valuable. Yet it does not change the fact that judicial responses -- attempting to increase the certainty of punishment -- do not appear to mitigate the human propensity to resort to extermination as a final solution. One of the crucial explanatory puzzles in the history of genocide, one that Kier- nan does not actually address, is why, in the post-1945 period at least, the universal authoritative de-legitimation of genocide has failed. Even at this late date, after all that we know, it remains a regular feature of world politics.

We should work ourselves free of the fantasy, dear to international lawyers and human rights activists, that we will someday live in a world where international law succeeds in extirpating genocide and mass killing. Instead of betting on justice to get the better of genocide, we ought to wager instead on a range of other options: the spread of development and democracy; the entrenchment of constitutional freedoms in as many countries as possible; population limitation; universal education; measures to control climate change. (Why climate change? Because, as Darfur seems to prove, share conflicts over resources are being made worse by desertification and climate change. Global warming will inflame genocidal propensities wherever human groups are under intensifying environmental pressure on scarce resources of water, food, and land.)

Understanding how all these measures might help is important. But it is also important to understand the rationale, the logic, even the seductiveness of genocide as an instrument of politics. The crime of genocide is a big crime, and so it needs big reasons for it to be committed. Those who do the butchering, shooting, or gassing need powerful ideological aromatics to overcome the revulsion, horror, pity, and sympathy that invariably arise when we see one of our own kind being killed. It is too simple to regard the perpetrators as merely de-humanized: the perplexity is rather that they are human but do it anyway. Ideology is the handmaiden of all genocides, because instinctual revulsion toward the act is bound to be strong in all but the most sadistic perpetrators. Since there are never quite enough of these, there must be arguments and symbols and myths capable of recruiting other, less brutal accomplices to bring about what is always a large-scale operation, requiring many willing hands.

Kiernan's major argument about these ideological justifications -- the "blood and soil" of his title -- is that the genocidal project, whether under the Romans or the Rwandans, begins with the fantasy of a piece of land belonging exclusively to a people of a certain blood relation. This fantasy appeals to the idea of human identity according to which people can only be truly who they are if their culture and their traditions are connected to a particular soil, and if they possess this soil to the exclusion of everyone else. The project is always a fantasy, because invariably the land in question is inhabited by someone else. Zion is never empty. Paradise is never unoccupied. Eden is never vacant. Anyone seeking to create Zion, Paradise, or Eden on earth must figure out what to do with the inconvenient fact that there are others already there, others who came before you. Those people are real human beings, with equally strong attachments to the land. They are, moreover, just as human as you, and therefore just as resistant to change as you know yourself to be.

For this reason, someone wishing to build Paradise on earth comes to realize that there are only four options: live with the people who stand in the way, educate and assimilate them, drive them out, or exterminate them. Genocide is best understood, then, as the fourth and most radically ruthless consequence of utopian political fantasy. Kiernan captures this idea very well:

Racism becomes genocidal when perpetrators imagine a world without certain kinds of people in it. A similar metaphysic marks some other forms of idealist thinking and action: the rejection of a real historical community or a retreat from everyday life in favor of an imagined vision or idea. Pastoralism is a related ideal in that it often eliminates inhabitants from a landscape.

Paradise, when seen through the eyes of an exterminator, is a world without fear, without anxiety, without threat from others. Paradise is paradise because only you and I are in it and we are both the same. The serpent in Paradise is the others. Faced with them, genocidal extremists will then lay hold of racial stereotypes to create the basis for the thought that these people do not deserve to be on the land, and from there it is not far to thinking that they do not deserve to live. Genocide is a form of politics in the service of a vision of Paradise. It is a form of nation-building, if you will -- a type of violence that is ultimately an instrument of the most powerful utopia men have ever created for themselves: a world without enemies.

I would not present this as a universal typology of genocides. Kiernan makes it clear that there are a variety of motives and situations in which mass exterminations occur. There is no point in pouring all the forms of genocide into one unwieldy classification. Yet it is worth insisting that genocide be seen as a darkly seductive form of nation-building or community-formation, driven by the fantasy of a world without enemies. This is what makes genocide such a recurring temptation: it appeals to very deep-seated human desires to live in security and peace with your own.

If this helps us to understand why so many human groups have succumbed to the genocidal temptation, it is important also to stress that many human groups do not succumb at all. After all, not everyone thinks of the other as an enemy. Judenrein societies -- places where the other is driven out or killed -- remain the exception rather than the rule. Cohabitation between races and religions is as frequent in history as enforced mono-ethnicity. Let copulation thrive, Shakespeare said, and when it does, the barriers between races, peoples, and languages come down.

While genocide remains a possible solution to the problem of dealing with people different than yourself, it is not the only possible solution. Human beings throughout the ages have refused to fear the other, and found the other enticing and appealing, and sought to bed the other and to learn from the other -- and to exploit the other, of course, but also to change in interaction with the other. A theory of genocide has to explain the extremists, but it also has to explain those who refuse the extreme. A theory of genocide, to have any explanatory power, must explain why genocide occurs in some situations and why it does not in others.

Consider a particular case, the European settlement of North America. The pattern was not universally genocidal. The encounter between Europeans and aboriginals began in fear, developed into curiosity, flourished in mutual aid and learning, curdled into suspicion, exploded into war, and only then -- and not always -- ended in genocidal fury. Only extremists believed, at any given moment, that the only solution to the presence of the Indians was wholesale extermination. In many contexts of white-Indian interaction, the pattern was "live and let live." When extremists arose claiming that "live and let live" was impossible, reasonable voices were raised to contest the exterminatory logic of the extremists. Kiernan cites a wonderful example of this. In 1763, after conflict between settlers and Indians in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin wrote a telling rebuttal of the arguments that he must have been hearing all around him in favor of a genocidal reprisal against Indians:

If an Indian injures me,...does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians? It is well known that Indians are of different Tribes, Nations and Languages, as well as the White People. In Europe, if the French, who are White People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are white People? The only crime of these poor Wretches seems to have been, that they had a reddish-brown Skin, and black Hair; and some People of that Sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations. If it be right to kill Men for such a Reason, then, should any Man, with a freckled Face and red Hair, kill a Wife or Child of mine, it would be right for me to revenge it, by killing all the freckled red Haired Men, Women and Children.

If Franklin was able to see through the contemptible non sequiturs lurking in the exterminatory rhetoric on the frontier, more humble Americans could have done so as well. If genocide is a fantasy, requiring violent actions to force reality to approximate some desired state of ethnic cleanliness, only some people fall for the fantasy; others see through it clearly. Kiernan has much to say about perpetrators, but he says very little about opponents, such as Franklin, who raised their voices against the genocidal fantasy.

Only some dreams of blood and soil end in exterminatory violence. Others end in inter-ethnic accommodation and varieties of nationalism. Hostility between groups who compete for land and resources does not always end in massacre. We need to understand why multi-ethnic cooperation is as much the rule of human life as genocide. Kiernan's catalogue of nightmarish events would have had more capacity to help us to predict (though history is hardly an exact science) the situations in which genocidal fantasy turns deadly if he had dealt with the cases where the most fearsome elements of our nature were defeated by the best.

Kiernan's learned misanthropic story also scants the interesting and dire question of how survivors of extermination manage to live on afterward. Perhaps this question lies beyond the bounds of the task he set for himself; but still it is a fact that no genocides are ever, strictly speaking, complete. There are always survivors, and how they survive -- how, indeed, they often triumph over their perpetrators -- is an important theme in any history of genocide. In this regard, Kiernan might find it interesting to reflect on Jonathan Lear's luminous book Radical Hope, a philosophical study of the memoirs of an American Crow Indian chief. This leader lived through the actual end, between 1850 and 1880, of his nomadic civilization. Genocidal massacre by settlers was part of the fatal destiny of the Crow, but only a part. What the settlers failed to do was finally accomplished by warfare with the Sioux, and microbial devastation at the hand of disease, and finally cantonment in reservations.

Lear asks a fundamental question: how do survivors of civilizational catastrophes such as genocide manage so often to preserve the memory of what has been destroyed, to rebuild their civilizations, and, in so doing, to write the history that vindicates them and not their tormentors? Hitler is condemned to eternal infamy, while those he tormented have been redeemed by the tireless work of human remembrance. To the question of why survivors of extermination are so extraordinarily tenacious, Lear answers that human beings have a specific capacity to retain hope in the face of the loss of all that they hold dear. He calls this "radical hope," the human capacity to imagine the conditions of survival, for oneself and for one's traditions, even when no survival, no afterwards, seems conceivable.

The Crow chief whose memoir Lear analyzes did not know how his people would survive the white man's coming, but he knew that they would survive. Guided by this hope, he led his people into a future neither he nor they could possibly imagine. History has vindicated them, as it has vindicated so many survivors of slaughter and devastation. The Crow live on; their culture endures. So do many of the other peoples visited with exterminatory zeal. They have lived to have the last word because they have proved capable of radical hope. Any history of genocide that does not include a mention of radical hope is not being true to the unfathomable duality of human beings, their capacity for exterminatory fantasy and their ability to keep on hoping when all hope is gone.

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