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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, November 19th, 2002


 

Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe

by Norman M Naimark

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Revealing, often in spite of itself, this study, originally published last year, deserves a wider readership, and might get it thanks to this recently issued paperback edition. A lot is wrong with the book: in an ostensibly objective examination of five cases of ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe, Naimark inserts his indignant demand that in future cases "the international community" (whatever that is) must "act promptly and decisively." He ought to separate his history from his policy advocacy: such sloganeering in what should be a dispassionate analysis leads him to ignore all the hard questions that would perforce confront those policymakers whom Naimark rather jejunely expects to "act." (These questions are, of course, all the harder after last September 11, when it became clear that at least some of America's national-security resources must be devoted to countering real and present dangers.) But Naimark's book is significant because it contains the most easily accessible detailed account of the worst instance of ethnic cleansing in postwar Europe: the expulsion of about 11.5 million ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II, which claimed the lives of as many as 2.5 million. In his thorough case study Naimark unwittingly demolishes much of his book's overarching thesis. He subscribes to what could be called the Very Bad Man theory of ethnic cleansing, embraced by human-rights activists and many academics, which holds that only the unsophisticated would consider ethnic cleansing the product of what he derisively caricatures as "ancient hatreds." Rather, Naimark asserts, it is "ignited by the warped ambitions of modern politicians." But, as Naimark points out, the campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Czechoslovakia and Poland were presided over by democratic regimes (in Czechoslovakia the mild-mannered, impeccably liberal Edvard Benes was the head of state), supported by all the major political parties, and even endorsed by the United States and Britain. In his introduction Naimark singles Poland out as one of the "few success stories" in formerly communist Europe, and he would presumably include the Czech Republic as another. But he ignores an obvious if unsettling question: Are those states today stable, prosperous, and democratic largely because of their brutal removal of their former German minorities?


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