Arts & Culture

All too human

Book review.

Matthew Kaminski ’94 is editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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The Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in 1943. Once the full extent of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry was known, the Holocaust became the worst case. It remains so today. But Lemkin knew that what the Germans did wasn't unique, and he rightly feared something similar would happen again. He helped draw up the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and pushed a broader meaning beyond total, state-organized extermination. The UN definition covered any attempted destruction, by whatever means, of ethnic, religious, national, and political groups. Subsequent years saw Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Milosevic's Yugoslavia, Rwanda in 1994, and today's Darfur vary on the theme.

The world can now better identify but, alas, less well prevent or stop genocide. Ben Kiernan shows in his lucidly unsettling Blood and Soil, however, that genocide is almost as eternal as war itself. States, armies, and militias have targeted races, classes, and religious communities for elimination in places and times as disparate as ancient Rome and Japanese-occupied China. As a manifestation of evil, it is all too human.

Kiernan doesn't flinch from politically incorrect diagnoses of any stripe. Hitler's crimes are juxtaposed with those of the twentieth century's other mass murderers: Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Collectivist, utopian ideologies like fascism, communism, and Islamism, as Kiernan's study plainly shows, are particularly predisposed to genocide. But the founding of America and Australia, he reminds us, were also tainted by the expulsion and near extermination of indigenous people.

Kiernan seeks to understand the forces that enabled genocide in the past so that we may better stop them in the future. An expert on Southeast Asia and the founder of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, he documented the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. "European perpetrators," he writes, "hold no monopoly on the crime." This wider perspective informs every chilling page of Blood and Soil.

As in so much else, the ancients showed the way. Delenda est Carthago, said the second-century BCE Roman official Cato. "Carthage must be destroyed!" was an early and "the most famous incitement to genocide." In sacking the city in 146 and killing possibly more than half its inhabitants, Appian wrote, Rome had decided on "the destruction of the nation." The triumph of Rome and the disappearance of Carthage were invoked by genocidal leaders up through Hitler.

Still, why? What leads societies and regimes to indiscriminate slaughter of innocents? Conventional wars between competing armies have tended to be waged for power and land. At its most basic, the same thirst helps drive genocide, says Kiernan. The Nazis overtly wanted to make space (Lebensraum) for Germans in the east. The Young Turks decided Anatolian Armenians impeded the rise of a "Turkified" new state from the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Cortes cleared the natives from Mexico. Settlers elsewhere in the Americas, in Australia, and Africa claimed "virgin" arable land for themselves.

It was easier to remove the people who happened to live there by demonizing them as somehow subhuman. Or better yet, as a serious threat to you. Writing of Native Americans in 1892, by which time their numbers had declined threefold in less than a century, L. Frank Baum, the Wizard of Oz author, wrote that "we had better, in order to protect our civilization . . . wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth." Baum fortunately turned to writing fiction, and the American government didn't set out to destroy all Indians as Indians.

Yet such rhetoric was employed elsewhere with terrible consequences. "Perpetrator regimes appear to sense that if genocide can ever be justified, it is only as a defense against genocide," Kiernan writes. A nation dirtied and under attack had to defend and clean itself. Jews were likened to "lice" in Nazi Germany. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic claimed the Muslim serpent would kill off the Serbs unless they hit first. According to a Young Turk propagandist, the Armenians were "a foreign body in the national Turkish state"; in 1915, hundreds of thousands were killed and over a million expelled.

Racism and paranoia were weaponized, so to speak, when brought together with an expansionist urge. But another ideological underpinning of genocidal regimes is a romanticized view of the past and farming. Kiernan puts forward compelling (if perhaps selective) evidence from Asia and Europe to support this intriguing thesis. Joseph Goebbels commissioned several movies on the theme of "blood and soil" and the supposed link between the master German race and the land. The model citizen was the farmer, while the Jews were corrupt city-dwellers. "The Nazis believed that only advanced industrial killing could give Germany back this primeval past," writes Kiernan.

In a perverse inversion, the Soviets romanticized modernization and industry. For Stalin, the enemy was the landed peasant wedded to old habits, the educated city-dweller with ideas of his own, or the Ukrainian or Georgian nationalist unwilling to bow to Soviet rule.

Yet for the regime the underlying motivation usually comes back to the maintenance and augmentation of power. Unique to the twentieth century, in Kiernan's telling, was "genocide perpetrated by national chauvinist dictatorships that had seized control of tottering, shrinking, or new empires, aiming to reverse real or perceived territorial losses or conquer new regions from established powers." This describes Nazi Germany, the Stalinist USSR, Mao's China, and post-Cold War Yugoslavia.

Casting widely, Kiernan nets another fascinating tidbit. During the atrocities committed in Bangladesh by the Pakistanis during the 1971 war and in Indonesia in 1965, both countries' military regimes formed an alliance with fervent Islamists, who carried out much of the killing. These were precursors to al Qaeda, the topical note on which Kiernan brings Blood and Soil full circle. Al Qaeda is a new yet classic genocidal organization. Its members see themselves, writes Kiernan, "refighting ancient battles in a contemporary setting to establish an ethnically pure, agrarian utopia on the graves of those they consider their traditional victims -- Crusaders, Franks, Muslims, and Jews." You have again a racist movement that fetishizes cleanliness, in its case religious rather than racial or class, and invokes a return to an early Islam of the past. And you have the view of innocents as enemies and legitimate targets for extermination.

Before his arrest by the United States, one of the organizers of 9/11, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, wrote a tract entitled The Truth about the New Crusade: A Ruling on the Killing of Women and Children of the Non-Believers. He made the case for murdering innocents, but set limits: "In killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims should not exceed [killing] four million non-combatants, or render more than ten million homeless."

As Kiernan points out, this impulse is nothing new. The existential threat, as ever, is to the intended victims, and to civilization as such. 

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