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Understanding modernity is necessary to understanding genocide as the destruction of one group by another is contingent on the evolution of mass group identities based on absolute differences or similarities which individuals can align or distinguish themselves from. The evolution of these identities coincided with and was both the cause and product of the rise of the modern nation state and ethno nationalism, a phenomenon dating back only a couple of centuries. In short the marriage between the rise of the nation state and ideology are precursors to the act of genocide.
Genocide is a very complicated issue and there is still huge debate over the scope of its definition. For the purposes of simplicity I will take the definition as outlined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide act, as this is the most widely accepted within academic circles. Although criticized for being vague, and too broad or even narrow, it not in the scope of this essay to debate what genocide is, but to argue that genocide as defined is a modern phenomenon. The definition is as follows,
"any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
The act has two distinguishable facets to it, the mental and the physical. The physical outlines the physical characteristics necessary for atrocities to be considered genocide. However for an atrocity to be considered genocide there must also exist a mental intent in that the perpetrating group has to have intentionally targeted one specific group.
There are two predominant theories on modernity and genocide. The first is provided by Zygmunt Bauman in his book “Modernity and the Holocaust.” In his book Bauman argues that genocide is a modern phenomenon for two main reasons. Firstly the technology required to be able to implement atrocities of such a massive scale have only developed over the past century. He states,
“[Auschwitz] was also a mundane expansion of the modern factory system. Rather than producing goods, the raw material was human beings and the end-product was death, so many units per day marked carefully on the manager's productions charts. The chimneys, the very symbol of the modern factory system, poured fourth acrid smoke produced by burning human flesh. The brilliantly organized railroad grid of modern Europe carried a new kind of raw material to the factories. It did so in another manner as with other cargo. In the gas chambers the victims inhaled noxious gas generated by prussic acid pellets, which were produced by the advanced chemical industry of Germany. Engineers designed the crematoria; managers designed the system of bureaucracy that worked with a zest and efficiency more backwards nations would envy”
Only the modern technology available to advanced industrialized countries alongside the institutions developed with these new technologies, such as mass production, made it possible for such heinous crimes to be committed. Secondly he argues that modern society silences conventional morality replacing it with what it defines as good as bad. No longer are we responsible for the greater good, only for abiding by laws which we have defined ourselves. He states,
“The civilizing process, among other things, a process of divesting the use and deployment of violence from moral calculus, and of emancipating the desiderata of rationality from interference of ethical norms or moral inhibitions. As the promotion of rationality to the exclusion of alternative criteria of action, and in particular the tendency to subordinate the use of violence to rational calculus, has been long ago acknowledged as a constitutive feature of modern civilization - the Holocaust-style phenomena must be recognized as legitimate outcomes of civilizing tendency, and its constant potential.”
The modern systems of bureaucracy which we have built up, where responsibility is delegated from several differences sources, dehumanizes evilest actions. This allows for individuals to commit such heinous crimes without having to challenge their moral precedence. Bauman states,
“The result is that there are many acts no one consciously appropriates. For the person on whose behalf they are done, they exist only verbally or in the imagination; he will not claim them as his own since he never lived through them. The man who has actually done them, on the other hand, will always view them as someone else's and himself as the blameless instrument of an alien will…Without first hand acquaintance with his actions, even the best of humans moves in a moral vacuum: the abstract recognition of evil is neither a reliable guide nor an adequate motive… [W]e shall not be surprised at the immense and largely unintentional cruelty of men of good will…”
Therefore a combination of modern technology with the societal institutions which have arisen in the twentieth century are what both mentally prepares individuals and endows them with the physical means to commit crimes of such great proportions.
Although there is legitimacy to this argument, Bauman's thesis implies that without the advent of modern technology and bureaucratic institutions acts of the same magnitude as genocide would not be possible. However, given that there examples of atrocities of similar proportions to that of the Holocaust and other modern genocides where neither modern technology or bureaucratic methods and institutions were necessary, genocide itself cannot be contingent on those two factors. Additionally his argument would imply that genocide, as a modern phenomenon, can only occur with the existence of those two factors. However, Rwanda provides a good example of a well accepted genocide where neither modern technology nor modern bureaucratic methods were necessary for its occurrence. In contrast to Bauman's thesis in Rwanda the majority of the killings were performed via primitive means, such as the machete, and were perpetrated by normal civilians who were not affiliated with any government bureaucratic institutions.
A more tangible theory is provided by Michael Mann In his book “The Dark Side of Democracy.” Mann similarly argues that genocide is a modern phenomenon however he outlines that, as the title implies, genocide is a consequence of the failings of democracies and the modern nation state. He states,
“geopolitical destabilization… made some kind of radical Ottoman Turkish backlash probable… this was not an atypical combination of the deep-rooted and the contingent as causes of descent into murderous ethnic cleansing. As usual, it was political power - who would control the state - that was ultimately the decisive source of danger.”
He goes on to argue that genocide are not meticulously planned events, instead they rise as a consequence of power struggles in modern nation states, and provide immediate solutions for obstacles facing the predominant groups.
“statism was the end product of factionalism and radicalization induced by repeated crisis emanating from the unstable geopolitics of war. It was not the product of ancient hatreds… yet to degrees of ethnic age were involved. There were quite old… religious-ethnic tensions between Christians and Muslims. But these were exacerbated and given direction by a modern organic nationalism, generating massive ethnic hatred only in the previous two years. It was committed by actors struggling to rationally attain their goals… but amid a situation that they could neither control nor make rational decisions. They resorted to genocide when other solutions seemed not to work. They believed the final decision was one of last ditch desperation.”
The rise of the modern nation state led to these situations where groups of individual struggle for power and subsequently align themselves around ideology which allows for groups to be distinguished between and justifies antagonisms.
Throughout this essay I wish to draw upon Mann's hypothesis that genocide is a consequence of the rise of the modern nation state, and its marriage with ideology. If this is true then understanding genocide is contingent on understanding modernity, as nationalism and the nation state are modern phenomena.
I will draw upon three modern case studies of genocide to prove this point. The first case I will use is one of the most notorious and the certainly the one which helped define the area of study as a whole.
The Holocaust remains a highly controversial issue; however there is no disagreement in the notoriety of the event and the certainty that it is genocide. Jews were an integral part of German society and had been for many years. Therefore why the Holocaust occurred when it did has become a major topic of debate. The Early stages of anti-Semitism as an ideology began to rise in the early 1900's in doctrines from “ex-Catholic writers and journalists from Bavaria, Austria, and parts of Bohemia and Moravia offering a new Grossdeutschland, union of all Germans in a single eastward-tilting land.” The Jews were seen as a threat to the creation of a united Germanic nation, especially with the rise of Bolshevism in 1918 which the Jews were seen as the propagators.
However it wasn't until the disastrous defeat of World War One where “ideologies linked up with revisionist German and Austrian military veterans refusing to accept war defeat.” It was the fall of the conventional forms of power and the need to form a new identity which sparked this slow drive towards nationalistic ideology. German elites and intellectuals needed to be explain the Germans Empires embarrassing defeat in World War One, and through necessity the conspiracy theories surrounding the Jews, renowned for their use by the Nazi's to justify their hatred, arose. The early Nazi's including Hitler himself, based their ideology on these ideas of a united and purified Germany, which culminated in the Nazi movement.
By the late 1920's and early 1930's the Nazi movement in Germany was beginning to gain precedence, culminating in their 1933 sweep to power. From its outskirts the Nazi government began implementing anti-Semitic legislation, expelling Jews “from the civil service, the armed forces, teaching, and the arts, then from the professions.” These were followed by the Nuremberg laws of 1935 which defined who was Jewish and banned intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Although the government was illustrating obvious signs of discrimination, it still hadn't escalated to the level of genocide.
It was the outbreak of war which allowed for the final steps of radicalization. In such cases, as always, patriotism was heightened and opposition to the Nazi's and to Hitler himself became non-existent. Due to the pressures of the war both military and economic the initial plan of forced relocation was no longer feasible, desperate measures were needed. This coupled with the wars inherent extremity, and its dehumanizing elements led to the Final Solution, genocide. Mann states,
“desperate times required desperate measures. Plan D, genocide, was the logical outcome of the frustration of their earlier Plans on the Eastern Front. War fighting and extremist strategies were now combined against the Judo-Bolshevik enemy.”
From its outskirts fascism was an ingredient for trouble. It combined nationalism with statism, two modern phenomena, in an extremely volatile environment. The population it was immersed upon had lost their identity and it was therefore left for the ideological foundations of the fascist or Nazi movement to define it for them. Mann states,
“fascism was essentially a movement committed to extreme organic nationalism and statism, claiming to transcend social conflict, especially class conflict, by using paramilitary and state violence to “knock both their heads together.”
The Holocaust was a consequence of this ideology. Central to Nazi ideology was purity and the creation of a pure “Aryan” race. By placing this as a central theme they were able to both unite and mobilize the German people around an ideology of hatred and racism culminating in the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of masses of groups of people considered inferior to their own. Mann states,
“victim groups were killed in pursuit of a ferocious ideology: to complete the cleansing of the German Volk and Reich.”
The rise of ideology synonymous with the rise of nationalism and that of the nation state is a key precursor to genocide. It played a predominant role in the holocaust, and its influence can be seen in other modern genocides.
The Rwandan genocide is one of the most recent examples we have of genocide. Similar to the holocaust it was a consequence of revolutionary sentiments and ideology. In his article “Modern Genocide in Rwanda” Robert Melson argues that,
“demystify the Rwandan genocide and to see it clearly as an instance of state-sponsored mass murder driven by ideology in a context of revolution and war that has been a hallmark of our modern era.”
Many would argue that the Rwandan genocide was based on traditional Hutu and Tutsi hatred, and was carried out in a frenzied manner. However this would be false. There had been prior incidence of mass violence from one of the groups on the other. Additionally there is little evidence to suggest that the incentives behind the violence were tribal. In contrast it came as a consequence of a power struggle resulting from decolonization. Melson goes on to state,
“The Rwandan genocide was the product of a postcolonial state, a racialist ideology, a revolution claiming democratic legitimation, and war - all manifestations of the modern world.”
It was difficult for the Belgian colonialists of the 1900's to understand the complexity's of Rwandan society, which was a monarchal system where an aristocratic Tutsi class ruled amongst a broader Hutu peasantry with smaller numbers of Tutsi. Tutsi and Hutu were considered two different races, with the Tutsi superior due to larger similarities with the Europeans, and were believed to have arrived from Ethiopia and conquered the inferior Hutu people. Arguably only a class title, with the differences in appearance reflecting selective class inbreeding (similar to that of the caste system within India, or even the aristocracy within England) an element of ethno ideology had now been introduced.
Recognizing the Tutsi as a superior race, the Belgians decided to rule through them. Favoritism of the Tutsi was implemented in every aspect of life, and both creating and deepening divisions and hatred between the two groups. And example of this is the abolition of the tripartite system of rule where the chief of the land was conventionally Hutu, replacing it for a system where all chiefly powers were concentrated in the hands of one Tutsi chieftain. Tutsi began to embrace the colonial power whose laws favoured them adopting their practices and even their religion, with many Tutsi converting to Catholicism. The two groups began to accept their roles and heritages, with Tutsi proufd of their superiority, and the Hutu resenting them for it. Melson states,
“during the colonial period, the Belgians cast all Tutsi, both aristocrats and nonaristocrats, in the role of the natural elite of Rwanda, whose origins lay in Egypt or Ethiopia and who in effect constituted a superior race… Not surprisingly some Tutsi took pride in their alleged racial superiority, which the Hutu resented, and the Hutu came to view all the Tutsi as foreign conquerors and interlopers. Thus a racialist conception of ideology of Tutsi-Hutu differences was crucial to the ensuing genocide.”
After the Second World War Belgian policy towards the Tutsi changed. Now with a strong sense of the ideal of democracy being propagated across the Western world, favor slowly switched to the Hutu majority. By 1959, political movements led by Hutu elites' and supported by Belgian administrators were successful in displacing the governing Tutsi minority. There was widespread agreement that the new democracy should rest on the Hutu majority, and in 1961 a Republic was formed around this basis, receiving full independence the following year. Melson states,
“the revolution of 1959 transformed Rwanda from a Belgian colony that utilized a Tutsi elite as a subterfuge for Belgian power into a Hutu ethnocracy dressed up as a populist majoritarian democracy that excluded the “Tutsi race” from the political order... at a recent conference sponsored by Ibuka, a Tutsi survivors association most survivors dated the origins of the 1994 genocide to the 1959 revolution, when they were made second class citizens in a racially polarized state. ”
From a feudal society based on a traditional monarchal and aristocratic hierarchy, Rwanda had been transformed into a modern nation state, based on a united ethnic ideology. The structure of such a state, with the conventional systems of power deteriorated, required for some form ideology to arise from which the people could unite.
“In the popular Hutu mind, the Tutsis were demonized by an ideology… which viewed them as foreign invaders from Ethiopia or Somalia who had arrived in Burundi… centuries before and were bent on subjugating or destroying the Hutu and stealing there land.”
This ideology was that of ethnicity and of ethno-nationalism. The Tutsi were no longer viewed as simply the upper class of a homogenous race but instead separate race of foreign invaders who had unpurified the Hutu lands and people.
These events led to a spiral of violence over the succeeding decades, between Tutsi rebel forces and the Hutu military. In neighboring Burundi, fearing a repeat of what happened in Rwanda in 1959 with the culmination of a Hutu dominated state, the Tutsi dominated army was able to subvert elections and gain power. Culminating in massacres of masses of Hutu in Burundi that in turn led to a sequence of reactionary policies in both countries.
These events escalated until 1994 when the Hutu led government of Rwanda, fearing its collapse due to poor economic performance and outside political pressure, united the Hutu peoples around the weakened government by mobilizing them against the Tutsi minority and the Hutu moderates labeling them ibyitso or traitors.
The genocide which occurred in the years of 1994 and 1995 in Rwanda was a consequence of a break down of conventional systems of power and the necessary rise of ideology to allow for the formation of new ones as a result of the rise of a modern, democratic nation state. Melson states,
“When revolutionary vanguards come to power in a situation where most institutions have been undermined and the identity of the political community is in question, they need to reconstruct society, revitalize support for the state by way of a new system of legitimation, and forge new identities. Under revolutionary circumstances whey will redefine the identity of a subset of the political community as “the people,” “the nation,” “the race,” “the religion,” or “the class.” These are the group or the groups which are celebrated by the ideology of the revolutionaries and from whom they hope to draw their support. In Turkey it was the Muslim Turks, in Germany it was the “Aryans,” in Cambodia it was the Khmer peasantry, and in Rwanda it was the Hutu.”
In both the examples listed above ideology plays a central role. In both cases a group was faced with the problem of needing to redefine its identity, and in both cases this was done around ethno-national lines. As a result, the dominant groups in both cases set out on a policy of purification and the subsequent extermination of the non-pure and alien elements of their society, which culminated in genocide.
However many authors argue that genocide cannot be labeled as a modern phenomenon. They refute the claim that it is a consequence of modernity arguing that violence pre-existed the nation state, and that it is not a question of how modernity causes violence but given why violence and barbarianism can coexist with modernity. In his article “Modernity and Violence” Dan Stone states,
“the histiographical trend towards dismissing the supposedly abstract inquiry into modernity should be treated with caution, just as the trend towards recognizing violence and the experiences of its victims is to be welcomed. For the violence should be seen in opposition to modernity. The question should not be whether the violence emerged from rational thinking… or irrationality… rather it should be about determining how the conjuction of rationalized society and violent passions - which exist now as they did before 1945 - erupts at certain moments into so apocalyptic a force… the existence of violence within modernity, not violence that rejects modernity, but nevertheless a violence which, in its shabby brutality, cannot simply be seen as a logical consequence of modernization.”
Michael Freeman in his article “Genocide, Civilization and Modernity” expands on this theory, arguing that there have been many cases of past genocide, drawing a comparison between the ancient Assyrian and the holocaust, arguing that the only difference is that the societal reaction to the genocide is different. Whereas before, there was no need for definition and reconciliation, due to the values existent within our society it necessary to development to develop a sociological framework to explain what happened and why. Freeman states,
“The sociology of genocide tells a story of continuity amid difference. One important change, however, is the way we tell the story and our reasons for telling it. There was no sociology of genocide in Assyria. This fact can be explained sociologically. The values of our society require that we develop such a sociology. Bauman's argument is therefore partly self-refuting. His sociology of the Holocaust is a distinctively modern cultural response to a practice that, as the UN declared in the preamble to its Genocide Convention, has inflicted great losses on humanity at all periods of history.”
Freeman argues that one cannot label genocide as a new phenomenon, as events such as the holocaust are simply modern manifestations of ancient practices.
In his book “Blood and Soil” Ben Kiernan outlines territorial expansion, racism and religious prejudice, agrarianism and antiquity as the four main precursors of genocide, and that it is the existence of one or more of these traits which results in the act of genocide. Kiernan argues that these traits have existed within massacres far preceding the evolution of the modern nation state, and that therefore genocide itself is an ancient phenomenon.
Kiernan brings fourth several examples of what he believes to be ancient genocides. Amongst these is the Spanish conquest of the New World. He states,
“Las Casas estimated that by 1542, “our Spaniards” in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America had “devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it,” killing “more than twelve million men, women, and children.””
Kiernan documents several of the massacres that occurred as a result of the Spanish conquest, outlining the destruction caused by the conquistador armies. He points to the merciless and brutal methods employed by the conquistadors during their conquests stating,
“Their methods included “unjustly waging cruel and bloody wars,” killing “all the native rulers and young men,” and enslaving all the survivors.”
Kiernan also discusses the ways in which the Spanish commanders justified such actions, by comparing themselves with the great Roman armies under Caesar and their enemies with the inferior Scythian barbarians, dehumanizing them. He states,
“Sepulveda deployed Aristotelian concepts of superiority and “natural slavery” to argue that Spanish offensives Indians were just wars. The thousands of natives “who scattered on flight like women before Spaniards so few” were inferior even to those other cannibals, the Scythian barbarians of Rome's ancient frontiers.”
This he argues had led to the formation of a cult of antiquity, drawing upon Aristotelian theory, providing some forms of ideological backing.
However Kiernan fails to account for one crucial aspect and that is intent. What distinguishes the modern cases with Kiernan's examples and countless other ones is the mental intent to exterminate a distinguished group of people by another. Although we can draw upon similarities from Kiernan's examples, and modern ones such as the holocaust what Kiernan fails to do is provide tangible evidence that these ancient cases were driven by an ideological framework or mental intent, where the sole purpose was the destruction of a single group.
It is true that the pages of history, far preceding the era of the modern nation state, are plagued with examples of suppression, mass killings and the near destruction of whole civilizations. From the all encompassing Mongol hordes tearing through the Steps of Asia to the Spanish Conquistadors subjugating an entire civilization, we are faced with countless examples of mans ability to destroy in its entirety. However, these atrocities, as heinous as they may be, must not be confused with genocide.
Although though similar in the physical destruction and detriment they inflicted on a group or groups of people, they lack the necessary mental element to constitute genocide, in that there is no evidence to prove that any of these atrocities were committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”