Human, All Too Human | The Nation


Human, All Too Human

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Almost fifty years later, in 1992, similar atrocities were taking place in the Serb concentration camps of northern Bosnia, such as Omarska and Trnopolje. The same sentiments were used to justify them. "They had committed war crimes, and now it is the other way around," proclaimed Milan Kovacevic, who ran Omarska. "They" were Croats and Bosnians, and the "war crimes" had been committed during World War II. As a baby Kovacevic had lived in Jasenovac, the main Croatian concentration camp; as an adult he was running one, Michael Mann observes. Like Lieberman, Mann, a professor of sociology at UCLA, has written a broad study of genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Yugoslav wars and Rwanda. But The Dark Side of Democracy is drier and more theoretical. Mann begins his work with eight theses. Some merely state the obvious in academic language: "stably institutionalized democracies are less likely than either democratizing or authoritarian regimes to commit murderous cleansing," which is hardly news, and "Regimes that are actually perpetrating murderous cleansing are never democratic, since that would be a contradiction in terms." His core argument is that murderous ethnic cleansing results from a confusion of democracy with the demands of the dominant ethnic group in extreme conditions. Thus "ordinary people are brought by normal social structures into committing murderous ethnic cleansing," assuming that "ordinary" does not mean having an innate lust for killing. But this seems less an argument about the dark side of "democracy" than about mob rule. At times Mann's book reads like a thesis in search of a reality. Democracy means more than a simple parliamentary majority. It demands stable, independent institutions, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, all of which help prevent mass murder.

About the Author

Adam LeBor
Adam LeBor's most recent book is Complicity With Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide (Yale). In May...

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Home for centuries to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Salonica was a cosmopolitan world where people of various cultures and religions lived side by side.

Mann writes perceptively of what he calls "genocidal democracies in the New World," including Spanish Mexico, Australia and German South West Africa, where genocide occurred in the midst of struggles between colonists and natives over resources. He is strong on the United States's own genocidal history. This country, after all, was founded on the deliberate destruction of its indigenous inhabitants and their communities. Thomas Jefferson, its third President, drove his compatriots on to slaughter the American Indians. "In war," Jefferson declared, "they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them." And so they did, quite quickly. Between 1848 and 1860 the Indian population of California fell from 150,000 to 31,000, with most casualties caused by disease, starvation or deliberate killing.

One of Mann's most interesting chapters looks at Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and what he calls "classicide," the elimination of the bourgeoisie as these dictators struggled to impose a "revolutionary vision of a future industrial society" on an agrarian one. Mann argues that both "radical ethnonationalism" and "revolutionary Communism" fostered organic ideas about "we, the people," whether as a nation or a class. And both legitimized mass slaughter as part of that group's mission. This is an important point, and Mann makes it well: A powerful sense of collective identity, no matter how inorganic or manufactured, seems a vital precondition for the group to undertake its genocidal "mission" and to view it as legitimate.

Mann is wrong, however, to argue that ethnic cleansing is "essentially modern." It is true that cheap and effective weaponry--none more so than the AK-47 assault rifle--has increased the number of victims and the frequency of conflict. But ethnic cleansing and genocide are arguably merely modern terms for one of humanity's oldest--and cruelest--pastimes. As long as humans have sought control over resources such as land, water and food supplies, they have been prepared to kill and lay waste to defend their assets. As Mark Levene writes: "The path to genocide is in part, deeply embedded in the human record and...facets of it are actually very evident in ancient, classical, as well as more recent, pre-modern times." Consider God's instruction to the twelve tribes when they arrived in what would become the land of Israel, as recorded in Deuteronomy 7:1 and 7:2:

When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;
 And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.

Not only should the indigenous people be "utterly destroyed"; it was also forbidden to marry either their sons or their daughters. King Saul was commanded to wipe out the Amalekites, "man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." The Israelites--if these accounts are accurate--were hardly unique in their enthusiasm for smiting their enemies. As Levene notes: "This was clearly an ancient Near Eastern norm." Levene, who teaches history at the University of Southampton in Britain, has published the first two volumes of an ambitious four-volume study, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State. This is a discursive rather than a chronological or episodic work. Levene argues that the centrality of the Holocaust has warped scholarly priorities by obscuring the linkage between the extermination of the Jews and earlier genocides. The Holocaust was unique in its industrialization of mass murder but was also part of a grim historical continuum. Hitler himself was well aware of the extermination of the Armenians. In his secret speech to Wehrmacht commanders in August 1939, Hitler lauded Genghis Khan's killing machine before asking, "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"

Levene suggests that the terror of the Jacobin era in Revolutionary France may be a prototype of later genocides. The thud of the guillotine was a necessary precursor of a sense of "nation-state one-ness," in which all citizens enjoyed equal rights in a "new secular order" where disobedience, or exclusion, would be answered with death. This echoes Mann's arguments about the importance of communal identity, whether class or nation-based. But whatever the criteria for membership of the modern body politic, the wretched inhabitants of European colonies were not included. The contrast, Levene writes, between the absence of genocide in Europe before 1914 and "the crescendo of genocidal assaults in response to native resistance in Africa, Asia and the Pacific at the fin-de-siècle high point of the Western imperialist surge, is very noteworthy." These themes are examined in greater depth in Volume II, The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide. Here Levene ranges widely and insightfully, examining mass delusions, conspiracy theories, the rise and collapse of empires, and the cost of nationhood. Levene's predilection for academic base-touching and extended definitions of terms and arguments may prove tiresome for the nonspecialist reader. Nonetheless, if the following two volumes maintain the standards set here, his series will be a major contribution to the field of genocide studies.

Does it matter, then, whether General Krstic or Momcilo Krajisnik is found guilty of genocide rather than ethnic cleansing? Perhaps not. For despite Lemkin's codification and subsequent international jurisprudence, genocide, arguably, is not a distinctive phenomenon but merely the ultimate conclusion of ethnic cleansing, itself an age-old custom of human history. We may now be socialized not to kill, but many of us can also be reprogrammed without too much effort. In Warsaw in 1941, or Vukovar in 1991, the veneer of modern civilization was thin and easy to shatter. A manufactured sense of threat, a spreading sense of fear, the use of the broadcast media to spread hate and issue instructions, the identification of those with different surnames or religious faiths as a dehumanized "other," the provision of weapons--these are often sufficient to turn a proportion of everyday people into killers and torturers. Milan Kovacevic, the commander of Omarska, was no uneducated brute. He was an anesthetist and the director of Prijedor hospital. He later said: "What we did was not the same as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was a mistake. It was planned to have a camp for people, but not a concentration camp.... I cannot explain the loss of control.... You could call it collective madness." Kovacevic was eventually indicted for genocide and arrested. He died peacefully in his cell at the UN detention center in 1998. But even now, in Darfur, the collective madness continues. As Taner Akcam argues: "Every group is inherently capable of violence; when the right conditions arise this potential may easily become reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions." History, and today's headlines, prove both Kovacevic and Akcam right.

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