Human, All Too Human

Human, All Too Human

Current literature on genocide indicates that the horror unfolding in Darfur is only the newest example of a terrifying societal tendency.


In the winter of 1992, at the height of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I interviewed a group of Bosnian Muslim refugees who had found sanctuary in the Croatian city of Karlovac. Their accounts were confused and confusing, but they shared a common thread. One after another, the refugees reported that when the Serbs arrived in their towns and villages they immediately rounded up community and religious leaders, teachers and intellectuals. They were the first to be executed. I was not sure whether to believe these traumatized, shattered survivors. I should have.

It is one of history’s darker ironies that the Serb paramilitaries of the 1990s who wiped out Bosnia’s Ottoman heritage used ethnic cleansing methods honed by the Ottoman army eight decades earlier. The Turks deployed the Bashi-Bazouks, former criminals released from prison, during the Armenian genocide in 1915. The Bashi-Bazouks lived off plunder and were granted a free hand to murder and rape. When the campaign against the Armenians began, Turkish soldiers sealed off each community and rounded up its leaders and other notables. They then executed them in the public square. Many of the Serb paramilitaries who committed the worst atrocities in Bosnia were also criminals, released by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to do the regime’s dirtiest work. Like their Turkish predecessors, the Serbs too had lists, we now know, of those slated for execution when the ethnic cleansing began. The men of Karlovac were telling the truth.

Genocide, or what we now define as genocide–the intentional destruction of a national or ethnic group–is not a modern crime. The Bible records repeated incidents of the warring peoples of the Near East annihilating each other, but genocide is a modern term. It was invented by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. During the 1930s Lemkin lobbied the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, for laws against the destruction of a people. In 1944 he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, the first work to contain the word genocide, from genos, Greek for people or race, and caedere, Latin for to cut or kill. Paradoxically, while genocide continues to take place, the word has become so powerful that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it has almost become “the crime that dare not speak its name.”

Consider the strange, if not perverse, reluctance of one of the primary bodies charged with prosecuting war criminals to deliver a guilty verdict for genocide. Gen. Radislav Krstic was the commander of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army, which carried out much of the killing at Srebrenica, where in July 1995 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were murdered. Krstic was indicted by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1998 on six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. In August 2001 he was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to forty-six years in prison. But the sentence was later reduced on appeal, to thirty-five years, when the ICTY found Krstic guilty of the lesser charge of aiding and abetting genocide.

The former speaker of the Bosnian Serb “parliament” Momcilo Krajisnik was sentenced in September to twenty-seven years in prison for his role in organizing the ethnic cleansing campaigns in 1992. Krajisnik was the most senior Serbian indictee to be held at The Hague since the death of Milosevic. He was found guilty of five counts of war crimes, including persecution, extermination and forced transfer. Judge Alphons Orie said that Krajisnik had played a crucial role in conducting war crimes, and that the actus reus (guilty act) of genocide had occurred. Nevertheless, the judges acquitted Krajisnik of genocide, arguing that they had not received sufficient evidence of genocidal intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat ethnic groups. What this means is that the ICTY has ruled that genocide did take place at Srebrenica in July 1995 and in eastern Bosnia in 1992, but as of February 2007 no one has been found guilty of actually committing these acts of genocide. On February 26 the International Court of Justice, which deals with disputes between states, ruled that Serbia was not guilty of genocide but had failed in its obligations to prevent it at Srebrenica, further confusing matters.

Asimilarly arid debate shapes the discourse over Darfur. The Bush Administration claims that a genocide is occurring there but refuses to act under its obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to stop the killing. The UN refuses to use the G-word at all. In January 2005 it released a 176-page report on Darfur. It recorded that government forces and their proxy militia, known as the Janjaweed, engaged in widespread and systematic murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, pillaging and forced displacement. The report noted that despite the fact that two elements of genocide “might be deduced”–the act of killing and the targeting of a particular group–“the crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing.” As if that weren’t opaque enough, it added that some individuals may have committed acts with “genocidal intent.”

This endless hair-splitting greatly aids states that perpetrate genocide. If nobody knows what genocide is, then how can anyone be guilty of committing it? It detracts from the more important debate of how to stop the ongoing killing in Darfur. Wrongly viewing Darfur through the prism of the Iraq War, much of the left, both in the United States and Europe, seems paralyzed by the fear of being seen to support another overseas adventure. For all its complications–pre-existing conflicts over water and agricultural land, desertification and arbitrary international borders–the crisis in Darfur is also simple. The Sudanese government is waging a sustained campaign of murder, ethnic cleansing and displacement against the people of Darfur, a campaign extensively documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others. The slaughter could be curtailed or even brought to a close without Western military intervention. Such steps might include: deploying UN troops inside Sudan; deploying peacekeepers in Chad to prevent cross-border raids; targeted sanctions on Sudan’s oil industry; targeted sanctions on Sudanese government ministers, army and intelligence officers; using US trade as a weapon to pressure China, Sudan’s main sponsor, to stop the carnage; and even threats to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

The obfuscation of the facts also buttresses the determination of nations that have committed genocide to punish those few citizens who dare to speak out. Consider, for example, the case of Turkey, which still refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for the twentieth century’s first genocide. A major difference between the destruction of the Bosnians and that of the Armenians is that the former has been thoroughly documented–most thoroughly in the United Nations’ own reports. (Though unable to prevent or stop genocide, the UN is extremely proficient at documenting it, as evinced by its dossiers on Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.) Yet even now in Turkey, a country that seeks admission to the European Union, it remains hazardous to discuss the actual fate of the Armenians. In 1915, about 1 million Armenians were killed by deliberate murder, enforced starvation and forced marches into barren plains with no food or water. Turkey admits that between 300,000 and 600,000 Armenians died but blames the general chaos of war. Those who contradict the official version are dealt with harshly. The novelists Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Elif Shafak have both faced charges for the thought-crime of “insulting Turkishness,” which can bring three years in prison–Pamuk for telling a Swiss newspaper that “30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it,” Shafak because of a few lines about the genocide spoken by an Armenian character in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul [reviewed in this issue]. The charges were dropped in both cases, but more recently another writer accused of “insulting Turkishness”–Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos–was shot dead outside his Istanbul office.

Perhaps it is best that the Turkish historian Taner Akcam remain, at least for a while, at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches history. Pamuk referred to the genocide of the Armenians, but Akcam has documented it. A Shameful Act is an important work of record, comprehensively chronicling the destruction of the Armenians, its causes, unfolding and consequences. Richly sourced, Akcam’s book utilizes Ottoman materials and archives as well as American and German documents. He writes: “What remains in the Ottoman archives and in court records is sufficient to show that the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress, a k a Young Turks] Central Committee, and the Special Organization it set up to carry out its plan, did deliberately attempt to destroy the Armenian population.”

Here, at least, there seems no doubt about the question of genocidal “intent.” Akcam swiftly demolishes the argument that Armenians were slaughtered because they had organized an uprising against the authorities. What resistance there was came about because of the deportations, not the other way around. The uprising in Urfa in October 1915, for example, was launched by Armenians deported from Van and Diyarbakir, since Urfa was a stop on the deportation route.

Yet the genocide of the Armenians, as horrific as it was, was not an end in itself, Akcam argues. It was part of a process of “homogenizing” the new Turkish state-to-be. Kurds and Arabs, Greeks and Assyrians, were also ethnically cleansed at this time, although not exterminated. This process was completed in 1923 when Greece and Turkey compulsorily swapped their minorities, thus uprooting perhaps 2 million people from the homelands where they had lived for centuries. Just as Milosevic’s Greater Serbia could be built only on the ashes of multiethnic Yugoslavia, so the new state envisioned by the Young Turks demanded the destruction of the multinational Ottoman Empire–an empire that, for all its faults, had allowed different communities and minorities to live alongside one another for centuries.

In Terrible Fate, Benjamin Lieberman also traces the rise of ethnic cleansing and mass murder to the collapse of empire: “As empires broke apart into nation-states, processes of ethnic cleansing and even genocide moved or eliminated many of the people who had once lived under imperial rule.” The great merit of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires was that they were not nation-states but a diversity of nations with a common citizenship. But what was once their strength also doomed them, for Vienna and Constantinople had no means of accommodating the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism, whether Hungarian, Serbian, Greek or Arab. Lieberman, a professor of history at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, has written a lively, panoramic work with a fine eye for the human story. Using contemporary accounts, eyewitness statements and diplomatic records, he examines the Balkan wars of the late nineteenth century, the two world wars, the Holocaust, the mass deportation of the Germans from Eastern Europe, the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the continuing fallout of the Ottoman Empire in Israel-Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq.

Lieberman argues persuasively that an intellectual focus on ethnic cleansing, rather than nation-building, generates a dramatic shift in our understanding of contemporary history. Ethnic cleansing has repeatedly proved a necessary component of twentieth-century nation-building: “The story of the rise of the nation-state, a triumph of self-determination, becomes a story of tragedy for those who were driven out.” Among his examples is the Palestinian exodus of 1948, and the creation of the State of Israel. Historians still argue vociferously over how many Palestinians were expelled, evacuated or simply fled in panic. Lieberman sidesteps this, arguing that their exodus was not unique. Quite the opposite, in fact: “The Arab departures from Israel seem mysterious only if viewed in isolation from all comparable examples. Ethnic war in other former Ottoman regions had displaced entire peoples, and ethnic war in Israel and Palestine had much the same effect, though this war left some Arabs in Israel.”

Lieberman writes movingly about one of the least reported instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history: the expulsion of the ethnic Germans of Eastern Europe after the defeat of the Third Reich. Perhaps 12 million people fled or were ethnically cleansed, the single largest population movement in modern European history.

For years this remained a taboo subject inside Germany, the preserve of right-wing expellees’ groups, and even now it remains delicate. Günter Grass’s 2002 novel Crabwalk, which recounts the sinking of the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945, finally forced the Volksdeutsch exodus into the public arena. But in neighboring countries there is a sense that the ethnic Germans got what they deserved. The Germans of the Sudetenland had ushered Hitler’s army into Czechoslovakia. The Swabians of Hungary helped keep the country’s wartime ruler, Adm. Miklós Horthy, in the Axis when he began to waver and consider joining the Allies.

Yet how many of the Volksdeutsch were guilty of war crimes? The exodus brought to an end historic European communities: The Saxons of Romania, the Danube Swabians and the Prussians of the Baltic coast have now all but vanished. The victors were sometimes murderous: Czech soldiers seized a train filled with German refugees, ordered them off and shot 265 of them. In Komotau, in northwest Bohemia, Czech forces ordered the entire male population aged between 13 and 65 to the town square and made 100 men remove their clothes, sing the German national anthem and proclaim, “We thank our Führer.” A dozen or so were then beaten to death.

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.

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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