Review of Stone, ed., The Historiography of Genocide and Bloxham, Genocide, The World Wars and the Unweaving of Europe, for JGR, 2008

Posted: December 12, 2009 in genocide reviews, Uncategorized

Dan Stone, ed., The Historiography of Genocide. Basingstoke and New York:  Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008, 640 pp.  ISBN 978 1 4039 9219 2 (cloth).

Donald Bloxham, Genocide, The World Wars and the Unweaving of Europe, London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008, 268 pp.  ISBN 978 0 85303 720 0 (cloth),  978 0 85303 721 7 (paper).

History is the key to genocide studies and non-historians depend fundamentally on the historiography. Yet it is evident from the division of Dan Stone’s collection into chapters on ‘concepts’ and ‘case studies’ that the historiography of genocide should be understood in a broad sense. In our field historians cannot avoid the importance of conceptual questions (on which lawyers and social scientists have also much to say) and an important part of their work is the historiography of ideas of genocide, which in turn influences the interpretation of cases.

Thus Stone’s book comes close to being an overview of genocide studies as a whole (it includes, for example, a chapter by legal scholar William Schabas on international prosecutions), and it can be evaluated on two levels. First, taken as a survey of existing knowledge and our attempts to understand, it provides essential reference points for scholars and guides for students.  Although there is some unevenness across the 22 surveys of themes and cases, most are extremely thorough and authoritative. As a whole the volume is more comprehensive than any of the major single-authored works which have appeared in recent years; it achieves its goal of providing guides to the literature as well as to the historical record. (From this point of view a paperback edition is essential.) Second, the book enables us to evaluate the state of genocide historiography and studies. It shows us the deep contradictions between we may call the old genocide studies and the new approaches which themselves face formidable challenges in developing coherent historical interpretations.

Ann Curthoys and John Docker, in an enlightening survey of the definitional debate, show how the Genocide Convention, while influenced by Raphael Lemkin’s ideas, was framed more narrowly than his understanding and has been succeeded by a large literature which has enabled us to expand on his views in richer ways, so that ‘[t]he idea of genocide as wide-ranging and linked to colonialism, articulated by Lemkin, Sartre, and Barta among others, has become an increasingly influential position.’ (p.33) A further development is indicated in Dirk Moses’ magisterial survey of ideas on genocide and modernity, concluding with Mark Levene’s idea that it is the international system, with its spread of the nation-state to all hemispheres, which has globalized genocide. Ian Talbot provides a good illustration of the latter in the mutual destruction of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the 1947 Partition of India, carried out by paramilitaries linked into parts of the competing power structures ; his cogent case for recognising its genocidal character exemplifies Curthoys’ and Docker’s ‘wider’ concept as well as Levene’s thesis. This new genocide studies also comes through in Tony Barta’s six-point programme, including ‘broadening of genocide historiography into new structural and dialectical perspectives’ and ‘connection of European colonial genocides to the twentieth-century genocides carried out in Europe itself’ (p.298); in Jürgen Zimmerer’s examination of the continuity between the Herero-Nama genocide in South West Africa and the Nazi genocide, which highlights the latter kind of linkage; and in Donald Bloxham and Fatma Müge Göçek’s chapter on the Armenian genocide links it to the wider attacks on Christian groups and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Balkan Muslims.

Yet a programme for analytical progress is not consistently pursued. Too many contributors still make the Convention their analytical benchmark – for example, Robert M. Hayden (on Bosnia) not only takes his stand on it, but uses a narrow interpretation to critique the International Criminal Tribunal’s finding that genocide was committed at Srebrenica, instead of investigating how that massacre fitted the general destructive pattern of Serbian policy towards Bosnian Muslims. Here the ‘widening’ agenda to which many other contributors subscribe, albeit often cautiously, has got lost altogether. More fundamentally for the book’s project, although Stone (p.2) cites Levene’s maxim that we must do more than engage in ‘comparative genocide studies’, this book too often seems to revert to discrete ‘case studies’ rather than forward to the ‘general, empirically informed statements about genocide as such’ which he advocates. Perhaps this is because this is where the literature mostly is, but there is also a methodological problem: generalizations still seem to be understood as the sort of conclusions to be synthesised from single case studies, rather than involving complex, relational study of linkages between genocides and of patterns of genocide to larger historical structures.

In much of this book, relational approaches still have too little purchase. Stone’s own fine survey of Holocaust historiography notes that the resistance to linkage with genocide studies is beginning to be overcome. But he fails to go very far down the road of examining the Nazi genocide as a whole, looking at both the successive phases of anti-Jewish policy and the Nazis’ other destructive programmes within a single frame, let alone relating them to other genocides. Here Bloxham’s new book – a set of essays complementing his pathbreaking The Great Game of Genocide (Oxford University Press, 2007) – goes much further. It takes its title from the ‘unweaving’, as the expulsion of Muslims in late 19th century Ottoman Europe is known in Turkish memory. Bloxham underlines that he is more interested in ‘contextual ‘ than in abstractly comparative study. (p.7) Hence for him the ‘very real interconnections’ between the different episodes of Nazi genocide are important to understanding each (p.116). His text bristles with connections: from the Armenian genocide and Stalin’s 1930s policies to Hitler’s genocide, and from the latter to the expulsions of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after 1945, Bloxham finds ‘conceptual and even causal links’. Details such as that ‘the eviction of more than 200,000 ethnic Germans from Hungary from 1945 (were) conducted by many of the same Hungarian personnel as had helped deport Jews in 1944’ (p. 122) help to link processes that have been seen many as categorically, as well as historically, discrete.

Yet although Bloxham offered us an overarching picture of post-Ottoman genocide in The Great Game, in Genocide, The World Wars and the Unweaving of Europe he does not yet give us an overall account of genocide in the Second World War and its aftermath. Just as neither Stone nor Nicholas Werth (in his valuable critical analysis of Stalin’s genocides) make more than passing connections between the Nazi and Stalinist genocides – despite their empirical intersection in Poland in 1939-41 and their mutual framing by the struggle of the German, Soviet and other empires in the Second World War – Bloxham has yet to integrate Stalin’s genocides thoroughly into his account. Likewise, neither his nor Stone’s volume makes the connections between wartime and post-war genocides, and between the latter and the history of the Convention itself. Yet Werth points out (The Historiography, p. 413) that on 26 November 1948, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR ruled that the Chechens, Ingush, Tartars, etc. whose societies Stalin had destroyed through brutal deportation and extensive loss of life, should be punished ‘in perpetuity’. Only two weeks after ratifying this genocide (as Werth rightly sees it), Soviet representatives in the United Nations voted for the Convention which they had helped draft. Indeed as the UN voted on 9 December 1948 it had been a bumper year for genocide, with UN member-states to the fore: the USSR together with its Polish and Czechoslavak allies had more or less completed the expulsion of 12 million Germans, with the loss of maybe half a million lives (Bloxham, p.122); India and Pakistan had consolidated the mutual destruction of the Partition; and the new state of Israel had destroyed most of Arab society in Palestine. In all these processes, the United States and Britain had been deeply complicit, and the UN itself had provided, in its partition plan, the legitimation for Israel’s actions.

A relational approach to genocide should therefore lead us, ultimately, to a comprehensive account of genocidal complexes in international relations, rather than the commoner national ‘case study’ approach. Yet just as genocide historians, other than Bloxham, have paid too little attention to international history, so International Relations scholars have paid almost no attention to genocide. And there is a danger of simplification in Levene’s idea that ‘the international system’ causes genocide: international relations are subject to constant change and the inter-imperial system that generated the classic genocides has been superseded first by the Cold War system and now by the post-Cold War, ‘global’ system. An adequate historiography of genocide will need to map its implication in these changing complexes of international power and armed conflict, a task begun piecemeal in Ben Kiernan’s chapter on Cambodia and Scott Straus’ on Rwanda, in Stone’s book, but which needs more general international perspectives as well as case studies.

Martin Shaw

University of Sussex


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