Review of Moses and Stone, eds, Colonialism and Genocide, for JGR, 2007

Posted: December 12, 2009 in genocide reviews

Dirk A. Moses and Dan Stone, editors, Colonialism and Genocide, London: Routledge, 2007, ISBN 0-415-40066-X

The relationship between colonialism and genocide is becoming an ever more important topic in genocide studies, and the republication in book form of this seminal issue of Patterns of Prejudice is a very welcome event. Although, as a collection of essays, this book does not advance a single thesis, it adds considerable historical and theoretical reinforcement to the growing trend to seek the roots of twentieth-century European genocide in nineteenth-century (and earlier) European colonization. Although the editors eschew any idea of an ‘overdetermined link’ between colonialism and genocide, and rightly emphasise the variety of colonial experience, so that ‘colonialism does not necessarily issue in genocide’, nevertheless they assert that ‘the two phenomena are profoundly connected’.

Although the authors refer to a large number of cases the main historical axis of this book connects the genocide of indigenous peoples in Australia and America with the ‘colonial’ dimension of the Holocaust. The volume contains Raphaël Lemkin’s very interesting reflections on Tasmania with a commentary by Ann Curtoys who has edited them for publication, while Jürgen Zimmerer continues the thrust of Lemkin’s main work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, with his ‘postcolonial’ exploration of the roots of the Ostland in earlier German colonial history in Africa. This central historical connection is extended historically by Philippe R. Girard’s provocative reflections on counter-colonial genocide in Haiti. However just as important in this volume are studies of colonial discourses, including Norbert Finzsch’s exploration of genocidal thought in Australia and America, Tony Barta’s impressive analysis of the racial origins of Charles Darwin’s thought – ‘Before Darwin understood species, he understood genocide’ – and Dan Stone’s critique of German anthropology and the Herero genocide. This strand is extended in Vinay Lal’s wide-ranging and sometimes polemical critique of the influence of European concepts of ‘development’ in a broad swathe of genocidal history.

The arguments are brought together in Dirk Moses’ important essay on ‘conceptual blockages and definitional dilemmas’. This critiques the structuring of the ‘Holocaust-indigenous genocide discourse’ as a ‘zero-sum game’, and disposes of the more extravagant claims on both sides of this argument, as well as ‘the stale debate between structure and agency’, before linking the two sets of experiences as ‘constituents of a unified process’. He calls therefore for ‘an account of European modernity that links nation-building, imperial competition and intra-national racial struggle to the ideologically driven catastrophes of the twentieth century.’ He concludes that ‘the hundred years roughly following 1850 can be conceptualized as the “racial century” whose basic feature was competition between rival projects of nation-building and “people making” (that is the fashioning of ethnically homogenous populations domestically) that culminated in the Holocaust of European Jewry and other racial minorities in the 1940s.’

The challenge that this book poses is therefore how to specify the colonialism-genocide link more precisely in a way that is valid across the wide range of colonial experiences, and Moses’ historical model of a ‘dynamic process’ linking colonial and European genocides is its most developed answer. Yet the book opens other avenues of research. One is whether ‘colonial’ ideas of superiority and inferiority, leading to dehumanization, whose deep-rootedness is well documented in the studies assembled here, are general features of genocide even outside straightforwardly colonial situations, so that we can view genocide as generally ‘colonizing’ in mentality. Lemkin’s idea of genocide as the replacement of one ‘national pattern’ by another gives support to this view, but it is not clear that it can be easily extended to the wider range of group destructions (including classes, political groups, etc.) that are now included within the scope of genocide.

Another question is how to conceptualize the relationships between genocidal and non-genocidal forms of colonialism. Moses has answered this question elsewhere with his idea of genocidal ‘moments’ in colonialism, but is this sufficient? We need a stronger steer on how and when colonialism develops as group destruction rather than domination or assimilation. Here Zimmerer’s case of Nazi policies in Eastern Europe is instructive. As he says, it is important to understand the Nazi programme for the conquered territories as one of ‘colonization’ rather than mere ‘occupation’. Does this then undermine Lemkin’s original assumption that Nazi occupation policies as a whole, in Western as well as Eastern Europe, can be understood as genocide? The colonizing drive was associated with vastly more destructive policies and fits more clearly with the logic of the genocide idea. Yet in Zimmerer’s proposal to substitute ‘colonialism’ for ‘occupation’ there is the danger of missing the importance of the initial military thrust for genocide. There is a case to argue that it is in colonization rather than colonialism in general that a genocidal momentum is strongest. Another connection, suggested in this book by Girard’s description of French responses to Haiti’s uprising and the genodical development of that rebellion, is that where there is resistance, and therefore armed struggle, colonialism is very likely to lead to genocide. Both of these connections remind that the age of empire led into the ‘century of total war’ (as Arthur Marwick called it) and that the war-genocide connections are another way of defining the ‘dynamic process’ of the period that is the centre of this debate.

A final question is whether Moses’ delimitation of this ‘century’ amounts to premature closure of the colonial question. Contemporary genocides involve what are effectively imperial and colonial projects: the programme of greater Indonesia led to genocidal colonization of East Timor, those of greater Serbia and greater Croatia led to colonizing genocides in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and an Arabizing greater Sudan has led to genocide in Darfur. Many contemporary states, not least China and Russia, are the inheritors of historic empires as well as modern totalitarianisms and are still quasi-imperial in their modes of rule in their peripheral regions. If we should see Nazism as a ‘colonizing’ force, should we not view Serbian or Sudanese nationalism in the same way?

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex


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