Archive for May, 2013

The difficulties of serious debate about Palestine: this short commentary has just appeared in Holy Land Studies (12, 1, 2013, 1-8; below is a draft version). The same issue includes an excellent piece by Farid Abdel-Nour, ‘From Critic to Cheerleader: The Clarifying Example of Benny Morris’ “Conversion”‘, the clarification being relevant to all who try to square the events of 1948 with their moral and political commitments. 

I wrote in this journal about ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’ (Holy Land Studies, 9:1, 1-25). The reaction to the article has shown the possibility of serious debate among scholars transcending political differences – but also how political interests can trump intellectual coherence in academic circles concerned with these issues.

A serious intellectual response came in my email exchange with the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, published in the Journal of Genocide Research (12:3-4, 2010, 243-59). Among many points, Bartov took issue with what he called my ‘conflation’ of ‘ethnic cleansing’ with genocide, which he saw as an unacceptable broadening of the latter concept. He offered some plausible historical counterpoints, for example the threats to Jewish as well as Arab society in Palestine during the 1948 war. However at two points he made rather surprising comments. First, he introduced the question of the Palestinian right of return, implying that in the light of my argument I must regard Palestinian claims as superior to those of other victims of expulsion. Endorsing Israel’s need to prevent Palestinian return in order to maintain the Jewish character of the Israeli state, Bartov asked rhetorically: ‘What makes their Nakba “better” from all others? If Germans from the Volga and the Sudetenland settled down in Freiburg why could Palestinians not settle down in Damascus?’ Secondly, he concluded his final response with the allegation that ‘the argument of Israeli genocide of the Palestinians is clearly meant to delegitimize the state and to say that it was born in the blood of innocents and should therefore also go down in blood.’ He added, ‘You do not make peace with people by telling them that they have no right to exist because they were born in sin.’ In fact, I had not even referred to the right of return (although I believe that in principle all expelled populations can claim this), and the last thing I intended to say was that Israel should ‘go down in blood’. Yet in the end Bartov was incapable of interpreting my suggestion that we should frame the removal of the Palestinians as ‘genocide’ other than in these emotive terms.

Bartov’s comments were moderate compared with what followed, notably a splenetic outburst from Israel W. Charny on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Charny, a past president of IAGS, runs Genocide Prevention Now which focuses primarily on the ‘genocide threat’ of the possible Iranian development of nuclear weapons to Israeli Jews. After reading my exchange with Bartov (it is not clear that he read my Holy Land Studies article), he accused me, directly or indirectly, of ‘insincerity’, ‘a delusional projection of an angry soul’, being ‘a prejudiced genocide scholar’, violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’, utilizing ‘a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide’, ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’, and following (whether I am ‘anti-Semitic or not’) the ‘primary form/outlet’ of ‘contemporary anti-Semitism’. In sum, Charny accused me of prejudiced scholarship; he tarred me with both anti-Semitism and Holocaust/genocide denial; and he even psycho-pathologized me. Not surprisingly, the IAGS executive apologised for the publication of these comments, but they were picked up by the US Jewish newspaper, Forward, making the issue a minor cause célèbre.

These responses ultimately interpreted my article in terms of the politics of genocide recognition, neglecting its intellectual core, so here I restate it more sharply. My target was not benign views of Zionist policies in 1948; I assumed that these were already discredited. Rather it was the widespread assumption of critical scholars that Palestine represented primarily a case of settler-colonial genocide, comparable to (for example) the destruction of Indigenous Australian societies. I argued that we should also see the 1948 destruction of most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine in the context of East European nationalism – which had lain behind so much genocide in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and had peaked in the Second World War – and of the battles of decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century. To put it more concisely than I did in the original article: the Naqba brought together elements that can be found in other cases, but elsewhere were often separated in time. It was the concentrated outcome of no less than three modern patterns that produced genocide: settler colonialism; European nationalism; and the competition for control of independent statehood as European empires retreated.

And yet because of this combination, the case of Israel and the Palestinian Arab population appears highly distinctive in relation to each pattern. Considered as settler colonialism, Zionist was an unusual late case. European colonisation was everywhere a multinational process, but normally there was an imperial power and a settler core was recruited from its nationals. Jewish settlers in Palestine were different in that they although they constituted the majority of the European population, they established themselves under empires (Ottoman and British) with which they had no organic national connection. Palestinian Arabs, too, were unusual indigenes: they had not lived in their own polities, like peoples in the Americas, Australia and much of Africa, but as part of the Muslim majority in the Ottoman empire. The lateness of the Zionists’ colonial enterprise would lead them to seek wider international sponsorship; Palestinians had access the potent ideas of nationalism spreading in the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century.

Considered as a case of late 19th/early 20th century East European nationalism, Zionism was exceptional in not aiming to consolidate and expand its people’s existing homeland into a nation-state. Although the impetus for Jewish nationalism came, as with others, from the situation in their East European homelands, Zionists were ready to abandon places where Jews had been large minorities and even locally majorities for centuries – in the Middle East as well as Europe – in order to colonise Palestine where initially they were a tiny minority. Whereas other East European nationalists expelled and murdered their longstanding neighbours, Zionists ended up expelling new neighbours among whom they had only recently established themselves. These expulsions were not linked to national fascism and aggressive war, as in many European cases, but – much more like the simultaneous Czechoslovak and Polish removals of the Germans – to ‘counter-genocidal’ politics and Soviet, British and US sponsorship. However unlike Czechoslovak and Polish policies, Zionist motives hardly involved revenge, as Palestinians were not seriously complicit in the Jewish genocide.

Considered as a case of decolonization, Zionism was also unusual. Despite their lack of an organic connection with the British empire, Zionists aspired nonetheless to present themselves as its natural heirs. Britain had committed itself to a Jewish national home, but it was ambivalent about the Zionist bid to monopolise land, wealth and power in Palestine, and it prioritised its own interests as decolonisation loomed. Zionists were not unusual in having, in the end, to fight the empire that protected them (so did Algerian and Rhodesian colons), but they were unique in lacking traditional national leverage in the imperial nation. They would compensate for this by seeking the protection of the United Nations, and as pioneers of the ethnic lobby in US domestic politics.

Among the reasons that Zionist critics have given for rejecting the genocide frame are the low civilian casualties among Palestinian Arabs as a result of direct Zionist violence against them in 1948. A death toll of around 5,000 is generally accepted, compared to 750,000 people removed, a relatively low ratio suggesting that killing was a spur and aid to expulsion rather than an end in itself. This point was, of course, acknowledged in my original article, and explained as a result of the type of genocide that destroys the attacked society (most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine) without killing most of its individual members. This is the most common type: cases like the Holocaust and Rwanda where violence escalates to all-out mass murder are the exception. So that far from it being unusual to frame the Palestinian case in this way, it places it alongside a large number of historical episodes and contemporary cases like Bosnia and Darfur. Relatedly, critics have pointed out that a substantial Palestinian population remained in Israel after 1948 and has continued up to the present day. This too is not so unusual: neither Bosnia nor Darfur has seen total population removal either.

The international historical perspective offered suggests reasons for both the occurrence of this type of genocide in Palestine and why it would produce the contradictory situation that has now persisted for six-and-a-half decades. The lateness of Zionist colonization, its expansionary ambitiousness compared to the consolidating projects of other East European nationalisms, and its lack of organic imperial protection all made the removal of Palestinians higher-risk than many genocidal projects. Israel was dependent on the support of the UN and its great powers, and that was also a constraint. Many European nationalist genocides had been carried out under the cover of general European and world war; Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society responded to a short window of opportunity offered by the 1948 war. Although Palestinians were weakly organized in that year, the Naqba and their ongoing persecutions under Israeli rule and later occupation eventually catalysed a strong national consciousness, in turn a key reference point for wider Arab nationalism and later Islamism. All this has ensured an ongoing struggle in which Palestinians can provoke but not overthrow Israeli power; Israel can military defeat but not politically subdue Palestinians.

Within the long political and military conflicts there have been subdued but continuing genocidal dynamics, to which I referred only passingly in my original article. Israel has constantly extended the confiscation of Palestinian land and the removal of Palestinians themselves from various parts of the West Bank: a slow-motion, piecemeal consolidation of the dramatic, large-scale destruction of Arab society in 1948. Powerful elements within Israeli politics push towards further ‘transfer’, or forcible removal, of Israeli Arabs – while accentuating the racially Jewish character built into the state since its foundation – fearing that Palestinian birth-rates and national consciousness will destabilize its heavily fortified but ultimately precarious edifice. Yet the push towards expulsion has ultimately been constrained, so far, by Israel’s dependence on a range of international support that will tolerate its violence when it appears to have some connection with Israel’s military security, but might be spooked by wholesale attacks on the existing Israeli Arab population.

So, as I suggested in my article, genocide has long been overall a subordinate theme in the Palestine-Israel conflict, which has overall seen mainly degenerate warfare, with widespread civilian targetting supposedly serving military goals on both sides. Futile attacks by Palestinian armed groups on Israelis help provoke more extensive and lethal violence against Palestinians by Israel. The resulting wars may at times become partially genocidal when certain civilian groups (like the Gaza police in 2009) are specifically targeted for destruction. But so far this tendency has been contained. Rhetorically, of course, the ‘genocide wars’ with which I began my article continue in full spate, ratcheted up with the aid of President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and wild anti-Israeli rhetoric into the spectre of a ‘second Holocaust’ that haunts the speeches of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the propaganda of his ‘genocide-scholar’ accomplices.

The only presently forseeable circumstance in which genocide is likely to become, once again, a major theme in Israeli-Palestinian relations is if the Israeli campaign against Iran succeeds in provoking a serious regional war. Not only might an Israeli strike contain genocidal elements (for example, general targeting of groups of Iranian scientists along with nuclear facilities), but a serious Iranian counter-attack on Israel could provide the cover the Israeli right needs to start implementing its wilder ideas of ‘transfer’. Despite the combustible state of regional relations as I write in late 2012, exacerbated by the Syrian crisis, it seems unlikely that a general war would develop. However if Israeli-US overreach did provoke such a development, it might ironically also begin to produce the serious threat to its own society that is currently only a figment of Iranian rhetoric and Israeli ideology.

A new piece just published in the journal e-International Relations

Although most International Relations scholars recognise in principle the historical variability of their subject matter, IR theory is often written as though relatively timeless qualities of the modern international system are the most significant. The system is commonly described as ‘Westphalian’, as though the principles of sovereignty established by the 1648 treaty have defined its fundamental structure to this day. Although this understanding has been described as a ‘myth’ from a Marxist perspective (Teschke 2006), and scholarship from the English School (e.g. Buzan and Little 2000) has increasingly offered historically richer understandings, systematic integration of macro-historical perspective and international theory remains relatively rare. On the other side, although international historians offer voluminous interpretations of the recent past of international relations, most are deterred by the pervasive empiricism of historical studies from theorizing macro-historical frameworks.

IR’s problem with history is, of course, a variant of a common problem of the social sciences, long answered in principle by Max Weber’s (2011 [1949]) proposal for a division of labour between the generalizing, concept-producing social sciences and a historical field concerned with explaining particular events and patterns. This left, of course, the question of how the division was to be bridged. Answering mid-twentieth-century’s sociology’s own version of the grand theory-empiricism dilemma, C. Wright Mills (1959) proposed that the social sciences should focus on mid-range, macro- and meso-historical trends. Mills’ answer has informed the sub-field of historical sociology, some of whose practitioners (like Michael Mann 1986, 1993, 2012) have tackled international change and have stimulated proposals (e.g. Hobden and Hobson 2002) that historical sociology is the answer to IR’s theory-history problem.

Historical sociology frames international relations together with social relations in general, refusing the exaggerated separation of international from domestic relations that has been the hallmark, not only of realist, but also of some constructivist IR.

So far however, historical-sociological interpretations of international relations have been modest in scope. Moreover, like historical sociology in general, historical-sociological IR has often focused on earlier periods of modernity and offers little direct assistance with the task of framing the present that is the focus of most IR research. This is a serious lacuna because history comprises the present and the future as well as the past. The idea that only the past can be studied historically is fallacious because history is the interconnection of all three phases: our relationship with the past is mediated by our present concerns and future projections as much as the latter are laden with ideas of what has happened before.

As an example of these challenges and possibilities of historical-sociological IR, I outline my latest study of the problem of genocide (Shaw 2013). This is generally the subject of interdisciplinary study, in which concepts developed in international law and by sociologists have been deployed mainly by historians studying specific cases. The field suffers, however, from a domestic fallacy, according to which even episodes like the Holocaust – in which Nazi Germany destroyed Jewish and other populations mainly conquered through international war – are frequently described as ‘domestic’ genocides. The stage is then set for a definition of the field as the comparative study of discrete national episodes, which are studied transhistorically rather than in historical international contexts. Thus the Holocaust and Rwanda have frequently been compared in the literature, rather than the former being linked to Stalinist and other genocide in Europe during the Second World War, or the latter to genocide elsewhere in the African Great Lakes in the late twentieth century.

IR has been a late-comer to this topic, as to most, and has adapted to this domestication of genocide by conceptualizing the international relations of genocide primarily in terms of the responses of Western powers and international organizations to the domestically-produced genocides of authoritarian and failed non-Western states. A few IR-influenced studies (e.g. Midlarsky 2005) have proposed that the production of genocide should also be studied in international context, but the idea has not been followed through in a systematic way. Rather, the running has been made by historians, primarily those working on colonization, who have confronted the evident difference between the diverse patterns of often small-scale ‘colonial genocides’, over several centuries and continents, from the European stereotype derived from the Holocaust. Mark Levene (2005) has proposed that the international system, in the Westphalian sense, is generally implicated in genocide. However, I argue that it is not the system, in the most general sense, but particular historical complexes of international relations – such as the one international historian Donald Bloxham (2007) examines in ‘the great game of genocide’ in south-eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – which are determining.

My study starts from the premise that genocide (which I define as the targeted destruction of civilian population groups) is chameleon-like, in the sense that Clausewitz described war, changing its nature as well as its appearances from one period to the next. In this perspective, I develop a narrative of genocide in a relatively short historical frame, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, and identify substantial changes in this period. Just as genocide changed between colonial contexts and contexts of imperial crisis in Europe in the early twentieth century, it changed again in the Cold War, decolonizing and post-colonial genocide of the late twentieth century. It is mutating once more in the state-fragmenting, civil war-linked and democratizing genocide of the twenty-first century. Where the early twentieth century saw as statization of genocide, later developments have seen destatization, with non-state actors increasingly important components of complex coalitions of state and non-state actors. I examine different types of international structuring of genocide: for example, the regional generalization of genocide in Europe resulting from the global war-system of 1939-45, and the more limited patterns resulting from the regional war-system in former Yugoslavia and transnational, refugee-fuelled conflicts in the Great Lakes and elsewhere in Africa.

My thesis is therefore that different patterns of genocide are broadly synchronized with major historical changes in the international system. I focus on two important transitions, from the inter-imperial to the Cold War system, and from the latter to the post-Cold War global system. I examine the patterns of genocide in the three periods defined by these watersheds: the climax of inter-imperial conflict in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century; the period of the Cold War, decolonization and post-colonial states in the second half; and the post-Cold War period of global democratization and international institutional-building. I pay particular attention to the transitional phases themselves: the immediate post-1945 years of international order-making in which the Genocide Convention itself was adopted; and the post-1989 years in which hopes of global genocide-prevention were raised. I argue that each of the three main periods shows sharply different patterns of genocide, which can be related to the different characters of the international system. I support this by contending that transition periods in the international system are also periods of transition in the history of genocide, in which projects for overcoming genocide have been dwarfed by new manifestations of the problem.

Without the historical perspective at the core of this study, it would, I contend, be difficult even to identify the changing forms of genocide. It would be even more difficult to offer a coherent explanation of diverse and complex patterns, and to make sense of their relationships to the international system. Without the thick concept of the system which a historical-sociological perspective offers, it would be difficult to connect the anarchy of inter-state relations to patterns of violence. This kind of historical-sociological IR perspective involves more, however, than a connection of international relations theory with international history, although historical work forms an invaluable resource. In approaching the present and future, as my study does, the work carried out by other social scientists (political scientists, sociologists, geographers and anthropologists) becomes more important than that of historians. A historically framed IR needs to be historical-sociological if it is to fully grasp the questions of transformation which must lie at its heart, and it needs to enrich international theory from a variety of sources.

Professor Martin Shaw is a sociologist of global politics, war and genocide, currently Research Professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), and Professorial Fellow in International Relations and Human Rights at the University of Roehampton, London. He is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex and writes regularly at


Bloxham, D. (2007) The Great Game of Genocide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buzan, B. and Little, R. (2000) International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobson, J. and Hobden, S,. (2002) Historical Sociology of International Relations.

Levene, M. (2005) The Meaning of Genocide. London: I.B. Tauris.

Midlarsky, M. (2005) The Killing Trap. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mann, M. (1986, 1993, 2012) The Sources of Social Power. 3 volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shaw, M. (2013) Genocide and International Relations: Changing Patterns in the Upheavals of the Late Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Teschke, B. (2006) The Myth of 1648. London: Verso.

Weber, M. (2011 [1949]) The Methodology of the Social Sciences. New Brunswick: Transaction.

New review for the LSE Review of Books

Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection. Mary Kaldor, Henrietta L. Moore and Sabine Selchow (eds). Palgrave Macmillan. 2012.


Global civil society is an idea of the period since the end of the Cold War: it has reformulated the old idea of civil society for the new global era. The original concept had, of course, several previous incarnations: once a synonym for the free market economy, it was influentially reshaped by Antonio Gramsci as an idea of the social space beyond both state and market, and most recently was transformed as the theme of movements for change in Stalinist Eastern Europe. This last incarnation helped shape its importance for progressive thinking after the Cold War, and the 1990s saw the global version take wing as a major concept of the social sciences. Here it mainly captured the possibilities of transnational social movements and non-governmental organisations to extend the reach of traditional national civil society into the burgeoning arenas of global politics.

By the turn of the millennium it seemed that global civil society’s time had come, and on the initiative of Mary Kaldor, long associated with civil society ideas in the 1980s peace and democracy movements, the London School of Economics provided the base from which the ambitious series of Global Civil Society Yearbooks was launched. From the start, the creative tension between the normative and analytical functions of the idea was evident. Yet few could have predicted that within days of the first publication in late 2001, the 9/11 attacks would have drastically reshaped world politics and radically challenged the assumptions of secular growths in globality and civility. This was the first of three world shocks that have punctuated the Yearbook’s first decade, to be followed in 2008 by the financial crisis and in 2011 by the Arab Spring. All three have changed the terms in which global society has been thought about and reshaped the original normative-analytical tension.

The Yearbook has survived these challenges and others closer to home (not least its movement between three publishers over the decade). It now celebrates its tenth edition, the first in which neither of Kaldor’s founding co-editors, Helmut Anheier and Marlies Glasius, joins her in producing the volume, although they combine with her to offer an introductory balance-sheet of their subject and their decade of joint work. They open with the Middle Eastern events of 2011, and the claim that “however these events unfold, an active civil society has begun a movement for democracy across the region.” They insist on civil society’s non-violent character, but warn of “low-level pervasive violence” where states fail to restrain it. It is a pitfall of the yearbook format, especially when it offers an annual review, to be overtaken by events: clearly the authors did not foresee the horrors of the Syrian war in 2012-13. Yet the commentary demonstrates a consistent feature of the editorial steer, the combination of optimism about the possibilities of civil society organisation to weaken authoritarianism with a realistic understanding that violence is rarely far away.

In a defining chapter of this volume, Kaldor evaluates the vicissitudes of the principles of humanitarian protection in the face of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and Libya. She ends on a cautiously optimistic note, hoping that “the end of the decade of the War on Terror will open up space for the revival of the humanitarian idea.”

Yet for Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius, and indeed for the many contributors to this as to previous volumes, these directly political and military contexts are only part of the evolving story of global civil society. President George W. Bush’s anti-terror campaign may have crystallised a ‘regressive globalism’ – of which violent Islamism was another face – as I put it in a contribution to the 2003 volume. But civil society has continued to expand and renew itself in many ways that do not depend on the macro-political context, and a valuable function of the Yearbook has always been to chart and explore the changing patterns.

The 2000s have been the decade of both alter-globalisation and an ongoing search for economic alternatives to the discredited financial order exposed by the economic crisis, which has led to a veritable depression in much of Europe including the UK. These issues are represented here by thoughtful chapters by Robin Murray and Geoffrey Pleyers. But perhaps above all, from a long-term perspective, they were the decade in which the internet became the prime means through which civil society was simultaneously expressed and further globalised. A chapter by Kaldor’s new co-editors, Henrietta Moore and Sabine Selchow, examines the implications of this shift and suggests that it is rebuilding the “island of meaning” in terms of which the Yearbook initially conceptualised global civil society.

Thinking through the implications of this development, it is evident that the perspective with which Kaldor and her collaborators have approached global civil society over the last decade has not only captured an essential question of our times, but has confronted issues that will only become more central to world society throughout the twenty-first century. We must hope that the Yearbook will still be with us in some form – perhaps itself online in a more comprehensive way than its present Facebook page – to help us interpret the radical social changes that globalisation will continue to bring.

Martin Shaw, Genocide and International Relations coverI have now finished the final corrections to Genocide and International Relations, and Cambridge University Press expect to have copies available in October. This book moves on from the conceptual focus of What is Genocide? (2007) to develop an interpretation of historical and contemporary patterns.

With the subtitle Changing Patterns in the Upheavals of the Late Modern World, the book looks at the changes in the conditions that produce genocide, its locations and forms, in the course of the last century. Whereas most of the literature presents genocide as a series of discrete episodes exhibiting similar features, my book emphasises the linkages between episodes in regional, international contexts, and the mutable, chameleon-like quality of genocide.

In particular I argue – hence the title – that genocide has changed with changes in international relations, from the colonial genocides of the nineteenth century and earlier to the European genocide of the first half of the twentieth century, and from the latter to the Cold War, decolonizing and post-colonial genocide of the later part of the century, and finally the genocidal violence of messy civil wars and electoral conflicts that characterizes the present period.

A particular feature of the book is its critical focus on the international transitions, after 1945 and 1989, which have given rise to projects for overcoming genocide. These transitions, I argue, have involved shifts in the patterns and contexts of genocide, not decisive transcendence.

This book is framed by a critique of dominant trends in genocide studies. It argues that the field has been compromised by the idea that genocide in general, like the Holocaust, is a ‘sacred evil’ type of violence, so that a key goal of scholarship is to underpin claims to genocide-recognition.

I criticise the narrow vision of comparative genocide studies in which genocide is viewed mainly as a ‘domestic’ phenomenon of states. In contrast, my study emphasises the international contexts of genocide, seeking to specify more precisely the changing relationships between genocide and the international system.

You can preorder by following this link;

Genocide and International Relations: Changing Patterns in the Upheavals of the Late Modern World.

A draft of my review of this important new book, published this month in the Journal of Genocide Research, 15, 2, 2013.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. New York: Harper, 2012.

What happened in Spain in the 1930s has hardly been reckoned with in that country even eight decades afterwards. However, it is also underestimated in prevailing Western scholarly understandings of twentieth-century history, which tend to see the Spanish events as a tragic prelude to the main global struggle that broke out in 1939, just after Francisco Franco’s Nationalists had consolidated their seizure of power. It is particularly neglected in genocide studies, which tend to depict genocide in the 1948 Convention’s terms as an attack on ethnic, national, racial and religious groups, and hardly recognize the genocidal character of attacks on politically and class-defined populations.

Thus we think about the Spanish events primarily as a ‘civil war’, and remind ourselves that such wars are particularly brutal, an idea recently encapsulated in Stathis Kalyvas’s idea that there is a particular type of ‘civil war violence’ that civilians help to produce through their centrality to the dissemination of information and the settling of local scores. This may well be true. But this challenging new book by Paul Preston, the foremost English-speaking historian of 1930s Spain, suggests that much more was at stake.

The events of 1936-1939 were more than a civil war. Rather, the military rebellion against the Republic involved an attempt to exterminate the left in Spain, not only in a political sense, by destroying its Republican, Socialist, Anarchist and Communist parties, but in a social sense, by destroying all movements of exploited workers and agricultural labourers seeking to improve their generally wretched living conditions. The rebellion, after half a decade of ‘social war’, was an enterprise by a large section of the military’s upper ranks, aided and abetted by substantial sections of the rightwing parties, Church and property-owning classes, to put a definitive end to what they saw as a ‘Bolshevik-Jewish-Freemason’ conspiracy and an ‘un-Spanish’, Russian-inspired revolt against the natural, divinely sanctioned order of Spanish society.

Preston explores this theme in a book that I can only describe as relentless in its depiction of the rebels’ campaign of atrocities. I am often asked, when I describe my field of interest, whether it is not disturbing to read and think about genocide. That is undoubtedly the case, but Preston’s catalogue of unspeakable violence is among the worst that has come my way in a long time. The character of his narrative reflects, however, the rebels’ own relentless exterminatory thrust, and since he draws on a huge range of recent Spanish local and regional as well as national research, he vividly depicts the horrors of their army’s advance and its aftermath, village by village and town by town. The reader is drawn willy-nilly into the appalling ends of so many men, women and children, most of them ‘guilty’––if of anything at all, since the execution of the violence was often random as well as selective––of little more than supporting the Republic, a Republican party, or one of the social movements of the early 1930s.

One of the most striking features of the book is the repeated murder of Republican leaders and public officials, national and local, however moderate they were in the spectrum of Republican opinion. Indeed, one learns to expect that if a local mayor or national minister has shown any interest in protecting rightwingers from leftwing violence, then he will inevitably meet the most gruesome end once he falls into the rebels’ hands. But this was no mere ‘politicide’: the mass shootings of labourers, the extensive rapes and murders of Republican women, the appalling repression of Republican populations, the brutality against Republican children and their organized theft in the aftermath of the war, together with the suppression of Catalan, Basque, and Galician identities, all testify to a broader destructive process.

Preston does not neglect leftwing violence before, during, or after the military rebellion. He shows, however, that violence against landowners, clergy and pro-rebel politicians was often provoked by extreme exploitation or rebel atrocities. It was never part of an overall campaign of extermination comparable to that pursued by the rebels, and almost everywhere involved fewer victims. But there were important exceptions, notably anarchist-inspired violence against rightwingers and clergy, and Stalinist-led mass murders of rightwing prisoners in Madrid and so-called ‘Trotskyists’ in Barcelona, even if these were disowned by the Republic’s Socialist and Republican national leaders. The leaders of the military rebellion, on the other hand, clearly backed its exterminatory violence. Indeed, Franco more than once forewent an opportunity for military gain in order to complete repression in the rear.

Preston uses the term ‘Spanish Holocaust’ to include the mass violence on both sides, and he justifies this–despite recognising the differences from the Nazi Holocaust–on the grounds that the violent conflagration affected large sections of Spanish society. He does not engage with the genocide literature, but his work has many resonances with its recent themes. He shows the role that colonial brutalism and racism played in forming the Spanish military’s contempt for the working masses: they were regarded as no more than subhuman natives deserving of extreme reprisals. He emphasizes the influence of antisemitic ideology in rightwing Spanish nationalism, resonating with international fascism as well as the country’s earlier genocidal expulsions of Moors and Jews. The rebels’ extreme violence was well rehearsed in violent discourses over the preceding years.

From Preston we can conclude, therefore, that the Spanish Holocaust was no national sideshow but an important part of the exterminatory momentum of international politics that climaxed in the Second World War. We tend to think, following Lemkin, of European genocide as targeted against national and ethnic groups. Yet in the 1930s, in Spain as in Soviet Russia, violence was organized primarily on a class basis, even if subordinate nationalities were also targets. In Germany too during this period, of course, the Nazis ‘came for’ the Communists, Socialists and trade unionists as well as the Jews. The exclusion of destructive violence against ‘political groups’ and social classes from the scope of genocide is not only theoretical and moral nonsense, but ahistorical, since this violence was a crucial link in the road to Auschwitz.