Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

anatomy-of-a-genocide-9781451684537_lgI have just finished a draft review – the final edited version will appear in Antisemitism Studies in due course.

Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. By Omer Bartov. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 399 pages. $30.00 (cloth).

Genocide is generally conceived of as violence by centralised perpetrators, usually states and regimes, towards whole population groups. In the last two decades, however, there has been more emphasis on the typical complexity of perpetrator forces, including the roles of ancillary states, paramilitaries and even civilians. Few, however, have looked unremittingly at genocide from the bottom up, focusing on a particular locality, and local studies have mostly not made large contributions to our general understanding. An obvious exception is Jan Gross’ Neighbors, whose intellectual and political effects are still being felt in Poland almost two decades after publication. Omer Bartov’s new book bears comparison with that striking pioneer: like Gross, Bartov examines a small town in Eastern Europe which changed hands between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Second World War and where elements of the local population played key roles in murdering the Jews. Yet there the similarities end: where Gross’s short volume on Jedwabne (in the north-east of today’s Poland) told a simple and compelling tale of Polish civilians’ do-it-yourself genocide, the key to Bartov’s longer book on Buczacz (now in western Ukraine and called Buchach) is the complexity of perpetration, victimhood and survival. Elements of Gross’s story, above all the mass murder of the local Jews and the participation of some local gentiles, are still central to Bartov’s, but the build-up to, process and aftermath of these events are different and indeed more typical: in Buczacz the Germans were the principal killers. Above all, Bartov gives us a extremely rich account, centering on relations between Jews, Poles and Ruthenians (today regarded as Ukrainians), conflicting Polish and Ukrainian nationalisms, and the policies of successive Soviet and Nazi invaders.

Bartov’s mother came from Buczacz, in what was then known as Galicia, a borderland region which has been part of several different states. He wrote more generally about the elimination of Jewish culture in the area since the world war in his moving Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (Princeton University Press, 2007), whose aim was ‘of course, not to say that Ukrainians have nothing to mourn but rather to point out that they feel obliged to exclude from that mourning the fate of Jews (and Poles) who were murdered in their midst.’ (67) The Polish inhabitants of Galicia were, as that statement suggested, somewhat parenthetical to that book but in Anatomy of a Genocide they as well as the Ukrainians are very much in the frame, in diverse ways. Bartov tells us that in the first half of the twentieth century Buczacz was a town of several thousand people, around half of them Jews, the remainder Poles and Ruthenians. Although Galicia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire from the late eighteenth century until the First World War, Poles had been the dominant Christian group since the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century, and still predominated in Buczacz and neighbouring towns as well as among larger landowners, although the peasants were mainly Ruthenians. Bartov shows how the interwar history was framed first by how the First World War struggle between the Russian and Austrian empires radicalized the local nationalisms: as Ukrainian nationalists took over the town in 1918, ‘People who had been colleagues and acquaintances for many years suddenly “recognized” their essential difference; they no longer shared the same community, moral values, culture or language.’ (67) Yet Bartov judges that at that point, ‘just as it was often inconceivable that Jews could ever become part of either national group in Galicia, it was also still difficult to draw clear distinctions between Poles and Ukrainians.’ (67-68) As Polish forces pushed out the Ukrainian nationalists and were displaced in their turn, before a final Polish conquest, successive waves of violence included Polish military pogroms against the Jews. As Galicia became part of independent Poland, the autonomous regime which the League of Nations envisaged for this multiethnic region never materialised, and the attempts of the Polish state and local Polish notables to Polonise the region stimulated a ‘new, radical, and increasingly violent nationalist organization’ (77) among Ukrainians. Some of the squeezed Jewish population responded with socialist and later communist attachments and many with their own Zionist nationalism, ‘asserting the need to uproot the newly proclaimed nation from the foreign soil it had inhabited for centuries in order to recolonize a mythical and yet already populated ancestral homeland.’ (84)

Bartov’s closely drawn twentieth century story is led, then, by growing polarisation caused by competing nationalist movements. In a characteristic break-out passage of considerable force, he emphasises the double-edged consequences: ‘The three decades that followed the destruction and erasure of pre-1914 Galician society belonged to the nationalists and ideologues, fanatics and zealots of a new breed, more willing to shed blood than to seek compromise, more determined to assert their hegemony than to preserve coesixtence: impatient men with guns and bombs, often led by the half-educated and thirsting for a fight. But things did not start that way; before nationalism began to hate, it was also about education and enlightenment, material improvement, collective responsibility, and group identity. (25) This passage concludes, ‘The path toward violence was neither foreseen nor inevitable’, but he later suggests that ‘religion and nationalism were being fused together to produce an ideological and psychological climate ripe for widespread violence once the constraints on social order were removed or altered.’ (120) This would happen with the new world war: ‘in the grand scheme of things, the interethnic squabbles in Galicia and the hopes of Ukrainian nationalists for German help in establishing an independent state counted for little. The Reich was about to invade Poland and hand over its eastern territories, including their ethnic minorities, to the Soviets; beyond that interim phase, Hitler had far greater plans to create a German “living space” in the East, and a Ukrainian state certainly had no place there.’ (126) Hitler and Stalin would take advantage of ‘fraternal violence on a scale and of a nature that even this region had never experienced before’ to facilitate ‘their policies of deportation and genocide. But for the people on the ground this ethnic struggle took on a life of its own, related to but also independent of the larger war, shaping their conduct toward their neighbors, and determining their memories of those years long after the fighting died down and the map had been irreversibly changed.’ (126-27)

The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939 was the first trigger for change, empowering some previously suppressed Ukrainians to attack Poles: ‘The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes was now transformed into an intimacy of violence that strove to eradicate personal qaulms by inflicting gratuitous pain.’ (133) Poles whose testimonies Bartov outlines in detail also saw Jews as allied to the Soviets. The new regime brutally deported over 300,000 citizens from occupied Poland to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1940-41: an estimated 60 per cent were Poles, 22 per cent Jews, 10 per cent Ukrainians and 8 per cent Belarusians. All three main groups ‘saw themselves as the main victims of the Sovet and German occupations, and each perceived the persecution of the other two groups as at least partly justified. … Each group’s conviction in the uniqueness of its own victimhood thus went hand in hand with a desire to punish those associated with its suffering; this was, in essence, the same kind of reasoning employed so successfully by the Nazis, who consistently presented themselves as victims of those they murdered.’ (153) This ‘competition for victimhood’, Bartov concludes, ‘continues to this day’ and makes its mark in distorted figures and accounts of violence.

German occupation in 1941 had predictable consequences for Buczacz’s Jews. In a Jedwabne-like moment, Ukrainian bands killed Jews and Poles as the Germans invaded, but ‘as the Germans monopolized the violence, they also systematized the killing.’ (168) As everywhere, the vast majority of local Jews, and many others brought to Buczacz from elsewhere in Galicia, were murdered, many of them in large visible operations. Bartov clearly portrays the conflicts among the agonized Jews around the roles of the Judenrat (Jewish council) and Jewish police: ‘The Germans accomplished the rapid destruction of the Jewish population by creating a local apparatus of Ukrainians and Jews who helped them organize and perpetrate mass murder and by swiftly decapitating the community so as to minimize organized resistance.’ (179) Ukrainian militia, turned into policemen by the Germans, played a key role in the massacres: many knew their victims personally. The German Security Police engaged every element of the German population in the extermination project: ‘Beyond the extraordinary bloodletting this undertaking entailed, perhaps its most scandalous aspect was the astonishing ease with which it was accomplished and the extent to which the killers, along with their spouses and children, lovrs and colleagues, friends and parents, appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region.’ (185) In small, isolated German communities, ‘joint complicity in mass murder nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy.’ (197) In a precise, detailed, photographically illustrated but morally charged narrative, drawing on many perpetrator accounts, Bartov emphasizes the ‘normalization of murder’ in the German experience of genocide. In a reprise of the ‘ordinary men’ theme of Holocaust scholarship, he notes: ‘The most striking feature of the men who murdered the Jewish community of Buczacz was the seemingly unbridgeable discrepancy between their mundane prewar and postward lives and the astonishing brutality, callousness and disdain for humanity they displayed during the occupation.’ (230)

Bartov has long advocated historians’ listening to the victims, and in his chapter ‘The Daily Life of a Genocide’ he movingly explores, with the help of rare survivor accounts, how the Jews of Buczacz tried to hide from their tormentors and negotiate the mixture of rescue and betrayal in the responses of the gentile population. ‘The most striking feature’ of these accounts, he says, is ‘the ambivalence of goodness: even those who took in Jews could at any point instruct them to leave or summon the authorities: even those who initially hoped to enrich themselves from the Jews they sheltered could be moved at a certain point to risk their own and their family’s lives without any thought of profit.’ (247) ‘Evil was less ambivalent’, he continues, but for those locals, mainly Ukrainians, who benefited, ‘the blessings of genocide were short-lived’. (266) As German rule was increasingly threatened by the Red Army’s advance, the Polish underground escalated anti-Ukrainian operations, and the radical Ukrainian nationalists attempted to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the lands of a future independent Ukraine of Poles. 30-40,000 Poles and 5,000 Ukrainians were massacred in Eastern Galicia in 1943-45, and overall (including the earlier period) possibly 100,000 Poles and 15-20,000 Ukrainians died. After Ukrainian nationalists resisted the return of Soviet rule, over 200,000 family members of insurgents were deported to the interior of the USSR, with local Poles among those carrying out these deportations and the remaining villagers benefiting from the deportees’ property. The Polish-Ukrainian conflict only ended as a result of Stalin’s border and population policies, forced on Polish Communist leaders, which led to 560,000 Poles being removed from Eastern Galicia as it became part of Soviet Ukraine (the majority of the 750,000 Poles deported from the western regions of the newly expanded USSR) and 500,000 Ukrainians deported from the reconstituted Poland. ‘Ironically, then,’ Bartov notes, ‘the old dream of Ukrainian nationalists was about to be realized by their most hated enemy: an ehtnically pure Western Ukraine created by Soviet population policies.’ (274) He concludes this exemplary study: ‘All three ethnic groups living in Buczacz and its district underwent extreme suffering, although their agony peaked at different times and often at the hands of different perpetrators, just as their propensity to collaborate with the occupiers depended on different factors and changing circumstances. And yet, at the same time and long after, each group sought to present itself as the main victim, both of the occupying power and of its neighbors.’ (289)

Bartov’s book is the anatomy of an unparallelled period of extensive, multi-authored and diversely targeted destructive violence in Buczacz and its region. The combined actions of the local nationalists and the invaders destroyed the mixed Buczacz and Galician society which existed up to 1939 as well as the Jewish and Polish communities. The question which remains for this reviewer is, how is it the anatomy of ‘a genocide’? Bartov wears the concept lightly, and also refers to ‘genocide, ethnic cleansing and population policies’, implying that only part of the extraordinary violence which he describes – whether this is only the mass murder of the Jews or also includes some killings of Poles and Ukrainians is unclear – amounted to ‘genocide’. Yet genocide has been defined not simply as mass murder but as the targeted destruction of national groups, which must surely include the attempt to forcibly remove them from a given territory. In my interpretation what Bartov shows is that genocidal aims became increasingly common to almost all the political actors, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists as well as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who organized violence to destroy ‘enemy’ populations. There are important differences between the ad hoc, intermittent, ancillary murder and terror of the locally-based militia (who mostly tried to destroy others only ‘in part’ as the Genocide Convention puts it) and the more systematic campaigns of the imperial invaders, and also between the Nazis’ extensive mass murders and the Soviets’ mass deportations. But they were all designed to eliminate unwanted elements and homogenise the population in one way or another; in this region in the 1940s, war was generally genocidal. In this sense, considering genocide as outcome as well as policy and action, there were both ‘a’ genocide in Buczacz and Galicia and specific genocides of Jews, Poles and (in some places and at some times) Ukrainians. Moreover, the destruction of the previous mixed society was completed by the victory of Stalin’s brutal programme to reorganise states and populations in an expanded Soviet empire over the more murderous programme of the Nazi Reich. It was this that prevented any return of the displaced peoples and consolidated the forgetting of the many victims which this fine book, thankfully, does much to overcome.


My review of Anton Weiss-Wendt’s book, The Soviet Union and the Gutting of the Genocide Convention, is now online here

Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as a Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas. Translated from Spanish (Argentine) by Douglas Andrew Town. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Daniel Feierstein sent me an advance copy of the English translation of Genocidio como Practicio Social, his study of the Nazis and the Argentine military junta as practitioners of ‘reorganizing genocide’. Feierstein presents a sociological reinterpretation of genocide based on the Argentine experience: here I discuss the points of agreement and disagreement between our perspectives.

The definition of genocide

Feierstein shares with me a dissatisfaction with the international legal definition, not least on the grounds of its notorious exclusion of ‘political groups’ from the scope of the crime. He frames this, cogently, in terms of discrimination, as a failure to apply the prohibition of group destruction equally to political as to other types of group: ‘defining genocide in terms of the characteristics of the victims has no precedent in modern criminal law and clearly damages the principle of equality before the law.’

Also for Feierstein, the legal definition is excessively broad, so that it encompasses ‘the annihilation of population masses by the Ancient Greeks, Romans or Mongols’ and misses the specific character of modern genocide. For him this has two key features. First, genocide is ‘the implementation of a massive and systematic plan intended to destroy all or part of a human group as such’. A ‘genocidal social practice’ is a specific ‘mechanism’ or ‘distinctive form of social engineering’ used by modern regimes:

a technology of power – a way of managing people as a group – that aims (i) to destroy social relationships based on autonomy and cooperation by annihilating a significant part of the population (significant in terms of either numbers or practices), and (ii) to use the terror of annihilation to establish new models of identity and social relationships among the survivors.

Second, genocide is not simply a moment of implementation, but a longer-term ‘process’ that ‘starts long before and ends long after the actual physical annihilation of the victims’: ‘It is organisation, training, practice, legitimation and consensus that distinguish genocide as a social practice from other more spontaneous or less intentional acts of killing and mass destruction.’

Moreover, ‘modern genocides have been a deliberate attempt to change the identity of the survivors by modifying relationships within a given society.’ We can understand what Feierstein means by considering his critique of Holocaust historiography:

In focusing on the death camps in which Jewish and Roma communities were exterminated between 1942 and 1945, historians have tended to downplay the importance of the concentration camp system. And yet the first camps were opened almost as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 and remained a part of everyday life in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe until the collapse of the regime in 1945. There has been no adequate account so far of the role played by concentration camps as stepping stones to genocide or the range of victims imprisoned or murdered in them during the “reorganization” of German society and the Reich’s military expansion eastward.

This approach has some attractive features. It moves the definition of genocide away from a narrow emphasis on mass killing, which is only one of many means through which groups are destroyed but which for many writers has become the only means that counts. It recognises that genocide involves not only the ‘perpetrators’’ attacks on the ‘victims’ but is also embedded in, and has implications for, wider power relations. And its emphasis on longer-term processes, exemplified in the reference back to the earlier stages of Nazi rule, is an important pointer to the need to connect moments of annihilation with preceding phases of discrimination and violence.

Yet the approach also has its problems. In specifying genocide itself as ‘systematic planning’, ‘social engineering’ and a ‘technology of power’ aimed at establishing new modes of power over the survivors, Feierstein comes too close to identifying genocide in general with the specific historical variant which he calls ‘reorganising genocide’. ‘Genocide’ was proposed by Raphael Lemkin to describe a general class of actions, defined by their destructive aims towards population groups, and rightly criminalized in this vein. Although Lemkin characterized the Nazi genocide as a multi-method, ‘coordinated attack’ on a variety of populations, the core of his concept is deliberate destruction. In other circumstances this can take different forms from the systematic social engineering of the Nazis. Lemkin recognised this variety in his manuscripts on colonial genocides. Leo Kuper more radically emphasised the wide range of genocide with his seminal idea of the ‘genocidal massacre’ which is so valuable in analysing the messier, spasmodic but still organised destruction of populations widespread in twenty-first century world politics.

‘Reorganising genocide’ and Nazism

Feierstein’s ‘reorganising’ concept reminds us that the destruction of specific groups within a society is often part of a project to reorganise the society as a whole. He presents this idea as a specific type of genocide, but underlying it is a point of theoretical interest for all genocide: whether part of a reorganising project or not, the destruction of part of a society generally changes social relations in profound way. It is difficult to believe that perpetrators are ever unaware of this dimension, so that we can always ask, what kind of society are they trying to achieve? Yet clearly there is much variation in the degree of formalisation into a defined ‘project’ and in the way it is conceptualised, etc. Colonial settlers who wished to create racially pure, or at least hierarchical, societies had different kinds of project from the ambitious social engineering which fascist and Stalinist regimes envisaged. The projects of loose coalitions of violent actors in today’s post-colonial world may be relatively inchoate compared to the cases that Feierstein considers ‘reorganising genocides’. The ‘reorganising’ concept makes sense if it designates a variant in which explicit and formalised social reorganisation is the driver of genocide.

Nazi Germany is Feierstein’s template for this type. I agree with his proposal to trace Nazi genocide back to 1933, not just because Hitler already had a project to reorganise society, but because his destruction of the labour movement and left parties, his early attacks on the Jews and the establishment of the camp system prefigured the more openly genocidal policies adopted from 1938-9 onwards (not only after 1941-2). The comparison of Argentina with Germany is suggestive, but the differences of context are much more substantial than Feierstein acknowledges. The Nazis were establishing a continental empire and enslaving tens of millions in the midst of a brutal and eventually desparate total war, while the Argentinian military were ‘reorganising’ a single nation-state in the relatively stable international context of the Cold War.

Moreover Feierstein’s view of the Nazi genocide as a ‘reorganising’ process that began with the concentration camps ascribes too much coherence to Nazi policies which mutated from national reorganisation into aggressive war. It was in the latter context that Nazi genocide escalated: from the mass murder of the German disabled, the deportations of Western Poles and the ghettoisation of Polish Jews in late 1939, through the mass shootings of Communists as well as Jews during the 1941 invasion of the USSR and the starving and freezing to death of Soviet prisoners of war in 1941-2, to the the extermination of the Jews and Roma of a whole continent in the camps in the last years of the war. To view all of this as ‘systematic planning’ and ‘social engineering’ defies today’s historical consensus, according to which Nazi policy escalated situationally in response to the opportunities and challenges that the war created. Hitler and the Nazi elite had grandiose schemes for their new racial empire, like the Generalplan Ost, but Nazi genocide was not the implementation of a preconceived plan.

The Argentine case

Feierstein acknowledges that his choice of cases to compare is personally driven: ‘the connection between these events is neither direct nor obvious’, but ‘to some extent “contrived” in order to see what we can learn about the way genocide constructs, destroys and reconstructs the social fabric.’ It seems likely too that there is a political dimension to the choice, since the Holocaust is the virtually uncontested standard of modern genocide, and the desire to see the Argentinian violence fully recognised in the genocide frame is an understandable background to this book. Connecting the Argentine case to the Holocaust is a politically obvious way of making the genocide argument. As Feierstein says of Vahakn Dadrian, who ‘has argued in several works that it is both possible and desirable to compare the genocide of the Armenian and Jewish peoples’: ‘Even though he does not say so explicitly, his goals are as much political as academic.’

Yet this strategy is less coherent theoretically than politically. I find the chapter in which Feierstein matches the Argentine events to the conflicting definitions that have been proposed for genocide less illuminating than his review of the Argentinian literature. As he says,

That the Argentine military were clear about their goals from the outset can be seen in the name they gave to their new regime: the “Process of National Reorganisation”. So it was that in the Republic of Argentina, an already existing nation-state that had been built – like most nation-states – on genocide, the de facto government of the military dictatorship proposed to “re-found” the state on a new social, political and cultural basis. The tool chosen to carry out this reorganization of society was the concentration camp.

A key issue is whether the military’s campaign was a ‘dirty war’, or whether the language of war masked a ‘genocidal practice’. Feierstein traces the origins of the project to 1974, and a work by Brigadier General Acdel Vilas, the head of Operativo Independencia (Operation Independence):

This was a military campaign to destroy the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP), a Trotskyist guerrilla group which, by the end of 1974, had seized just over a third of the mountainous northwestern province of Tucuman, in an attempt to copy the Cuban revolution. Operativo Independencia … became a testing ground for the repressive methods implemented during the military dictatorship a year later.

In Vilas’ mind, this reflection justified the need for clandestine operations in a “Dirty War” that required – in his own words – a very different army from the traditional one – and thus, different values, different morality, another way to carrying out social practices. It meant replacing a predominantly military social practice – war – with an eminently political one – the destruction of social relations in the civilian population or … genocide.

However the military origins of the crisis have given rise, in Feierstein’s view, to two erroneous perspectives: the ‘theory of the two demons’, according to which the extreme left militants are equally responsible with the military, and the distinction between ‘innocent’ civilian victims and armed militants who implicitly merited the army’s repression. The latter leads to

the unjustified assumption that the guerrillas died fighting while the victims – i.e. those people who were taken to detention centers – were all non-combatants, irrespective of their political affiliation or relationship with the armed struggle. In fact, the guerrillas were just as much victims as those people who had no relationship whatsoever to armed or political organizations.

Feierstein cites various reasons given in the literature for rejecting the ‘war’ perspective, for example that there was no revolutionary army, that the revolutionaries controlled no territory, and that the society as a whole was not at war. However the origins of the conflict in the ERP’s control of parts of Tucuman suggests that we cannot dismiss the ‘war’ perspective. War and genocide are hardly mutually exclusive, and a context of war often helps explain why political conflict radicalizes to genocidal solutions. A failed attempt to ignite a civil war can be as politically consequential as a successful one. The ‘Process of National Reorganization’ did not simply spring from the generals’ minds with no context.

Likewise Feierstein is concerned to reject the legitimation of the killing of armed militants. To the limited extent to which there was an armed struggle, and that militants were killed as a result of combat, clearly these deaths cannot be accounted genocide. However I take Feierstein’s point to be that most militants as well as non-militants were killed and abused outside the military context. Since the original armed conflict had given way to a genocidal process, we should see their killing as part of this. This argument is valid, but he does not deal with the obvious issue that in a sense armed opposition can be said to have helped, albeit in this case unknowingly, to provoke the military genocide. This argument, which has been raised (especially by Alan Kuperman) in relation to Rwanda and Kosovo, is surely relevant here, yet does not mean that one regards the perpetrators and victims symmetrically.

Which group is being destroyed in the Argentine genocide?

The most striking and also most problematic feature of Feierstein’s account is the way he ultimately argues for the genocidal character of the Argentine events. In my view, his account risks confusing the object of genocide with its policy context, because of an unusual conceptual move that seems to derive from the political motive of squaring the case with the international legal criteria for genocide.

Feierstein’s reconceptualisation of genocide, and specifically concepts of ‘genocidal practice’ and ‘reorganising genocide’, seem to rest on his adoption of a particular legal argument made in the 1999 indictment by the Spanish prosecuting magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, of 98 Argentine military for crimes of ‘terrorism and genocide’ under the dictatorship. For Feierstein, Garzón’s key argument is that the term ‘national group’ is appropriate to classify the victims in Argentina. This, Feierstein writes (with his emphases), ‘is based on the fact that the perpetrators sought to destroy structures of social relationships within the State, in order to substantially alter the life of the whole. This is in line with Article 2 of the 1948 Convention …, which defines genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national (…) group. The Argentine national group has been annihilated “in part,” substantially altering social relationships across the nation.’

Garzón’s was an understandable legal tactic to catch the military perpetrators within an inadequate legal framework which recognizes national, but not political, groups as targets of genocide. Clearly all members of Argentine society can be considered members of the Argentine national ‘group’, in the rather arcane language of genocide law, but this does not make this a case of genocide in a coherent legal, let alone a sociological, sense. For clearly assorted leftists, their friends, families and alleged sympathizers were targeted by the Argentine military not because they regarded them as members of the Argentine national group, but for the opposite reason, that they did not regard them as legitimate members of the Argentine nation as they defined it. The military targeted a section of society, not the whole, with extreme violence, and this is what makes this a case of genocide.

Feierstein would have it differently: ‘the purpose of a genocidal social process is to destroy the broader fabric of social relations.’ But this seems misleading in both empirical and theoretical terms. The Argentine dictatorship sought to destroy certain parts of the Argentine social fabric, in order to reorganise the whole. It was the destruction, not the reorganisation, that made the process genocidal. If the military had not targeted certain sectors of society, producing some 30,000 deaths, their ‘reorganisation’ would not have been genocidal; there would have been a non-genocidal restructuring.

We can see the importance of this distinction if we put the Argentine case in comparative perspective. A 2013 discussion on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in which Feierstein took part, compared this case with the Cambodian genocide. Yet there is a key difference: the Khmer Rouge attacked most if not all sections of the Cambodian population – the educated, urban dwellers, Buddhists, traditional peasant communities, ethnic and national minorities – because they regarded all existing institutions as part of the corrupt ‘old’ society to be replaced by the ‘new’ Kampuchea. Here the reorganisation was truly genocidal on a national scale, since no section of the population or existing institution escaped destruction, and the death toll of millions reflected the broader scope of the violence.

The concentration camps are, for Feierstein, the prime institutions of ‘reorganising’ genocide. In Argentina camps contained only one relatively small section of the population; in Cambodia, society as a whole was reorganised as a camp system. It does not diminish the genocidal character of the Argentinian military campaign to recognise the much narrower scope of its directly destructive policies, even if the broader reorganizing thrust affected society as a whole. For unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Argentine military aimed to rebuild society on a more conservative basis, strengthening some institutions while weakening others. ‘Reorganising’ genocide, like genocide in general, obviously constitutes a wide spectrum.

Entry on Genocide in Oxford Bibliographies, now online

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.

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.

Draft of my review of Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, and Daniel Feierstein (eds.), State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years. London: Routledge, 2010.
To appear in Democracy and Security, September 2012.

Latin America was the site of much political violence in the Cold War period but – apart from the mass killing in Guatemala in 1982 – the growing field of genocide studies has paid little attention to the continent’s recent history. This volume aims to change that, with chapters on Argentina (3), Chile (2) and Colombia as well as Guatemala (2), framed in a perspective which is both continental in scope and focused on Latin America’s relationships with the United States (to which three chapters are devoted).

The existence of ‘genocide’ literature on Guatemala, but not other countries, may be partly explained by the fact that the majority of victims there belonged to the indigenous population and can be seen as targeted because of their ‘ethnic’ identity as well as their social movements and links to armed and political opposition. The apparent problem for a genocide perspective on late twentieth-century Latin America is that in the other countries, most civilian victims of violence seem to have been targeted because of their political rather than ethnic identities, and the United Nations Genocide Convention does not cover attacks on ‘political groups’.

This is widely seen as a problem with the Convention’s definition, and although some genocide scholars argue that the definition should be upheld, the majority believe that (in this respect at least) it is incoherent, and should be superseded by a more inclusive formulation. Several authors in this book are not content, however, to rely on existing authorities for the fact that violence against political groups can be counted as genocide, and devote a lot of space to this question. This seems to reflect a goal, manifest in some contributions and indeed in the volume as a whole, to have recent violence counted as genocide in legal and political as well as in social-scientific and historical terms. The final section of the book is devoted to studies of concealment, justice and reconciliation in the legacies of genocidal violence.

The difficulty of the demand for justice is that it leads scholars to try to square deviant cases with the sociologically incoherent Convention, often through tortuous legal (or legalistic) argument. Thus Daniel Feierstein takes up Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón’s argument (in a 1999 indictment of Argentine officers) that the term ‘national group’ (one of the Convention’s categories of protected group) is appropriate in the Argentine case, because (as Feierstein puts it) ‘[t]he Argentine national group had been annihilated “in part”, substantially altering the social fabric of the country’ (p.52). Yet however laudible the aim of bringing the officers to account, this seems a misinterpretation of the Convention and of the general idea of anti-group violence, since while the Argentine military certainly wished to alter the national society, they did this by targeting particular sections of the population. As Feierstein himself later puts it, ‘eradicating certain political, social and cultural groups was intended to subjugate society as a whole.’ (p.60)

Quite how to define the targeting of Cold War genocide in Latin America is addressed in several places in this book. In the Introduction, Marcia Esparza argues that ‘extreme class, race and ethnic polarization in the region has led to the construction of el pueblo as an entity that can be considered as the “hostage group”.’ (p.13) Esparza’s analytically interesting implication is that, rather than there having been a single type of polarization, common but complex and overlapping cleavages characterize Latin American genocide. These cleavages are deeply rooted, she suggests, in colonial as well as post-colonial history, and have produced in the ruling classes a ‘neocolonial mentality … transmitted from generation to generation’, which informs the specific violence of the Cold War period that has been conditioned by ‘US-led geopolitical projects’. (p.13)

Powerful as this idea of el pueblo is, a problem of any such general analysis seems to be the variety of Latin American national experiences. The over 200,000 deaths in Guatemala (discussed in a thorough chapter by Marc Drouin) dwarf the 30,000 killed and ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, while the latter far exceed the 3,000 murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile and the 3-5,000 supporters of the Unión Patriótica (UP) assassinated in Colombia. These quantitative differences seem to reflect qualitative differences in targeting: in Guatemala extensive violence was deployed against the (mainly) rural masses, while elsewhere violence was focused more narrowly on the (mostly) urban opposition. Of course, even this ‘narrow’ focus was broad in the sense of catching a wide range of people ‘guilty’ only of presumed family or friendship connections with activists, as well as in the sense of being designed to intimidate larger social constituencies and movements.

In this book, illuminating case studies are not complemented by serious comparative analysis which might have indicated the prevalence of genocidal violence in Latin America as a whole (indeed not all countries with large-scale political violence are included, and its relative absence in others is not discussed). Although the case studies indicate significant differences in experiences, the general chapters provide mostly overarching explanations, rather than nuanced comparative analysis; and while Esparza suggests that the profoundly unequal societies developed from the colonial era have been formative, these chapters focus mainly on the US relationship.

The latter is certainly an important frame: genocide studies too often assume that the phenomenon is produced ‘domestically’, neglecting how international relations are involved. Clearly US-led anti-communism was a unifying factor in Latin American regimes’ and militaries’ outlooks, US training informed Latin American militaries’ repression, and the USA encouraged collaboration between the separate national armies, police and intelligence bodies such as that evidenced in the notorious Operation Condor (discussed in a chapter by J. Patrice McSherry). But as Maureen S. Hiebert and Pablo Policzer put it, in assessing US complicity in the Chilean and other regimes’ crimes, ‘indirect complicity, where American officials actively encouraged but did not direct the Latin Americans’ actions against their political enemies’, and situations ‘where the Americans were aware of the Latin Americans’ actions but did nothing to discourage or challenge them’, seem more viable explanations than ‘direct complicity’. (p.76)

Or as Andrei Gómez-Suárez puts it, writing about Colombia, US ‘discourses merged with local representations flourishing in the armed conflict, creating a fertile field for genocide to happen’; US support and ‘misrepresentation of the threat that guerrilla groups posed for the security of the hemisphere allowed’ local genocidal alliances of government and military officials with paramilitaries and drug cartels to destroy the UP. (p.163) Here Gómez-Suárez also draws attention, as do other contributors in the case studies, to the relationships of armed conflict to the emergence of genocidal violence against civilian oppositionists and movements. However in the book’s more general analyses, the role of the armed oppositions in helping to provoke regime violence is not posed as a serious question. Yet ‘armed struggle’ and genocidal violence both marked various countries of Latin America in the Cold War; they have both declined since. Some kind of linkage seems clear, even its ramifications need fuller analysis.

Too much of this book is devoted to conceptual rather than theoretical analysis, and (taken as a whole) it raises more questions than it answers. However in the global framework of genocide research, this is a landmark contribution, not only as the first study to apply genocide analysis to late twentieth-century Latin America, but also because taking account of the context of genocidal violence in that continent, we have new perspectives on the global patterns of the incidence and forms of genocide.