Archive for the ‘genocide reviews’ Category

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

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.

Draft review for the Journal of Genocide Research

Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann, Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 978-0-19-973036-0.
Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, 978-1-4422-0663-2.

The anti-population violence during the Bosnian War of 1992-95 was, together with the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, one of the seminal events for the public awareness of genocide in the period after the Cold War. Yet while the Rwandan Genocide has been clearly named and is the focus of ever-growing academic study, the significance of the Bosnian events remains highly contested and their study lacks the momentum of the Rwandan field. Most of the general literature dates from the 1990s, and there have been few recent attempts to synthesise the events themselves and their legacy. Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann’s Bosnia Remade, with its incisive empirical study of the problematic post-war ‘return’ of the expelled and its ambitious critical-geopolitical theoretical framework for understanding the war and its aftermath, is therefore a very welcome addition.

The authors’ primary aim is to evaluate the process of return of displaced people. Annexe 7 of the 1995 Dayton General Framework Agreement committed the international authorities supervising Bosnia to upholding this right in the aftermath of the war, and there followed what was probably the most determined attempt to enforce the return of expelled populations anywhere in the world. (Omar Bartov was therefore wrong to claim, in this journal, that the right of return is demanded only for Palestinians displaced by Israel.#) Although around a million, out of over two million, Bosnians expelled from their homes and home districts during the war had returned by 2004, Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis – using detailed studies of three key municipalities as well as general data – shows that most of these were ‘majority returns’, of people belonging to the same ethnic group as the postwar controllers of particular areas. ‘Minority returns’, of people belonging to different groups from local powerholders, were often met with violence and obstruction. Despite sometimes determined efforts by international bodies, they were largely unsuccessful.

This outcome is explained as a consequence of the character of the wartime processes that produced displacement and how the political structures that they produced were largely embedded in the postwar settlement, and explains why Bosnia Remade’s account of the returns process is preceded by a very full synthesis of the war itself and the original expulsion process. Ethnic cleansing, they say, was a ‘military tactic to realise a larger strategic vision … as much about seizing and consolidating territory as … about identity. More than simply the removal of an out-group from a location, ethnic cleansing involves the ethnicization of space.’ It is thus a form of geopolitics, involving two related practices, the attempts to produce a new ethnoterritorial order of space, and to build an ethnocratic political order. The latter involved a ‘fundamental reorganisation of a local political economy’, through ‘accumulation by dispossession’, with housing, land and valuables stolen (116-17). The phenomenon originated in the Serbian strategy ‘to reconstitute Yugoslavia as a smaller, more compact federation controlled from Belgrade’ (21) and Serbian nationalists were responsible for most expulsions, although the Croatians developed similar strategies in some areas and their ethnic cleansing in 1995 constituted its ‘largest single instance’ (6). Although Toal and Dahlmann ‘reject as lazy and irresponsible the nostrum that there is a “moral equivalence” between the fighting factions in Bosnia’ (17), they recognise that Bosnian forces were also responsible for some expulsions and show that Muslim-based parties sometimes blocked minority returns to areas they controlled after the war.

The key to the relative failure of the returns process is that Dayton mostly allowed parties controlling localities at the end of the war – in many cases having removed much of the original population – to consolidate their power. Post-war politics was ‘the continuation of the war by other means’; local elites ‘established patronage systems in their captured opstine [municipalities] that endured into the peace.’ (235) US President Bill Clinton insisted on early elections, in the belief that democratisation was a way out of Bosnia’s impasse, but just as the earlier 1990 elections had originally ethnonationalised Bosnian politics – laying the basis for territorial division – so post-Dayton elections were manipulated by local powerholders who boosted their own population group’s electoral registration and absentee voting, while blocking the participation of the expelled – so confirming territorial division. ‘Rapid elections … mostly served to entrench nationalist parties and collective rights’ (234), at the expense of the individual rights of expelled people. Moreover this local control was reinforced by the establishment of the wartime Republika Srpska as an ‘entity’ (within a new federal structure for the Bosnia-Herzegovina state), which Serbian politicians treated as far as possible as a separate state. Although the literature has often emphasised the lack of ‘will’ of international authorities, Toal and Dahlmann point to the inherent weakness of multinational bureaucracy and its lack of capacity faced with local intransigence: ‘the international community soon realised that it was insuffiently equipped to monitor and enforce Dayton’s provisions across two entities, ten cantons and 148 local governments, each with its own tactics for discouraging returns and repossession.’ (237)

Thus Bosnia Remade shows that Michael Mann’s argument that ethnic cleansing is the ‘dark side of democracy’ is particularly relevant when the latter is proposed as an answer to ethnic conflict: as a growing literature attests, elections can be catalysts for conflict. The book also matches two of the themes of Stathis Kalyvas’ influential arguments about civil war violence: the importance of the local level, and the fact that populations help produce the violence that is directed at civilians.#  Thus Toal and Dahlmann argue that ethnic cleansing ‘is never straightforwardly “ethnic” or motivated only by a desire to “cleanse” localities thought the murder and expulsion of ethnic others. Criminal opportunism, local grievances, revenge and nihilism fuelled by alcohol and drugs are also elements of the practice. Some violence … was motivated by long-held grudges.’ (13) However their demonstration of the centrality of Serbian and Croatian geopolitical projects to the cleansing process contradicts Kalyvas’ claim, in an article with Nicholas Sambanis, that it can be mainly explained by the level of resistance to Serbian power.#

Toal and Dahlmann argue that both ethnic cleansing and return are unavoidably geographical projects, and their approach is based on critical geopolitics, ‘an approach that produces “categories of analysis” to grasp and explain the too-often unproblematized “categories of practice” of banal and not-so-banal nor benign geopolitics.’ (9) Thus they reject the subsumption of the events in the categories of ‘civil war’ and ‘ethnic conflict’, and similarly to David Campbell’s earlier post-structuralist account#, show how ethnopolitics was constructed out of Bosnia’s historic hybrid, plurinational society. However, despite pointing out that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is ‘a vivid metaphor conveying the commitments of its perpetrators’ (3), they are remarkably content to use this as their main analytical category. ‘Genocide’, in contrast, is treated overwhelmingly as a rhetorical device of actors, whether of Serbian perpetrators recalling their peoples’ historic victimisations, or of Bosnian Muslim leaders complaining about Serbian ‘cleansing’. In a surprising lapse of critical focus on the ‘categories of practice’, they reproduce the view (now conventional in international legal circles) that genocide was only committed at Srebrenica in 1995, while the general destruction of plural Bosnian society, which occurred as they show mainly in 1992, was not genocide.

Yet what Toal and Dahlmann describe is what others from Raphael Lemkin onwards have carefully defined as genocide: carving out imagined ethnic homelands by destroying Bosnia’s ‘common life, multiethnic settlements and the homes of ordinary Bosnians’ (134), and destroying its common public infrastructure and cultural and religious property, indeed its ‘lifeworld of coexistence (140). When they talk of a ‘geopolitical logic of erasure and refoundation’ (6) they reproduce Lemkin’s ‘two phases [of genocide]: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.’# Their argument that the ethnonationalism has largely succeeded even though it was not militarily victorious is another way of expressing his dictum that genocide is a way of winning even when the war itself is lost. Yet nowhere do Toal and Dahlmann argue for these conceptual choices.

Paul Mojzes makes similar conceptual decisions, but he does at least try to justify them. His book is a historical synthesis, which has the considerable virtue of bringing together the large number of genocidal events in the modern Balkans over the last century. He begins with the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, seen as an ‘unrecognized genocide’, and proceeds to the ‘multiple genocides of World War II’ and ‘retaliatory genocides against wartime enemies’, before arriving at ‘ethnic cleansing during Yugoslavia’s wars of distintegration in the 1990s’ (Kosovo is considered in a separate chapter, as is the ICTY). In each of this periods, Mojzes carefully accumulates the evidence on anti-population violence from all sides, and this will serve as a useful reference work. He also tries to say which events constituted genocide, and which not, and while his criteria and judgements may both be disputed, it is all done in a careful way that gives the readers useful pointers. The sheer range of events that are covered, the variety of their perpetrators, and the demonstrations of their interconnectedness, also provide useful antidotes to any simple ideas that only one or other type of actor perpetrated genocide. Mojzes falls into the trap of identifying the political factions with the ethnic groups themselves, so begging the question of the ethnopoliticisation that is the focus of Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis. But by placing the Bosnian war in the larger series of recent conflicts that began in Slovenia and Croatia and ended in Kosovo, he provides useful contextualisation, even if Balkan Genocides has neither the interpetative historical depth of Donald Bloxham’s work#, which covers the earlier part of its ground, nor the theoretical and empirical richness of Bosnia Remade.

Any optimism about the future of the Balkans in these books is highly tempered, but Toal and Dahlmann are right to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in the process of being made. There is no inexorable law that condemns us to reproduce the crimes of the past, even if there are powerful social forces that work in that direction.

See the full review including references.

A draft of my review of Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide, for the forthcoming special issue of Sociology on The Sociology of Human Rights.