UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Genocide and the Dilemma of Modernity

Book Essay on: Robert and Ben Kiernan (eds.) Gellately, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective
( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 406pages.
UCSB: HV6322.7 .S654 2003

by Danielle Bruckman
March 22, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com ($26)

About Danielle Bruckman

I am a junior Global Studies major and History minor. I just spent my fall semester 2009 in Rome studying film, history, and international relations. There I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp in the south of Italy which greatly influenced my decision to further study genocide, its roots, effects, and its relationship to the modern state. I emphasized my study on genocide and modernity to better understand this phenomenon in the context of current global affairs.

Abstract (back to top)

The Specter of Genocide, edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kierman, is a compilation of scholarly essays that examine the numerous accounts of genocide and genocidal acts in the twentieth-century. The collection addresses major issues and current debates within the relatively new field of Genocide Studies. In their introduction the editors acknowledge the scholarly claims that genocide, like war, massacres, and other atrocities is hardly anything new and not an invention of the twentieth century. However the essays in the book's sub section "Genocide and Modernity" provide both compelling and comprehensive arguments that claim   cases of mass murder in the twentieth century are of a unique in their nature and character than prior. In this essay, I assess the different arguments presented by the authors in this section to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the genocide as it exists as a modern phenomena. Ben Kiernan's essay asserts that the mix of racism, religious prejudice, expansionism and idealization of cultivation create a deadly combination that is a persistent feature of twentieth-century genocide.  Eric D. Weitz builds on the idea of race and purity as a fundamental characteristic to this mass intensification of violence directed toward minority groups in the twentieth century but also include the influence systematized advanced technology has had when coupled with the powers of modern state. Omer Bartov emphasizes the approach to study mass murder within historical context. He emphasizes the importance of situating these genocidal cases within the larger context of twentieth century mass murders on one hand, while highlighting the importance of close examination of individual occurrences of mass killing that formed part of a genocidal undertaking. Even though the authors offer different perspectives that may be in opposition at times, when combined their arguments portray a convincing and comprehensive explanation behind the phenomena of genocide and mass murder as a characteristic of modernity within the context of the twentieth century.

Essay (back to top)

In response to the atrocities inflicted upon the Armenian and Jewish populations in the early half of the century, Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin introduced the concept of genocide that later helped the United Nations formulate its definition at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide in 1948. As defined by the convention, genocide pertained to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” (Gellately and Kiernan, 3). Since then, scholarship and interest in genocide has developed twofold and a conjuncture of recent events has sparked renewed concern regarding genocide, mass murders, and severe human rights abuses of all natures. But was the tragedy of genocide Lemkin was responding to a new phenomenon? Or is it a throwback, and hangover from the past? Robert Gelletely and Ben Kiernan’s volume The Specter of Genocide contains eighteen original and scholarly essays that address key issues like this that have inspired debate in the emerging field of Genocide Studies. In the section, “Genocide and Modernity” the essays by Ben Kiernan, Omer Bartov, Marie Fleming, and Eric D. Weitz aim to address what, if anything makes twentieth century genocides “unique”. Ben Kiernan asserts that the blend of race, religious prejudice, expansionism and idealization of cultivation create a deadly combination that is a persistent feature of twentieth-century genocide.  Eric D. Weitz expands this argument to include the ideologies of race and purity as a fundamental characteristic to this mass intensification of violence directed toward minority groups in the twentieth century but also includes the influence systematized, advanced technology has had when coupled with the powers of modern state, that was not present in centuries prior. I find these two arguments, when combined provide the most comprehensive analysis of the link between genocide and modernity.

    Ben Kiernan argues how the ideological elements of race, religious prejudice, expansionism, and idealization of cultivation, when taken singularly are harmless facets of nationalism however, when combined create a deadly mixture. In his analysis he compares the perpetrators in the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust in the early 1940s and the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-79. Kiernan asserts that even though all three of these regimes were atheistic, each one targeted particular religious minority groups (Christians, Jews, and Muslims). Each of these regimes also attempted to expand their territories into a "continuous heartland" ("Turkestan," "Lebensraum," and "kampuchum krom") in which each utilized both their primordial racial rights and connections to the land (29). Similarly, all three regimes idealized their ethnic peasantry as the true "national" class, the ethnic soil from which the new state was to grow. Kiernan provides a convincing argument that elucidates the common features of genocidal acts in the twentieth century; however his discussion fails to bring light to what it is that essentially makes these genocides modern. His analysis provides a comprehensive examination of the characteristics of modern genocides, but fails to explain how these ideologies differentiate from similar atrocities in prior centuries.

    But is it just ideology that makes these twentieth century genocides "unique"? Eric D. Weitz would say "no". In his essay, Weitz, who also uses comparative analysis, works in conjunction with Keirnan's argument however he finds the features of modernity to be the culprit behind why mass murder “has been more frequent, more extensive, and more systematic”  in the last century (Weitz, 71). He asserts that the combination of advanced warfare technologies, new administrative techniques that enhanced state powers of surveillance, and new ideologies that made populations the choice objects of state policies and that categorized people along strict lines of nation and race are what lead to the intensification in breadth and depth of violence.

Often marked by their technological prowess, however Weitz claims that twentieth century atrocities by no means eliminated the face-to-face brutality that characterizes the accounts prior to 1900. The case of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s for example, is exemplary of how hundreds of thousands of people could be killed quickly and efficiently even with the most basic of weaponry. Contrary to popular belief, Weitz asserts that genocide in the modern age requires neither gas chambers nor highly organized bureaucracies. Technological advancements could not have been the sole reason as to why there was an intensification of mass violence toward a target population but is part of it.

    Instead in his analysis, Weitz puts emphasis on the "culture of death and killing" that emerged out of World War I and how the ritualized killings that stemmed from this culture played a crucial role in the drive for ideological purity that was integral to revolutions in modern states. He compiles a list of human cruelties associated to these rituals and explores the wide range of methods used, from deportation to torture, random shootings, to the desecration of bodies that brings some clarity to why and how so many individuals took part in mass killings that characterized this “intensification of violence” (Weitz, 72).

     Weitz does not dispute that numerous cases of genocide occurred prior to the twentieth century and acknowledges some such as the Roman destruction of Carthage were state sponsored. But these events lacked the systematic character of twentieth century genocides which involved states with "enormously enhanced" capacities and populations that were made complicit in the brutal purges of targeted populations (Weitz, 73).He concludes that when the powers of modern states are coupled with the revolutionary impulse, modern technology and an ideology of purity, the outcome is lethal.  Overall, Weitz's essay provides a compelling and convincing argument to the “uniqueness” of twentieth century genocides and to the factors and aspects makes these incidents essentially modern of a different caliber than those prior.

    Although Weitz and Kiernan's analyses provides valuable insights into the implications of technology, ideology race and purity in genocide in the modern century, neither explain why in some cases genocide and atrocities of this nature occurs, and where similar conditions exist, it does not.  Both compare the same incidents, and each author focuses on particular aspects of each to prove their own point. Weitz's essay places extraordinary weight on Holocaust accounts, where as Kiernan tends to draw his conclusions primarily from the three genocidal regimes mentioned and both tend to lack balance in their cross-cultural comparisons. Their arguments place more weight the incidents that are better known and better documented.  Omer Bartov is wary of the difficulties of using the comparative approach and argues that a major component to understanding modern genocide involves the investigation of discrete cases of mass killing set within the larger historical context in addition to the close examination of individual incidents of mass murder that formed a component of the genocidal undertaking in whole. He does not deny that comparative analysis can enhance and enrichen our understanding of genocide because it situates each incident in the context of twentieth century mass murders. However, he emphasizes the importance of “zooming in on the manner in which policies dictated at the top took shape at the point of contact between perpetrators, victims, and an array of bystanders, collaborators and resisters” (Bartov, 96) He argues that genocide, is the sum of its parts and it the moment between the "killer and the killed", usually with a few spectators standing by, is where we will gain the greatest understanding of this phenomena (Bartov, 96). His analysis does not necessarily add to what makes these genocides "unique" but he deepens our understanding of the methodology and approach needed to be taken into account to understand such events on both a macro and micro level, which both strengthens and undermines some of the arguments made by his colleagues.

Simply put, is genocide as old as time or is it something new? Is it a throwback, a hangover from the past or is it essentially modern? Keirnan’s essay presents the most comprehensive analysis regarding the ideological composition of the perpetrators of twentieth century genocides, a fundamental part of their modernity. Whereas Weitz further explains how this systematized technological advancements and “culture of death and killing” brought on by World War I what makes mass murder in the twentieth century “unique”. Bringing arguments together as well as playing them off each other such as Omer Bartov’s critique of methodology are actually the kind of debate editors Galletely and Kiernan hope to inspire with their volume. Gellately and Kiernan highlight the complexity of these issues and hope that their book will further discussion in hopes of finding new and effective measures of addressing them. In this volume, the modernity of genocide becomes not only its most chilling, but its quintessential characteristic and one that sets it apart from mass murders of the past.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Norman M. Naimark, Canadian Journal of History Vol. 40.1 (2005) p172-73

    In this review Naimark discusses the contents of the book and contextualizes the piece within the study of genocide as a whole. He touches on the growth of genocide studies since the 1990s, how this growth has affected intervention in genocidal situations since then as well as the authors' influence within this. He describes the book as both geographically and historically wide-ranging,  and one that discusses issues of  comparability, definition of genocide, and its relationship to "modernity". He also highlights the limitations as well as accomplishments within the study of genocide. He brings attention to the political shift after September 11, 2001, that marked a shift in the international system that took attention away from genocide and human rights issues. The article discusses the book's origins as well as questions the credibility of the authors and of genocidal study as a whole.

  • Glenn Sharfman, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Vol 23.3 (2005): p188-19

     In this review Glenn Sharfman claims that this volume brings light to an issue that is seemingly "incomprehensible". He asserts that it provides valuable links between horrific examples of mass killing and also brings awareness to the difficulties both emotionally and methodologically to such a study. He argues that the case-by-case, localized level of comparison is a more comprehensive approach to examine the complexities and constituencies of genocide. He questions the diction behind terms like mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war to better understand where these terms overlap, cover, and differentiate from one another. In addition He brings attention to the potential relationship between colonialism and genocide. In addition Sharfman addresses the unevenness in knowledge about genocides such as Stalin's versus Hilter's which makes comparative analysis difficult to balance.

  • Joyce Apsel, Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 37.1 (2006): p94-96

    Apsel provides an in-depth overview of the book and discusses importance in addressing key issues in the emerging field of Genocide Studies. She discusses the structure of the book, which is divided into four sections of which all include a selection of essays that pertain to that specific topic such as "genocide and modernity". Some of these essays focus on specific crimes in a given country and are give detailed accounts to particular instances as well as aims to answer why and how some conflict repeatedly turn to mass murder. The article overviews both Weitz and Kiernan's essays in particular as they are representative of their sections. Apsel claims that "Specter of Genocide" is an important contribution to the study of mass crime and genocides because it includes the histories of those targeted and often eliminated as well as countering both the denial and distortion that all too often, make up the official accounting of such events.

Books and Articles

  • Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University, 2008), 724 pages

    In this subsequent book, Kiernan examines mass violence from the classical era to the present, with a focus on colonial exterminations and twentieth century case studies including the Armenian genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s mass murders, and the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. He discusses patterns, connections, and common features of these atrocities and presents warning signs for future cases as well. This book expands Kiernan's argument in his essay "Genocide in the Twentieth Century" and provides an in-depth analysis and examination of genocide and genocidal acts within and beyond the twentieth century.

  • Eric Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003, 360 pages. UCSB HV6322.7 .W45

    Professor Weitz provides a comparative study of genocidal accounts in the twentieth century including Stalin's Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot and Bosnia in the 1990s.  Weitz discusses how the influence of the Enlightenment coupled with the ideologies of the nationalism and racism as the "engine" for state-organized genocide in the twentieth century. Weitz then delves into the historical precedents in each country, and provides a comparative analysis of the occurrences in each.  This book expands Weitz's essay "The Modernity of Genocide" and provides a deeper explication of his argument. The book is a valuable source to supplement The Specter of Genocide because it provides a deeper discussion of genocide in relation to modernity.

Relevant Websites

  • Gavin Philip, Genocide in the Twenthieth Century The History Place, 06 Nov. 2000. Web. 08 Mar. 2010

    This website provides a comprehensive history of the major cases of genocides that occurred in the twentieth century including the Armenian, Rwandan, and Holocaust. It is a good source if you wish to seek more information about specific cases of genocide. However, it does not have much discussion on the topic of genocide nor does it provide comparative analysis of the genocides it examines. It is a good source if you would like to get a full profile of many of the genocides discussed in the Kiernan and Gellately's anthology.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, What is Genocide? May 4, 2009. web. Mar. 7 2010

    This website provides a brief but comprehensive history of the term genocide and its evolution since its coinage. The site also provides useful links to other sites and scholarly articles on specific cases of genocide, prevention, and criminology in  International Courts. This website is valuable if you wish to seek more information about genocide as a concept, its context within history, and preventative measures the individual can take.

  • William D. Rubenstein, The Social Affairs Unit - Web Review: Genocide and the West: Why Modernity Is Not to Blame for Twentieth Century Genocides The Social Affairs Unit - Website. 2 Sept. 2004. Web. 08 Mar. 2010.

    This website offers an opposing viewpoint to the authors and essays in Kiernan and Gellatley's anthology. Professor. William D. Rubenstein disputes the notion of genocide is a modern affair and argues that these acts of mass-murder were caused by the breakdown of European elite and governmental structures in World War I and would not have occurred had the First World War not occurred. This is an excellent site that challenges the authors mentioned in the anthology to further discussion and debate on the topic of genocide and its relationship to modernity.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Danielle Bruckman on 3/22/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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