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

Mass Killing as a Last Resort

Book Essay on: Benjamin Valentino, Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century
( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 309pages.
UCSB: HV6322.7.V35 2004

by Jenny Su
March 23, 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

About Jenny Su

I am a senior mechanical engineering major at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The topic of genocide appealed to me when I realized that I knew very little about it. I was not aware that there were so many occurrences of genocide during the twentieth century. I chose to review this book because I wanted to know how and why so many people were massacred.

Abstract (back to top)

In Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century, Benjamin Valentino takes eight case studies of mass killing in the twentieth century and groups them into three categories: communist, ethnic, and counterguerrilla. The Soviet Union, China and Cambodia fall under the category of communist mass killing. Radical communist visions require social and economic transformations as well as massive relocations of peasants. This led to the highest number of deaths compared to the other two categories. Turkish Armenia, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda involve ethnic mass killing. Ethnic mass killing occurs when perpetrators believe that their opponents pose a threat that can only be countered by implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing to physically remove them from society (Valentino, 76). Counterguerilla mass killings occurred in Guatemala and Afghanistan due to military strategies specifically designed to eliminate the civilian support network upon which the guerilla forces depended (Valentino, 232). Valentino successfully argues that mass killing is carried out by small radical groups that perceive their victims as a threat. These radical groups are usually driven by instrumental and strategic calculations and generally resort to mass killing as a last resort after having attempted other ways of dealing with the imagined (or real) threat.

Essay (back to top)

Valentino does not use the term “genocide” in this book often. According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, the definition of genocide is the “deliberate acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, racial, religious or political group on grounds of the national or racial origin, religious belief or political opinion of its members” (Landau, 16). Valentino feels this definition of genocide has a relatively narrow meaning, both in its etymology and in the formal United Nations definition of groups that qualify as its victims (Valentino, 9). Instead, he uses the term mass killing. He defines mass killing as the intentional killing of at least fifty thousand noncombatants over the course of five or fewer years. This definition of mass killing is much broader and can encompass more accounts of isolated deaths in countries during the twentieth century.

Communist Mass Killing

The highest number of deaths due to mass killing was committed by Communist regimes mainly due to agricultural collectivization. The total number of people killed range as high as 110 million (Valentino, 91). Agricultural collectivization was forced upon people living in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia. Collectivization caused many deaths because it demanded the removal of large numbers of peasants from their land. In order for collectivization to work, preexisting forms of agriculture had to be destroyed to pave way for the new system to exist. Lastly, many people perished in starvation due to famine as a direct result of collectivization.

Valentino argues that mass killing is a means to an end, not an end in itself (Valentino, 235). Mass killing was the last resort solution to end what leaders thought was a dangerous threat. Valentino gives supporting evidence of how leaders tried different approaches before allowing huge causalities to noncombatants. Case studies of the Soviet Union, China, and Germany show how leaders’ unsuccessful beginning efforts led to the ultimate decision of mass killing.

Soviet leaders were convinced that rapid industrialization of the economy was essential if the Soviet Union wanted to catch up and overtake the West (Valentino, 101). The only way to finance this Marxist ideology was through the expropriation of land from the peasants. The first attempt to control agriculture in the Soviet Union was in 1918. The Bolsheviks enacted war communism as a temporary measure due to the Russian civil war. The peasants did not care about the political rationale and responded with a full scale civil war. Lenin had to abandon war communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in March 1921. After Lenin died, Stalin came to power and two major developments occurred between 1926 and 1928 that reignited collectivization. The first was the alleged rumors that Poland and Germany, with the support of Britain and France, were conspiring to redraw the map of Eastern Europe at the expense of the Soviet Union (Valentino, 104). The second was a severe grain crisis that was deteriorating the economy. Stalin openly supported NEP, but it failed in the increase of grain production. Stalin had no choice but to enforce rapid collectivization. Between 8.5 million and 14.5 million people probably perished in the violence and famine associated with collectivization (Valentino, 110). Stalin might not have anticipated the massive violence needed to transpire in order to achieve his goals, but it was the only way to advance the economy. He was taking extreme precautionary measures to ensure the survival of the Soviet Union in the case of an attack.

Mao Zedong was the Communist leader of China from 1949 to 1979. Tens of millions of people died under his rule. Most died as a result of the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962. Valentino states that the cause of mass killing in China is hard to assess because the deaths were unintentional. Mao had a vision of a utopian socialist society for China. He and the Chinese Communist Party truly believed that the collectivization of agriculture was the key to economic development and industrialization (Valentino, 118). Valentino defends Mao’s intent by showing proof that Mao’s true and ultimate goal was to convert China into a communist society for the good of the people. For nine years, Mao practiced a successful gradual land reform. However, due to low agricultural production and the Soviet Union’s lack of promised financial support, a much more radical collectivization was needed. Also, the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 led Mao to become suspicious of members in the political party. These suspicions drove Mao to believe that he had to protect his utopian vision. He began to strategically plan his course of action. First, he accused certain political elites of disagreeing with his socialist programs and blamed them for the slow economic development. He initiated a series of political purges to eliminate these party members and people associated to them. Then, he was able to commence the Great Leap Forward in 1958, which resulted in the death of many people.

Rapid collectivization during the Great Leap Forward led to the most devastating famine in human history. About thirty million people died in the four terrible years between 1958 and 1962 (Valentino, 126). Valentino argues that Mao did not intend to starve these people but was unrelenting in his goals of China’s social transformation. He did not seek violent destruction but he was prepared to accept it as a means to achieve his goals (Valentino, 132). Mao’s inability to attain his vision of a utopian society compelled him to implement more radical programs as a way to stimulate the desired economic growth. The unfortunate result was a large loss of many innocent lives.

From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was under the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) also known as the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge operated on secrecy. Leaders rarely spoke in public and there is a limited amount of documentation on their ideology compared to the Soviet Union and China. Most of the violence in Cambodia seems to have been the result of communist leaders’ efforts to crush real and perceived resistance to the radical transformation (Valentino, 133). Other communist countries warned Cambodian leaders of the dangers of communism. Khmer Rouge leaders were egotistical and did not listen. Instead they bragged and said “that he would show the world that pure communism could indeed be achieved in one fell swoop…We will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps” (Valentino, 133). Pol Pot claimed “The goal of our collectivism is to raise the living standards of the people” (Valentino, 136). The Khmer Rouge collectivization went at an extraordinary pace. It was the fastest and most devastating collectivization presented by Valentino. Khmer Rouge wanted to achieve full collectivization in two years. This unrealistic goal killed between one to two million people. Khmer Rouge’s dream of a simple, quick transition to a higher standard of living promised by a communist society led to a devastating number of deaths of the people they were trying to help.

Ethnic Mass Killing

Valentino argues that there is a difference between ethnic cleansing and mass killing. Ethnic cleansing is “fundamentally a policy of social engineering” (Valentino, 155). It refers to the removal of large groups of people who share a common race or belief from their homes. This may or may not lead to ethnic mass killing. “Ethnic mass killing results from the efforts to fundamentally reorganize society at the expense of certain groups” (Valentino, 153). The result of mass killing is due to the large amount of violence required to coerce people to move from their homes. The goal of rapid relocation is unrealistic. Often times, deportation seems impractical and impossible. Mass killing is the strategic solution that occurs when leaders come to believe that large scale violence is the most practical way to accomplish a policy of ethnic cleansing (Valentino, 155). Leaders do not kill for the thrill of killing. Although ethnic cleansing and mass killing do not have the same meaning, they go hand in hand.

Hitler and a small group of radical antisemitic elites believed that the Jews posed a mortal political and racial threat to Germany (Valentino, 167). The first threat was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitler claimed that the Jews were involved in a vast international conspiracy to destroy Germany and achieve world domination. The second threat was a biological threat that came from social-Darwinist ideology. Hitler viewed Jews as an inferior race, filled with disease. He wanted a pure Aryan-German race. The extermination order of the Jews came during the late summer of 1941. About 3.8 million Jews died shortly after. Valentino disagrees with most intentionalist interpretations of the Holocaust. He rejects the theory that Hitler always intended to kill the Jews. No documents can be found prior to 1941 that could prove that Hitler had any systematic planning of mass murder. However, there was proof that Hitler wanted to deport the Jews or that they emigrate and resettle out of Germany. Hitler also made numerous statements in both public and private settings explicitly calling for Jewish deportation to France, Britain, and the United States (Valentino, 175). Hitler made the extermination order as a final solution. Had the other countries come to the aid of the Jews, many lives could have been spared.

Turkey entered the First World War in the winter of 1914. At that time, the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of a collapse. Turkish leaders thought that the Armenians were a threat in their deteriorating army. They were afraid that the Armenians would aid the allies and fight back in the homeland. A decision was made to remove Armenians from the Turkish homeland using whatever the means necessary (Valentino, 164). From 1915 to 1918, between 500,000 and 1,500,000 of the 2,000,000 Armenians living in Turkey died in the first ethnic mass killing of the twentieth century (Valentino, 157). Turkish leaders thought an Armenian genocide was the only way to stop the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish historians and some Western scholars have suggested that the deportations were intended as a temporary military measure and that the massive death toll was the unintended result of famine (Valentino, 164). Whether or not this was really intended to be a temporary measure, the famine that spread amongst those deported was an unfavorable result of trying to move so many people so quickly. While Turkish military leaders only intended to remove the immediate threat of an Armenian betrayal, the decision to move the Armenians to the desert led to the death of about seventy percent of its population.

The roots of the genocide in Rwanda can be traced back to the 1950s. Decolonization and democratization sparked the feud between the Hutu and Tutsi. The Hutu won the struggle for political power and forced thousands of Tutsis to leave the country. Thirty years later, the Tutsi organized the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in Uganda. In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda in hope of overthrowing the regime. Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana failed at a political and military confrontation, so he tried a compromise by allowing multiple parties into the government. The Hutus felt threatened by the change. The transition in government meant power sharing and the loss of Hutu personal privileges. Finally, extremist Hutu leaders believed that the Tutsi posed a threat to the Hutu general public in Rwanda. The decision for genocide in Rwanda in 1994 came after the assassination of President Habyarimana. The Hutu extremists reacted at a furious speed. The less violent removal of the Tutsi people in the 1950s allowed the Tutsi people to reorganize and return to threaten the power of the Hutu thirty years later. The Hutu leaders did not want to repeat the mistake of 1950s, so they took the most extreme measure of mass killing to ensure the safety of their people. The killings were primarily performed with small arms and sharp-edged weapons which resulted in 500,000 to 800,000 people murdered in less than three months. A quarter of a million of people may have been killed in the first two weeks of genocide (Valentino, 187). If the initial removal in the 1950s had been successful, the Hutu leaders would not have continued to feel threatened by the Tutsi and the Hutus would not have resorted to such extreme measures to protect their people.

Counterguerrilla Warfare

Mass killing in counterguerrilla warfare is often viewed by its perpetrators, in cold military terms, as a tactic to respond to the unique threats posed by their guerilla opponents (Valentino, 1999). Tactics used to stop guerilla warfare led to mass killing, but its intentions were not the casualties of so many civilian lives. Counterguerrilla forces terrorize and intimidate the guerillas’ civilian support in order to intimidate the community from aiding the guerillas. They force displacement and resettlement of civilian population so that the guerrillas have no place to hide. Also, they systematically burn of crops, livestock, dwelling and other infrastructure to break down guerrilla activity. Mass killing directly caused by counterguerrilla warfare is primarily motivated by the nature of guerrilla warfare itself. The mass killings in Guatemala and Afghanistan were not the result of frustrated or racist troops, but rather of military strategies specifically designed to eliminate the civilian support network upon which Guatemalan and Afghan guerrilla forces depended (Valentino, 232).


This book examined eight cases of mass killing and was able to convey the different causes in each country. Scholars of genocide and mass killing have recognized that leaders resort to mass killing due to practical limitations and the need for a more immediate solution. Valentino argues that these methods are short-term solutions in response to the social and political structure that must be transformed. Many countries, including the United States have used this excuse to not intervene to halt genocide. Valentino poses a better solution. He suggests focusing attention on societies with weak or unstable political institutions and new rising radical political and military powers. Understanding the ideologies, goals and interest of these groups can be used to prevent mass killing in the future. He also suggests that if direct intervention from other powerful foreign countries leads to unnecessary casualties, opening up borders to house the refugees fleeing a massive attack could dramatically decrease the number of deaths. As the world begins to understand the factors that lead to mass killing, there is hope that these issues will be addressed before they become a problem.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Michael Quinlan, review essay of several books, Survival 47, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 188-190.

    This reviewer opens the article by complimenting Valentino’s definition of mass killing. It did not offer details describing why genocide occurred. The reviewer critiques the book for not mentioning mass killing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This led to the comparison of Valentino’s book to another genocide book that included Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was not helpful in my case.

  • John Ikenberry, G., Foreign Affairs 83, no. 5 (September 2004): 164.

    The review was short and specific. It provided a lot of key information in a compact form. The main topics were presented in a clear and precise manner. The review did not offer a detailed explanation of Valentino’s claims. The review was helpful in pinpointing the main topics covered in the book.

  • Gregory Stanton, Wilson Quarterly 28, no. 4 (September 2004): 116. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 7, 2010)

    This review had detailed descriptions of the book. It had a brief summary of important topics covered by Valentino. The review shows topics that were successfully argued throughout the book. Also, it pointed out weak sections that need more clarification.

Books and Articles

  • Ronnie Landau,, The Nazi Holocaust Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1992, 356 pages

    This book was a required reading for the History 133D class. I cited the meaning of genocide form it. This book is broken into three main parts. Part 1 consists of the background information on Jewish history and how Zazism came about. Part 2 is a history of the Holocaust. Part 3 is devoted to the themes, issues and protagonists.

  • Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction New York: Routledge, 2006, 430 pages.

    This book is divided into four main parts. It begins with overview of the origins of genocide and how it is related to imperialism, war and social revolution. Then it describes many cases of genocide from the time of the Armenian genocide to the recent events in Rwanda. The third part of the book offers a social science perspective, which includes a psychological, social, anthropological perspective. The book concludes with strategies of the intervention and prevention of genocide in the future.

  • Manus I Midlarsky, The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century Cambridge University Press, 2005. 480 pages.

    This book offers insight into the perpetrators and their theoretical foundations which led to genocide. Then it talks about how the theories were applied in the various cases of genocide. There is a section in the book devoted to victim vulnerability by explaining the magnitudes and manner of dying. The book ends with a conclusion of the author’s finding, consequences and prevention theory.

  • Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide New York: HarperCollins Publisher Inc., 2002, 688 pages.

    This book is the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. The book begins with how the international community did little to stop the Armenian genocide. It continues by explaining Raphael Lemkin’s crusade to coin the term genocide, and how he convinced the world that it was a crime and should be recognized and punished. The rest of the book provides an analysis of the many cases of genocide to which the United States government was unwilling to intervene. Powers claims that many deaths could have been avoided if the United States would have aided those countries.

Relevant Websites

  • Wikipedia, Genocide Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 8, 2010)

    Wikipedia is a good first starting point to find the definition of genocide. The website explains the history of the word and how it is a crime. This website is useful because at the end of the article, Wikipedia provides a large list of books for further reading on the topic.

  • Philip Gavin , Genocide in the 20th Century November 6, 2000

    This website covers seven different cases of genocide during the twentieth century. This page is reliable because the author received a BA from Northeastern University and a MS from Boston University. The website could be used as a second source to look up key events that took place during the genocide. This is website is similar to what one would find in a history book. It offers a time line of the actual event and the number of deaths that took place.

  • , http://www.genocide.org/

    This website was established in 2001 by a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of genocide, holocaust and democide. It provides a compilation of many articles written on thirty different cases of genocide. Clicking on a case will bring up an article about the event or a link to another website where more information can be found on that case. Also, there is a section that has links to ten different nonprofit organizations dedicated to the study and prevention of genocide.

  • , http://www.ushmm.org/genocide/take_action/gallery/portrait/lemkin

    This website offers a short video testimony by Jerry Fowler, the president of Save Darfur Coalition, in honor of Raphael Lemkin. The video contains some brief clips of Lemkin’s speeches on genocide. Fowler gives his opinion on how he feels Lemkin would react to the acts of genocide in the past sixty years.

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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 Jenny Su on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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