The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kierman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 396 pp. $22.00.

Robert Gellately, a specialist in Nazi Germany, and Ben Kierman, the preeminent authority on the Cambodian Killing Fields, have compiled a book of essays that examine the numerous genocides of the twentieth-century. This volume will be invaluable for scholars of all disciplines who seek to gain a greater comprehension of what, on the surface, seems incomprehensible. The editors have gathered articles on the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge genocide, Armenia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, as would be expected, but other essays examine less well known examples in Namibia during the first decade of the last century, Guatemala (Mayan), Ethiopia, and Indonesia (East Timor). One of the questions that permeate the book is whether scholars can find similarities between and among the horrific examples of mass killing. Comparative genocide is a difficult subject to study, both emotionally and also methodologically. Eric Weitz, in a fascinating piece on "The Modernity of Genocides," argues that in the last century genocides "have become more frequent, more extensive, and more systematic" (p. 71). He contends that the intensity and volume has increased not only because of technology, but also because of a culture of killing that is frequently linked with race. While not ignoring past examples of mass murder prior to 1900, Weitz claims that both technology and ideology have defined what makes genocide modern.

Weitz's analysis is on the macro level and does not explain why in some instances genocide occurs and in others -- where similar conditions exist -- it does not. His use of race and purity as an integral factor is, however, convincing. The most perplexing, but also the most interesting, account is Omer Bartov's "Seeking the Roots of Modern Genocide: On the Macro- and Micro-history of Mass Murder." Bartov's article includes a synopsis of one relatively small example of genocide during the Holocaust, the murder of the Jews of Buczacz, which is illuminating because it is really only on a case-by-case basis that one can begin to understand the complexities of genocide. Some towns like Buczacz offer an example where Jews were murdered by their neighbors for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, the ideology of race and purity. In other European towns similar to Buczacz some Jews were saved for a variety of reasons that can blur when looking at genocide from a larger perspective.

Most of the contributors broach the differences between what constitutes genocide legally as opposed to what denotes mass murder; the 1948 UN Resolution on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide is reproduced in the appendix. This distinction has recently become more important with the advent of war crimes trials. Jay Winter's interesting article, "Under the Cover of War: The Armenia Genocide in the Context of Total War," argues that the Armenian example serves as a bridge that links the several cases of deportation and mass murder during the nineteenth century with those more violent and systematic episodes of genocide in the twentieth, "when the motives of ethnic greed and hatred were mobilized by unscrupulous elites in the context of total war" (p. 213). Winter points out some differences between the Armenian episode and the later incidences of ethnic cleansing, but in the end he sees more continuity. …