The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective

By Robert Gellately; Ben Kieman | Go to book overview
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Modern Genocide in Rwanda
Ideology, Revolution, War, and Mass Murder in an African State

In April 1994 the world was flooded by grisly images of piles of murdered men, women, and children from Rwanda. Some of the bodies were discovered in mass graves, some in churches and schools that had become catacombs for the victims, and some floating along rivers and rotting in lakes. The slaughter was so extensive that the bodies threatened to clog the rivers and pollute the lakes. It soon became clear that the world community was once more confronted with genocide. Indeed, what happened in Rwanda was no limited massacre or even what the United Nations calls a “genocidein-part.” This was the real thing: more than a half-million Tutsi murderedthree-quarters of the population–and the attempt by the Rwandan state and the Hutu majority to exterminate every last Tutsi. Like the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide the destruction in Rwanda fits the category of “total domestic genocide, what the UN calls a “genocide-in-whole.”1 My aim in this chapter is to demystify the Rwandan genocide and to see it clearly as an instance of state-sponsored mass murder driven by ideology in a context of revolution and war that has been a hallmark of our modern era.

A version of this chapter was first presented as a paper at the conference on comparative genocide, sponsored by the H. F. Guggenheim Foundation, Barcelona, Spain, December 7–10, 2000. I wish to thank Professor David N. Smith for helpful comments. Of course, I take full responsibility for any shortcomings in this chapter.

According to the widely accepted UN definition formulated in 1948, genocide means actions “committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” By implication the UN recognizes the distinction between the destruction of a group as a “whole” (genocide-in-whole) from the destruction of its “part” (genocide-in-part), although it uses the same term for both phenomena. I have emphasized that distinction to differentiate “total” (genocide-inwhole), like the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and Rwanda, from “partial” genocide, like Biafra, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The significant point here is that the Rwandan genocide was an instance of a “total” genocide or extermination, which makes it comparable to the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. See Yearbook of the United Nations, 1948–49 (New York, 1949), 959–60. For a more detailed discussionof these terms, see my Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (1992; Chicago, 1996), 22–30.


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