Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina's Military Juntas

Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina's Military Juntas

Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina's Military Juntas

Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina's Military Juntas

Synopsis

Genocide not only annihilates people but also destroys and reorganizes social relations, using terror as a method. In Genocide as Social Practice, social scientist Daniel Feierstein looks at the policies of state-sponsored repression pursued by the Argentine military dictatorship against political opponents between 1976 and 1983 and those pursued by the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945. He finds similarities, not in the extent of the horror but in terms of the goals of the perpetrators.

The Nazis resorted to ruthless methods in part to stifle dissent but even more importantly to reorganize German society into a Volksgemeinschaft, or people's community, in which racial solidarity would supposedly replace class struggle. The situation in Argentina echoes this. After seizing power in 1976, the Argentine military described its own program of forced disappearances, torture, and murder as a "process of national reorganization" aimed at remodeling society on "Western and Christian" lines.

For Feierstein, genocide can be considered a technology of power--a form of social engineering--that creates, destroys, or reorganizes relationships within a given society. It influences the ways in which different social groups construct their identity and the identity of others, thus shaping the way that groups interrelate. Feierstein establishes continuity between the "reorganizing genocide" first practiced by the Nazis in concentration camps and the more complex version--complex in terms of the symbolic and material closure of social relationships --later applied in Argentina. In conclusion, he speculates on how to construct a political culture capable of confronting and resisting these trends.

First published in Argentina, in Spanish, Genocide as Social Practice has since been translated into many languages, now including this English edition. The book provides a distinctive and valuable look at genocide through the lens of Latin America as well as Europe.

Excerpt

In recent years, the field of genocide studies has begun a critical reassessment. As this process has taken place, concepts and cases, old and new, have come into dialogue and important conversations and debates have begun. Several of these discussions emerge in Daniel Feierstein’s Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas, which constitutes a key contribution to this turn in our understanding of genocide.

The title highlights the book’s challenge. Genocide, it tells us, may centrally involve not just the mass destruction of a group of marginalized “others,” as conventional understandings hold, but a profound internal reorganization of society amidst fear and terror. Viewing genocide as a social practice opens up an entirely different way of understanding such violence, one initially suggested by Raphael Lemkin, the person who coined the term. Not surprisingly, Professor Feierstein discusses Lemkin’s work at length, even as he develops his own arguments about the nexus of genocide, power, and social life.

Professor Feierstein’s book offers yet another provocation as it juxtaposes the Argentinian and Nazi cases. For many people, the destruction of European Jewry stands as the exemplar of genocide, a notion epitomized, through metonymy, by industrial mass murder at Auschwitz. Genocide as Social Practice argues that the 1976–1983 violence in Argentina, during which perhaps 20,000 people perished and many more suffered in fear and terror, was a case of genocide comparable—not in the numbers killed but in the social effects of the violence—to the Nazi reorganization of Germany and occupied Europe.

Professor Feierstein makes this argument through a detailed comparison of both cases. In doing so, he suggests that, like Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, concentration camps in Argentina may also shed light on the genocidal process in general, and genocide as a social practice in particular.

His challenge to our understanding of genocide emerges in other ways as well. Written as a series of trials in Argentina were underway, Genocide as Social Practice asks us to take a closer look not just at our commonsense understandings of genocide, but also at the definition given in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

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