The Killing Fields: Changes in the Character of War Partially Account for the Mass Murders of the Past Century. but the Rise of Democracy Also Plays a Role

By Skidelsky, Robert | New Statesman (1996), January 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Killing Fields: Changes in the Character of War Partially Account for the Mass Murders of the Past Century. but the Rise of Democracy Also Plays a Role


Skidelsky, Robert, New Statesman (1996)


Why did the 20th century produce so much mass killing of civilians--a phenomenon so terrible and unexpected that it caused a new word, "genocide", to be coined to describe it? Mass slaughter is nothing new. What was new was its return to the centres of civilisation after two centuries of progress. From Europe, it spread to Asia and Africa. In Rwanda on 7 April 1994, the Hutus started killing the Tutsis, or "cockroaches" as they were called. They shot and hacked a million to death in three months. The killings were as coldly deliberate as those organised by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The great powers supplied the weapons that allowed the genocide to happen and withdrew the small force of UN peacekeepers who might have stopped it.

Rwanda's was only the most horrific of the recent killings to challenge our facile ideas about the perfectibility of man. It showed that under the right circumstances human males can quickly revert to being killing machines, it showed up the decadence and cynicism of the "international community", too weak to act but not to play power games with people's lives. A hapless Belgian paratroop commander remarked: "My perception of the classic UN operations was that the UN does not fight ... I was blinded by this logic, paralysed by it." Such is the grim testimony to impotence in the face of evil. The genocide exposed in tragic relief the fallacies on which our global "order" is still based.

Reading about the Rwandan atrocities set me thinking about my own first trivial experience of collective brutality. It was when I was 14. It took place at my very English boarding school and involved very ordinary English boys. It was a Sunday evening, and the group of small boys in our "prep room" had spent an enjoyable hour or so "ragging" an unpopular, physically unprepossessing boy, who could barely hold back his tears. The chapel bell sounded and we trooped in to a sermon on the evils of bullying. After it was over, the boys went back to their bullying as though the sermon had never been.

I had not taken part in the "ragging, before chapel, and I did not take part after. It was my first clear sense that I was different. Not only did I get no pleasure from bullying, but I viewed the episode from the outside--as something that could easily happen to me. I wish I could say I empathised with the suffering victim. But I do not remember doing so. What I did understand was that for the boys, hunting in a pack was fun. They could not admit this. If asked to justify their behaviour, they would have pointed out certain unpleasant behavioural traits of their victim--he did not wash, he smelt, he was a "weed". Some of these might have been true. But the same excuses would be trotted out for bullying someone else. It was also clear that the pack could turn just as suddenly against one of their own--or against me. Most of the boys became good friends of mine. But this did not save me from their attentions when the mood turned anti-Skidelsky. Eventually, I learnt that turning my cleverness into verbal attack gave me sufficient protection. The other feature of the situation was the breakdown of authority. The housemaster had lost control; the boys ran wild. Human nature was released from its restraints.

Killing, like bullying, is evil. We find it hard to use the word. The collapse of the theological idea of "original sin" has meant that we are driven to explain killing by social and economic conditions, without being able to explain why those conditions produced that kind of reaction. At the same time, "original sin" cannot explain why certain ages and cultures seem more prone to mass murders than others. So we need to understand why the 20th century was such a "killing" century, even as we recognise that genocidal tendencies lie deep in human nature.

The main killing episodes of the 20th century are the Turkish slaughter of the Christian Armenians (one million) in 1915, Stalin's "liquidation of the kulaks as a class" in the 1930s (ten million), Hitler's murder of the Jews in 1941-44 (six million), Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" of 1959-51 (30 million), Pol Pot's Cambodian "killing fields" in 1975-79 (two million) anti the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (one million). …

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