Genocide "In" Modernity

New research raises insights for Genocide Prevention

Posted Dec 02, 2019

After thinking through Levi’s Auschwitz Report I had an opportunity to turn to the field of comparative genocides studies. Initially, I team-taught a course on comparative genocide with James Fenelon, a colleague in the sociology department. Then I attended a seminar on comparative genocide at the USHMM led by John Roth and Donald Bloxham.  At the time Bloxham was working on his brilliant book The Final Solution: A Genocide. His claim that the Holocaust was “A” genocide was meant to provoke, which it eventually did, given the virulent response by Omer Bartov among others. 

I found Bloxham's thesis that the Holocaust is best viewed as the culmination of the competitive state system that emerges in the west after the unification of Germany, and as the traditional empires of the Ottoman, Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires collapse after WWI, intriguing.  At the time I had already published an introduction to comparative genocide literature entitled Weighing Genocide (it's available online and is a good introduction to the issues and what I say below). In my paper, and similar to Bloxham, I framed the Holocaust as the culmination of the genocidal processes of modernity. However, on the issue of the Holocaust as a “unique” genocide, I mirrored Yehuda Bauer’s conception that the Holocaust was unprecedented. Bloxham’s “A” genocide obviously rejected this positioning.  

As the seminar ended I was deeply disturbed by the concluding insights on genocide prevention,  and I said to Bloxham that I didn’t know whether to petition the US to join the international criminal court or to join the anti-WTO protests. Bloxham just smiled and said the latter. As an American “liberal” I recoiled at such a radical agenda – but it is a telling disagreement because in essence this is the debate in comparative genocide studies between liberal thinkers and post-structuralists - and it turns on how to place the Holocaust in our history. How did this fracture between the left and far-left in genocide studies emerge?

One way to think about the origins of this division is a return to the work of the prolific and brilliant historian George Mosse. Mosse was perhaps the pioneer in thinking about the place of Nazi “volkish” ideology in Western modernity. His early work, The Crisis of German Ideology (1964) supported the Sonderweg (Special Path) thesis that Germans thought had deviated from the rationalism of the European Enlightenment, making Nazism different from the liberal tradition and even other forms of fascism. Mosse continued in this vein in his next seminal work The Nationalization of the Masses (1975) which sustained his assertion that Nazism differed from liberal political culture. At the same time, he placed the origins of Nazism in the participatory politics of the French Revolution. In this way, he connected Nazism to democracy and nationalism but essentially as a counter politics that depended not on rational debates, but nationalized the masses through the dramatic ceremony (Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being for example) and exemplified in the Nazi party rallies. 

The “break” in Mosse’s thinking and more generally his revising of the Sonderweg thesis comes in his book Nationalism and Sexuality (1985). In this work, Mosse presents his provocative thesis that a virile hyper-masculinity (Mannerbund) and bourgeois respectability were the key components of national identity in Germany, and in particular as it culminated in the volkish ideology of Nazi Germany. In essence, if in his early work Nazism was presented as a type of antithesis to the rational, liberal bourgeoisie of modernity. Mosse now highlighted class, rather than nationalism as the explanation of how bourgeois culture culminated in Nazism.  For Mosse, throughout the 19th century, manliness became the normative national and bourgeois self-conception. 

It followed that Jews, homosexuals, mentally ill, etc. were the “other” of this new normative Mannerbund. Mosse was claiming that the bourgeois society was dependent on a binary opposition in order to exist, and perhaps his most radical assertion was that the revolutionary new man of Nazism was the incarnation of bourgeois respectability. Whatever the pitfalls of this argument (clearly Himmler’s Posen speech self-consciously reflects a transgression of bourgeois norms) by focusing on class Mosse had tied the Holocaust not as an aberration but rather a continuity with Enlightenment thinking. This is the treacherous doorway that the post-structuralists (and I have Foucault in mind here) have walked through.

In a similar vein the theorists of comparative genocide Mark Levine, Christian Gerlach have walked through this doorway and extended Mosse’s insight to claim that genocides in both their colonial forms and the modern 20th century variant of state-sponsored, all originate in the 18th-century revolutionary period.  In his seminal article, Why is the 20th Century the Century of Genocide? Levine explicitly indicts the system of nation-states that emerge in the West and suggests the West was genocidal at the outset not because of the early modern conquest and destruction in the Americas but rather the first contender:

“might be the 1793-94 revolutionary Jacobin onslaught on the Vendee region.  Here we can observe a premeditated, systematic …attempt at people destruction closely linked to rapid nation-state building within a much broader crisis of interstate relations.”  

Similarly, in his article “Extremely Violent Societies: an alternative to the concept of Genocide” Christian Gerlach wants to revise the term genocide but also contends this type of violence originates with the advent of modernity. For Gerlach the key to understanding “the emergence of extremely violent societies has been in positive correlation with…the idea and practice of political participation.” Gerlach is wise enough to recognize that “to link political participation to the growth of violence may appear as a reactionary thought” but nevertheless justifies his claim that historical honesty and perhaps finding a way to prevent extreme violence forces us to recognize the connection between genocide and political participation. 

It is also easy to argue that the terror stage of the French Revolution was the first modern form of an orgy of political violence. But it is also evident at the outbreak of the Revolution (the so-called bourgeois phase) in Abbe Sieyes’s pamphlet What is the Third Estate? where he answers “everything, but an everything shackled and oppressed” and concludes the nation would be better off without the parasitical privileged order. Sieyes’s vision clearly contains the consciousness for the annihilation of the aristocracy. 

With these post-structuralist theorists, we have entered the dark side of the Enlightenment, the neo-Foucauldian world where there is no room for liberated humanity but only different forms of domination.  But Mosse, Levene, and Gerlach nevertheless embraced humanism.  Mosse promoted a cultured politics of Bildung (cultivation of the self).  In his article dissenting voice Levine argued “an interconnected world without genocide can only develop in one in which economic domination, as well as political hubris, have been outlawed, in other words, in which principles of equity, social justice, environmental sustainability – and one might add genuine human kindness have become the “norm.””   

Can the Enlightenment project of liberated humanity be saved in light of these insights by genocide theorists?

In my graduate seminars with Tony Judt, he consistently made the point that the vast majority of Jews that were killed in the Holocaust were made “stateless” by Hitlerian politics.  This point was recently expounded upon and developed by Timothy Snyder in Black Earth. As Snyder points out everywhere the Nazis destroyed states 19 out 20 Jews were killed.  In countries allied or only occupied by Nazis 1 out of 2 Jews survived.  A horrifying number nevertheless a significant difference.  In addition, the acclaimed rescuers Chiune Suighara and Raoul Wallenberg were able to rescue Jews because they had access to state power via identity cards/passports which provided protection for the lucky few. But for post-structuralist thinkers, the advent of the Western state system is why the 20th Century becomes the Century of genocide. 

Levine makes the argument against liberal thinkers that propose the institutions of the UN and international law can prevent genocide even more forcefully in his Dissenting Voice: or how current assumptions of deterring and preventing genocide may be looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. No doubt he is correct that state-sponsored genocides have marked the 20th century, but more often than not the genocides occurred against people made “stateless” by revolutionary groups that had taken over the instruments of the state to do what they wanted with people they perceived outside of the new community.  For these reasons, I remain on the other side of the debate from Bloxham.  Rather than dismantle the system via the anti-WTO movement a better option is to join the international criminal court. In my opinion, HUMAN RIGHTS – and the institutions that sustain them offer the best hope for stopping genocidal outbursts.  Thus as global citizens, we all have the “responsibility to protect” our fellow kin.  The state system is not the problem – it is the failure of the state to protect its citizens.