January 27, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
On Genocide, Part I
IT IS DIFFICULT to avoid a smile whilst reviewing these recent events, which are so characteristic of our day. A certain professor “tweets,” on the eve of Jesus’ birth, his Christmas wish for “white genocide”; many angry voices debouch, denouncing what is called a flagrantly racist and inciting speech; to which the good professor replies, no doubt most candidly, that he was clearly being ironic, was but pricking humorously at various soft-skinned movements of the American far right, and that his irony is most clear in light of the fact that “white genocide” has never been perpetrated, and so is an imaginary menace. Erupts a general scandal, an uproar and counter-uproar as some demand the professor’s resignation, or at least swift penal action on the part of his university, and others, who would almost certainly not be so lenient had the color of his statement but differed, vehemently defend his words and his right to say them. The university replies at once that it will inquire into the matter, to see what is fair in it, and then—nothing more is ever heard of any of it, but the affair is quite lost to the dark.
Of course, it is no smiling matter, as many will remind me. There are real questions concealed in this simple debacle, questions regarding the freedom of our speech and the nature of our race relations, to say nothing of other and equally relevant political issues of our day. But if the good professor can with justice defend his right to his good humor, then certainly so can I: for I say, nothing is more serious than cheer, and nothing so frivolous as this bearded, frowning moral indignation which we ultramoderns like so much to wear upon our chins.
Well. We leave that matter where we find it, and do not deign to comment on the justice of either of the two positions—save to observe that both of them have atimes been even embarrassingly hypocritical, insofar as neither of them can with any consistency claim to have fallen on the right side of that “freedom of speech” which they both claim to cherish and protect. But that is egalitarian politics for you: one holds oneself to a different set of standards than one’s adversaries, and calls it justice. For the rest, this is a passing event, a mere sideshow, and not even so much as that, to the news of the day.
But no one can deny that it had its moment of incendiary fame; aye, it had hearts pounding righteously on all parts of our politic patchwork, and throughout all the many piebald regions of our country. Nor does one even need to ask why, the answer is so clear: our good professor’s “tweeting” struck so deep a chord for no other reason, than the appearance within it of those three potent little Grecian syllables.
The concept of genocide is so modern that it cannot help but provide a gateway through which one might penetrate some wing of the fortress known as contemporary political thought, to see just what those mighty palisades really contain. Indeed, one knows that this concept is vitally important to us for no other reason than this: it is so widely taken for granted, so universally assumed, that no one even bothers to look upon it any more, to see where the cracks might lie.
To put the matter somewhat more formally, it is evident that genocide is considered by our contemporary Occident to be one of, if not the greatest, evils that any individual or any nation may perpetrate. If one pays careful heed, one will indeed note that our morally dubious, not to say relativist, West, has almost altogether abandoned that little word “evil” which once had such great currency in European countries; but that whenever it does in good conscience still use it, wields it almost exclusively to decry the crime of genocide. This is significant: all moments in which a society contradicts itself with such purity of spirit are significant.
Genocide as a concept can be considered the international analogue of the so-called “hate crime,” another contemporary construct. But genocide is considerably more useful to any seeker who would stab toward the core of contemporary thought, because the law against genocide is imposed precisely on societies which are not our own, and which do not hold to our liberal standards. In the contemporary epoch, when our society embraces or claims to embrace the principle of “multiculturalism,” by which all other sovereign societies should be permitted to do as they please, it is most interesting when we decide to bend or to abandon this rule.
Now, I hope it will at least momentarily be forgiven me, if I dare remind my readers that it is not immediately evident why the crime of genocide should be so uniquely loathsome to us. No one will debate its vileness, but one may well ask why mass killings motivated by a will to exterminate a race or an ethnicity should be in any way worse that those which are motivated, say, by the will to maintain or expand a despotic regime by suppressing real or imagined political threats.
Yet the contemporary world evidently adheres precisely to this hierarchy. The symbol in absolute against whom we direct our ire, the one individual whose “evilness” is almost certain to be undisputed in any given segment of any given European population, is Hitler. Not, certainly, because he invaded Poland—for he was but the latest in a long and august line of European leaders to aggress upon another European state; nor because he almost certainly had designs on the whole of Europe, for in this case we should similarly demonize Napoleon, who after all got much further in the realization of such ambitions: rather, we hate him because he enacted a systematic attempt to eradicate a number of ethnic groups. This, and this alone, renders him (together with a small member of like despots) specially heinous to our eyes, in a way that other dictators of the same period were not.
Note well—this is not a question of numbers, it is not a question the extent of his crimes. Stalin and Mao both have more lives on their historic conscience than Hitler, and under Mao the numbers of the dead at least treble, compared with those killed under Hitler. In terms of the proportion of their own population that they murdered, the Khmer Rouge committed what may be the worst slaughter in history. Nor is Hitler’s special guilt a question of his cruelty; though torture was implemented in the Nazi concentration camps, and though life therein was most desperately tried and made most cheap, the methods the Germans favored and widely employed are certainly not more ruthless or more savage than those employed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, the Bolsheviks during the revolutionary war, the Ukranians against their own Jews, or the Japanese during the Rape of Nanchang; and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps are easily comparable to those suffered by the “political prisoners” of the gulag or by the prisoners of the Japanese during the Bataan Death March.
To repeat—it is not immediately obvious why the deeds of a racist or xenophobic dictator, all else being equal, should be worse than those committed by a tyrant against his own people, particularly when the tyrant is committing these actions on the grounds of a given ideology. Indeed, arguments could be made to the contrary. It is worth mentioning that, as horrible as they are, crimes against a given ethnic group can be explained as an atavism, some horrid specter arising out of our ancestral and tribal prehistory, some unexorcized demon of our deeper biology and our eldest psychology; while the ideological massacres of the communists in particular are distinctly modern and flow directly from some dark facet of our modern worldview. For that reason, it might be argued, they should trouble us the more. I for one believe that there is something more monstrous and horrifying in the prospect of a totalitarian despot who has so far severed all human bonds, and so far betrayed the first principles of his humanity in the name of some kind of nebulous idealogy, that he may torture or imprison or put to the sword friends, family, sycophants, kinsmen and compatriots with an almost perfect arbitrariness and an almost flawless indiscretion. Hitler, at least, was still in his twisted way German; his idea of humanity was absurdly abridged, horridly truncated, but it held sway with him yet. Not so much can be said of Stalin, who was not even in so paraplegic a manner any longer recognizable as a human being. All numbers aside, that to my eyes makes the Man of Steel the more chilling and detestable of the two figures.
Yet it is evident that we Occidentals feel differently: Hitler is uniquely wicked to us. Why? First, because he committed genocide; and second, because he was so diabolically successful in his efforts, when compared with all other genocidal despots in history.
Then may I be forgiven the audacity of inquiring: what is it in the prospect of genocide particularly that strikes us as being so exceedingly vicious and reprehensible, that it merits distinction even amongst the worst crimes of history?
Let us begin by laying bare with full rigor the difficulty inherent in our modern position—for, as we shall soon see, it is not so morally unambiguous as might at first appear to our overly accustomed eyes. Only by opening this matter up to the bone, as it were, will we begin to sense the skeleton that structures us.
Genocide, as a concept, was born after World War II, in response very specifically to the German massacre of several ethnicities within the borders of Nazi territory. Even one-hundred years ago, this concept enjoyed no independent existence, but was subsumed beneath the general idea of mass killing or mass violence. Genocide as such contains two specific elements which differentiate it from mass killing: first, that it is the intentional targeting of an ethnic group for extermination; and second, the inclusion within its parameters of mass sterilization, or economic or cultural oppression toward the goal of physical destruction of the group in question. These two elements might be reduced to a single one: genocide is the willful attempt to eradicate a certain group of human beings. The idea of genocide is thus connected surely with the hostilities of World War II, and withal the liberal society which emerged victorious from its ashes.
Our contemporary democracies are actuated by the ideal of equality, and the ancillary ideal of diversity. We live in pluralistic societies, which defend the right of all to live and act as they see fit, within the framework of our liberal law. Yet, as everyone knows, many countries of the world live according to other laws and other ways, and embrace neither equality nor diversity as ideals of society or state. Then we must differentiate between a local or national diversity, which is necessarily constrained within comparatively wide limits by the very tolerant customs, habits, and laws of liberalism, and an international diversity, which might well include forms and manners that are different from and even offensive to our egalitarian liberalism.
At first glance, genocide, a crime enshrined in international law, appears to be meant to constrain the actions precisely of such foreign and illiberal countries: it is, as it were, an outward-looking law, and its spirit is decidedly externalist.
Now, there exists today a dispute regarding the proper stance of liberal countries toward illiberal ones. In recent years the crux of this dispute has fallen between those who hold liberal society to be the good society, and who on the basis of this belief seek to “export democracy” and to liberalize historically very illiberal regions of the globe, and those who object to either the possibility or the desirability of so flagrantly imposing our own peculiar vision on peoples whose traditions are radically alien to it. We may generally characterize the former view as pertaining to the contemporary right, and the latter to the contemporary left, of our present day political spectrum.
But we note at once that these categories are not exhaustive of all possible political stances, nor even the existing stances within present day democracy. For there are, of course, conservative thinkers who do not support intervention of the kind mentioned, and there are “progressives” who tend to promote a more aggressive policy, in the interest of protecting specific human rights globally.
For the sake of clarity, then, we may cut a hierarchical line of principle through these lateral divisions, by differentiating between those who believe that no right determination of the good society can be attained by human beings, so that it is morally obligatory to leave foreign societies or tribes sovereign to reign as they see fit, and those who hold instead that liberal society is the good society or the best possible society here and now, and who consequently conclude that the nations of the world should ideally all be liberal societies, though it may be infeasible or even hazardous to attempt to convert many of them. The former position we may call the egalitarian position; the latter, we may call the liberal position.
Liberalism has to its favor a certain clarity of purpose and coherency of logic. In embracing the liberal society as the good society, it avoids many of the snags which catch constantly at the egalitarian’s garb, and so it is free occupy itself exclusively with the special troubles and contradictions of liberal society.
Egalitarianism, on the other hand, confronts from the very first a number of mishaps. As mentioned, this position is generally founded, if only tacitly, on a critique of morality, which concludes that objective morality is impossible. Good and evil either do not exist, or are not accessible to human beings. For this reason, the basic rightness of any particular human ways, customs, and beliefs is fundamentally indemonstrable; or, to put the matter positively, each human being, and consequently each human culture, is of identical dignity to the next.
Now, I do not believe there is an egalitarian of this or any stamp alive who would hesitate a single moment before condemning, in harshest possible terms, the murder of the Jews by Hitler, or of the Armenians by the Turks, or of the Bosniaks by the Serbs. To the contrary: it seems to me that it is precisely the egalitarian perspective which insists most strenuously on the unique wickedness of these acts and which is the fastest to denounce new cases of genocide. Despite all the very deep differences between the egalitarian and the liberal, there is yet a curious and most fascinatingly universal accord between them regarding the particular and unique atrocity of genocide.
If we are to get to the pith of this agreement, it will be necessary for us to consider the cases of genocide just cited, which are surely among the more nefarious and notorious cases of genocide known to our contemporary Western sensibilities—together, perhaps, with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and, lately and to a lesser extent, those of the Hussein regime in Iraq. Surely the European instances have remained more firmly etched in our minds, and to a lesser extent those instances occurring at the fringes of Europe (Turkey, after all, has almost been a European state). What is immediately interesting to note in all these cases is the degree to which these acts of politically mandated violence aligned with a fervent and altogether novel attitude called nationalism. They were all of them movements of the far right. They all arose from the action of strong central governments—strong, indeed, to the point of being authoritarian—combined with a powerful military or militaristic stance. And they all occurred in regions near the borders of pre-World War I empires—along the fracture lines of their crumbling.
These observations will carry us a ways toward the resolving of our mystery. “Genocide,” in the first place, is that species of international crime committed by the illiberal regimes of the Occident. Yet not all, nor even most, of the illiberal regimes which came to power in the inter-war period engaged in genocide. The belief in ethnic superiority, however, which in all cases precedes the crime of genocide, was an inextricable part of at least two of the major powers of the Axis—Germany and Japan—while Mussolini’s fascist state toyed with the concept and distanced itself from it by turns. Genocide, we may therefore say, is a crime characteristic of those World War II states which were at once the most illiberal and the most militant: it is a crime characteristic of those World War II states which most immediately menaced the liberal regimes of the West.
To be sure, following the war, the Soviet Union became another such enemy; but it was ever a kind of abstract, hypothetic enemy to the West. It was red to the map but gray to the battlefield. We did not expend our blood on the Russians, save but by most questionable proxy. The Soviet Union was, moreover, our ally in the most violent and costly part of World War II, and that complicated our stance toward it. Something similar could be said for China: never did we stand on any field against the men of Mao’s communist hordes, and indeed quite the contrary, for China became to us a kind of tentative ally in our long silent struggle against the Soviet. We invested, however, the lives of our men in Germany, and spent our blood upon its very soil. The Nazis in Germany, the fascists in Italy, and the Japanese, were our foes in the most visceral way possible. For this, then, it is understandable that we should have demonized their acts with greater vehemence than that which we bring against the juggernauts of the East; it is a question, one might say, of the residual effects of a bygone war.
Now there is no doubt that this kind of feeling plays a role in our sense of genocide: our very laws against genocide, to some extent, are but the echoes of old enmities. But is this really sufficient to explain the matter to us? It is hard to believe that, eighty years distant to the atrocities of World War II, we should continue to flagellate our fallen foes. It is difficult to believe, moreover, that our vehemence at least should not have receded, even if the custom that it once actuated might persist, in ever more etiolate and vestigial a form. The farther that we stand from the heat of the war, the colder should grow our objectivity; we should be able to weigh with ever greater rationality the balance of the dead, and thus to see, on the question of mere numbers alone, that Stalin and Mao were not lesser monsters than Hitler.
To be sure, to some extent, this has occurred. We give greater eye today to the sins of the communist regimes, many of which have only come to light in the last few decades, and there have even been calls to expand the definition of genocide to include the nominally “economically” or “politically” motivated crimes of Stalin. Yet it is noteworthy how little these suggestions have been given heed. Evidently, there is something in them which repudiates such attempts from the start.
By way of more circumstantial evidence, I might mention the following. I came of age in a rural Republican community, and I can personally attest that in this community, where, if anything the desire should have been stronger to demonize communism to an equal extent with Nazis and fascists, that this was not the case. To the contrary: though the Holocaust and the malice of Hitler were seared into the memory of my townmates, the statistically greater crimes of the Red Giants were little known, and certainly never commented on.
I would wager that if a survey were taken of the U.S. today, asking which of those three despots had murdered more human beings, something approaching fifty percent of Americans should respond with the name of Hitler. I would wager more: as many Americans would be prone, albeit in a kind of half-hearted way, to excuse Stalin and Mao ideologically for their crimes, asserting something to the effect that the anarchical utopia these men were aiming for was itself at least a beautiful ideal, no matter the degree to which the political reality of their countries differed: while no one, I think, save various fringe extremist movements, would dare to pour such tepid water over the reign of Hitler and the Nazis. Though we are today better prepared, to some extent, to acknowledge the crimes of the communists, the animus against Hitler remains sui generis.
Wherein the cause of this disproportion?
Possible causes, based on what we have said, will occur to my readers. One: the average American is likely to be related to someone who fought against the Axis powers, someone who was injured or crippled or killed by them. That is not soon forgotten. Almost no one can count any such pains directly against Stalin or Mao; at most, the average American may have some relative who fought in Korea, but that was an anomalous war against no clear enemy, and the role of Stalin or Mao in it was but indirect. This might help to explain the fury that resonates through us even now at the thought of Hitler; he left his mark, as it were, on our very blood. More: the particular groups against which he directed his violence will feel perennially the danger of a recrudescence of the beliefs, attitudes, and actions which led to such horrors; they have a vested interest in seeing to it that these beliefs, attitudes, and actions remain forever anathema. One might also consider the influence exerted by various groups in our society, to whom the ideology of the Nazis was particularly noxious, on the molding of our public opinion.
But I think all of this does not entirely satisfy. It has all the signs of being a fine description: it is in many ways superficially adequate, and for that, our suspicious hearts must tell us, does not strike radically enough.
It behooves us then to consider the matter more deeply, which work we leave for the second part of this essay.
Continue to On Genocide, Part II
2. The United Nations Convention on Genocide of 9 December 1948, in which the concept was legally defined to international law.
3. A general resource on the crime of genocide, containing legal and historical documents in merit of the question.
4. Drazen Petrovic’s “Ethnic Cleansing—An Attempt at Methodology.”