February 1, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
On Genocide, Part II
THE COMMENCEMENT of that long chain of devastating conflicts to afflict the West from the time of the First World War until at least Vietnam (and, it might well be argued, even beyond) was coeval with, and in part caused by, a fundamental change in the regimes of the European and even many Oriental states. This change might most colloquially, if inadequately, be described as the birth of the nation state from out of the fragmentation and transformation of older and generally larger hereditary polities. It is not our purpose at present to seek an understanding of this momentous political shift, but a single and most relevant facet of it must be brought to light: namely, the alterations it brought to the relations between the ethnicities within these new regimes.
Prior to the rise of nation states, the principle states of Europe could generally be described as empires. In empires there tends to reign a sense of permissiveness as regards the ways and manners of the conquered. All the most successful empires of the world have, save perhaps in their contact with very primitive tribes of illiterate peoples, established a kind of paternalistic structural rule which leaves much of local governance to the governed. They have established the general law applicable to all those living in their territories, but have largely remained indifferent to peculiar questions of consuetude and religion. The Gauls, under the ancient Romans, the Armenians under the Ottomans, the Indians under the British, and the Hungarians under the Habsbergs were compelled to accept the structural forms of governance of their ruling empires, to pay taxes to the same, and to collaborate with their rulers in all matters pertaining to the law, but they were permitted to maintain all those elements of their original ethos which did not transgress the empire’s laws. Insofar as their traditional usances, their native tongues, and their most peculiar forms of worship and belief were compatible with the greater law of the land, these subsidiary peoples were free to retain them. Their local leaders were generally of the local ethnicity, and questions of crime and punishment were in most cases left to local determination. There is no question that these colonized or ruled peoples were not in any sense of the word sovereign; there is no question that they underwent profound transformations of custom, language, and creed under the rule of foreign agents; there is no question that their distant rulers sometimes became their violent oppressors, and that they could boast nothing like political liberty. But they enjoyed, if we may put the matter thus, a certain freedom of ethos, which the states swallowed by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Japan certainly did not.
This oddity of empire is to a great extent explicable with reference to the peculiar exigencies of empires: the wider the liberty an empire can afford to grant to its constituent parts, the less resources it must expend in the ruling of them, the less time and energy it must use in the determination of a myriad of detailed local questions, and the less it must fear popular uprisings. This is particularly important, the greater the extent of the empire: an empire the size of that of Great Britain’s in the early years of the twentieth century, or of Rome’s in the first centuries of the Common Era, has need of that flexibility and versatility which can come only from a decentralized scaffolding-like approach to its diverse political constituencies.
But there are other causes for this imperial attitude more directly rooted in the customs and the morality that actuates empires. Empires have no need nor certainly much desire to render all human beings homogeneous or uniform within the limits of their rule. To the contrary, there has always been in all empires everywhere a strong tendency, one might even say an imperial instinct, to maintain rigorous clear distinctions between the ruler and the ruled, between the society that governs and the peoples who are governed; and the best way of drawing these lines is along the wrinkles of ethos and ethnicity that nature itself has inlaid into the territory of human societies. Empires in this sense were the only truly “multi-cultural” societies.
Now, the empires of the early twentieth century were built largely on hereditary rule, guaranteed down through the ages—not, of course, without interruptions and periods of civil unrest, but without any fundamental, widespread change in the basic principle of monarchy. The entirely new nation-states that issued from their dissolution had from the first to find other justification for their rule. They could not rely on brute power, for the evident reason that a government built on nothing but the threat of violence, can easily be overthrown by the same; yet they often enough retained but the most tenuous connection to any kind of traditional legitimacy, particularly because they tended to establish, in the place of monarchical rule, parliamentary and republican regimes which guaranteed an unprecedented degree of political equality to all members of the nation-state. A new concept of legitimacy had to be invented to accommodate this new form of government, and the name for this new concept was sovereignty.
Now, the question of sovereignty is a question like the hedgehog, and we would do well to lay it aside for another moment when we are adequately gloved to handle it. Suffice it here to say sovereignty has historically been held to require the self-rule of the peoples in question; for which, by natural course, one is led to the question of what precisely defines a people. That is a difficult question even today; it was of considerably greater difficulty in the wake of the political rearrangements of the post-World-War-I era. Ethnicity was seen then to be the most immediately evident and most clearly natural border between human groups. Thus, sovereignty would be the principle that distinct ethnic groups have a native right to self-determination.
Alas for Europe, alas for the world: but the new nation-states were political constructs, and their borders did not fall, because they could not fall, coincidentally with the divisions between the much intermixed ethnicities then living in those collapsing empires. Not even the most conscientious and ethnically-conscious authors of these changes (and they were in reality few enough in those days, for, as always in times of seachange, everyone was still reasoning according to bygone and increasingly irrelevant standards) would have been able to impose such a structure on Europe. In reality, the nation-states had to contend with a fundamental lack of ethnic consistency—and had simultaneously to build their very legitimacy on that elusive consistency.
Although it would be foolishly reductive and morally facile to suggest that the ethnic purges of the twentieth century owed their origins to this fact alone, it would also be irresponsible to attempt an explanation of those purges without reference to it. Just as it is well worth our notice, that the three primary Occidental states on the side of the Allies, that is, the United States, England, and France, enjoyed from the outset three conditions that were not shared, or not shared to such an extent, by their enemies in the Axis: they were relatively ethnically homogeneous, their extant demographic diversity was more or less static in percentages and in quality, and they lay far from the fracture lines of the shattered pre-World War I empires.
If this analysis is valid, it is evident that what we today call genocide arose from the conflicts brought about by the unstable formation of new and ethnically undifferentiated nation states. The international and very specific proscriptions against genocide, as opposed to those against, say, despotic mass murder, owe their particular valence and relevance, to this fact. Now, we have stated previously that these laws, as international laws, appear at first glance to constrain the actions of illiberal states, and to have their purpose in binding those nations beyond the borders of liberal nations. But we see now that they are intended as much, if not more, to be previsions against a debility inherent in the modern liberal state per se. They are specifics against the great disease of our contemporary politics, which made its true nature so horrifyingly evident in the second Great War. The degree of our abhorrence for genocide—or indeed for persecution, discrimination, and prejudice—can be explained as an instinctive sense of our fundamental political weakness, and an attempt to provide for that weakness through certain complementary hardenings of our customs and our laws.
Let us put this as clearly as we may. No observer of the sociopolitical causes and consequences of World War II, can evade an awareness of the extent to which the precipitous mixing of ethnicities and diverse customs in one and the same society can produce conflict, and can perhaps leading even to violence and injustices. Precisely insofar as the great crimes of twentieth century Europe were characterized, not by actions against an external enemy divided from one’s nation by language, custom, and law, but by actions against an internal enemy who shared the language and law of one’s nation, but which was perceived as an enemy precisely to the degree that it differed in custom and ethnicity—precisely this far, it is necessary to take precautions against a novel descent into that chaos. Because the West still prides itself on its “diversity,” such a precaution can only be effected through the instatement of a subtle moral thread that runs throughout the entirety of our society, binding hearts before minds, a silent moral consensus which militates silently against those feelings and theories which might renew those internal conflicts which might spark once more such hellish atrocities as were perpetrated during the war.
Our entire position vis-à-vis tolerance, our attitude of openness and open-mindedness, our stance of multicultural diversity, are all instances of our subterranean attempt to neutralize the venom which began to poison Europe one-hundred years ago. This is the first origin of the law against genocide: it is meant to regulate the interior life of liberal nations, as much as to stricture the interior life of illiberal ones.
We are now in a position to inquire into the theoretical underpinnings of our modern notion of genocide—the justifications and the apologetics which attend to it. For there, and there alone, will we begin to perceive in faintest outline the true shape of our contemporary worldview.
Return to On Genocide, Part I
Continue to On Genocide, Part III
1. Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World, and excellent work of history, treating principally of the devastating violence that tore apart the world in the past century.