The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 02, 2004

Genocide and the West: Why modernity is not to blame for twentieth century genocides

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

In academic debate it has become increasingly popular to blame genocide on modernity, i.e. the underlying ideology of the post-Enlightenment West. Professor William D. Rubinstein - the author of Genocide: A History and The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis - here disputes this claim. Professor Rubinstein argues that all of the infamous examples of twentieth-century mass murder and genocide, including above all the horrendous crimes of Hitler and Stalin, were caused by the breakdown of the European elite and governmental structures in the First World War, and would not have occurred had the First World War not occurred.

He also shows - using the examples of the Thuggees in India, the Taiping Rebellion, and the War of the Triple Alliance - that genocide has not been the exclusive preserve of the modern West. Furthermore it is only the West, and particularly the English speaking world, which has the military ability and ideological commitment to halt and suppress future genocides.

William D. Rubinstein will be writing regularly for the Social Affairs Unit.

During the past twenty years or so, the field of genocide studies has emerged as one of the most controversial and widely debated among historians. Obviously originating in the Jewish Holocaust and the impact this has, by now, had on our perception of evil, the field of genocide studies has spawned an industry of books, journals, and conferences. (There are now two academic journals devoted to nothing but genocide studies.) That the massacres in former Yugoslavia have attracted not merely widespread interest in the West but also a judicial process, via the U.N., of bringing to trial and punishing those accused of genocidal crimes, is probably a tribute to the way in which interest in genocide, in deterring it and in criminalizing its active participants, has grown exponentially in recent years.

Apart from the punishment of Nazi and Japanese war criminals at the end of the Second World War, however, punishment of those guilty of crimes against humanity, even in the very recent past, has been notable by its almost complete absence. So far as I am aware, for instance, no one in the former Soviet Union has ever been tried for any act of murderous totalitarianism carried out during the seventy-four year history of the USSR (although many former KGB men must surely be alive), the successor regimes to the old Soviet Union showing not the slightest interest in what would be widely seen as pointlessly opening old wounds. Nor has any Spaniard ever been tried for any crimes carried out by the Franco regime (which ended in 1975), although the Spanish judiciary has, perversely, been behind the unsuccessful attempts to try Chilean dictator General Pinochet. Even in Cambodia, only a small handful of people have ever been tried for the enormities of the Pol Pot regime, in which an estimated two million people were murdered in the 1970s, although many of those who were responsible must surely be alive and not all that old. As I write this, the world seems to be stumbling towards ending the slaughter in the Sudan, although (as in Rwanda in 1994) the United States and the other Western powers are taking no decisive action.

Although consciousness of genocide is thus certainly far greater than a generation ago, it has become a central concern primarily among academic historians, political scientists, and sociologists rather then among politicians. One might speculate as to why interest in genocide has risen so sharply among academics: the innate appeal of mass murder and the ghoulish; the lessons which - it can be argued - might be learned from the past about preventing future massacres; the appeal (to some) of the type of comparative history which transcends national boundaries.

It must be said, however, that the recent popularity of 'genocide studies' among academics is due in some measure to its apparent anti-Western bias: identifying genocide as a pervasive feature of modern Western civilisation - as is now commonly done - seems a good way for the academic left, devoided of many other ways of delegitimizing Western democracy, to undermine its ethical claims and foundations.

A virtually pervasive argument which one encounters over and over again in this field is that modernity - i.e., the underlying ideology of the post-Enlightenment West - itself has given rise to genocide, especially in the case of Nazi Germany. That modernity gives rise to genocide was first argued by the Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his 1989 work Modernity and the Holocaust. Previously, most scholars would have suggested that the singular crimes of the Nazi regime were the result, not of modernity, but either of its exact opposite, the atavistic, pre-modern nature of Nazism, which specifically rejected post-Enlightenment liberalism, or of Germany's so-called 'special path' to modernization, which witnessed extremely rapid industrialization side-by-side with an authoritarian, militaristic elite structure, and which never experienced a liberal revolution as in the English-speaking world or France.

In my recent book Genocide: A History (Longman Pearson, 2004), I argue that this widespread view of the inherent culpability of the West is historically wrong and misleading. One might point to a number of main reasons why this view is inaccurate and implausible. First, all of the infamous examples of twentieth-century mass murder and genocide, from the Armenian massacres of 1915 through Pol Pot and other examples of the handiwork of Asian Communism down to the late 1970s, and including above all the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, were in my view caused by the breakdown of the European elite and governmental structures in the First World War, and would not have occurred had the First World War not occurred. In particular, the devastation created by the War allowed first Communism (in 1917) and then (in Italy in 1922 and then, as a result of the inability of the Weimar government to deal with the Depression, in Germany in 1933) fascism to seize power, with ideologies outside of the Western mainstream, and, especially, outside of Western liberalism, and furthermore allowed these regimes to be dominated by demented tyrants. It is inconceivable that either Hitler or Stalin would have come to power had the First World War not occurred: Hitler would assuredly have ended his life as an unknown bohemian artist in Vienna, just as it is simply inconceivable that he could have headed a mass political regime which managed to have seized power in Germany and then, by force, throughout Europe. The mechanisms in place in Austria and Germany prior to 1914 for weeding out extremist, revolutionary challenges to the existing governments would have effectively insured that Hitler remained unknown.

Significantly, the English-speaking democracies, which emerged from the First World War victorious and with their institutions intact, never left the democratic path. In Britain, even during the Depression (when up to 20 per cent of the work force was unemployed) neither the British Union of Fascists nor the British Communist Party ever received more than derisory support (notwithstanding Communism's appeal to a certain type of university intellectual). In contrast to the Continent, Britain was governed throughout the 1930s by a solid, unimaginative centre-right National government which happened to enjoy a degree of electoral support without parallel in this country since it became a democracy. America turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, not some totalitarian movement, despite the despair created by the Depression. The crucial distinction between Continental Europe and the English-speaking world has been lost on those who see a direct link between modernity and genocide.

Secondly, genocide has not been confined to the modern West. On the contrary, pre-literate and Third World societies have been just as genocidal as has virtually any twentieth-century Western regime, bearing in mind the technological limitations in primitive or semi-advanced societies in carrying out mass slaughters without modern weapons or other means of mass destruction. According to such works as Lawrence H. Keeley's War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford, 1996), rates of killing in the innumerable, perpetual tribal conflicts among pre-literate peoples were actually far higher than in the modern West, with 50-90 per cent apparently being the norm. Men, women, and children were often deliberately massacred. In modern times, slaughters of grotesque savagery have occurred in remote parts of the world. Three examples of Third World slaughter will suffice. The Thuggees in India - organized gangs who murdered travellers, allegedly as part of their worship of the Hindu goddess Kali- probably killed three million people in the century between 1740 and 1840, when they were forcibly suppressed by the British. In the incredibly murderous Taiping Rebellion, which occurred in central China between 1850 and 1864, at least ten million people were killed (some sources put the death toll at up to thirty million). The city of Ningpo, previously numbering half a million, was simply wiped off the map, while a census taken in Kuang-teh County showed that its population declined in the ten years from 1855 to 1865 from 311,000 to only 5078, a drop of 98 per cent. In 1864, Paraguay's lunatic dictator Francisco Solano Lopez (of mixed Spanish and Gurani Indian descent) declared war on his three larger neighbours Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in a conflict whose brutality has become legendary, the War of the Triple Alliance of 1864-70. At the end of the war, Paraguay's population declined from somewhere between 450,000 and 900,000 to 221,000, of whom only 28,000 were adult males. Even this not daunting him, Solano Lopez continued to carry out a guerilla war, dying in partisan conflict with his many enemies.

Characteristically these Third World slaughters are simply seldom or never mentioned, discussed, or analyzed in histories of genocide which are commonly used in the academic field of genocide studies, which, with few exceptions, routinely limit their coverage to Western massacres of each other or (as with the many studies of the treatment of Australian Aborigines and American Indians) of Third World peoples. Many scholars of genocide have, quite possibly, never heard of these slaughters carried out by Third World people and simply do not include them in their liturgy of familiar mass killings. It is also difficult not to believe that, to many scholars, Third World genocides simply don't count, since they form no part of an implicit (or explicit) agenda of exclusively blaming the West.

Finally, whatever the demonic crimes carried out in Europe in the twentieth century, only the West - and, in particular, the English-speaking world - has the ability to halt and suppress genocide, since only the liberal West embraces a moral code of humanism and democracy, and only the West possesses the military ability to defeat genocidal societies and regimes. That, even today, it seldom does so with the decisiveness that many would wish does not contradict the fact that no other society would try to halt genocide elsewhere on the planet. Nor does this inactivity always stem from the political right: the most recent genocidal dictator to be removed from power by the United States and its allies was Saddam Hussein. His removal from power has been greeted by the left-liberal chattering classes not with shouts of approval but with almost universal condemnation.

William D Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

William D. Rubinstein's book the Myth of Rescue is a brilliant work. It makes clear where the culpability for the crimes of the Nazi's truly lies - with the Nazis. It is no good putting a secondary blame on the West for not doing this or that to stop the Holocaust - this obfuscates the issue. Rubinstein shows that the Allies did what they could.

Posted by: David Rothstein at September 3, 2004 01:17 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement