Sunday, October 31, 2010

History, genocide, memory

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a fine review by Anne Applebaum of two books that treat the mass-scale murders that took place under the despotic leaderships of Hitler and Stalin: The Worst of the Madness.

Timothy Snyder has written Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, a discussion of the fate of the region between Germany and Russia which suffered the worst and most systematic killing to take place not only during World War II, but also during the years before and after under Stalin's control. Norman Naimark's Stalin's Genocides focuses more narrowly on Stalin's various genocidal campaigns.

As Applebaum points out, the key contribution of each work is to shine a new light on evidence that is already generally known. In Snyder's case, the emphasis is on the fact that, to those living in the 'bloodlands', World War II does not stand out as a unique historical episode as much as it does in Western Europe. Instead, these years were simply the continuation of, or a preface to (or sometimes both) many years of similar domination by a brutally murderous foreign oppressor.

Not only does this have implications for how we should think about what happened in those regions during World War II, but it also forces us to acknowledge that overthrowing Hitler, and ending World War II, did not do much to improve the situation of those in parts of Eastern Europe and that, moreover, Western leaders almost certainly were aware of this.

Naimark's book is particularly valuable for addressing head-on an issue that has frustrated those who study genocide: that the legal (UN) definition of genocide excludes genocidal policies that target political, economic, or social groups. This was done in part at Stalin's insistence, and it has meant that Stalin's campaign against the kulaks is often not listed among the major genocides of the twentieth century.

In fact, a similar problem applies to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime (see previous post), which killed about a fifth of its own population. It undeniably committed genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Cambodia, but the vast majority of the regime's victims were fellow Khmer, singled out for political or socio-economic reasons (for example, anyone who wore glasses was suspect for being almost certainly literate). Here, too, one finds occasional debates in the literature as to whether or not this ought to count as a genocide.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Applebaum exaggerates the nomenclature issue a little. Most genocide researchers do use more inclusive definitions of genocide, while those that do not will often include similar crimes ('politicide' or 'democide') in their studies, given the obvious similarities in motivation and perpetration.

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