‘The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies’ reviewed by Peter Admirand

and (eds)
The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies

Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2013. 675pp., £30 pb
ISBN 9780199677917

Reviewed by Peter Admirand

About the reviewer

Peter Admirand is a Lecturer in the School of Theology, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University. …


We live in a world where many of us weep bitterly at the death of a beloved dog or cat – but grow unfazed at the news of mass atrocities, or even genocide. Beyond the Shoah (and even here some claim over-saturation, while a growing minority respond with equivocation or denial), it is, perhaps, the numbers, if not the geographic or chronic distance that can numb or fizzle after a momentary burst of zeal and concern. Genocide is almost always “them”, or “over there” or “back then”; unless, that is, we align ourselves in some way as victims. If so, genocide is truly haunting and embodied: it stalks our memories and threatens to poison our future. But to inquire deeply into our own potential complicity or to ask how the reality of genocide should alter our way of viewing the world, and of our actions, thoughts and beliefs, becomes a more contested matter. Sadly, few of us, if honest, can shirk culpability or negligence, especially when identifying ourselves by some nationality, ethnicity, religious or philosophical worldview, profession, or social and economic system. I am a male Caucasian, (ex-pat) American Catholic theologian: the difficulty is not in finding some link to a genocidal rupture within those identity markers, but finding ones untouched by them.

If you are honest and know your history, I suspect a similar difficulty for most of you.

The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (OHGS) consists of 31 chapters, predominantly by historians and political scientists, though also including representatives from law, sociology, anthropology, social psychology and philosophy. Historical case studies are OHGS’ main strengths, giving readers a sense of the breadth and depth of genocide or genocidal moments or outbursts, from the ancient world through the contemporary international scene until 2008. OHGS is divided into five parts: concepts; interdisciplinary perspectives; premodern and early modern genocide; genocide in the late modern world; and a final section looking at the role of the UN and the cold war; the question of military intervention and genocide; the limits and strengths of retributive justice and genocide; and a closing chapter on the future of genocide studies and genocide prevention.

A pressing and repeated concern of OHGS is Raphael Lemkin’s foundational definition and explanations of genocide (and their later implementation and interpretation by the UN and other governmental bodies) and how and whether such definitions are applicable in the case studies examined. Lemkin had an expansive interpretation of genocide, which is ably teased out by Dirk A. Moses’ chapter. Moses highlights two parts to Lemkin’s definition: barbarity and vandalism (39). Thus genocide defined as a systematic attempt to destroy in whole or in part a group (national, racial, ethnic, or religious) – included not only intentions and attempts to physically destroy such a group but also a people’s cultural way of life (37). Such cultural genocide included attempts to ban or silence a people’s indigenous language to forcefully educating the children of an oppressed group in the dominant perpetrator’s way of life and tradition. As these interpretations would render Western colonial powers complicit in the genocide of Native peoples of the Americas, Australia, Oceania, Africa, and Asia, it was given less emphasis by the Allied Powers. Further confusions of the term include cases of intra-ethnic war or nationalist civil war or whether genocide and ethnic cleansing are related or distinctive. Case studies in OHGS further accent these complex issues. Does the legal definition, for example, apply to the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in which there was little ethnic difference among the perpetrators and their two million victims (463)? A similar case for some disagreement entails the mass killings in Maoist China. Here, surprisingly, OHGS includes scant references to Mao Zedong, especially in Uradyn E. Bulag’s uneven chapter: “Twentieth-Century China: Ethnic Assimilation and Intergroup Violence”. Bulag helpfully provides a history of the Chinese political concept of “sinicization” (hanhua, literally “becoming Han Chinese”, 429) prior to Mao’s ascendency, but is overly subtle or presumes too much of the reader’s knowledge of Maoist atrocities by saying little about them. Thankfully, Robert Cribb includes a few pages on Maoist China in his chapter “Political Genocides in Postcolonial Asia”, but the reader is especially urged to consult the more expansive work of laogai survivors Harry Wu and Liao Yiwu and Yang Jisheng’s, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. Wu, for example, has helpfully campaigned for the use of the term “classicide” to explain and account for the mass killings of the Rightists and Black Classes under Mao (see his essay in Loss and Hope: Global, Interreligious and Interdisciplinary Perspectives).

In another relevant chapter, Alex de Waal cites cases of genocidal warfare in North-East Africa and contends that widespread carnage has been endemic in the Horn of Africa amidst war (and so-called “peace”) times, and that focusing only on genocide overlooks or ignores interrelated and often abominable situations of violence. He includes “twenty-two illustrative cases of either individual or recurrent massacre and forced removal, which form the sharp peaks of violence and violation amid a broken landscape of conflict, frontier governance, and struggles for power” (535). Daniel Feierstein presents the controversies and difficulties in labelling many twentieth-century instances in Latin America as genocide, highlighting Argentina as the model controversy. As an aside, I include here a private email from Argentinean activist and survivor Alicia Partnoy, author of the memoir The Little School: Tales of Survival and Disappearance. In the email, Partnoy rightly corrected my explanation of the violence of the military regimes in Argentina as “a dirty war” in the rough draft introduction to my edited book, Loss and Hope, in which Partnoy has a chapter in the section on witness testimonies and genocide. In the email she writes: “I was … quite puzzled by your use of ‘attempted’ by the word genocide, when referring to my contribution in the intro. How many people do they have to kill, disappear, exile … and how many children do they have to take from us as spoils of war to qualify what they did to us as a genocide and not, as they wanted and succeeded to etch in the collective discourse, as a ‘dirty war’? I know that you really listen to our voices, and I hope you understand my reaction.” (private email, July 30, 2013).

I include the above not merely as a public mea culpa, but to highlight the stakes involved for survivors in our use of words and definitions, and also to stress a glaring absence in OHGS. Aside from a brief reference to Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s classic work, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (190), there are no sustained accounts from (or of) witnesses to genocide. I suspect part of this glaring omission is because of the fraught status of witness testimonies and memoirs in many accounts of genocide by professional historians. Too often these accounts were traditionally deemed suspect, and it is only in more recent times that more sustained analysis and interpretation of testimonies are included in the works of academic historians. In this regard, see especially Christopher Browning’s introduction to his 2010 work: Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, in which Browning predominantly uses witness accounts and testimonies of victims to construct his history. See also the work of Ben Kiernan, especially his magisterial Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur.

For readers of this journal, what about Marx and philosophy – and genocide? In OHGS, Marx and Marxism are surprisingly deemed minor players. Marx earns only one reference in the index, pointing to the inclusion of his famous but (here) harmless quotation that we can make history but not the circumstances we encounter. Any uninformed reader of the nearly 700-page OHGS would gain no indication of the pervasive, even if potentially unfair link between Marxist ideology and some of the worst secular regimes and figures of 20th century genocide. There is one reference to the Khmer Rouge’s anti-Marxist assumption that industrialization and urbanization could be bypassed in establishing a fully communist society (461) – but otherwise silence. OHGS mainly seeks to supply the facts and instances of genocide, with the hope of establishing causes or triggers for learning to prevent future genocides, but it is up to the reader to infer how and whether one’s own ideology, religious belief, or national or ethnic affiliation has been complicit or negligent in these cases.

In Martin Shuster’s chapter, “Philosophy and Genocide”, he acknowledges that few philosophers have written about genocide (217), and contemplates whether this is due to discomfort regarding genocide or seeing nothing philosophically unique or new about it. Levinas is referred to in a footnote (226 n. 46), which seems to follow a pattern in the chapter: highly abstract and theoretical in the main body, with hints and touches of an ethical thrust hidden in the footnotes. I would have preferred the ethical insights or potential hints to have been woven into the theoretical discussions of whether perpetrators of genocide intend the evil they inflict, or only act on a utilitarian basis (220; note here the examination of Nazi ethics by Peter Haas); and whether philosophy, especially as fashioned in the Enlightenment, is linked or leads to genocide (225). These are crucial and important issues to raise, but they are minimized by a failure to turn to concrete witness testimonies. The accounts of survivors and the accounts of victims need to be studied and examined in any evaluation of truth and genocide. Philosophical analysis of evil and genocide must test and challenge their theoretical examinations and discussions through these concrete, personal, face-to-face encounters with the witnesses (and here, one may again think of Levinas) – or at least their memoirs and testimonies. Philosophical thinkers who concretely engage with the reality and problems of genocide and testimony include Peter Glover, Claudia Card, and John K. Roth. Theology, moreover, should be an essential field to include within genocide studies, but no account from a theologian is offered in OHGS.

Overall, OHGS is a helpful overview of some of the terminology and case studies involved in this important, and sadly increasingly topical and growing field. A companion volume, The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies, is of especially great value, not only for its focus on the Shoah, but in its more expansive and evident interdisciplinary focus. But while it is imperative that we never forgot the lessons of the Shoah, especially as the number of living witnesses dwindle, we are also reminded of the frailty of memory and the dominance of passing time. We are prone to forget, or never even realise the extent of some mass atrocities in the first place – as highlighted by many of the case studies in OHGS. The most important issues always revolve around the causes of these genocides: are there identifiable patterns or recurrent markers, and how can such genocides be prevented or stopped (assuming they can)? Also essential is our willingness to expose and evaluate the histories and current policies of all the groups our societies comprise. We thus need to strive for greater transparency and truth in how we see and depict ourselves and our histories – along with pictures of those so-called Others. Hopefully chastened and humbled through such evaluations, we can respond to that fractured reality and flawed self-presentation with a deeper sense of justice, mercy, and forgiveness. We can still, of course, weep at the death of our beloved pets, but how can we (more importantly) envision and establish a world free of genocide? OHGS provides the historical facts and contexts, but the question remains: now what?

9 March 2015

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