The Holocaust, genocide studies, and politics

A compelling argument among scholars of genocide reflects the gradual development of the field beyond its point of origin, the Nazi murder of Europe’s Jews. The questions include whether and how different episodes of mass killing should be seen in a common frame; how such a development changes understanding of the Holocaust; and how historical interpretation and modern political argument intertwine, not least over Israel and anti-semitism. Martin Shaw, both participant and observer in this debate, presents an overview of its core issues.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
18 August 2010

What are, and should be, the relationships between academic research and politics? This core question of historiography and social science has been debated throughout the last century - at least since the social theorist Max Weber attempted to define a “value-free” space for research (even as he acknowledged that scholars’ cultural and political orientations help shape their research interests). Nowhere, perhaps, is it more pertinent than in the growing field of genocide studies.

Here, all scholars share a basic negative judgment on what they are studying - after all, the very idea of genocide was invented by Raphael Lemkin in his successful attempt to criminalise the organised destruction of populations. Yet despite this shared commitment, intellectual disputes which can be traced partly to scholars’ social identities and political orientations are common in the field. Nowhere perhaps are they as contentious as around the question of the relationship between the Nazis’ annihilation of six million of Europe’s Jews in the second world war - “the Holocaust” - and the larger history of genocide.

Lemkin’s idea was first presented in 1944 in an analysis of what he called “the Nazi genocide”. Although he himself was a Jewish refugee from the German invasion of Poland, he saw this as a general (if uneven) assault on occupied European populations - not just on the Jews. Yet when the idea was enshrined in the United Nations’s genocide convention in 1948, the mass murder of the Jews was better known (following the liberation of the extermination-camps in 1945), and was increasingly the focal-point of how people viewed Nazi genocide.

Over the course of the next half century, the Nazis’ murder of the Jews was increasingly constructed in western - especially American - culture and politics as a universal symbol of evil, “the Holocaust” (or “the shoah”). The sociologist Jeffrey Alexander speaks of the extermination of the Jews having become a “sacred-evil”, the defining evil of modern times. He traces this process through both political events (the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, for example) and cultural ones (such as the publication of Anne Frank’s diaries, the television series The Holocaust [1978) and Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List [1993]).

As a result of this process, other genocides were often recognised by what Alexander calls “bridging” from the Holocaust, by a combination of community campaigning and scholarship. For example, scholars (many of them from the Armenian diaspora) succeeded in establishing the Ottoman destruction of the Armenians in 1915 as a major genocide by showing it was a Holocaust-like event, even if the Turkish government continues to deny this.

The emergence of genocide studies as a field in the 1990s was driven (alongside other forces) by the fact that scholars from many backgrounds had identified genocidal events in their own communities’ histories. Even today, it is not uncommon for a genocide-scholars’ conference to have a panel of Greek scholars discussing the Ottoman destruction of Greek communities during the first world war, or of Bosnians discussing the genocide of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by Serb nationalists in 1992-95 (the latter was the case at the Sussex University conference in June 2010 of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS).

The conceptual path

Alongside the “sacralisation” of the Holocaust, the idea of genocide was narrowed by many writers to Holocaust-like mass murder; this replaced the broad idea of multi-method social destruction (including political, economic and cultural coercion as well as physical violence) which Lemkin had espoused. When genocide studies really took off in the mid-2000s, a common format for many of the impressive books which appeared was a case-by-case presentation - in which the Holocaust remained the central reference-point. “Comparative genocide studies” involves above all (although of course never only) comparison with the Holocaust. Moreover, many books generally compare just a few of what Mark Levene has called the “mega-genocides” - typically, the Armenian and Rwandan episodes, plus one or two others joined the Holocaust as the objects of trans-historical comparison.

At the same time, Holocaust scholarship has become by far the most developed area of research, producing deep knowledge and interpretations which enrich the general understanding of genocide. In part because of this, Holocaust research became a self-sufficient field, little connected to wider genocide studies. A few scholars (mainly from Jewish backgrounds) even reflected the “sacred-evil” status of the Holocaust by advancing the idea that it is “unique” - that is, different in a profound, qualitative way from other genocides. This in turn provoked some scholars from other backgrounds to attack the exclusion of their communities (for example, Roma and Sinti) from some Holocaust narratives, or to appropriate the “Holocaust” term for other genocides - as in David Stannard’s claim that there had been an “American Holocaust” against Native Americans.

However as comparative genocide research has developed, two tendencies have emerged which have called into question the emphasis on a few, isolated mega-genocides:

* numerous historians (including Dirk Moses, Mark Levene and Ben Kiernan) have focused on the long, extensive history of “colonial genocide” in European penetration and settlement of the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia

* in contrast to the tendency towards transhistorical comparison, writers such as Mark Levene and Donald Bloxham have argued for “international” contextualisation. Bloxham showed how the Armenian genocide could be understood as the nadir of a half-century of nationalist politics in southeastern Europe which focused, from many sides (not just the Ottoman) and in the context of great-power rivalries, on population-displacement.The title of his book - The Great Game of Genocide - neatly conveyed this idea.

These tendencies have in turn had two implications for understanding the Holocaust:

* the “colonial” strand has led to the linking (for example by Jürgen Zimmerer) of the Nazi colonisation in eastern Europe with Germany’s and Europe’s colonial and racist past, for example the genocide in southwest Africa (now Namibia) in 1904-05. A major new interpretation of Nazism by Mark Mazower focuses on Hitler’s Empire; as the title again suggests, the argument and rich narrative detail stresses the imperial and colonial dimensions of its subject

* the “international” strand has led towards contextualising the Holocaust itself by placing it in the longer history of European genocide and the larger picture of Nazi and second-world-war genocide; the foremost example is Donald Bloxham’s recent book, The Final Solution - A Genocide (which indeed avoids the term “Holocaust” altogether).

The scholarship of genocide

These research findings and arguments can find their way, directly or indirectly, into the public media. Genocide scholars, in common with other academics, often apply their perspective in opinion pieces on relevant topical issues (my own columns in openDemocracy are an example). They are also asked to endorse campaigners’ claims for genocide recognition, both over historical events like the destruction of the Armenians, and over recent or ongoing events in places like Darfur and Sri Lanka. The United States-based International Association of Genocide Scholars takes this still further, in adopting a “genocide-prevention” remit which it sees as enabling it to pose as a collective authority on genocide issues. (It controversially issued a “genocide warning” for Israeli Jews concerning the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to Israel; and faced a backlash of members against its pro-Israeli stance when Israel bombed Gaza in 2008-09). INOGS, for its part, eschews this overtly political function.

The politics of history

This is the broad intellectual and scholarly context of a conference in London on 11 June 2010 on “The Holocaust and Modern Genocide”, co-organised by the Wiener Library Institute of Contemporary History and Kingston University. Philip Spencer of Kingston delivered an extensive critique of the “colonial” strand in genocide studies; and the keynote speaker, the historian Omer Bartov, delivered a paper which challenged Donald Bloxham’s and Dirk Moses’s views in particular. These arguments deserve careful consideration.

Bartov asserted that “the Holocaust is far too complex to fit easily into the rubric of colonialism; and colonialism is far too wide-ranging to be linked always with genocide.” It should be stated clearly that this is a misreading of what Bloxham and Moses have argued. Moses has specifically denied that colonialism is always linked to genocide; and no one who emphasises the “colonial” elements of Nazism has suggested that the latter can fit wholly or even mainly into this paradigm.

Bartov, however, was not arguing in his paper for the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. He elegantly laid out what seemed to be common ground on this subject:

“[Like] any other historical event, the Holocaust had both unique features (such as the extermination camps) and features common to many other genocides (such as communal massacres). It is also obvious that like any traumatic national event, the Holocaust is unique within its national context: to the Jews and to some extent to the Germans. Related to this, certain theological and philosophical interpretations also view it as a unique event. But for historians, the notion of the Holocaust as entirely unique extracts it from the historical context, and converts it into a metaphysical and metahistorical event, a myth and a focus of religious or national identification, thereby sacrificing its status as a concrete episode in the annals of human history.”

At the same time, Bartov made a passionate appeal to reinstate the experience and voices of the victims in genocide studies. He proposed the radical argument that “writing about many genocides instead of just one ... precludes empathy”; and he claimed that “while the mass murder of the Jews also constituted an element of a larger population policy, it predated and outlasted that policy and was never fully subsumed under it to begin with.” Philip Spencer underlined this point, arguing that Nazi anti-Semitism was not just a species of modern racism, but a product of longstanding European anti-semitism. Both speakers thus reasserted - within a historical rather than metaphysical frame - the distinctiveness of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust and of anti-semitism as a distinct source of violence against Jews.

Moreover, Bartov drew attention to the way in which Moses and Bloxham regard the “colonial-genocide” frame as having implications for understanding Israel’s displacement of Arabs from Palestine in 1948. “A tortuous link is being made between the genocide of the Jews and the legitimacy of the state of Israel”, he said. Indeed, “since Israel is presented as a settler colonial state, and colonialism is intrinsically genocidal, the Jewish state is either committing or is on the verge of genocide.”

Such arguments, Bartov contended, “tend to come as rhetorical sleight of hand from scholars who are not, and do not feel they need to be, knowledgeable about Israel or the Palestinians but wish nevertheless to express their political opinions; they end up using the Holocaust and the suffering of others for political ends.” Spencer underlined this point by warning of the use of “genocide” in criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-09.

A modern echo

Here, politics and genocide studies are once more intertwined - according to Omer Bartov and Philip Spencer in the hands of “colonial-genocide” scholars, but equally obviously in their own comments. It is true that genocide scholars have not systematically applied the concept to the Israeli destruction of a large part of Arab society in Palestine in 1948, so that their comments are mostly tentative rather than based on research. Whether that means they can be dismissed as merely “political opinions” is another matter. But there has been research which points in this direction - notably the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s trenchant study, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. (I have discussed the issues in an article which presents one of the most developed discussions of the genocidal character of 1948; see "Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide" [Holy Land Studies, 9/1, May 2010]).

In relation to the recent events in Gaza, none of the scholars mentioned has, to my knowledge, alleged genocide (even if some activists have). It is evident though that - coinciding with the deepening of the Israel-Palestine crisis, growing sympathy for the Palestinians of Gaza, and the resurgence of anti-semitism in some quarters - arguments about the Holocaust and genocide have acquired a new political potency. In this context, extravagant allegations of “anti-semitism” by some (in intention pro-Israel) activists and scholars - which often invoke, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, the “vague image of eternal, unchanging, anti-semitism, which Hannah Arendt warned against as placing anti-semitism beyond the reach of history and politics” - don’t help advance understanding.

The logic of death

Dirk Moses, in his own keynote address to the INOGS conference on 30 June 2010 - Security and Pre-Emption: Genocide Studies and Holocaust Historiography: A Convergence? - replied to Omer Bartov. He noted how the “Holocaust” idea had displaced the original concept of genocide, leading to a failure to recognise genocide in situations like Biafra (1967-70) and Bangladesh (1970-71) (he might equally have said Bosnia). He emphatically agreed that victims’ voices should be heard, but argued that “what Bartov’s almost Rankean preoccupation with the particular and anthropological preoccupation with the concrete precludes is an approach that draws on historical sociology, international and world history.” 

Moses elaborated on the obvious point that anti-semitism was a major element in the Holocaust by proposing that “we can’t take anti-semitism as the explanatory starting-point and as an ontologically-stable historical force. Instead, we need to explain where prejudice comes from, how and why it waxes and wanes, and how it functions in a genocidal process. Our broader processes attempt to do this, at least in my case.”

Moses went on to argue that a distinction relied upon by Bartov, which has a long pedigree in the academic literature - between ideologically motivated, “race-hate” genocide, typified by the Holocaust, and more normal “political” mass killing, connected at least partially by “real” security concerns - is unsustainable. 

In developing this case, Moses contended that ideology, fantasy and hate are indeed present in all genocides; but it is just as important to see that “[far]  from being a massive hate crime, as Bartov and others seem to think, genocide is an extreme form of counterinsurgency, marked above all by pre-emption and collective punishment and destruction of groups suspected of insurgency and collaboration with enemy forces. It is therefore governed by a political rather than racial logic.”

Now, this logic contains elements of paranoia and irrationality in all cases of genocide, because innocent civilians in fact present no objective threat to the state. In this way the Holocaust, with all its “hallucinatory anti-semitism” taken into account, is no exception. We therefore need to think of genocides along a spectrum of paranoia and illusion rather than separate them into two camps, one based on "real" conflict, the other on "illusory" conflict. Dirk Moses sees the Holocaust as in this sense not different from the Armenian or Rwandan genocides, of which it has rightly been pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Tutsi civilians were killed partly because perpetrator regimes linked them with Armenian and Tutsi political-military organisations and (at least in the Armenian case) international enemies.

In all genocides, Moses argues, the operative distinction is between the civilian populations and the armed actors. Genocide happens, therefore, when armed power treats civilian groups as though they were armed enemies. This is a fundamentally irrational, as well as illegitimate, stance. Therefore all genocide is marked by deeply fantastical ideas about the targeted group, which express this irrationality.

Yet this irrationality is usually entwined with the political and military rationality of the struggle with real armed enemies - in the case of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s life-or-death struggle with the Soviet Union, the western Allies and the European resistance, with all of which Jewish organisations were in varying ways connected.

For Dirk Moses, the broad implication of this interpretative disagreement is that scholarly divisions reflect “divergent assumptions about victims’ agency” which are themselves related to contemporary political struggles. An awareness of how scholars’ own arguments may reflect political and security considerations is however also an opportunity to think differently about genocide; in particular, to see genocide “as governed by security imperatives in which paranoia and delusion is always present, and often vengeance, punishment and retaliation ... rather than as a hate crime against a passive victim group.” There is here a large and explicit challenge to Holocaust and genocide scholars. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

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