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A headstone for mass graves

A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, Eric D. Weitz, Princeton University Press: 360 pp., $29.95

June 15, 2003|Russell Jacoby | Russell Jacoby is the author of "The End of Utopia" and "The Last Intellectuals." He teaches history at UCLA.

In the 20th century, "the number of man-made deaths ... is about one hundred million." So opens "The Twentieth Century Book of the Dead," a neglected classic by Scottish writer Gil Elliot published 30 years ago. Since its publication, the numbers have appreciably increased. In the Congolese civil wars over the last five years several million have died. Deaths in these numbers block comprehension: One "man-made" death is difficult to fathom -- millions defy understanding.

Yet the effort to comprehend continues and must continue. Some studies assess antagonisms of nations, races and religions; others consider totalitarian states, collapsed economies and demented leaders. Elliot cast his net very wide, including in his totals millions who died in famines like those caused by civil wars in Russia and China. Most endeavors, however, limit their sights in one way or another. Many look only to deaths directly linked to government actions. The very term "genocide" was coined by a forgotten emigre scholar to address the mass killings orchestrated by the Nazi state in the 1930s and '40s. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born jurist, put together the Greek word genos, meaning race, nation or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. For years he sought to draw the world's attention to this new state-sponsored barbarism and managed, in 1948, to get the United Nations to define and ban "the crime of genocide."

To be sure, the crime precedes the term, and, depending on the definition one favors, genocide can be identified throughout history, from the Roman destruction of Carthage and the decimation of the native peoples in America to contemporary Rwanda and Bosnia. Evidently, genocide is widespread, even if the word and interest in it are relatively new. The novelist Don DeLillo lampooned the founding of Hitler studies in "White Noise," but he did not anticipate genocide studies. Satire is unnecessary. Yale University established a genocide studies program devoted to "comparative, interdisciplinary, and policy issues relating to the phenomenon of genocide." Something like "genocide envy" has sprung up among groups who contend for the dubious honor of having being killed en masse: Some commentators suggest that drugs and gangs are genocidal for African American males; even birth control has been called genocidal. In the face of uses like these, the term loses all meaning.

Eric D. Weitz, a University of Minnesota historian, hopes to bring some clarity to this troubled topic. He believes that escalating genocides "stand at the center of our contemporary cultural crisis" and that by using a comparative approach he will distinguish some "common features." He employs the United Nations definition of genocide as an intent to destroy "in whole or in part" a population defined by race, nationality, religion or ethnicity. Although his book opens with a description of the Armenian genocide, Weitz restricts himself to the analysis of four 20th century cases: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Serbian-Bosnian war. He omits Rwanda because it stands outside his expertise and the impact of the Soviet or Nazi events, which are the bedrock of his approach. While this exclusion can be justified, his cases predetermine his conclusion. If he had considered Rwanda, his idea of the linkage between utopianism and genocide might be derailed.

As a serious historian, Weitz moves between the specifics of his four cases and a larger theory about genocide, adumbrating several broad commonalities among 20th century genocides: revolutionary utopianism, ideologies of race and nation, and political crises. He gives us five substantial chapters, the first laying out the tortured history of race and nation and the remaining taking up his "cases," which analyze the play of utopia, nationalism and the evolution of genocide.

As wide as his categories are, Weitz has difficulty finding them everywhere. How does race, for instance, undergird Stalin's terrorism? Weitz wiggles and worries but frequently slips into academic nospeak to save his point: "The same ambiguities and ambivalence that haunted this discourse [on race] -- the tensions between relatively open and inclusive and harshly exclusive articulations of the nation ... were replicated ... in Russian and Soviet discussions as well." Stalin's nationalism "easily lent" itself to racism. "Easily lent" is not exactly a compelling connection, which Weitz ultimately admits. He concludes his Soviet chapter by affirming that Stalin's Soviet Union did not become a genocidal regime inasmuch as it did not develop a "fully developed racial ideology."

If Weitz's first case hardly works for him, what does this say about his categories? Perhaps race is less central to genocide than utopianism. "The movements and regimes discussed in this book," he concludes, all "promised to create utopia in the here and now."

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