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The Specter of Genocide : Mass murder in historical perspective

Monday 24 January 2005

Edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan

It was during the Second World War that the Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin first used the term of "genocide" in a small book (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe). In 1948, three years after the war, the same Raphael Lemkin helped the United Nations to formulate the Convention on Preventment and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Since then, the term has been increasingly used to describe situations of mass massacres. It certainly appears as though the twentieth century was "the century of genocides", as some have stated. From Armenia, through the Holocaust; from East Timor, through Bosnia and Rwanda, it is a fact that these cases are frequent. Perhaps too frequent as this collection of texts will ascertain - is everything being done by the international community to prevent genocides and mass slaughters from being executed ?

This collection of essays offers thoughts from some of the leading international experts on the subject. Some of these texts are fairly analytic and theoretical. For example, Eric Weitz’s analysis of the 20th century mass society, of technology and racist ideology which has grown to the point of making genocide easier and more destructive than in previous centuries makes an interesting case. As for Omer Bartov, his text on the roots of genocide is also extremely helpful and (this is obviously important) very clear as it evolves point by point, observing the horrid phenomenon on the macro and micro level.

However most of the essays are solid historical narratives. Jacques Semelin analyses the Yugoslav crisis and the notion of ethnic cleansing... Others look at Indonesia, Pol Pot’s regime, the crimes committed upon indigenous peoples (such as the Herero of Namibia who were wiped out by Germany in 1904) and the cases of victims of Stalin and Imperial Japan...

The authors are all academics and researchers in the field. However, I find it very important to state that this does not make The Specter of Genocide a hard book to read. It may not be a "fun" book to read as what it discusses is an obviously macabre subject to say the least but it is an important book... It is important because it allows what Kiernan and Gellately call an "investigation of genocide". How far can we tolerate what is occurring in regions of the world? Why do we tolerate them happening?

Today, Chechnya is still under occupation and it is estimated by most NGO’s that 100,000 Chechens have been victims of the war. As talk and discussions echo around the world concerning the region of Darfour in Sudan, a book like this one is a vital one to have read.

It is only if the world is interested that we can collectively understand, prevent and better help the victims. Gellately, Kiernan and the fifteen other researchers (who come from very diverse regions including Canada, Ethiopia, Indonesia or France) have collectively made a move and we should read and take inspiration from it.

Paul Kirkness

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