- Forgotten Genocides: Oblivion, Denial, and Memory
Noted Holocaust survivor, author and commentator Elie Wiesel famously observed, "What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander." Genocide commentary consistently abides in the wisdom of this admonition, providing a measure of documentation for humanity's most serious crimes. René Lemarchand's book interrupts key silences surrounding a variety of such events in human history—dispelling the silence that readily contributes to the ongoing practice of genocide. The book itself notes Hitler's famous rhetorical pretext to the Holocaust: "Who remembers the Armenians?," revoking that stubborn premise anchored by "lost" histories. Lemarchand's Forgotten Genocides is an excellent contemporary compilation of significant authors contributing to the growing academic consciousness on genocide. This is achieved by focusing their intellectual arts on less known acts of mass violence. In so doing, the authors raise three central questions: "How do scholars decide what [End Page 310] counts as a genocide?"; "How can scholars prevent the social erasure of cultural knowledge common to such diabolical projects?"; and "How can scholars assess the accuracy of competing public and social memories?"
The eight chapter work contributes strong researched anecdotes for filling out these enduring questions. Lemarchand establishes a rather visible public dialectic with the current government of Rwanda by examining key historical moments preceding and following the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Perhaps most provocative is the effort to establish genocidal conduct on the part of the Rwandan government in the aftermath of the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis. The murders in Eastern Congo in 1996 raise serious concerns about the Kagame government and larger questions surrounding appropriate responses to contemporary genocide: "How shall we respond to perpetrators?" and "How can reconciliation be achieved once a genocide achieves a measure of closure?" Lemarchand's rhetorical bookends to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, examining slaughters of Hutus before and after that event, emphasizes the vicious circularity of the genocide model and the pained intellectual struggle of identifying perpetrators versus victims. Genocides often begin with perpetrators labeling themselves as victims as a pretext to overwhelming social violence.
The Herero genocide account was unusually compelling among those read. Though Schaller stresses that not too much should be made of the German connections between the early twentieth century atrocity in Southwest Africa and the Holocaust in the 1940s, it is difficult not to be drawn to eerie similarities in regard to ethnic superiority, work camps, and civil servant logics gone mad. Schaller does a strong job of connecting details to larger narratives involving the German national identity expressed by leaders such as Wilhelm II.
Breen's essay on the Aborigines of Tasmania connects a relatively small death count in the great sweep of global genocides to the larger ethical system of how such injustices proceed. The essay elevates a theme throughout the book about the inherent challenges of validating the intent standards commonly necessary to Lemkin's original vision of the term and the ongoing international jurisprudence on the question.
Levenson's essay on Tibet is an intuitive case study that prospers from his detail and attention. Taking on the tough but increasingly important case of Chinese colonialism, Levenson connects us to a long yet ongoing question. The role of family planning in limiting and exterminating a group is in stark relief in this particular example. As with all essays in the book, Levenson makes a strong case for the categorization of genocide in this instance.
Hardi's essay on Anfal and the Kurds in Iraq is a pleasant surprise. Although the genocide might not be characterized as "forgotten," given the recent US military action in Iraq. The inclusion is wise due to the political polarization surrounding the war tends to obscure the explicit history of weapons of mass destruction used in such a flagrantly genocidal manner. Hardi provides a compelling narrative mapping of the crimes and motives. The scenic players of Iran and Turkey are not missed and of course...