restricted access Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World (review)
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Reviewed by
Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 489 pp.

In the New York Review of Books for March 10, 2011, Timothy Snyder tells us that "the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did": that if we count deaths by famine as intentional, "the total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely to be between two million and three million," making about 6 million civilians deliberately killed under Stalin, while "all in all, the Germans deliberately killed about 11 million non-combatants," with millions more dying through less deliberate Nazi actions. "The Germans," "the Soviets"—we know this to be essential knowledge, but it carries minimal illumination for making human sense of it all.

How do people come to kill their neighbors? Christian Gerlach has written a brave and honorable book that refocuses discussion away from the looping discussions of genocide to seek the causes of mass violence ("widespread violence against non-combatants") in "socio-economic processes deeply rooted in the society in which they happen or by which they are generated." He concludes that "among other things . . . the bulk of modern mass violence occurs in the context of socio-economic change that transforms a traditional countryside into a surplus-generating sphere of a national, imperial or world economy." But as Gerlach vaults between middle-level generalizations in Indonesia, in German-occupied Greece, in Bangladesh, this reader is left floundering. What are we to make, for example, of famously mannerly Bali, which revealed its capacity for hands-on slaughter only when the killings began? Only the closest looking at particular episodes can expose the implicit scripts, and so the thought-trails, that animate mass killings.

Here Jan Gross's study Neighbors (2001) remains exemplary. Gross reconstructs [End Page 366] as precisely as he is able what happened one July day in a small town in northeastern Poland, where, with minimal encouragement by their new Nazi overlords, "half of the population murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women and children." The killings were done in holiday mood. While some Jews were beaten to death where they were caught, most were herded into the town square, where the captors played with their victims (the decapitated head of the pretty young daughter of a Jewish teacher was used as a football in a raucous game). Then, when the killers wearied of play, they briskly incinerated the survivors. Contrast this episode with killings done during the recent struggle for power on the Ivory Coast. When David Smith of the Guardian interviewed two young Liberian men returning home after a nine-day stint with a pro-Quattara group (it could just as well have been pro-Gbagbo), they told him their instructions had been simple: they were to kill "anyone and everyone." So they did. They killed everyone they saw, "just cutting them with our machetes." Then, their nine days up, they took their pay and went home. (See the Guardian Weekly, April 15, 2011, 3.)

We outsiders, seeing the killers as "like" their victims, are appalled. But what did they see, what did they feel—what implicit scenario dramatized their actions? What inhibits the striking arm, and what oils it?

Inga Clendinnen

Inga Clendinnen's books include Dancing with Strangers, which received the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction; Reading the Holocaust, which was a New York Times "best book of the year" in 1999; True Stories, originally delivered as Boyer Lectures for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; and The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society, which received the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal. She is also the author of Aztecs: An Interpretation; Tiger's Eye: A Memoir; and, most recently, Agamemnon's Kiss. She taught history for more than twenty years at La Trobe University.