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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 305-336

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Why Is the Twentieth Century the Century of Genocide?

Mark Levene
University of Warwick

It has become almost a platitude, a statistical one at that: 187 million is the figure, the now more or less accepted wisdom for the number of human beings killed as a result of political violence--Zbigniew Brzezinski uses the unlovely term megadeaths--in this, our bloody century. 1 More killing than at any other time in history. And yet at the end of the twentieth century its relentlessness, as it passes across the television screens of those of us seemingly blessed with immunity from its catastrophic reality and consequences, continues to daze and bewilder.

For the historian, him or herself inured to centuries if not millennia of mass atrocity, this picture of a special era of death and destruction invites, indeed demands further probing and analysis. Is "the Twentieth Century Book of the Dead" really so very different in scope or scale from previous ones? 2 It has been argued that the effects of the Taiping and other rebellions in China reduced its population from 410 million in 1850 to 350 million in 1873. 3 In southern Africa a couple of decades earlier, the emergence of Shaka's Zulu nation and the ensuing Mfecane or "great crushing" produced equally horrendous results relative to the population of the region. Go back a few centuries and [End Page 305] the devastation that the Mongol conqueror Timur wrought to Central Asia, the Near East, and Northern India impelled modern historian Arnold Toynbee to note that this exterminatory span of twenty-four years (between 1379 and 1403) was comparable to the one hundred and twenty of the last five Assyrian kings. 4

If this seems to be an argument, albeit a cynical one, for saying plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the very use of the term genocide, as if we have in our current self-centered time suddenly stumbled upon a different order of things, is equally problematic. How do we find a separate niche for this exterminatory modus operandi when we are already familiar with the idea of massacre, civil war, revolution, man-made famine, total war, and indeed the potentiality for nuclear obliteration? The signposting of the scholars is, to say the least, contradictory. The international jurist Raphael Lemkin, who both coined the term "genocide" and was founding mover for its study, saw in it not so much modernity as a reversion or regression to past "barbarisms." If he perceived a difference in our century it was not in the destruction of peoples or nations per se but in the ability of international society, with international law as its right arm, to outlaw and ultimately prevent it. In spite of the catastrophe which overwhelmed his own family in the Holocaust, Lemkin was essentially optimistic about a modern global civilization founded on western enlightenment principles. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide is his great legacy. 5

Yet, Kosovo notwithstanding, the Genocide Convention has been more honored in the breach than in the practice. A considerable stream of current empirical thought, moreover, would challenge Lemkin's basic premise. Zygmunt Bauman, for instance, has not only forcefully rejected the notion that the Holocaust represented some "irrational outflow of the not-yet-fully eradicated residues of pre-modern barbarity" but on the contrary "arose out of a genuinely rational concern . . . generated by a bureaucracy true to it form and purpose." For Bauman, this quintessential genocide was a product of a planned, scientifically informed, expert, efficiently managed, coordinated, and technically resourced society like our own. Indeed, just in case anyone was in doubt as to his meaning, he not only reiterated that the Holocaust was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity and could not be "at [End Page 306] home in any other house" but that there was an "elective affinity" between it "and modern civilization." 6

If Bauman and Lemkin seem to offer very different perspectives on why this century might be considered...