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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19.2 (2005) 317-321

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The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, eds. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 406 pp., cloth $65.00, pbk. $22.99.
Final Solutions: Mass Killings and Genocide in the 20th Century, Benjamin A. Valentino (Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2004), 336 pp., $29.95.

The twentieth was a century of violence in which states often murdered defenseless citizens in large numbers. Revolutions, guerrilla-led insurrections, anti-colonial conflicts, and terrorism emerged to contend for state power and contribute their own atrocities. It was an "age of extremes" in the words of one well known historian, an age that gave us the term "genocide" (coined near the end of World War II by the Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin). Since that time an estimated 22 million people have died in various kinds of conflicts.

However, it is significant that Japan still refuses to show contrition for atrocities committed during World War II. In 1991 Britain passed a War Crimes Act claiming jurisdiction over crimes committed outside its territory; as recently as April 1999 Anthony Sawoniuk was convicted in the U.K. for Holocaust atrocities committed in Belorussia (he was seventy-eight years old, having lived in Britain for fifty years). The same kind of misdeeds continue, now taking place primarily within the underdeveloped regions of the world. Just ten years ago the world witnessed but failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide (ironically, some have recently disputed that it was a genocide), whose perpetrators murdered 800,000 Tutsis. Such histories provide the [End Page 317] backdrop to two books concerned with genocide and mass killing. If knowledge and education offer potential solutions to these problems, hopefully a wide audience will read these books.

The works under review form part of a new wave of books concerned with explaining mass murder. The Specter of Genocide is an anthology edited by Robert Gellately, noted for his work on Germany, and Ben Kiernan, known for documenting genocide under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the introduction the editors rightly note that studying genocide was not a priority for scholars until the end of the twentieth century, and that the Armenian Genocide during and after World War I has received wide recognition only recently, though it is still disputed in some quarters. If located in the West during the first half of the century, genocide has spread to the less developed post-colonial world in its second half. Indonesia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia among others all witnessed mass atrocities.

The volume looks at genocide from a comparative and historical perspective and is organized into four sections. First, there is an attempt to deal with theories of genocide and mass killing. For instance, is genocide a product of modernity? Is it a "new" phenomenon peculiar to the twentieth century? Eric Weitz, Omer Bartov, and Marie Fleming give differing responses. Weitz contends that genocide is a modern problem in much the same way that John Gray has argued that Al Quaeda is a "modern" movement. The development of technology has made it possible to kill people more efficiently, although clearly in the Rwandan case primitive weaponry served. On the other hand Bartov argues for genocide's ancient roots. Both cases have merits and recognize humankind's destructive tendencies over the long run. The argument might be made that the state simply became a more efficient killing machine in the past hundred years.

Some of the authors dwell on questions of motivation: who made the decisions and why? Kiernan and Gellately describe this as a "top down" or "intentionalist" approach focused on leaders and dictators. If Hitler and Pol Pot had not been in power, the reasoning goes, then the killings would probably not have happened. Another group of scholars advocates a "bottom up" (or "functionalist") perspective in which we look at the enforcement of orders. How was the broad consent of the masses manufactured...


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