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Reviewed by:
  • Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History
  • Robert Melson
Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History. Edited by A. Dirk Moses. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. 502 pp. $95.00 (cloth).

This is an edited collection of nineteen chapters, eight of which were first presented as papers at the conference “Genocide and Colonialism” at the University of Sydney in July 2003. The conference was hosted by the editor who teaches history at the University of Sydney. Moses has published widely on the topic of genocide, and he is an associate editor at the Journal of Genocide Research. The first and introductory chapter by the editor, “Empire, Colony, Genocide: Keywords and the Philosophy of History,” lays the conceptual framework for the book, and the last chapter by Alexander Hinton, “Savages, Subjects, and Sovereigns: Conjunctions of Modernity, Genocide, and Colonialism,” views the spread of modernity as a precondition for contemporary genocide. There are other notable articles: Ben Kiernan’s “Serial Colonialism and Genocide in Nineteenth Century Cambodia,” Donald Bloxham’s “Internal Colonialism, Inter-imperial Conflict and the Armenian Genocide,” and David Furber and Wendy Lower’s “Colonialism and Genocide in Nazi-occupied Poland and Ukraine.”

The main thesis of this book is that genocide is a product of colonialism and imperialism, and it cites Raphael Lemkin approvingly when he noted that “genocides are intrinsically colonial and that they long precede the twentieth century. The history of genocide is the history of human society since antiquity” (p. ix). Indeed, colonialism and imperialism have been implicated in genocide since antiquity, and they have continued to do so through the early and later modern eras. One can readily think of many examples from antiquity, such as the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, the destruction of ancient Israel by [End Page 463] Assyria, the destruction of Melos by Athens, and the destruction of Judea and Carthage by Rome. The Spanish conquest of the New World and the European colonization of North America precipitated a demographic disaster for the indigenous peoples. The depopulation of the New World, including North America, was largely due to the spread of diseases such as smallpox and to settler-promoted ethnic cleansing and genocide on a continental scale. At approximately the same time, the British settlement of Australia and New Zealand had similar effects on the native peoples of those regions. In the nineteenth century, the barbaric exploitation of the Congo—verging on genocide—by King Leopold and his agents, and the massacres of the Herero and Nama by German imperialism, were but episodes in the European scramble for Africa.

These were all instances of conquest and colonialism, most by imperial regimes, leading to mass destruction and genocide. However, the strong argument claiming that genocide is always a by-product of colonialism and imperialism presents at least three problems. First, there are many instances of colonialism and imperialism that did not lead to genocide. Second, there are important cases, such as the destruction of the European Jews and Roma, that were occasioned by Nazi imperialism but had their origins in other historical and ideological sources. Third, the claim neglects a major cause of genocide in the modern postcolonial world, namely ethnic nationalism and the national state. As these spread to culturally plural regions nationalism and the national state promoted ethnically based conflicts over power leading to genocide in Asia and Africa.

British imperialism and colonialism can certainly be implicated in the physical and cultural destruction of native peoples in North America, Australia, and New Zealand; the same argument cannot be made for large swaths of British West or East Africa or India. British colonialism was violently imposed, even as in India at Amritsar with massacre; it cannot be argued, however, that the British practiced wide-scale genocide in their other colonies. Nigeria under indirect rule (1860–1960) for example, did not experience genocide. Massive violence during the Biafran War (1967–1970), especially against the Ibo, occurred after independence from Britain, after the Nigerian nationalist movement took power and splintered along ethnic lines.

Nazi imperialism in Eastern Europe and Russia provided the context and the cause for the partial genocide, ethnic cleansing...


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