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Reviewed by:
  • Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur
  • Donald W. Beachler
Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, Ben Kiernan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 740 pp., cloth $35.73, pbk. $26.00.

Ben Kiernan is well known to genocide scholars for his extensive work on the genocide under the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. Over more than three decades Kiernan has written voluminous, insightful, and at times controversial studies on the Cambodian genocide. In the present volume, the director of Yale University's Genocide Studies Program has produced a history of genocide and mass murder that is both encyclopedic and analytic. In some six hundred pages the reader encounters dozens of cases of genocide and mass killing on every inhabited continent and over the course of twenty-five hundred years, including contemporary cases such as atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan and the activities of Al-Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is not often listed as a genocidal organization, but Kiernan persuasively argues that Osama Bin-Laden's 1998 fatwa stating that it was the duty of Muslims to kill Americans wherever they might encounter them makes the organization genocidal in its aspirations: Kiernan's short but lucid analysis of the legal ramifications of the definition of the crime of genocide privileges intent. As does the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, Kiernan argues that genocide can consist of the attempt to exterminate a people in part as well as entirely.

The author pays much greater attention to genocides that often receive only marginal space in anthologies or general works. More than a third of the book is devoted to atrocities that resulted from settler colonialism in Australia, Ireland, North and South America, and Africa. Rwanda and Cambodia are covered in a single, comparatively short chapter. A major contribution of Blood and Soil is that it encourages the reader to think about genocide over a much greater historical and geographical span than is usual in comparative works.

Kiernan's structure for comparison suggests that, from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century, genocides usually have exhibited four characteristics. The first is a perpetrator leadership's deep interest in antiquity, as the organizers of England's conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth-century all the way to Hitler in the twentieth century spoke approvingly of Rome's destruction of Carthage. Nor was [End Page 327] interest in the ancient world confined to the West: Kiernan shows us that the Khmer Rouge sought an original Khmer culture uncorrupted by Indian influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Most often the interest in antiquity is rooted in the desire to recover a "pure" national or racial tradition.

Many perpetrators of genocide have expressed deep interest in agriculture, generally via ideologies that glorify the tillers of the soil. The Nazis, for example, idealized the virtuous German peasant. Concepts of race and notions of racial superiority often have accompanied genocide. (Race is the best known of Kiernan's four features of genocide because it is an integral part of the definition in the U.N. Convention.) Finally, genocide frequently occurs in the context of territorial expansion. Colonial genocides exemplify this trait, but it also is true of the Nazis and the atrocities committed by the Japanese in various parts of East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Kiernan might have included concern about the security of borders as a source of ethnic violence, fundamental in chapters such as those on the genocide perpetrated on the Ottoman Armenians and Stalin's deportations of several entire peoples.

It is hard to imagine that any reader of this book would not learn a great deal about the history of mass violence. Kiernan provokes sobering thoughts on just how violent human history has been. Reflection on the recurring themes of Blood and Soil is a rewarding exercise, and readers likely will emerge with a deeper appreciation of the place of mass violence in human history.

Naturally there are some drawbacks to covering in a single volume so many disparate events. Those familiar with the literature on one case are...


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