- Genocide before the Holocaust
Cathie Carmichael joins a host of other scholars who, of late, have written general histories of genocide. Hers is more limited in scope than some. Rather than starting with the beginning of human history or the early modern world, she focuses on the age of high modernity from around the 1860s to the 1930s. Her geographic range is restricted to the borderlands region where the four great multiethnic and multireligious empires—Habsburg, Russian, Ottoman, and German (the latter the latecomer and somewhat distinctive)—met and cooperated [End Page 623] and contested for power and influence. From the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and across Anatolia, this region became the killing fields for many populations who for centuries and even millennia had populated Europe and Asia Minor. The Holocaust and the Armenian genocide were the most deadly of the events, but Muslims in the Caucasus and Balkans, Greek Orthodox in Anatolia, Croats in Serbia and Serbs in Croatia, ethnic Germans all across the region (admittedly, outside her time frame), and many others suffered ethnic cleansings, with all of the desperation, depredations, and high death rates that always accompany such operations.
In 161 pages of text, Carmichael piles in one atrocity after another. She moves competently around the complex geography of the region. But it is not at all clear what her thesis is. One reads a catalog of horrors but not much of an argument. Unfortunately, Carmichael demonstrates all too clearly the methodological crisis of "genocide studies," a field that has emerged with some force in the last fifteen years. There now exist two international associations, the more United States-based International Association of Genocide Scholars and the more European-based International Network of Genocide Scholars, each with its own journal. Other genocide journals are published in Germany and Japan. Some excellent scholarship has certainly been produced in the general context of the field with its associations and journals. But all too often, books and articles display a surplus of moral outrage (as well there should be) and a minimum of scholarly analysis. Moreover, the overall effect has been to isolate the act of genocide from other forms of population politics in the modern era, or to apply an overly general definition such that every atrocity becomes a genocide.
Carmichael relates genocide to the demise of the empires in the region. But that is a highly general statement that requires much more explanation. A strong dose of social science would be helpful. What was cause and what was effect? What were primary causative factors? What were contextual and secondary? Were empires fated to be unable to master the ethnic and religious diversity that had characterized them for centuries? To what extent were pogroms and massacres state-directed or the result of popular upheavals? Carmichael draws a straight line from all sorts of atrocities to genocide, but this, too, requires much more analysis if it is to be convincing. For example, the most recent studies of pogroms in the Russian Empire have demonstrated that czarist authorities were by no means the progenitors of riots against Jews. And Jews, after all, were systematically killed under German, not Russian, domination. So what is the connection between pogroms and the Holocaust? The massacres of Armenians under sultan Abdul Hamid [End Page 624] II in the 1890s and 1909 were horrific events. But the most recent research on the late Ottoman Empire distinguishes those acts from the genocide carried out by the Young Turk regime during World War I.
Oddly, Carmichael gives no analytical significance to war, yet in the borderlands region war so often provided the context in which genocide unfolded. It is hard to imagine the genocide of Armenians taking place absent the sense of both panic and possibility that the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Djemal, and Talaat, felt with the Ottoman entrance into World War I. Muslims fled and were displaced from the Balkans especially during the wars of the 1870s and the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. All sorts of prejudices and...