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Reviewed by:
  • Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World
  • Andrea Bartoli
Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World. By Christian Gerlach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, xi plus 489 pp.).

Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Germany were extremely violent in the twentieth century. They were not alone. Christian Gerlach has properly noted that, speaking about Greece specifically, there is currently no account of the "violent acts over six decades in relation to each other or a single well for other societies such histories remain to be written" (252). It is indeed indispensible to welcome the effort to understand human violence in its societal expression and in its relation to the formation, establishment and consolidation of political narratives. States, as we know them, unfortunately encounter the temptation to use violence instrumentally—especially in the twentieth century. Coalitions are formed, many participate in taking advantage of the redistribution of power, access and resources, elites struggle for control and when these strategies are actualized in specific territories, they determine the fate of millions of victims. The great merit of Gerlach's very well researched book is to set the tone for this effort to link social history to political development through an accurate appreciation of actual cases.

Some colleagues have praised this work by Christian Gerlach as a "very innovative book" (Jacques Sémelin), a "path breaking book" (Martin Shaw), and one that supplants a "simplistic, state- and ideology-centered genocide model" (A. Dirk Moses). However, a degree of prudence on the strength of the overall arc of the volume is warranted.

The book claims much and contributes something. It is most certainly refreshing to encounter "a new approach to explain mass violence" (1; the very first sentence of the volume). However, the much-heralded "newness" of the approach is based on a sort of minimalist and almost caricaturish portrait of genocide scholarship, as well as a curious gloss over other scholarship that anticipates some of the new findings.

The main contention is that old genocide studies explanations do not offer much and that this newly proposed one is indeed more comprehensive and promising. The logic is effective: mass violence occurs and no human society is exempt. Extremely violent societies experience destructiveness, "in the context of socioeconomic change that transforms a traditional countryside into a surplus-generating sphere of a national, imperial or world economy" (288). But there are many counter cases of a traditional countryside transformed into a surplus-generating sphere of a national, imperial or world economy that did not experience genocide or mass violence. So, the claim is intriguing and the focus on socioeconomic change truly deserving, but in the [End Page 237] end the main arc of the book is less convincing in its explanatory power, probably because—at least in this initial response to this puzzle—the author dismisses the very central preoccupation of the more traditional genocide literature: the role of the state. Politics can be genocidal but do not need to be. Socioeconomic change can transform a traditional countryside into a surplus-generating sphere of a national, imperial or world economy and create conditions for mass violence but does not have to, necessarily. The element that distinguishes Botswana from Rwanda is not only the ethnic composition but also the process of state formation, the inclusiveness of the polity and the quality of the political interaction.

The perplexed reader is also puzzled by two lacunae. One is that humans have experienced a great deal of variation around violence. There are numerous societies well recorded by anthropologists in which the level of violence is negligible. To ignore them assumes that they enjoy this level of harmony because they did not experience modernization, but also implies a sort of determinism by which mass violence should be expected if modernization occurs. The second lacuna that probably has more to do with tone and choice than anything else is the particular reading of the genocide literature that seems intentionally limited to: "A state turns against a group in society that is mostly ethnically defined— this is the story mostly told in genocide studies" (5).

In the very copious notes (almost half of the book...


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pp. 237-239
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