- The Crisis of Genocide, vol. I: Devastation: The European Rimlands, 1912–1938, vol. II: Annihilation: The European Rimlands, 1939–1953 by Mark Levene
Mark Levene’s two-volume study offers a thorough analysis of the genocidal “crisis” that raged in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. The aim of this polyptych is “to understand the phenomenon of genocide as an aspect of world-historical development” (p. xiii). Volume I consists of six chapters: one on the First World War as the incubus of mass violence; a long chapter on the Armenian genocide; chapter 3 on the consequences of the armistice era; chapter 4 on interwar assaults on minorities in new nation states; and two chapters on the rise of the Stalinist and Hitlerite states. Volume II covers, also in six chapters, the second “crisis of the rimlands” in the deadly 1930s; the Nazi extermination of Jews and Roma; non-German perpetrator regimes such as those of Romania, Hungary, and Croatia; a chapter on “all against all” during World War II; violent postwar settlements and expulsions; and a weighty fifty-page conclusion. Together, these volumes constitute a compelling examination of the epoch and a major contribution to the study of genocide.
Victor Hugo famously said: “If a man is killed in Paris, it is a murder; the throats of fifty thousand people are cut in the East, and it is a question.” Levene has avoided that kind of Orientalism in this study of mass violence. Too often, génocidaires outside Europe have been rationalized as products of “brutal” cultures. Modern political crimes have been attributed to inherently evil men with large moustaches who are from exotic areas such as the Balkans or the Caucasus, representatives of “tribalism” or “oriental despotism.” In accounts of the Armenian Genocide or of the Holocaust, Kurdish and Ukrainian perpetrators have too often figured as faceless killers, undifferentiated and unexplained, “tribesmen” or “Trawniki men” appearing in the Anatolian or Galician killing fields ex nihilo to murder people for little apparent reason other than innate cruelty. Levene’s study, by contrast, takes the perpetrators and the victims as participants in complex but very real historical and political situations.
Levene divides the “rimlands” into three zones: the Balkans; a Caucasus-Black Sea-East Anatolia swath of territory; and the so-called “Land Between” stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea (Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”). But Levene’s tour d’horizon also covers the academic landscape: the introduction to volume I and the conclusion of volume II in particular demonstrate a thorough familiarity with all explanations for genocides under consideration. Levene sees those genocides not as deviations [End Page 275] but as integral, even “intrinsic” (II, p. 5) to the “mainstream” historical trajectory of global systems of neighboring nation-states. In the first half of the twentieth century, two world wars, two major dictatorships, and many smaller nation-states imposed such systems in the rimlands. This development was a directional, but “blind” process (Norbert Elias): no “puppet master” conspired to move the globe in a homogenizing direction, but nevertheless it so moved, both through inter-state antagonism and co-operation, as well as through intra-state policies carried out by nationalist elites.
Levene scrutinizes existing paradigms such as “extreme ideology,”“total war,” and “late state formation.” But genocide, he argues, has autonomous causative factors of its own (I, p. 23). He suggests at least three shaped the rimlands: an evolving antisemitism, new forms of imperialism, and ethnic-nationalism. These three elements produced several fateful constellations of state- and nation-formation in the rimlands of Europe.
Conventional approaches to understanding events have been split: some have assumed that “Europeanization” tended to civilize and quell the violent tendencies inherent in the wild frontiers; others have assumed that Europeanization was one of the causes of the conflicts. The Crisis of Genocide circumvents this conundrum by combining both points of view: yes, the European-inspired nation-state system expanded...