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Christian Gerlach’s 2010 genocide-related study focuses on extremely violent societies

View of Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) looking west toward Dixie Road in Mississauga. On the right is a highway sign bearing the British crown symbol. Jaan Pill photo

View of Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) looking west toward Dixie Road in Mississauga. On the right is a highway sign bearing the British crown symbol. Jaan Pill photo

Whenever I see the British crown on a highway sign in Ontario, I ponder about what military history tells us about the British empire. Jaan Pill photo

Whenever I see the British crown on a highway sign in Ontario, I ponder about what military history tells us about the British empire. Jaan Pill photo

When I first began to read about the history of the British empire, I had the sense that the benign features of the empire predominated. Jaan Pill photo

When I first began to read about the history of the British empire, I had the sense that the benign features of the empire predominated. Jaan Pill photo

When I began to read about the history of the British empire as it relates to the history of Kenya, I began to take a different view of what the nature of the empire was, in reality. Jaan Pill photo

When I began to read about the history of the British empire as it relates to the history of Kenya, I began to take a different view of what the nature of the empire was, in reality. Jaan Pill photo

My reading of em>Extremely Violent Societies (2010) has prompted me to view the British empire as rather typical of all empires, by which I mean that they all appear to have characteristic of what Christian Gerlach describes as 'extremely violent societies.' Jaan Pill photo

My reading of Extremely Violent Societies (2010) has prompted me to view the British empire as typical of all empires, by which I mean they all appear to have the characteristics of what Christian Gerlach describes as ‘extremely violent societies.’ The sign in the photo is at the South Service Road east of Dixie Road in Mississauga. Jaan Pill photo

The same sign, in the sunlight. A sign can be presented in a dim light or in a favourable light. Metaphorically speaking, how one lights a brand has much to do with its reception. Generally, one seeks to place one's symbols in the best possible light. Jaan Pill photo

The same sign, in the sunlight. A sign can be presented in a dim light or in a favourable light. Metaphorically speaking, how one lights a brand has much to do with its reception. Generally, one seeks to place one’s symbols in the best possible light. Jaan Pill photo

In some circumstances, the British crown symbol is seen in outline form, as on this highway sign. Jaan Pill photo

In some circumstances, the British crown symbol is seen in outline form, as on this highway sign on Cawthra Road looking north toward the QEW. I find it of interest to note that the bent-arrow sign fulfills the purpose of alerting drivers that an exit is coming up, whereby a driver can take the QEW to Toronto. Jaan Pill photo

I view this matter in a particular context. I have been very pleased to learn, for example, through my reading,of the key role that the British army played ensnaring that the United States made no progress in its stated project to occupy Canada during the War of 1812. Jaan Pill photo

I view this matter in a particular context. I have been very pleased to learn, for example, through my reading,of the key role that the British army played in ensuring that the United States made no progress in its stated project to occupy Canada during the War of 1812. In this second sign, which a driver sees just before entering onto the QEW, the sign is now straight and pointing upward at 45-degrees. At this point, the driver’s decision has been made and the next step involves merging into the eastbound traffic on the QEW. It may be noted that the initial sign is in lowercase, whereas in the second sign the word is capitalized (‘TORONTO’). In many cases, I’ve noted with highway directions signs, key (that is, crucial) information is capitalized and secondary information is in lower case. Jaan Pill photo

As well, the role that Britain along with the United States played in ensuring that the Allied side prevailed during the Second World War is a source of inspiration for me. That is part of the context, that I have kept in mind, in my readings about the history of the British empire. Jaan Pill photo

To return to the topic of the history of the British empire: The role that Britain along with the United States played in ensuring that the Allied side prevailed during the Second World War is a source of inspiration for me. That is part of the context, that I have kept in mind, in my readings about the history of the British empire. Jaan Pill photo

This post is concerned with Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010) by Christian Gerlach.

If I understand the study correctly, Christian Gerlach argues that the concept of ‘extremely violent societies’ serves as a useful alternative to the concept of ‘genocide.’

Gerlach has developed a conceptual framework, with a focus on “meticulous empirical research” (p. 259) related to mass violence, that make good sense to me.

I have a clearer view, of how things work in the world, as a result of reading the study.

Organized violence

A concept that has emerged for me, based on reading of military history in recent years, is that military leadership involves the management of organized violence directed toward political goals.

Organized violence is manifested in official and unofficial versions. A variation of the unofficial form is outlined in Gomorrah (2007) by Roberto Saviano.

The shooting of civilians by police officers in Toronto, Montreal, and other cities worldwide is a recurring theme, in a category of organized violence that appears in news reports, as in a July 7, 2015 CBC Metro Morning podcast. In the latter case, the victim is an individual wielding a hammer and experiencing a mental health crisis. The shooting of black civilians by police officers has similarly been highlighted in news reports from across North America in recent years.

Another concept that has emerged is that there are many ways to conceptualize what mass violence entails. Genocide is one concept that comes into play, in this regard. Another concept, according to Christian Gerlach in his 2010 study, is ‘extremely violent societies.’ The author argues that the latter concept has more analytic utility than ‘genocide.’

Dark side of modernity

Gerlach refers, in Extremely Violent Societies, to  an article by Alexander Laban Hinton entitled “The dark side of modernity: Toward an anthropology of genocide (2002)”. To access the article at Google Books, click here. To erase the yellow highlights on the page, once you arrive at it, click on “Clear search” at the upper right of the screen.

Alexander Hinton speaks of a two-faced modernity, where one face represents civilization and progress, and the other represents genocide. He notes that with the rise of the nation-state, millions of indigenous people died from disease, starvation, slave labour, and murder.

Hinton adds that sixty million non-indigenous people were also killed in the twentieth century including:

  • Jews
  • Cambodians
  • Bosnians
  • Rwandan Tutsis
  • Hereros
  • Armenians
  • Ukrainian peasants
  • Gypsies
  • Bengalis
  • Burundi Hutus
  • the Aché of Paraguay
  • Guatemalan Mayans, and
  • the Ogoni of Nigeria

The author of the article notes that such devastation poses challenges to scholars:

  • Why does one group of human beings try to eradicate another group?
  • How do we as human beings respond to such events, and how might we prevent them in the future?

Alexander Hinton argues that anthropologists are uniquely positioned to address such questions but in general they have – until the 1980s – stayed away from the analysis of political violence in complex state societies.

Ethnization of history

I came across the article by Alexander Hinton because Christian Gerlach cites it in Chapter 7 of his 2010 study.

In the chapter, entitled “The ethnization of history: The historiography of mass violence and national identity construction,” Gerlach refers to “the similarities between nationalist narratives and the picture drawn in comparative genocide studies” (p. 259).

Empirical research

Gerlach notes, in this regard, that the latter academic field “was established by social scientists who were model­-oriented rather than prone to meticulous empirical research.”

“In their mostly broadly designed studies,” Gerlach adds, “they could hardly question the factual framework provided by more specialized scholarly works, which in turn rested on nationalist narratives. For example, Donald Beachler’s recent study of why the case of Bangladesh has been neglected by Europeans and North Americans has its merits, yet it amounts to an appeal to accept in full the Bangladeshi nationalist narrative” (p. 259).

Gerlach notes that such a lack of empirical verification “may be not accidental, as there are intrinsic congruences between national narratives and basic assumptions of genocide studies. A major criticism of genocide stud­ies is the primordial interpretation of ethnicity which prevails within it, instead of an understanding of race, ethnicity, and nation as a dynamic process of definition as to what characterizes it and who is a member” (p. 260).”

A bibliographical note regarding the last sentence, in the above-quoted text, refers to the article, noted earlier, by Alexander Laban Hinton (“The dark side of modernity (2002)”).

Imagined communities

“That is even stranger,” according to Gerlach, “given that much of recent scholar­ship on nationalism has emphasized that nations are not natural units, but usually invented or ‘imagined’ under the leadership of certain middle-class elites.”

A good sense of the author’s argument, in this chapter, is provided by the following excerpt (I have omitted the enumerated bibliographical citations, in this excerpt and in other ones, and have broken the text into shorter paragraphs):

“This ethnization in a wider sense is specific to European and North American thinking. ‘Race, ethnicity, nation and religion are favored categories in modern discourse,’ writes Alex Hinton, who notes the ‘reification of concepts such as race and ethnicity’ is ‘not surprising, given the historical privileging of perceived biological difference in much Western discourse.’

“Quite ironically, the objects of this view are often located outside the ‘West’ – Vinay Lal argues that particularly conflicts outside the so-called West are ‘all too eas­ily’ seen as primordial. In a way this ‘Western’ urge also applies to the ‘desire to demonstrate a racial dimension to Soviet communist policies,’ which has been ascribed to an overdose of the ‘Holocaust paradigm.’

“In contrast, certain types of imperialist violence have been marginalized in genocide studies, which again suggests a close relationship between that field and nationalism: the Vietnam war seems to have been defined away from the realm of ‘genocide’ in a field dominated by North American scholars.

“One can only maintain that as a result of the ‘1846-48 Mexican-American War,’  ‘Mexico was truncated without genocide occurring,’ if one ignores the mass destruction of indigenous peoples inside the territories annexed by the USA from Mexico in the following years and decades.

“Such marginal­ization – though not everybody in the industrialized North subscribed to it – was apparently undertaken quite consciously, as Helen Fein’s remark would suggest: ‘If both the US and France […] are in the same class (of perpetrators) as Nazi Germany and the USSR, we have a con­struct good for nothing.’ ”

[End of excerpt]

Greece

The 2010 study notes that, as the outcome of particular historical circumstances, Greece has frequently demonstrated the characteristics of an extremely violent society, during the twentieth century.

Masters of the Universe (2012)

With reference to the unquestioned acceptance, which Gerlach posits, on the part of some comparative genocide studies, to “factual frameworks” provided by “more specialized scholarly works” (p. 259), I am reminded of a comment (p. 12) from Masters of the Universe (2012):

“Until recently, the debate about neoliberalism was dominated by memoir and journalism, which treated it as a political and economic fact rather than as a historical phenomenon in want of explanation.”

These are good points. Memoir and journalism don’t explain everything. However, they do retain value. There is value, by way of example, in the form of memoir known as oral history. This is a topic that is highlighted, again by way of example, in an evocative study entitled Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement (2015) by Steven High.

Internal versus imperialist violence

In the “Conclusions” chapter, Gerlach distinguishes between internal and imperialist mass violence. Among other things, he notes that “in imperialist violence, two societies – not merely two states – are in confrontation, with the bulk of the violence of course exerted by the occupiers against the occupied. This created plenty of opportunities to invent otherness, with groups treated dif­ferently according to their value in the use of the acquired territory. Unfortunately, the reasons for the mass support of imperialism and imperialist violence at home in the empire-building country – which clearly go beyond immediate personal gain, however important that may have been – are generally scarcely researched” (P. 279).

Nazi Germany

Gerlach notes, with regard to the distinction between internal and imperialist violence, that:

“Nazi Germany has been cited as exceptional, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. Other highly industrialized countries, too, have committed mass violence in an imperialist context, even in the twentieth century (Japan in East and Southeast Asia, the USA in the Philippines and Vietnam, France in Algeria, or Britain in Kenya).

“What makes the German case extraordinary, except for the sheer amount of violence and brutality, is the fact that an industrial nation turned to mass murder against groups within it, as well as to its particularly radical internal racism.

“This has led to a certain, though implicit, fascination with the fate of German victims, which resulted in the rela­tive neglect of the imperialist aspect of German violence that caused 96 percent of all deaths.

“An indicator of this misperception are enu­merations of non-Jewish victims of Nazism that include the disabled, ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, political enemies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ‘asocials’ and ‘professional criminals’ (that is, mostly Germans), but less frequently much larger victim groups like Soviet prisoners of war, peasants affected by anti-partisan warfare, or forced labor.”

Future prospects

The book’s concluding chapter includes (p. 289) the following text (I have, as elsewhere, omitted bibliographical notes and have broken the text into shorter paragraphs):

“A core question is then how can profound social change be brought about without massive violence or forced migration? It is hard to see how this could happen in a capitalist world of inequality, imbalances, and exploitation. While less unequal, social­ist accumulation has also shown a high incidence of mass violence and misery.

“Sadly, the modernization aficionado’s argument that mass violence is historically a transitional problem that will go away after industrialization – if only at the price of considerable suffering – has little validity. Many countries suffer from a blocked industrialization accompanied by the decay of old social structures, a sort of capit­alism without industrialization, for instance in sub-Saharan Africa.

“For the capitalist world system is based on inequality within nations but also internationally, with industrial powers (and societies) using non-industrial regions for their selective business interests. Some of the massive violence brought about in this process has been described in previous chapters.

“Part of it in the twentieth century was also directly inflicted by industrial nations, whether bourgeois democracies or not – during the expansion of new empires such as Germany, Japan, and the USA, and wars of emancipation from Algeria to Kenya. As has been argued, even ‘national democracy can be compatible with war and genocide,’ while only ‘global democracy creates different standards.’ Unfortunately, there is no such thing as global democracy.”

[End of excerpt]

Robert Frank

A July 2, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “The Man Who Saw America: Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive.” Robert Frank’s helps a person to see things (or in this case, people, namely Americans) in a particular way. If you are not familiar with Robert Frank’s work, a good book to start with is The Americans (first published in France in 1958). Reading Christian Gerlach’s 2010 study is akin to the experience of viewing Robert Frank’s photographs.

Buddhist Warfare (2010)

A previous blog post, among others, that addresses related themes is entitled: Buddhist Warfare (2010) highlights connections between Buddhisms and violence.

Whatever topic is chosen for study and analysis, there is much to be said for following the evidence, wherever it may lead.

Updates:

A Nov. 29, 2013 Independent article is entitled: “Revealed: How British Empire’s dirty secrets went up in smoke in the colonies: Thousands of confidential papers were destroyed as British rule neared its end in many colonies.”

A July 8, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘The Unraveling,’ by Emma Sky.”

A July 10, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Empathy Is Actually a Choice.”

A January/February 2015 Foreign Affairs article is entitled: “How to Think Like Edmund Burke: Debating the Philosopher’s Complex Legacy.” The article is of interest because it underlines the fact that some topics do not readily lend themselves to ‘essentializing,’ but instead benefit from an in-depth, evidence-based analysis from a wide range of perspectives.

A July 24, 2015 article by Pankaj Mishra is entitled: “How to think about Islamic State: Islamic State is often called ‘medieval’ but is in fact very modern – a horrific expression of a widespread frustration with a globalised western model that promises freedom and prosperity to all, but fails to deliver.”

“In an irony of modern history, which stalks revolutions and revolts to this day,” in Pankaj Mishra’s take on things, “the search for a new moral community has constantly assumed unpredicted and vicious forms. But then the dislocations and traumas caused by industralisation and urbanisation accelerated the growth of ideologies of race and blood in even enlightened western Europe.”

“In an irony of modern history, which stalks revolutions and revolts to this day,” in Pankaj Mishra’s take on things, “the search for a new moral community has constantly assumed unpredicted and vicious forms. But then the dislocations and traumas caused by industralisation and urbanisation accelerated the growth of ideologies of race and blood in even enlightened western Europe.”

I would say, by way of comment, that a journalistic take on things provides one form of analysis; my own preference is for the kind of evidence-based historical analysis demonstrated in Masters of the Universe (2012) and Extremely Violent Societies (2010).

A Sept. 27, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Lasting effects of trauma reaches across generations through DNA.”

A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”

A March 6, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “René Girard’s theories still explain the violence all around us: French-born scholar spent his career trying to understand what what makes violence a chronic problem.”

An April 15, 2016 Globe and Mail article by Bob Rae is entitled: “Attawapiskat is not alone: Suicide crisis is national problem.”

An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”

An Aug. 18, 2016 Guardian longread article is entitled: “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire: The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins stirred controversy with her work on the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising. But it laid the ground for a legal case that has transformed our view of Britain’s past.”

A Best of 2016 Longreads article is entitled: “Theorizing the Drone: What does the rise of the drone mean for justice, for the ethics of heroism, for psychology? Most important of all, who is dying and why?”

Remembering the Holocaust (2009)

A study of relevance to the topics at hand is entitled: Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (2009); a blurb reads:

“Remembering the Holocaust explains why the Holocaust has come to be considered the central event of the 20th century, and what this means. Presenting Jeffrey Alexander’s controversial essay that, in the words of Geoffrey Hartman, has already become a classic in the Holocaust literature, and following up with challenging and equally provocative responses to it, this book offers a sweeping historical reconstruction of the Jewish mass murder as it evolved in the popular imagination of Western peoples, as well as an examination of its consequences.

“[Jeffrey] Alexander’s inquiry points to a broad cultural transition that took place in Western societies after World War II: from confidence in moving past the most terrible of Nazi wartime atrocities to pessimism about the possibility for overcoming violence, ethnic conflict, and war. The Holocaust has become the central tragedy of modern times, an event which can no longer be overcome, but one that offers possibilities to extend its moral lessons beyond Jews to victims of other types of secular and religious strife. Following Alexander’s controversial thesis is a series of responses by distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences–Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu & Ruth Katz–considering the implications of the universal moral relevance of the Holocaust. A final response from Alexander in a postscript focusing on the repercussions of the Holocaust in Israel concludes this forthright and engaging discussion.

“Remembering the Holocaust is an all-too-rare debate on our conception of the Holocaust, how it has evolved over the years, and the profound effects it will have on the way we envision the future.”

A June 20, 2017 London School of Economics and Science article is entitled: “Book Review: The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees.”

 

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One Response to Christian Gerlach’s 2010 genocide-related study focuses on extremely violent societies

  1. Jaan Pill Jaan Pill says:

    Also of relevance is a book I learned about from a New York Times article, namely Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017).

    Summary

    How American race law provided a blueprint for Nazi Germany

    Nazism triumphed in Germany during the high era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Did the American regime of racial oppression in any way inspire the Nazis? The unsettling answer is yes. In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime. Contrary to those who have insisted that there was no meaningful connection between American and German racial repression, Whitman demonstrates that the Nazis took a real, sustained, significant, and revealing interest in American race policies.

    As Whitman shows, the Nuremberg Laws were crafted in an atmosphere of considerable attention to the precedents American race laws had to offer. German praise for American practices, already found in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was continuous throughout the early 1930s, and the most radical Nazi lawyers were eager advocates of the use of American models. But while Jim Crow segregation was one aspect of American law that appealed to Nazi radicals, it was not the most consequential one. Rather, both American citizenship and antimiscegenation laws proved directly relevant to the two principal Nuremberg Laws–the Citizenship Law and the Blood Law. Whitman looks at the ultimate, ugly irony that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes not because they found them too enlightened, but too harsh.

    Indelibly linking American race laws to the shaping of Nazi policies in Germany, Hitler’s American Model upends understandings of America’s influence on racist practices in the wider world.

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