I am prompted to consider whether there are different types of genocides by three things: (1) having recently read Jean Hatzfeld’s book Machete Season; (2) a recent class discussion in a course I am currently teaching on Native North American cultures; and (3) the continued dithering and lack of action on the part of the U.N. with regard to the ethnic violence and massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan and now also neighboring portions of Chad and the Central African Republic.
(1) Hatzfeld’s book Machete Season is a harrowing read, based as it is on interviews with Hutu killers who participated directly in the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in the mid 1990s. Hatzfeld had previously conducted interviews and written about Tutsi survivors of that genocide. He also has written about instances of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. In Machete Season He makes a distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing. He also carefully makes clear that labeling the events in Bosnia “ethnic cleansing” rather than “genocide” is in no way intended to diminish the significance of the abuse heaped upon specific individuals and communities. Rather it is to recognize a difference in the way that events played out in Bosnia and Rwanda, as well as a difference in the motivations and coordination of the killers.
One key difference between the two cases concerns who was killed. In Bosnia, ethnic cleansing involved the removal of Bosniak Muslims from Serb dominated areas, including large scale massacres at some sites, such as Srebrenica. Such massacres focused on men. Men and older boys were killed wholesale, while women and children, when killed, were killed more randomly. Rape was perpetrated commonly, but not necessarily systematically, on Bosniak women (which doesn’t at all minimize its effects or horror, but simply describes the practice). Hatzfeld argues that the intent (and the result in some areas) was to drive out the Bosniaks, to brutalize them, to diminish their capability to retaliate, but did stop short of attempting to completely eliminate the Bosniaks as a group. It is this that prompts Hatzfeld to say this was something subtly different from genocide.
In the Rwandan case, the evidence from the Tutsi survivors, Hutu killers, and material remains makes clear that Tutsis, regardless of gender or age, were massacred wholesale. The goal was not to drive them out but to completely eliminate them.
(2) In a recent class discussion in my current course on Native North American cultures, where the specific discussion focused on effects of European and Euro-American interactions with Native Americans, the issue arose whether there had been a Native American genocide. After careful discussion, a number of conclusions were reached. First, the consensus of the class was that whether there was genocide in this case depended on whether we define it in terms of the sorts of effects that result from an interaction or in terms of the motivations influencing the actions of one side.
If genocide is defined in terms of effects (a legitimate starting point, though not the route I would choose, because it entails only ever being able to identify genocide after the fact, after the results are in), then there clearly was a Native American genocide. In terms of absolute numbers and population proportions, the consequences of European-Native American interaction were more deadly for Native Americans than was the case for any of the 20th – 21st century genocides, due to a combination of disease, violence, and enslavement.
The consensus of the class (with some respectful and respected dissenters) was that genocide should be defined more on the basis of motivations of those doing the killing. When so defined, in most cases we see something slightly different from genocide and more like ethnic cleansing in the Native American case. There were many massacres of Native American populations, just as in Bosnia, but rarely were they systematic in intent or practice, i.e. rarely were they systematic attempts to wipe out a whole group. There seems overall (despite the more clearly genocidal intent of some individuals, like General Sherman who tried to adapt the total war techniques he had pioneered during the Civil War to genocidal endeavors in the American West) to have been an attempt to move Native Americans away (e.g. the Trail of Tears and the whole reservation system) and later to assimilate them forcefully through institutions like Indian Boarding Schools. To use a current technical anthropological term, there was systematic “ethnocide” in European-Native American interactions, and there was frequent and often extreme violence (there was perhaps even genocide in specific cases), but taken overall, something a little different than genocide occurred (and as in the Bosnian ethnic cleansing case, saying genocide didn’t occur doesn’t make it better, but simply describes the situation). (If we shift our historical gaze south of the United States, in most of Latin America, there was not even an attempt to move Native Americans out of the way [except in parts of Argentina and Chile] – not because of a particularly nobler attitude towards Native Americans, but because the Spanish and Portuguese wanted to use their labor.)
(3) Some senior U.S. administration officials have labeled the events on the ground in Darfur and surrounding regions genocide, but to date the U.N. has refrained from doing so. This is partly no doubt out of cynical self interest on the part of some countries, such as China, with an interest in cultivating economic and political ties with the Sudanese government, partly reluctance to use that term, because under the U.N.’s charter, “genocide” would require strong action, but also arguably because some don’t quite see the events as genocide. I would label these events genocide, but I would also recognize that events in Darfur (and for that matter the events of the early 20th century Armenian genocide) are a bit different than those of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide.
Therefore, I would propose the following categories for considering genocide and related practice: state sponsored and coordinated genocide, state promoted – locally coordinated genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
State Sponsored and Coordinated Genocide
This is the sort of instance many have in mind when they think of “genocide,” and as I argued above may be part of the reason that some at the U.N. are uncomfortable labeling the Darfur situation a genocide (because it doesn’t – at least not systematically – fit into this type of genocide, and also as I said above, many states have other, less legitimate reasons, to resist the labeling of genocide).
The two most prominent examples of states sponsored and coordinated genocide are the Jewish Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. There are some important differences between these two cases (which will always be the case with any two distinct members of any sort of type or category): the Holocaust was administered largely through gassings and machine guns, the Rwandan genocide largely through machetes (through there was plenty of machine gunning in Rwanda, and plenty of stabbing and slashing in the Holocaust); while Jews in Germany and Tutsis in Rwanda were both minority ethnic groups, Jews in Germany were largely unknown at a personal level to many Germans, whereas most every Rwandan Hutu was on familiar terms with at least a handful of local Tutsis (which meant that the Rwandan genocide was more intimate; the Holocaust in places like Poland and Lithuania often took on a similar quality); the Holocaust in Germany (but not in places like Poland or the Baltic states) had an urban character, as German Jews were almost exclusively an urban ethnic minority there, while all of Rwandan society has a rural character (as Hatzfeld describes, even Kigali, which is a large city, has the character of many, many rural communities juxtaposed next to one another), with Tutsis despised by many Hutus because of their association of Tutsis with cattle breeding and greater wealth. So, to place the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in the same category is not to suggest they are the same through and through.
They do have important similarities, though. Most importantly, they were both strongly associated with the state apparatus in their implementation. The state promoted overtly the mass killing of a particular ethnic minority. (This was more clearly the case in Rwanda, but there was plenty of explicit promotion of killing Jews in public statements by Hitler and others, including quite obviously in Mein Kampf.) Further, the genocides were centrally coordinated by the state. This was perhaps more elaborate (and well known) for the Holocaust, but also occurred through the use of radio communication for coordination and the use of the interahamwe militia to implement genocide at the local level (as is made clear in Hatzfeld’s book) in the Rwandan case. This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t also plenty of local initiative taken to participate in the two genocides in ways not directly promoted and coordinated by the state – there’s plenty of evidence in both cases of things like Hutu villagers seeking out their former neighbors in hiding to kill them, even when not directly coerced to do so by the interahamwe, or Polish or Lithuanian peasants helping German units track local Jewish residents, sometimes even participating directly in the mass killings, or German soldiers volunteering to participate in military units, such as the einsatzgruppen, designed to do nothing more than track down and kill Jews. The overall quality of these two genocides, though, is of a state apparatus being channeled toward attempting to efficiently and systematically wipe out a particular ethnic group (really ethnic and other social groups in the case of the Holocaust, since vast numbers of Roma and a much smaller, but proportionally large, number of homosexuals were also targeted and killed).
The fact that the state was so intimately involved in these two instances makes them quite unusual. Really the only other such example I can readily think of is the German attempt to wipe out the Herero people in the German colony of Southwestern Africa (now Namibia) in the early 20th century. Several historians have discussed this episode as a sort of warm up for the Holocaust, which among other things pioneered the concentration camp as a tool in mass murder and genocide (the Germans probably borrowed the idea of the concentration camp from the British use of such camps in South Africa during the Boer War, and the earliest instance of the modern concentration camp was probably the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia which housed Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War, but the camps housing Herero inmates were the first channeled to genocidal purposes).
State Promoted – Locally Coordinated Genocide
Both the current massacres in Darfur and the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century represent definite genocides. In both cases there is or was a definite attempt to wipe out particular ethnic groups, Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire or the Fur and related black, non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur, Sudan. The character of these genocides is different from that of the Holocaust or Rwanda, though. For the most part, the state is or was not the primary direct perpetrator but played mainly the role of instigator (exceptions include things like Sudanese military planes attacking communities in Darfur under the guise of attacking rebels). The Sudanese state is not completely lying when it claims to not be engaged in massacres – it is mainly the janjaweed militias who commit the atrocities, but there’s plenty of evidence to indicate state support (material and ideological) of the janjaweed. The Turkish state is not completely lying when it claims things like, “It was the Kurds who killed the Armenians” – in many cases, Kurds were involved in killing Armenians, but so were lots more Turks.
It’s important to recognize differences in organization and implementation of genocides because these differences require different responses. If the world at large through the U.N. were to ever decide to take action in Darfur before it’s too late to bother (something about which I’m quite skeptical and pessimistic, but also hopeful), the strategies and tactics called for would be different than if the world at large through the U.N. had ever gotten around to deciding to take action in Rwanda. In Rwanda, the military defeat of the Hutu-dominated army and government (and by the end of the genocide simply the Hutu army and government) by Tutsi rebels essentially ended the genocide. There had been some local initiative and coordination of specific maneuvers during the genocide, but these had been minor in scope and fell apart almost instantaneously with the defeat of the state. It’s not at all clear that the same would apply to Darfur. The fact that the state is involved, but mainly indirectly, means that things like sanctions or warfare against the Sudanese state might or might not be sufficient to end the genocide. With the first sort of genocide described above, the international response that would be appropriate is clear (even if the international community has never responded in this way) – end the state that is directly perpetrating genocide and you end the genocide. With this second type of more diffuse and localized genocide, while I would argue that it is still necessary to intervene powerfully in some way with the state in question, it’s not so clear that this would even be close to sufficient in order to end these types of genocide (in fact, the Armenian genocide continued well past the 1915 date normally associated with the genocide, even as the Ottoman state was crumbling at the end of World War I). If anything, a response involving very strong economic and political sanctions seems more likely to be effective than military action with this sort of genocide. Strong sanctions would give the Sudanese government at least some incentive to use the direct and indirect influence on the janjaweed to stop the killings; toppling the Sudanese government would more likely lead to a chaotic situation where no one would have much influence of the janjaweed.
I would apply the term “ethnic cleansing” for situations that have strong analogous qualities to the context of the term's original use, Bosnia. That is, ethnic cleansing refers to situations which are not genocide because they do not involve the systematic attempt to eliminate an ethnic group altogether but which do involve a systematic attempt to remove an ethnic group from a particular context or area. This may involve ethnocide (the attempt the eliminate an ethnicity [as opposed to the people who comprise the ethnic group] through forced assimilation), such as with Indian boarding schools; it may involve large massacres, as in both the Bosnian and Native American contexts; it may involve targeted killings of members of a particular ethnic group, as in the sectarian violence in Iraq, the current situation that comes closest to fitting into the category of ethnic cleansing, though to be technical, the Iraqi situation would be more “sectarian cleansing;” but in each of these cases, this is not genocide. For the individuals killed or otherwise directly affected, ethnic cleansing is no less tragic or devastating than either type of genocide, so saying that ethnic cleansing is not genocide is not at all to suggest it is a less serious crime and horror, but to say that it is simply a slightly different kind of crime and horror, involving different motivations and strategies.
As with genocide, a further distinction could be made between ethnic cleansing that is both instigated and coordinated by a state apparatus and that which is locally coordinated and not centrally controlled. The Native North American case is obviously not a single case, but many contexts over a period of centuries. The Trail of Tears and many other instances of Indian Removal were state instigated and implemented. Many, perhaps most, massacres of Native Americans were locally initiated, sometimes with the state having helped to foster a situation of violence or acquiescing to violence, and sometimes not.
Other Mass Violence
Genocide and ethnic cleansing are not the only types of mass violence. Warfare in general involves mass violence, but it generally doesn’t involve the targeting of specific social groups beyond enemy militaries. The 20th century development of total war (which was being experimented with at least as early as the American Civil War), especially during World War II, brought troubling changes to this, as most of the major powers involved in that war engaged in military tactics which didn’t just kill large numbers of civilians collaterally but specifically targeted them as a way of undermining the total society. In most cases, while egregiously violating standards of human rights later formalized, these actions could not be easily regarded as genocide, ethnic cleansing, or even particularly motivated by ethnicity, but in a few cases, ethnicity does seem to have played a role. This seems to be the case in the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, and I have found greatly troubling the U.S. fire bombing of every Japanese city and most every Japanese town (as well as the fact that far more attention has been paid to the fire bombing of a much smaller number of German communities and cities – which was horrific in its own right – but which entailed far fewer total German than Japanese deaths).
Other instances of mass violence don’t really fit in the discussion of ethnic violence of any sort because clearly not ethnically motivated, but do have some analogous qualities in terms of their implementation and the fact that they involve systematic killings and violence directed at specific selected social groups or individuals. For example, the Stalinist purges and gulag system or the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, while not genocide, involved mass internments and killings instigated and coordinated directly by the state apparatus and have some analogous qualities to the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide.
Why Distinguish between Different sorts of Mass Violence?
First, making accurate distinctions gives you a greater ability to make subtle arguments, and to avoid exaggeration or mischaracterization. When Amnesty International referred to Guantanamo as an “American Gulag,” they engaged in serious exaggeration which undermined the credibility of their own research and reporting. You don’t need to call it the “Gulag” in order to take accusations of impropriety at Guantanamo seriously. When I heard someone refer to Israeli military actions in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 as “genocide,” I couldn’t take seriously anything else she had to say about the matter. It’s not that I didn’t find any of Israel’s military actions troubling, but there was nothing particularly “genocidal” about Israeli actions.
Second, distinguishing between different sorts of practice can be pragmatically important. Since not all genocides or examples of mass ethnic violence work the same way, we don’t fully understand them if we don’t make such distinctions. While no genocide or ethnic cleansing will ever be easy to respond to – either in understanding what an appropriate response would be or in implementing that response, and while no amount of understanding will alone provide the political will necessary to appropriately respond, lack of full understanding will almost certainly doom any response, no matter how well intentioned, to failure.