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The Crime of the Century

The books under review demonstrate the ancient origins of ethnic cleansing: “Homer’s Iliad,” writes Naimark, “is full of brutal and shocking examples of what one might call ethnic cleansing, as is the Bible.” Still, at least for Naimark, ethnic cleansing is intimately tied to modern tendencies. It results from the popularity of modern racist nationalism, of exclusionist social Darwinism, and, most importantly, of the development of the all-powerful state. “The modern state takes the census, organizes cadastral surveys, counts, measures, weighs, categorizes, and homogenizes.” Without these, and without modern technology, it would be far more difficult to deport or to kill millions. Indeed, the driving forces in genocide and ethnic cleansing are generally modern governments, armies, police, administrators, clerics, politicians, medical doctors, historians, writers, poets, and other creative intellectuals.

From the rich collection of pre-modern instances of man’s inhumanity which are assembled in the book edited by Levene and Roberts, I should mention John Edwards’s essay on the massacre in 1473 and 1474 at Córdoba in Spain of Jewish Christians, or conversos. Edwards calls this ethnic cleansing because earlier religious prejudices soon deteriorated into racial hatred. In fact, late medieval and early modern Spain was the only place in pre-Nazi Europe where converts could be doomed by their ancestry. Edwards, however, also demonstrates the social and economic origins of the outbursts against the converts, who were hated for having accumulated considerable wealth.

Despite its many excursions into older histories, The Massacre in History mostly concentrates on recent times. It can be argued that modern horrors began with the massacre of the indigenous Herero people in German Southwest Africa in 1904. Yet there are wide varieties even in genocide, as Tilman Dedering argues in his essay in the collection. Although vastly outgunned, the Hereros put up a fight; their massacre was the outcome of a war initiated by the victims, and their elimination shocked the German public, leading to a fierce debate in the Reichstag. None of this can be said about the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” in Germany under the Nazis.

Imperial Germany’s brutality against the Hereros was succeeded by imperial Japanese brutality during Japan’s undeclared war against China in the late 1930s, in which the most terrible event was the infamous Nanking Massacre. This, too, is discussed in The Massacre in History. Whether these killings were the result of “battlefield frenzy” or part of a considered official policy is still unclear, mainly because both the authorities and many historians in Japan try to deny or to ignore what happened. There can be no doubt, however, that Japanese soldiers were trained to treat people with great cruelty and that they had deep contempt for the Chinese. And yet there was nothing new about the soldiers’ slaughtering of the inhabitants of a besieged city. In Europe, too, tradition prescribed that the inhabitants of many fortified places that had put up too strong a resistance to the besiegers should be slaughtered. The massacre of the Armenians in Turkey was, however, a more modern affair, because it aimed at the elimination from the country of large parts of the population for no other reason than that they belonged to a religious minority.

The ethnic cleansing of Armenians, especially in 1915, was closely connected to the rise of the new Turkish national state. The old Ottoman Empire, which had no concept of nationality, treated its non-Muslims as inferior to the True Believers, but it welcomed converts; and because it discouraged Muslims from participating in commerce and banking, it allowed Greeks, Armenians, and Jews to thrive. The empire’s gradual decline in the nineteenth century led to the rise of Turkish as well as Armenian and other nationalist movements, which culminated in a political takeover by the so-called Young Turks in 1908. By then, the Turkish government had organized several pogroms against Armenians but this, Naimark writes, was not yet ethnic cleansing. The great massacres would need the complete triumph of modern nationalist sentiments.

At first, the Turkish revolutionaries were allied with the Armenian radical reformers; together they had hoped to establish a modern Ottoman state in which all ethnic groups would find a place. Soon, however, Pan-Ottomanism turned into Pan-Turanism, a hare-brained plan to unite all Turkic-speaking peoples from the Bosporus to eastern Asia under the guidance of the Young Turks. “Turkey shall become Turan,” proclaimed Ziya Gökalp, the movement’s leading intellectual. This led nowhere, except to make clear to non-Turks that they would have no future in a Pan-Turanic state.

It was World War I that led to the great Armenian and Greek tragedies. When, early in the war, the Russian armies were threatening Turkey, some Armenian nationalists took up arms against the Turks. Turkish leaders such as Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha decided to deport the Armenians from the militarily threatened provinces to somewhere in the Mesopotomian desert. The cruelties that accompanied this process included the “shoeing” of victims with horseshoes, endless beatings, robbery, rape, and depriving people of food, water, and shelter. Many of the atrocities were committed by Kurds and Circassians—national minorities that prepared the way for their own devastation by participating in the crushing of other minorities. But the organization of these atrocities was in the hands of the highest Turkish authorities.

No one knows how many Armenians died in 1915, although one million is not an unrealistic figure. However, as Naimark demonstrates, this was still unlike the German genocide of the Jews for several reasons: the Armenians were able to fight back; those in Constantinople and Smyrna were generally not harmed; and conversion to Islam provided a means of escape, at least for some women and children. Curiously, the Turkish leaders still perceived Armenian identity as a religion and not as a nationality; therefore, the Protestants and the Catholics among them were generally spared. What foreshadowed Nazism, however, were the nearly unimaginable brutality of the persecution and the language of hate and contempt that was used to justify the massacres.

At the end of the war, the new Turkish government, acting under British tutelage, punished a handful of Turks who had taken part in the massacres; later, Armenian terrorists killed some of the chief culprits in exile. Still, Hitler, in claiming that the Nazis could go ahead with the extermination of the Jews, was correct when he said, “After all, who today speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”

Following the First World War, Naimark writes, Armenians carried out their own terror under the protection of the triumphant allies; and the Treaty of Sèvres, in 1920, ratified the dismemberment of the Turkish state. The Turkish revolutionary leader Kemal Atatürk, however, repudiated the Sèvres treaty and rejected any territorial claims by either Kurds or Armenians. Here he behaved differently from the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, and the Austrians who, after reluctantly accepting punitive peace treaties, could do no better than wait for a revisionist Germany to rise and to lead the way to territorial restitution. Under Atatürk’s command, the Turks easily defeated the Greek army, which in 1921 had foolishly penetrated into the heart of Anatolia.

The result was ethnic cleansing, massacres by both sides, and the flight of the huge Greek colony from Anatolia. In the Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923, the great powers put their stamp of approval on Turkish victory and on mutual ethnic cleansings between Turks and Greeks, for which they used the euphemism “population exchanges.” Even earlier, as a consequence of the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Bulgarians, and Turks were “exchanged”; but now the numbers amounted to 1.5 million Greeks and 356,000 Turks being dumped into each other’s country. Many of the so-called Greeks either spoke not a word of Greek or spoke a dialect that proved to be incomprehensible in the home country. Many of the so-called Turks did not know any Turkish because they were Muslim Greeks, Gypsies, Slavs, and Vlachs. Smyrna, a beautiful old Greek settlement on the Aegean coast, burned down during the flight of the Greeks; today it is called Izmir, and it is thoroughly Turkish. At the cost of indescribable suffering, the Greek and Turkish nationalists had created their nation-states, thus setting an example for all those working toward the same goal.

As for the Holocaust, Naimark concentrates on the question of how and when the cleansing of the Jews turned into their systematic murder. The cleansing of undesirable elements, or Flurbereinigung, in the words of Himmler, was talked about in Germany as well as elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s. A law of July 14, 1933, led first to the sterilization and then to the killing, mostly by gas, of at least 70,000 Germans because they were retarded, mentally ill, crippled, or otherwise seen as defective. The maximum effort at cleansing was, however, reserved for the Jews, who, in Nazi eyes, were both a weak, cowardly, and worm-like race and also a super-race, endowed with supernatural evil powers against whom any and all methods of self-defense were permissible.

At first, there were efforts to make life miserable for Jews in Germany in order to get them to leave the country; unfortunately, many Jews were reluctant to go; nor were there many places that would receive them. Naimark sees both the Kristallnacht in November 1938 and Hitler’s notorious Reichstag speech of January 1939, which, in case of a war, threatened European Jewry with extinction, as driven by exasperation. Because the Jews would not go and because others did not want them, a situation had to be created in which even the most reluctant would leave no matter how, where, and in what condition. Wild plans were concocted for sending the Jews to Madagascar, or settling them in the Lublin area, in occupied Poland; in both places, the Nazis reckoned, most Jews would soon die of illness or exhaustion.

Only after these plans failed and after Germany became involved in a titanic struggle against the Soviet Union did the Germans engage in genocide. The Soviet enemy and the Jews melted into a combined vision of evil; together, they became the devil incarnate. According to Naimark, Jews had to suffer the ultimate punishment for an increasingly painful war. This view is not far from that of the historian Arno Mayer, who in Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?1 wrote that the genocide of the Jews was a direct consequence of Germany’s first defeats on the eastern front. Because Hitler could not kill all the Bolsheviks, he tried to kill all the Jews. Naimark writes: “The intensity of Nazi racial ideology and its maniacal pseudo-biological underpinnings in the end distinguishes the Holocaust from the Armenian genocide.”

At the Twentieth Soviet Party Congress in February 1956, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev created a sensation by confessing that during World War II both the Chechen-Ingush people and the Crimean Tatars had been deported from their homelands. Stalin and his police chief Lavrenty Beria charged the two ethnic groups with collaboration with the German occupiers, which was true for many Tatars but not for the Chechen and the Ingush peoples in the Caucasus. Some of those peoples, however, used the opportunity of the German military campaign to renew the fight against Soviet Russian colonialism. In any case, the deportations were ordered in 1944, after the German danger had passed and there was no more chance for collaboration. Altogether, more than 600,000 people were taken away on a moment’s notice, mostly to miserable towns in Kazakhstan, where they starved. According to Naimark, between 35 and 45 percent of the deportees died, many in the sealed boxcars that were carrying them to Kazakhstan, others when in exile. The Chechen and Ingush survivors were eventually allowed to go home, but not the Tatars.

What distinguishes the Chechen-Ingush and Tatar cases is that every member of these ethnic groups was included in the deportation: the sick, the dying, party secretaries, decorated war heroes, high-ranking provincial admin- istrators. This was no genocide because dying was not part of the Soviet plan, but the thoroughness of the ethnic cleansing surpassed even that of the Nazis. In Nazi Germany, the Jewish Victor Klemperer, whose wife was Aryan, as well as a number of other German Jews such as the holders of the very highest military decorations, were exempted from deportation2 ; in the Soviet Union, a mixed marriage did not exempt a Chechen, an Ingush, or a Crimean Tatar from the same fate. Characteristically, the Soviet authorities tried to efface the memory of the deported peoples not only from all the monuments but also from textbooks; none of them had ever existed, nor had the Volga Germans and many others who had shared the same fate. Obviously, the Soviet plan didn’t work; today, the descendants of the deported Chechens wage a ruthless war against those whom they perceive as their Russian overlords.

History’s largest single migration in a short period was undoubtedly the withdrawal, flight, and expulsion of the German people from East Central and Eastern Europe. The process started, Naimark explains, with Hitler’s recalling to the homeland the Germans who had been living in the Baltic countries for hundreds of years. It continued with other mad withdrawal schemes and colonization drives and with the flight of millions of Volksdeutsche before the advancing Soviet armies. It ended with the killing or expulsion of the rest of the Germans from everywhere east of the frontiers of the new, diminished, and divided Germany.

Naimark concentrates on what happened in Poland and Czechoslovakia. He shows sympathy for the wrath of the Poles who had suffered under the Germans, whether the Reich Germans or Poland’s own Volksdeutsche; but he is indignant over the horrors to which the German civilians in Czechoslovakia were submitted. During the war, the Czechs enjoyed nearly the same living standards as the Germans; they worked diligently in the factories and the offices under German surveillance, and even though the Czech Protectorate had become a part of the Reich, Czechs were spared the lethal obligation of having to serve in the war. No doubt, there were many brave anti-Nazi fighters in the Czech Protectorate, but their resistance was incomparably weaker than the one in Poland, or even that in fascist Slovakia.

Yet when the Soviet army arrived, thousands of partisans and other freedom fighters suddenly arose from nowhere and engaged in a bloodbath that had few parallels in post–World War II Europe. Naimark provides plenty of examples, including the massacre, by their neighbors, of German villagers. In the Sudetenland town of Ústí nad Labem (Aussig), on July 31, 1945, several hundred and perhaps more German civilians were killed, many of them thrown into the Elbe River and drowned. In general, Germans—and for a while, Hungarians as well—were treated the way Jews were treated in Germany before the Holocaust: thousands were thrown into prisons and concentration camps; all of them had to wear special badges; all were given greatly reduced food rations; and they were not allowed to go to restaurants or to sit on park benches. The Germans in Czechoslovakia had for the most part voted for the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party in the 1930s and they had been incorporated into the Reich in 1938. Many a Volksdeutsche might have been said to have deserved severe treatment, but far from all of them and certainly not their children. Characteristically, just as Hungarian Jews like to recall cases when German soldiers defended them in 1944 against the fury of the Hungarian gendarmes, so German exiles like to remember, whether or not it was true, the Soviet soldiers who in 1945 protected them against the fury of their Czech countrymen.

The so-called wild purges in Czechoslovakia and Poland were followed by the systematic expulsion of the remaining German population. Naimark sees these acts as ethnic cleansing and not as genocide; after all, German miners and other valuable workers were allowed to remain, as were the spouses of Czechs.

The Great Powers had no objection to these events in Czechoslovakia, mainly because of the dedicated propaganda efforts of former Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes, who, while in exile, gradually expanded his plans for deportation. He received the silent permission of both the British and the Soviet governments not to spare even the anti-Nazi German Social Democrats or the Jews who had stated that they were of German nationality. The Polish democratic leader in exile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, did not act differently; in fact, Poles and Czechs, whether Communists or non-Communists, agreed that the German problem should be solved ruthlessly. Traces of the German presence were everywhere systematically eradicated. It is a final irony that those Germans who survived the expulsions generally fared well in the Federal Republic, and became an influential political force in Bavaria while those who were allowed to stay were forced to share in the hardships of communism.

After the expulsion of the Germans from Eastern Europe the next episode of ethnic cleansing took place in Yugoslavia, beginning in the late 1980s; to that tragedy hundreds of writers, including the authors of one of the books under review, have devoted much attention. It may be, as I wrote earlier, that the NATO-led return of the Albanian refugees to Kosovo a few years ago will mark the beginning of a new epoch, one that no longer tolerates the expulsion and annihilation of ethnic groups. But perhaps also the return of the Albanians prefigured the completion of the process of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Once NATO forces leave Kosovo, the Serbian minority will probably have to leave with them. With some exceptions, such as immigrants from Africa and Asia, Europe’s political boundaries have become ethnic boundaries as well, signifying the triumph of the great French revolutionary idea of securing a sovereign state for every nation. That it cost millions and millions of dead will, regrettably, be more forgotten than remembered.3

  1. 1

    Pantheon, 1988.

  2. 2

    The historian Nathan Stoltzfus, writing in Resisting the Holocaust, edited by Ruby Rohrlich (Berg, 1998) p. 168, fn. 1, shows that as of September 1944 there were 13,217 officially registered Jews in Germany, all but 230 of them married to Aryans. The Aryan spouses were almost invariably women. Most of these Jews survived the war.

  3. 3

    I wish to thank Ms. Ann Major of Sydney, Australia, for her valuable research assistance in preparing this essay.

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