Blood and Soil presents readers with the tangled record of the inhumanity of which human beings have shown themselves capable throughout recorded history. The author, Ben Kiernan, heads the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University and is a specialist on Pol Pot’s Cambodia, having published no fewer than eleven books about one or another aspect of that murderous regime over the past thirty years. By way of contrast, Blood and Soil takes on the whole world, though it mainly “focuses on the six centuries since 1400.”
Kiernan tells us that “genocide” is a very new word, invented in 1944 by a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and given legal definition by the United Nations in 1948 through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The convention defines the crime of genocide as an attempt at extermination through
acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group, as such.
Blood and Soil describes a great many genocides in different countries and with varying detail, and tries to make the phenomenon intelligible by identifying common elements, in particular
philosophical outlooks and obsessions, often harmless in themselves yet invidiously related, that have long supplied lethal ideological ammunition to projects of violent militarism and territorial expansion. They include not only racial and religious hatreds but also other idealist cults of ancient glory or pristine purity, more modern conceptions of biological contamination, and varied historical forms of agrarian romanticism and other obsessions with land use.
Kiernan’s ideological emphasis saves his book from becoming an unending catalog of carnage in different times and places, with vast but uncertain numbers of casualties. Implausibly, however, he also suggests:
The persistent recurrence among genocide perpetrators of ideological obsessions with violent ethnic prejudice, whether racial or religious, with cults of antiquity and agriculture, and with territorial expansionism, reveals possibilities for predicting and hopefully preventing further cases of genocide in the twenty-first century.
The book divides into three parts. Part One, “Early Imperial Expansion,” covers the years between 1400 and 1600, but begins with a backward look at classical genocide—starting, Kiernan says, when “possibly for the first time, Hesiod connected cultivation, gender, ‘race,’ and extinction. Yet he disapproved of the aggression essential to genocide.” So “Sparta’s combination of agrarianism and violence against its enemies made it a precursor of genocidal regimes.” This slights both the Athenian slaughter of the Melians, as recorded by Thucydides, which Kiernan dismisses as “exceptional”; and biblical passages like one he quotes from Deuteronomy (20:17): “But thou shalt utterly destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.” This and other biblical passages like it must have had far more influence on later generations of Christians than anything Spartans ever thought or did.
Kiernan also says, “The most famous incitement to genocide is probably Delenda est Carthago, or ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.