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 words of the second-century BCE Roman official Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor.” He devotes the next ten pages to a detailed analysis of his state of mind and his fear of a “combined foreign and domestic subversion of Roman culture.” He concludes that Cato’s “ideal of the controlled, militarized ethnic rural community, corruptible by external influences and weakened by others’ successes, provided a formula for genocide” against Carthage.
This he treats as the principal archetype of subsequent genocidal thinking, regardless of the unambiguous endorsement of genocide by God’s command in Deuteronomy. He barely mentions the Roman suppression of Jewish revolts in Palestine (CE 66–70 and 132–135) that destroyed the Temple and almost depopulated Judaea, though these surely qualify as genocide, and skips the violence and migrations of the European Middle Ages as well, perhaps because the ideological tendencies he looks for were absent.
Instead Kiernan resumes his theme when “from the sixteenth century on, advocates of religious or ethnic violence often cited the Carthaginians as a prime precedent of an exterminated people.” To illustrate, he quotes contemporaries to show that the English slaughter of the Catholic MacDonald clan at Glencoe during the conquest of the Scottish Highlands in 1691 and Spanish efforts to drive Jews and Muslims from their country after 1492 conformed to Cato’s style of thought, as, he claims, do most but not all of the genocides that followed.
The next three chapters deal with genocide in Spain’s American empire, in East Asia, and in Southeast Asia between 1400 and 1600. The Spanish conquistadores, he argues,
demonstrated criminal intent, even though in many cases their motive was theft rather than murder. In some cases, this deliberate, purposeful violence rose to the level of genocide; in others, genocidal massacres and extermination.
Kiernan’s account of the initial Spanish conquests is brief, and surprisingly omits Peru entirely. He summarizes conflicting arguments of Bartolomé de Las Casas, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, and others about Indian rights and legal status at some length; and then, having convicted the Spaniards of genocide, admits in the last paragraph of the chapter that infectious diseases were “the major killers” affecting Indian populations, and that “Spaniards did not deliberately spread these diseases to destroy Indians.” Since genocide must be intentional this would seem to excuse the Spanish conquerors from committing the crime of genocide. But Kiernan strives to save his argument by citing the work of Bulgarian-born French writer Tzvetan Todorov, as showing
that the deliberate mass murder, the maltreatment, and the “microbe shock” were by no means discrete causes, but mutually reinforcing. Of sixteenth-century Mexico, Todorov writes: “If the word genocide had ever been applied accurately to a case, this is it.”
This seems tendentious to me. Kiernan is prosecuting a case, searching far and wide for evidence to support his use of the word “genocide.” Todorov’s remarks only prove that another writer found the same term appropriate for extensive deaths which no one intended, and which both Indian and Spanish contemporaries interpreted as a clear demonstration of God’s protection of Spaniards and His wrath against Indians, even after they had converted to the Catholic faith.
A chapter entitled “Guns and Genocide in East Asia, 1400– 1600” deals with “The Vietnamese Destruction of Champa, 1390–1509” and “Japan’s Unification and Its Invasions of Korea, 1567–98.” Kiernan is on his home turf in dealing with Chams and Vietnamese, and he recognizes a multitude of factors—population growth, new weapons, new ideas—as factors in promoting large-scale violence. But it seems to me that nothing in his tale of dynastic and ethnic rivalries, and the examples of large-scale slaughter associated with them, deserves to be called genocide. Kiernan in fact uses the word very sparingly, until he sums up: “While intermittently pursuing genocidal policies against Chams from 1471 to 1509, Dai Viet had vastly expanded its territory.”
Kiernan’s account of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of Japan and invasion of Korea in the sixteenth century was much more familiar to me; but the fact that his “new militaristic, centralizing regime brandished a cult of Japanese antiquity, an ideology that stressed the role of peasant farmers… and an obsession with territorial expansion” does not justify calling it genocidal even though these are ideological elements Kiernan associates with genocide. Within Japan itself, Hideyoshi killed his enemies when he could, yet he was not genocidal in the sense of being committed to eliminating groups as such; but Kiernan quotes an order he gave to his military commander in Korea: “Kill Koreans one by one, and empty the country.” He accordingly concludes:
The brutal militarization and unification of an agrarian empire seeking political domination and ethnic homogeneity had produced genocide abroad and violent cultural suppression at home.
Yet even when we recall that attempts at extermination qualify as genocide, attaching the word to the slaughter of perhaps as many as 200,000 Koreans seems exaggerated, inasmuch as Hideyoshi’s angry order was always far beyond the capacity of the Japanese troops on the spot, and the overwhelming majority of Koreans survived. Once again Kiernan strives to make a case for genocide without convincing me that the term really fits what happened.
The final chapter of Part One, “Genocidal Massacres in Early Modern Southeast Asia,” returns to the part of the world Kiernan knows best, and touches on events of which I was wholly ignorant. Kiernan begins with “an attempted conquest of Cambodia by independent Iberian adventurers, who staged a genocidal massacre of the entire Khmer court” in 1596. After subsequent confusion and violence,
In mid-1599, all sides appear to have turned on the conquistadores. Muslim Chams and Malays, now joined by Japanese, “with a few Cambodians,” attacked the Spanish and Portuguese, burned their ships, and slaughtered nearly all of them…. Of the entire expeditionary forces in Cambodia, only one friar, a soldier, and five Filipinos survived.
But was this victory over armed forces that had previously attacked Cambodia a case of genocide? I doubt it.
The rest of the chapter deals with “Royal Conquest and Religious Repression in Java,” “Ethnoreligious Massacres in Early Modern Burma,” and “Ethnoreligious Violence in Cambodia, 1600–1800.” Despite all the slaughtering he describes, Kiernan refrains from calling any of it genocide until summing up, as follows:
Despite these series of genocidal massacres, the intensifying ethnic politics in mainland Southeast Asia fell short of full polarization. Ethnic chauvinism had to contend with universalist Islamic and Buddhist aspirations, regional loyalties, personal patronage, and continuing dynastic claims over myriad subject peoples. Yet on specific occasions, local rulers did select members of an ethnic group for destruction.
In short, the more Kiernan knows about a given place and time, the more reluctant he becomes to use the term “genocide.” Or so it seems to me.
Part Two, “Settler Colonialism,” comes much closer home to American readers, with chapters on “The English Conquest of Ireland, 1565–1603,” “Colonial North America, 1600–1776,” “Genocidal Violence in Nineteenth-Century Australia,” “Genocide in the United States,” and “Settler Genocides in Africa, 1830–1910.” In an introductory note he quotes the historians Steven Stoll explaining that English settlers in North America were accompanied by a “complex of wheat, barley, cattle and sheep.” As a result, “the extremely efficient, rapidly expanding English economy of multiple land uses simply spared few ecological niches for Indian subsistence.” Consequently,
In all too many cases, several sources corroborate one another, concur on significant details, or suggest a series of similar genocidal incidents. These rarely typify a whole frontier or implicate an entire society, yet scholars have shown that they occur frequently enough to require serious attention to the phenomena of colonial genocide and extermination. The next five chapters reveal the relevance of settler preoccupations with antiquity and agriculture, as well as territorial expansion and racial division.
Discussing the English expansionists of the sixteenth century, Kiernan takes great pains to show how the much-read history of the Roman treatment of Carthage and “agrarian preconceptions of rural morality and fruitful land use” combined to inspire genocide in Ireland. The English simply ignored the Irish subsistence economy and claimed they had a right to take over allegedly uncultivated land. He cites numerous English writers—among them Sir Henry Sidney and his son Sir Philip Sidney—to prove his point and devotes forty pages to a detailed narrative of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland between 1565 and 1603; but surprisingly he breaks off without even mentioning the climactic Cromwellian settlement that banished all surviving Catholic Irish to the infertile province of Connaught.