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.
He does so, perhaps, because the Elizabethan genocide in Ireland turned into a clear precedent for genocide in colonial North America, as his next chapter shows. In Virginia,
the colony’s policy did not seek the Powhatans’ total annihilation, but it required their full subjection and dispossession by force, with partial genocide, temporary segregation, and eventual slavery for survivors.
New Englanders were cut from the same cloth. “English policy was to ‘utterly root them out.’ In June 1637, Massachusetts Bay…sent 120 men to destroy the surviving Pequots as ‘enemies of God’s people.'” Henry Knox, President Washington’s first secretary of war, summed up the colonial record:
It is a melancholy reflection, that our modes of population have been even more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru. The evidence of this is the utter extirpation of nearly all the Indians in the most populous parts of the Union.
Kiernan’s next chapter shows that English settlers in Australia replicated North American genocide with some minor assistance from “new racial science” to justify sporadic slaughters of the Aborigines, occurring as recently as 1916 in the northern territories.
The chapter called “Genocide in the United States” is one of the longest of the book. It explores familiar ground with Kiernan’s accustomed emphasis on ideological justification for white aggression and injustice. Accordingly Thomas Jefferson has a principal part in the first twenty pages. He summarizes Jefferson’s views as follows:
Over time, Jefferson’s projects for Indians ranged widely, from peaceable assimilation with white American farmers to what we would now call ethnic “cleansing” of the Indians, first in wartime, then in peace, and extending to extermination if he deemed it necessary. In his mind, all these options involved the disappearance of Indian communities. Jefferson told Governor William H. Harrison in February 1803 that his policy was to “finally consolidate our whole country to one nation only.” This, he directed, Harrison must keep secret, as it was “improper to be understood by the Indians.” …Jefferson predicted that “our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi.” Jefferson’s obsession remained the expansion to the Mississippi of intensive American farming. To achieve that, Indian removal was as convenient as genocide.
Kiernan devotes the rest of this chapter to the forced removal of the Cherokees and other tribes to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839, followed by “Extermination in Texas,” “Genocide in California,” and “Genocidal Massacres on the Great Plains.” His stories of wholesale murder and brutal land grabs are well known and he concludes by quoting a smug, insensitive remark by President Theodore Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” The fate of Native Americans “was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable.”
Part Two concludes with a chapter on “Settler Genocides in Africa, 1830– 1910.” Kiernan takes up two cases: the French in Algeria between 1830 and 1875 and the Germans in Southwest Africa between 1885 and 1911, omitting the Dutch and British settlers of South Africa and more limited British land grabs in Kenya. As usual he is mainly interested in ideology, quoting extensively from Alexis de Tocqueville about Algerian resistance and finding no “primary evidence of French plans for their extermination.” Nevertheless, by 1875 “the war had killed approximately 825,000 indigenous Algerians since 1830. A long shadow of genocidal hatred persisted.”
On the other hand, Germans in Southwest Africa “seized upon US wars with Native Americans as precedents or justification for colonial war and, eventually, genocidal tactics.” They were apt pupils; and Dr. Heinrich Göring, father of the future Nazi leader, was the first imperial commissioner.
Part Three deals with the horrifying genocides of the twentieth century. This takes Blood and Soil onto well-trodden ground: the Armenian genocide of 1915–1916, with 800,000 to 1.2 million victims; the extermination of Jews and others the Nazis condemned as undesirable—“history’s most extreme case of genocide” and the archetype Kiernan uses to measure all the rest. He goes on to write of Japanese slaughters in China and elsewhere (1933–1945); Maoism in China (1949– 1976); and a final chapter, “From the Mekong to the Nile,” devoted to recent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. Finally, an epilogue touches briefly on seven other genocides in Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor, Guatemala, Iraq, Bosnia, Darfur, and al-Qaeda’s transnational “third world war,” in the words of Osama bin Laden.
Throughout, Kiernan searches for common ideological elements:
This book has explored four telltale characteristics of genocide that recurred regularly from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first: the preoccupation of perpetrators with race, antiquity, agriculture, and expansion.
This commonality strikes me as superficial and implausible. Kiernan himself admits that Stalin and Mao, as Marxists, do not conform to his typology:
The Communist giants, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China, pursued mass killing of domestic political enemies and social “classes.” They were somewhat less preoccupied with racial categories or territorial expansionism, and not at all with historic antiquity, while Stalin, at least, harbored no hint of agrarian idealism either.
In other recent instances, his evidence for identical or even similar fourfold ideological motivation is scrappy to nonexistent, while other circumstances—especially population pressure on the land, which he seldom mentions—seem far more likely to have been critical. To be sure, I have no personal expertise of genocide, or experience of it, and hesitate to challenge the formidable learning that lies behind Blood and Soil. Citations of other scholars’ books occupy ninety of the book’s 724 pages, and with few exceptions I have not read most of the authorities he refers to.
Nevertheless, I have studied village life in modern Greece and became aware of how during World War II young men coming of age in mountain villages, where multiple sons could not expect to inherit enough land to live as their fathers had done, solved their problem by resorting to violence. For such peasant boys, the Communist ideas their leaders proclaimed were mere window dressing, justifying the seizure of food from plains villagers by threat of force. Resulting guerrilla warfare never reached a genocidal scale, but might easily have done so if large-scale exchanges of population before and after World War I had not made Greece almost ethnically uniform. Where ethnically or religiously diverse populations intermingle, as in Rwanda, Southeast Asia, and Guatemala, I therefore suspect that acute local shortages of cultivable land may have been critical in provoking some of the genocides Kiernan describes, despite other justifications local spokesmen may sometimes have voiced.
More generally, most human beings do not kill others lightly. Accordingly, I believe that all the yearnings for antique purity, racial unity, agricultural virtue, and the conquest of new territory that Kiernan sets out to discover are insufficient to provoke mass slaughters, even if such ideas were sometimes used to justify them during or immediately after they occurred.
Clearly, soldiers are subject to the orders of their superiors and commonly obey, even when ordered to attack unarmed civilians. That, I believe, was how many of the genocides Kiernan describes were actually carried out. In other cases, civilian officials obeyed orders from above and provoked large-scale killing, sometimes intentionally, more often unintentionally. Disobedience to constituted authority is always risky. The easier path is to follow orders, even when subordinates shrink from what they are ordered to do. That, it seems to me, is why ordinary human beings often behave so inhumanely; and why genocide can and does sometimes occur—as it were—impersonally.
Slaughter by angry, unorganized crowds is also possible for brief periods of time. That may have happened in some parts of Rwanda, sustained by encouragement from radio broadcasts. But like lynching in the American South, spontaneous lethal crowd violence, I believe, is always brief and unusual; and usually falls far short of the extensive killings that military and bureaucratic violence is capable of.
Kiernan’s ideological approach to his subject therefore frequently seems beside the point to me. In addition, his use of the term “genocide” is unduly elastic, inasmuch as he applies the term to quite different sorts of violence. Slaughters among Asians who shared roughly equivalent levels of social organization, technology, and disease differed profoundly from the frontier encounters in America and Australia between colonizers of European descent and indigenous peoples, whose ways of life, vulnerability to infectious disease, and limited access to weaponry gave the colonists an overwhelming advantage. The resulting genocide had a distinctive and far more powerful dynamic in these frontier situations, simply because disease played the predominant role. But Kiernan systematically minimizes disease, preferring to attribute genocide to human purposes and ideas, not to germs.
Surely, too, the millions of deaths inflicted by the Russian and Chinese Communist governments on their own people were intended to hasten industrialization, impose control, abolish independent farmers (or “kulaks”), and achieve social leveling. If so, the attack on kulaks perhaps qualifies as genocide, but Kiernan ought not to have called the rest of Stalin’s and Mao’s policies “genocide,” since the definition he cites from UN legal documents requires forcible and deliberate infliction on the group “as such” of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Overall therefore I found Blood and Soil hard to admire, despite its even-handed treatment of mass violence as exercised by Asians, Africans, and Europeans. Nonetheless, the time I spent reading Kiernan’s pages raised a disturbing question about the ways I have habitually and deliberately chosen to focus my own efforts to write world history. For I tend to minimize the violence that Kiernan emphasizes, and concentrate instead on the emergence of diverse forms of human cooperation—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, and today literally worldwide. Am I as lopsided and inadequate in analyzing human behavior as he is?
Perhaps so. Intragroup struggles for land and subsistence have certainly been important in history and often provoked genocidal extinctions of human groups. Our earliest ancestors probably extinguished competing hominids so that Homo sapiens alone survives. If so, is our true history one of violence and genocide? Don’t we in the United States deliberately forget or minimize our predecessors’ violence against native peoples and take their triumphant expansion across the continent as foreordained, natural, and praiseworthy? Are all of us inextricably part of nature, red in tooth and claw, and engaged in an unceasing struggle for survival against other human beings and other forms of animal life?
These are not mere rhetorical questions. Human societies do flourish only by maintaining a home territory against rivals and by engaging in organized violence to maintain, and every so often to expand, their homeland. Yet it is also true that the scale of cooperation systematically increased across millennia, from the narrow limits of a single hunting band’s domain to states comprising millions and hundreds of millions of persons today. Beyond that, exchanges of information and trade in goods and services always transcended political and cultural boundaries. Today such exchanges connect the whole of humankind, and the resulting webs of exchange now sustain a world population of more than six billion human beings.
Yet the scale of human violence also kept pace, as Kiernan’s book shows. Clearly cooperation and violence coexist among us and always have. They are, in fact, very closely connected. For successful exercise of violence against outsiders enhances voluntary cooperation within human groups of every sort and size, both within and across state boundaries. Moreover, force or threat of force is often what compels cooperation. Throughout agrarian history, the majority of peasants handed over part of their harvest to landlords and rulers reluctantly, knowing that they could not otherwise forestall violent seizure of everything they possessed. Slavery also deprived innumerable persons of even the limited freedom enjoyed by rent-paying and tax-paying peasants, as our own national history ought to remind us. When labor was scant it was forcibly brought (often in chains) from afar.
Obviously, convincingly balanced history must take account of both. The dismal record of lethal violence that Blood and Soil presents to its readers is therefore a corrective to my own long-standing preference for emphasizing cooperation. By way of self-justification, I can point out that the triumphs of cooperation are more pleasant subjects to investigate and that they tend to promote human survival, whereas genocide and other forms of violence are obviously destructive, and their remembrance may spread hatred and paranoia. Is it better then to emphasize the positive, and minimize lethal violence, as I have done? Or is that self-deception? Surely a well-balanced history of the subtle connections of human cooperation and violence is what we should aim for; and I fear that my books fall short of that ideal. So, despite all my reservations about Blood and Soil, I owe Ben Kiernan a considerable debt.
April 17, 2008