Sunday, September 28, 2008


Next semester I will be teaching a course on genocide. The current emphasis on "intent" or even worse "specific intent" in both international law and scholarship on genocide seems to me to be misplaced. Instead, I think the consequences of state policies are far more important. Whether Stalin intended to kill off a portion of the deported nationalities by his actions is really not important. Rather, what is important is the fact that his regime deliberately deported entire nationalities to barren wastelands and as a result large numbers of them perished. The inevitable consequences of this action differed only from shooting or gassing a fifth of the deported peoples in only one real sense. Those that died in the special settlements from exposure, malnutrition, typhus, malaria and other diseases had much more agonizing deaths than direct execution would have entailed. Yet, revisionists like Stephen G. Wheatcroft and others claim that these deaths caused by Stalin were not only not genocide, but not even murder, but merely manslaughter. Of course they would never claim that Jews that died of typhus in ghettos and concentration camps under the Nazis were not victims of genocide, but merely of manslaughter. Because that would be Holocaust denial.


Walt Richmond said...

The problem of "intent" is what I ran into when discussing the deportation of the Circassians in the 1860s. I pointed out that the Russian government was unconcerned with what happened to the deportees, and would have been equally satisfied if they had gone on to prosper in the Ottoman Empire or if every last Circassian died. Since there was no intent, under the U.N. definition it was not genocide, even though Russian actions resulted in a 98 percent decrease in the Circassian population in their homeland, and the complete annihilation of the Ubykh nation. I do determine that General I do conclude that enough evidence exists to indict General Nikolai Yevdokimov on charges of genocide according to the U.N. Convention, but not the St. Petersburg government. I think that if it ever came to a court of law, that even then Yevdokimov could be found not guilty of genocide, though.

All of that is legalistic, though. The U.N. Convention was created to deal with one instance, and so therefore the definition is restrictive. As two of the major nations involved were guilty of various degrees of ethnic cleansing in recent history, they certainly had vested interest in making sure the definition was as restrictive as possible. I think the attempt by scholars to give the term "genocide" an academic definition that is broader than the U.N. definition is the source of the confusion and conflict. Perhaps the term "ethnocide," which we've discussed in the past, might be better for academic discourse.

Farhad said...

Not a comment but a question: Does looking at consequences solve the cause of the problem? I know it is history now, but look at it hypothetically

J. Otto Pohl said...


I agree with most of what you say. The US, USSR and other powers decided upon a legal definition of genocide that focused on intent rather than on process and consequences for obvious reasons. But, for scholarly purposes I think there needs to be some term, I really do not care if it is ethnocide or genocide, to describe processes initiated by states that result in mass deaths among specific ethnic groups.

The fact that these states often just do not care whether the population in question lives or dies in large numbers rather than willfully wishes them to all die does not seem terribly relavent to me. The results are the same. Why are intentions rather than actions and consequences being judged by historians and political scientists? I think a focus on actions, processes and consequences makes more sense from an historical point of view. We can leave the often impossible to prove issue of intent up to lawyers and other unscholarly types.

I think scholars need an academic term for these processes. Ethnic cleansing comes close, but does not cover things like the Ukrainian famine. It also covers cases such as Kosova where there is very little death. You may be right that the term genocide is too tainted by its legalistic history and emphasis on intent to serve any scholarly purpose in this matter. In order to avoid lots of definitional rehashing I basically said as much in my Ph.D. dissertation.


Looking at consequences of certain actions allows us to understand how certain things came about. Why are there no more Ubykhs? They did not just dissapear into thin air.

Walt Richmond said...

I stuttered in my original comment!

The reason I even addressed the question of genocide in my book was because it is such a topic of concern for the Circassian community. Although I don't come out and say it, mainly because this book was not the place to start a debate on the issue, my purpose was to show how flawed the U.N. Convention is. When you have a government run all the members of an ethnic group out of its homeland, even though the process is resulting in widespread death, and the result is the near-complete destruction of the Circassians and Abazas and the annihilation the Ubykhs, and this would not be considered "genocide," then there's a problem.

"Genocide" as a legal term seems to be a parallel to "murder": murder is the premeditated killing of one person, while genocide is the premeditated killing of an entire nation or ethnic group. Whether people such as the Australian scholar you mention argue that Stalin didn't "murder" people because they died of secondary causes are doing so because they're extraordinarily pedantic, have some other agenda, or simply want to sell books, I don't know. But you're right, scholars need to create a series of terms to describe various actions in a more precise way than is currently available.

With the exception of my brief discussion of genocide in the case of the Circassians, I try to present the facts (as I also try to do with the deportation of the Karachay-Balkars, the Cossacks, and others) and let the reader determine what s/he wishes to call it.