Friday, September 10, 2010

Is that word so important?

Norman M. Naimark, Professor of East European Studies at Stanford University and author of several important books on the darker aspects of Soviet history (yes, I know, are there any others?) has just published an interesting study of Stalin's criminal rule: Stalin's Genocides. I have not seen it yet though I fully intend to read it on the grounds that there might be some new information or analysis there.

What intrigued me about the title and the blurb given out by Princeton University Press is the insistence that somehow it is important to prove that those crimes were genocide.
The book puts forward the important argument that brutal mass killings under Stalin in the 1930s were indeed acts of genocide and that the Soviet dictator himself was behind them.

Norman Naimark, one of our most respected authorities on the Soviet era, challenges the widely held notion that Stalin's crimes do not constitute genocide, which the United Nations defines as the premeditated killing of a group of people because of their race, religion, or inherent national qualities. In this gripping book, Naimark explains how Stalin became a pitiless mass killer. He looks at the most consequential and harrowing episodes of Stalin's systematic destruction of his own populace--the liquidation and repression of the so-called kulaks, the Ukrainian famine, the purge of nationalities, and the Great Terror--and examines them in light of other genocides in history. In addition, Naimark compares Stalin's crimes with those of the most notorious genocidal killer of them all, Adolf Hitler.
There are still some people (among whom there are various academic historians such as the egregious J. Arch Getty) who do go on bleating that the purge just growed and growed like Topsy without the little guy at the top knowing anything about it but many a document has been unearthed that has shown up the fallacy of that school of thought. Still, there is no harm in repeating the truth and publishing some more evidence.

Does it matter, however, whether what Stalin indulged in was genocide? The victims of Stalinism probably outnumber the victims of Hitler (and we can argue who was responsible for the fantastically high casualty rate on the Eastern Front). Even if anybody disputes that, there can be no question that there is no real need to compare Stalin to Hitler in order to prove that he and his system were evil. Or is there?

>Genocide is a relatively new term in international relations though, undoubtedly, the concept has existed in reality for many centuries. It's just it did not matter to people whether they were exterminating someone else for ethnic, religious or any other reason.

According to this summary
In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word "genocide" by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."

The next year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged top Nazis with "crimes against humanity." The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes "genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
As we know this activity was directed not just at Jews but the Roma and, to some extent, Slavs in Poland and the old Soviet Union.

There is, nevertheless, a problem with the definition or, rather, not so much with the definition but the importance accorded to this particular form of mass murder just as there was a problem with the definition of crimes against humanity in the framework of an aggressive war. (There were many other problems with the Nuremberg Trials but this is not the place to discuss them. Readers, however, are free to pile in.)

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union happily supported both that narrow definition of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg (a wider definition might have interfered with some members of the Soviet legal team) and the prioritizing genocide, as defined by the UN Convention above any common and garden mass murder.

One of the unintended consequences of that Convention was that everything, whether it be the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915 or Stalin's wide-ranging crimes, need to be defined as genocide. Otherwise, people might not take them seriously. Yet when one thinks about it, is it really so much more heinous to murder millions of Ukrainian peasants, let us say, because they were Ukrainians than it is to murder them because they were peasants?

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