Peoples, nations, states and genocides

by | Jan 27, 2022 | Featured, The Interview | 0 comments

This discussion on genocide in the age of the nation state was first published in Planet, the Welsh Internationalist in March 2015. It is just as relevant today.

This year’s centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and seventieth anniversary of liberation of the Nazi death camps which exposed the face of the Holocaust, coincide with a more profound change: both Armenian and Jewish tragedies are passing from the realms of experience and human memory into, amongst others, the hands of historians.

How are historians responding?[1]Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: The Meaning of Genocide, I.B.Tauris 2008  Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide, I.B.Tauris 2013 The … Continue reading

Few have devoted as much attention as Mark Levene, whose four-volume analytic history of genocide (‘an epic work’ .. set to change ‘the way a subject is taught’) in nearly 2000 pages considers no less than 93 ‘major incidents of genocide and sub-genocidal violence’ around Europe between 1912 and 1953. When Mike Joseph spoke to Levene, questions of how Wales might wrestle with this history were never far away.

Joseph: You identify the Vendée[2]In 1794 French revolutionary forces suppressed a Catholic and Royalist revolt in Brittany with ruthless mass killings. The 1797 French invasion at Fishguard was part of the aftermath. as a key event in the modern history of genocide …

Levene: I went to university full of radical Marxists who would not have anything bad said about the French revolution – this was the great event, equality liberty, fraternity. But it struck me that the Vendée has another story to tell, which is genocidal. The two things are linked, genocide and citizenship, and the issue of the nation.

Joseph: Your concept of genocide is very different indeed from the conventional wisdom.

Levene: Genocide is on a spectrum. Optimal cases like the Armenian Genocide, or what we have come to call the Holocaust, are not the only cases, there are smaller cases, some of them don’t get beyond a particular point. An example which is very important to Lemkin[3]Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in response to the destruction of Armenians in 1915 and Assyrians in 1933. Losing many relatives in the Holocaust, he was instrumental in … Continue reading was the Assyrian affair, which is very relevant at this moment as Syrians are under attack again in exactly the same area.

Joseph: You also look at instances where nothing resembling genocide is happening. You describe 1915 events, at the same time as the Armenian Genocide, during Russia’s military retreat from Lithuania and Galicia, with mass deportations of Jews and others. The situation points clearly to the potential imminence of genocide. You then explore why it didn’t happen. Were the factors not actually genocidal? – no! You say it was because of British intervention. This fascinates me, because if that is so, it’s a shot in the arm for the whole concept of responsibility to protect.[4]Responsibility to Protect, stipulated at United Nations World Summit, 2005. See – http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Levene: The British intervene, and they intervene in as diplomatic a way as they can with their Russian allies. If the Jews who have been deported eastwards are not allowed into Russia proper where they are not allowed to go, then there is fear that this logjam will lead to Stavka[5]Chiefs of Staff of the Russian military doing terrible things – the inference here is this is exactly what happens 26 years later – the British do not intervene out of humanitarian responsibility to protect. They intervene because they have their own imagination, as do their Russian colleagues, of the importance of the Jews. And it’s that imaginative confabulated importance of the Jews, particularly in – at this moment in time – in the banking houses of America, and hence closer to the supposed role of a neutral US, which is the reason why the British are so anxious. It is almost (we would recognise this in terms of a world war later) why the Nazis do exterminate the Jews, except they have given up on the importance of the Jews as being powerful. Here you’ve got an example of Jews as so powerful that we must go gently on them. And this is utterly paradoxical. A horrible non-humanitarian reason why the British act to protect the Russian Jews.

Joseph: At exactly same time, the Ottoman Empire’s leading ally Germany was making diplomatic representations against the Armenian Genocide!

Levene: Yes absolutely. I treat these events in absolute parallel. They are an example of where the two things happen in complete parallel, one leads to genocide and one doesn’t. These are two cases we ought to look at in tandem. It is pregnant, it’s vastly pregnant because it tells us that actually you don’t need a blueprint for something genocidal to occur. Because there is no Russian blueprint. But very rarely is there an exact blueprint in genocide. That’s something else I say which is controversial. This whole thing about intent, which is so central to a legal way of looking at things, is not the right question. It takes us away from the process in which these things happen. And of course there may be intent, in the sense that it’s in people’s heads that they don’t like Jews or they don’t like Armenians, and we’re going to do something about it. But to develop that into an actual systematic process of destruction usually requires some other frame of reference.

Joseph: Surely in the Genocide Convention or indeed in Lemkin’s formulations, the word ‘intent’ appears very prominently?

Levene: I’m trying to steer us away from this focus on intent, as being the necessary precondition, it assumes all sorts of things which I think in a way don’t necessarily, from a historical study of actual cases, it doesn’t get us very far.

Joseph: You characterise the situation in the Ottoman Empire and in the east of the Hapsburg Empire as a complete kaleidoscope of ethnicities, of cultures, of religions, all of which is hugely at odds with the nation-building drive, and which in that sense creates an innately genocidal potential.

Levene: That’s exactly it. It’s inbuilt. If you start trying to create nation states out of this hotchpotch, something terrible is going to come about.

Joseph: Your exploration of the Irish revolt that started in 1916 – that must surely have been perceived by the British Empire as a stab in the back at a time of its great danger – you describe the challenge to the British as an “almost textbook narrative on the preconditions for genocide … indeed probably would have been genocidal. Whether Lloyd George ever seriously contemplated such a possibility we do not know”.[6]The Meaning of Genocide, p 62 I am completely with you when it comes to readiness to explore what-if histories. But is this not pushing what-if history too far?

Levene: No. History is full of pregnant moments, and forks in the road. I think it’s too easy to leave out what happens in Britain in the twentieth century from that sort of examination. After all Britain had been there. The emergent British nation state came much much closer to genocide in 1650s, you might say a long time ago, but in terms of Irish history or British colonial history in Ireland, you can’t divorce from the twentieth century.

Joseph: Yet the Lloyd George government chose against something which you say could well have been genocidal. What were the circumstances that led to a different outcome?

Levene: The British enforce an agreement on the Irish which leaves it to the Irish to kill each other. That’s being very blunt. Lloyd George’s government takes a very hard headed decision that they’re not going to attempt to carry through the Black and Tan response to the insurgency in Ireland, they will have to come to a deal, and that deal is that we stay effectively in overall charge, but you get your Home Rule, plus plus plus, but you can kill each other.

Joseph: It would be equally possible to say that it was a statesmanlike act of compromise, on behalf of a British state that did actually have some residual liberal values.

Levene: At the same time, Lloyd George must be held responsible for what’s happening in Asia Minor. Lloyd George is a brilliant liberal politician. But because he’s liberal and because he knows when to stop doesn’t let him off the hook. He knows when to stop when Turks confront him in Chanak in 1922 when they don’t actually have a shooting war with the Turks. Lloyd George is acting on a global stage at this time, and he’s partly responsible for something else which has genocidal consequences.[7]Lloyd George and the west encouraged former Ottoman minorities, including Armenians and Greeks, to pursue territory and the quest for nation-statehood, resulting in ill-fated and deadly … Continue reading

Joseph: How far should we blame the Allied leaders for the realpolitik of the Lausanne Treaty?[8]By the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, western powers recognised the new Turkish state and ceased to support Armenian interests.

Levene: Lausanne is the result of the west recognising that they cannot fight and defeat Turkey, so they have to accept terms which bring Turkey into the national framework of nations, it’s the first time that Turkey has been recognised as a sovereign state in effect like Britain, like France, like the USA, another independent sovereign state, over which you do not have rights of economic and political power, other than what are normal to that system. Once you do that, then if Turkey says we don’t want Armenians included in this Treaty, so be it. So it’s a very very cynical view, but it’s the reality in 1923 when Armenia is obliterated from the diplomatic and political map of how western-Turkish relations exist, we have the trajectory of where things are going to go henceforth.

Joseph: International politics, just like domestic politics, is the art of the possible.

Levene: If you are a minority, what the logic of the situation is telling you is that there is no middle ground in which you can be a minority and be protected by the great powers. The only logical thing is to have a nation-state of your own. This is the terrible thing about what comes out of this world war actually.

Joseph: The implication then being that once you have a nation state of your own, you are likely to continue conducting yourself in relation to your own minorities just …

Levene: Exactly. Look at the way the Estonians have suddenly burst upon us as a consequence of the Ukrainian-Russian imbroglio – there’s a whole issue coming. All those Baltic States! What is the relationship of the Russians to the state? Are they a Trojan Horse? Are they a Fifth Column? It’s all over again.

Joseph: To quote your closing words from your fourth volume: “The export of the Western national formula to the ‘Third World’ would bring with it the export of genocide”.[9]Annihilation: The European Rimlands 1939-1953, p 414 We can’t get much bleaker than those words, can we?

Levene: It shows how at variance I am with the liberal view of the world, where we can sort these things through with a little bit of liberalism, and fair play, and common sense and the Genocide Convention will ensure that these things won’t happen. Well that’s the wrong basis on which to understand the formation of what we have today politically in the international sense.

Joseph: The system which so many of us are accustomed to thinking is at heart benign and humane, you have stood that concept on its head, and you are pointing out that it is at heart, ruthless.

Levene: Yes, I am. Yes. And that goes back to formation of the sort of international political economy, which has arisen in the last 200 years, and which has finally crystallised in its totality after 1990 and which is – whose handmaiden is – the nation-state. This seems to have been the best way for a global community to have adapted itself to the realities of this ruthless Social-Darwinian system. On one level that’s produced very good things about modernity and progress. But I’m saying yes there is a dark heart to this, and don’t be a marginal people attempting to live in your own habitas, or according to your own economic, cultural and social rules, if you want to exist within that, because it is not going to work. The problem is not génocidaires, it’s the international political economy that we now have. We need to understand the problem in order to find alternatives.

References

References
1 Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: The Meaning of Genocide, I.B.Tauris 2008

 Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide, I.B.Tauris 2013

The Crisis of Genocide: Devastation: The European Rimlands 1912-1938, OUP 2013

The Crisis of Genocide: Annihilation: The European Rimlands 1939-1953, OUP 2013

2 In 1794 French revolutionary forces suppressed a Catholic and Royalist revolt in Brittany with ruthless mass killings. The 1797 French invasion at Fishguard was part of the aftermath.
3 Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in response to the destruction of Armenians in 1915 and Assyrians in 1933. Losing many relatives in the Holocaust, he was instrumental in the creation of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
4 Responsibility to Protect, stipulated at United Nations World Summit, 2005. See – http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml
5 Chiefs of Staff of the Russian military
6 The Meaning of Genocide, p 62
7 Lloyd George and the west encouraged former Ottoman minorities, including Armenians and Greeks, to pursue territory and the quest for nation-statehood, resulting in ill-fated and deadly confrontations with a resurgent and successful Turkish nationalism. Armenians and Greeks were soon abandoned by western powers.
8 By the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, western powers recognised the new Turkish state and ceased to support Armenian interests.
9 Annihilation: The European Rimlands 1939-1953, p 414

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