Martin Shaw: The Holocaust, Genocide Studies, and Politics





[Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His books include War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007).]

What are, and should be, the relationships between academic research and politics? This core question of historiography and social science has been debated throughout the last century - at least since the social theorist Max Weber attempted to define a “value-free” space for research (even as he acknowledged that scholars’ cultural and political orientations help shape their research interests). Nowhere, perhaps, is it more pertinent than in the growing field of genocide studies.

Here, all scholars share a basic negative judgment on what they are studying - after all, the very idea of genocide was invented by Raphael Lemkin in his successful attempt to criminalise the organised destruction of populations. Yet despite this shared commitment, intellectual disputes which can be traced partly to scholars’ social identities and political orientations are common in the field. Nowhere perhaps are they as contentious as around the question of the relationship between the Nazis’ annihilation of six million of Europe’s Jews in the second world war - “the Holocaust” - and the larger history of genocide....

Over the course of the next half century, the Nazis’ murder of the Jews was increasingly constructed in western - especially American - culture and politics as a universal symbol of evil, “the Holocaust” (or “the shoah”). The sociologist Jeffrey Alexander speaks of the extermination of the Jews having become a “sacred-evil”, the defining evil of modern times. He traces this process through both political events (the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, for example) and cultural ones (such as the publication of Anne Frank’s diaries, the television series The Holocaust [1978) and Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List [1993])....

Alongside the “sacralisation” of the Holocaust, the idea of genocide was narrowed by many writers to Holocaust-like mass murder; this replaced the broad idea of multi-method social destruction (including political, economic and cultural coercion as well as physical violence) which Lemkin had espoused. When genocide studies really took off in the mid-2000s, a common format for many of the impressive books which appeared was a case-by-case presentation - in which the Holocaust remained the central reference-point. “Comparative genocide studies” involves above all (although of course never only) comparison with the Holocaust. Moreover, many books generally compare just a few of what Mark Levene has called the “mega-genocides” - typically, the Armenian and Rwandan episodes, plus one or two others joined the Holocaust as the objects of trans-historical comparison.

At the same time, Holocaust scholarship has become by far the most developed area of research, producing deep knowledge and interpretations which enrich the general understanding of genocide. In part because of this, Holocaust research became a self-sufficient field, little connected to wider genocide studies. A few scholars (mainly from Jewish backgrounds) even reflected the “sacred-evil” status of the Holocaust by advancing the idea that it is “unique” - that is, different in a profound, qualitative way from other genocides. This in turn provoked some scholars from other backgrounds to attack the exclusion of their communities (for example, Roma and Sinti) from some Holocaust narratives, or to appropriate the “Holocaust” term for other genocides - as in David Stannard’s claim that there had been an “American Holocaust” against Native Americans....


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