Blogs > Cliopatria > Ranking Genocides

Apr 16, 2004 10:15 pm


Ranking Genocides



Apparently, a Belgian government minister has decided that the North American native genocide and the South American native genocide are the worst genocides in history. The reporting I've seen (which is basically two reports, AP and Reuters, copied everywhere; I saw it in HNN's Breaking News mailing) has generally focused on the question whether this is intended as a rebuke to the United States, though there has also been mention of the omission of Stalin's victims and European actions (including Belgian) in Africa. Most of the usual suspects are on the list, however: the Nazi Holocaust, Turkish genocide of Armenians, Rwanda, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. I haven't actually been able to find a complete copy of the ranked list on-line, though. I'm not sure I want to find it, because it will just open up the meaningless, but very mean, debate over relative horror that we've seen before.

The ten-year anniversary of the Rwandan atrocities is the proximate excuse for this exercise. Am I the only person who thinks that a commemorative"top ten" list is a singularly inappropriate gesture, for any genocidal anniversary? Do we really want to waste our energy debating whether the near-depopulation of two continents (ok, when I put it that way, I can start to see why it might be on top of the list) is more or less horrific than the near-eradication of an entire culture and people through the application of modern industrial methods or, perhaps, the simple brutality of mass tribal slaughter with hand weapons? Is it worse to be hacked to death, or starved to death, or the subject of primitive bio-warfare and cultural erasure?

What's the value in this exercise?


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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/23/2004

Good point.


Christopher Riggs - 4/20/2004

I share Prof. Dresner's aversion to creating a "top ten ranking" of genocides, particularly given the pervasive use of such rankings for comparatively frivolous things like movies, music videos, etc.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide by putting it into a larger historical context with similar events without trying to say whether one genocide is "worse" than another.

An examination, or even just a non-ranked listing, of the various genocides that have occurred around the world at different times and places could have some positive effects. Perhaps it will help break down the conceit that such events can only happen "over there" and/or among "those people," that "we" could never do such a thing. Perhaps it will help people to think about what common factors lead to genocide, and ideally help prevent genocide from occurring in the future. Perhaps it will help undercut the continuing efforts of those individuals and organizations that deny the occurrence of genocide. Perhaps all of this is wishful thinking...

My thanks to Prof. Dresner for prompting a discussion on this important issue.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/20/2004

At the time that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin's regime was well ahead of Hitler's on just about any depravity index based on tne numbers killed, imprisoned, starved, or betrayed.

So should we have supported Hitler? No.

One reason--probably the most important at the time-- was our growing de facto alliance with England (the enemy of our friend is our enemy; thus the enemy of our enemy is our friend).

But there were, at least arguably, ethical reasons.

1. Hitler's regime was actively agressive. Stalin's opression has spread some--the Baltic states, the attack on Finland--but Stalin did not want to be involved in a large-scale war.

2. And I put this forward very tentatively, the Communist ideology had a potential for a greater decency than the Nazi variant of Fascism, and that this was visible at the time.

My argument rests on this basis: that the people inspired by Marxism who lived outside the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s were more likely to desire an improvement in the physical welfare and political freedom of the people in their nation than people outside of Germany inspired by Facism.

There are powerful counter-arguments. I simply suggest this as an example for when defining evil by numbers might break down.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/20/2004

You're conflating the question of historical investigation (how many actually died and how) with the question of moral evaluation. I agree that the question of actual deaths resulting from policies is a potentially useful historical exercise (though so often done so very badly), but that's not the question.

Does it matter that the Rwandans killed less than a million, but the Nazis exterminated 11 million? Would you ally with the Hutu against the Nazis or vice versa? Alternately, if the Nazis were coming for you and for the Tutsi, would you refuse to ally with the Hutu because of their moral culpability? Can you think of a situation in which simultaneous genocides were happening, when that kind of quantitative morality would be helpful?

Sorry, I still don't see it.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/20/2004

by Jonathan Dresner on April 19, 2004 at 5:21 AM:

"That's the beginning of the end. But strict numbers really only tell part of the story. You need a multiplier for intentionality, a factor to account for the actual genocidal potential (could an entire people have been wiped out?), a mitigating factor for retributive killing or killing that took place under pressure of combat....."

Yes, as well as the number of people said government had access to (to kill) as well as the number of years that government was in existence, and whether the enemy soldiers were killed in an offensive or defensive war, however one determines that. But I think all this matters much less when the numbers of dead are grossly lopsided. When one regime just kills an awful lot more people than any others of the time do, especially when that country is smaller in population and its murderous government exists for a relatively short time, then you can generalize out from the amount of violence to intentionality. Once a government starts killing civilians hand over fist, it's trying to get rid of groups of people, or to greatly reduce their numbers.

"You still haven't answered the question: why do we need to rank atrocities?"

I did. The government that slaughters the most people is the most reprehensible. One could then say with some justification that the ideology behind that government is the most undesirable (or most evil, if you like). These things matter when one tries to make moral decisions. Who do we MOST want to work against?

"What do we learn by the exercise that the recognition that massive atrocities took place does not actually tell us?"

We learn the relative evil of different governments in a very general and inexact way, but in one that matters greatly. If the Soviets killed 8 million people, and Nazi Germany killed 50 million, that suggests strongly to me that fascism is the most dangerous ideology on the planet today. (Those numbers are guesses, especially the Soviet figure. They are basically just for illustration.) Naziism looks even worse when one notes that its government only ran for 12 years and Germany had maybe only 70 million population, while the USSR has a population in 1940 of maybe 200 million and WWII was mostly a defensive war for it. All this is useful when talking with anti-communists who try to foolishly or dishonestly whitewash fascism by falsely claiming that communism killed more people.

One other thing comparing death figures does is that it puts the spotlight on what actually happened. Did the Soviets kill less than a million altogether in internal security operations during that government's whole existence, and "only" a couple million people, mostly Ukrainians, when it caused the farmbelt famine, or did the USSR kill 20 million of its own people? 20 million people is a qualitively different kill figure, almost an order of magnitude higher than 3 million. 3 million could perhaps be murdered out of a population of 200 million, if times are bad and repression very efficient, but it's entirely reasonable to ask how, if the death figure was 20 million, occurring mostly before WWII, the USSR had the human power to fight WWII and run its industries? What kind of killing apparatus would the USSR have to have had to murder that number internally? And is it _really_ believable that most Soviet citizens would have been willing to fight for their government after it killed 10% of them? Do Robert Conquest's bulked up numbers really make sense (14 million for the farmbelt famine)?

And is it really true that Nazi Germany only killed 20 million people? (This according to the website of the guy who claims to have coined the term demicide, murder by government.) One site containing a speech to an academic conference put the Nazi Germany killing figure at 50 million, a figure that makes more sense to me.

"And, of course, the list as offered does not meet even your low standard for relevance, conflating times and circumstances."

No it doesn't, does it? I think it's pretty obvious that the Belgians who put it together are trying to whitewash their country's killing during Leopold's reign of half the people in the Congo.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

That's the beginning of the end. But strict numbers really only tell part of the story. You need a multiplier for intentionality, a factor to account for the actual genocidal potential (could an entire people have been wiped out?), a mitigating factor for retributive killing or killing that took place under pressure of combat.....

You still haven't answered the question: why do we need to rank atrocities? What do we learn by the exercise that the recognition that massive atrocities took place does not actually tell us?

And, of course, the list as offered does not meet even your low standard for relevance, conflating times and circumstances.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/19/2004

If you're comparing mass deaths that occurred in roughly the same time period, I don't see anything appalling or pointless in the exercise. If Belgium murdered the most people during the time of Leopold's reign, that makes Belgium the most reprehensible. Five million murdered is morally inferior to one million murdered because in the latter instance four million are still alive, and I don't know about you, but for me, 4 million living people matter greatly. I'm sorry, but anyone who really thinks that one death is bad as a million of them is a fool.


Richard Henry Morgan - 4/17/2004

The Belgian Defense Minister has a certain reputation for anti-Americanism. Witness the fact that his report says the North American genocide is ongoing.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/16/2004

It seems we live in the age where "comparative suffering" has become an Olympic sport, indulged in by government ministers, trial lawyers, and talk show hosts. It's appalling.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/16/2004

It seems we live in the age where "comparative suffering" has become an Olympic sport, indulged in by government ministers, trial lawyers, and talk show hosts. It's appalling.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/16/2004

I share Jonathan's disdain for listing the top ten genocides. They relativize the horror shared rather fully by them all. The failure of the Belgian authority to include the devastation in the Congo extends the refusal of Belgium to acknowledge what occurred at all. When your hands are that bloody, the big lie discredits all else that you say.


Grant W Jones - 4/16/2004

Does the report mention him? I couldn't find a definition for genocide in the report. Depending on how broad their definition is, genocide might be very common in history. Does it require the planned, systematic killing of a people, or just the eradication (or the attempt) of a culture? Would this make assimilation, forced or not, genocide? Is the unknowing introduction of disease genocide?

I think you are right, this is a pointless exercise.

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