The Killing Fields

Changes in the character of war partially account for the mass murders of the past century. But the rise of democracy also plays a role.

Why did the 20th century produce so much mass killing of civilians – a phenomenon so terrible and unexpected that it caused a new word, “genocide”, to be coined to describe it? Mass slaughter is nothing new. What was new was its return to the centres of civilisation after two centuries of progress. From Europe, it spread to Asia and Africa. In Rwanda on 7 April 1994, the Hutus started killing the Tutsis, or “cockroaches” as they were called. They shot and hacked a million to death in three months. The killings were as coldly deliberate as those organised by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The great powers supplied the weapons that allowed the genocide to happen and withdrew the small force of UN peacekeepers who might have stopped it.

Rwanda’s was only the most horrific of the recent killings to challenge our facile ideas about the perfectibility of man. It showed that under the right circumstances human males can quickly revert to being killing machines. It showed up the decadence and cynicism of the “international community”, too weak to act but not to play power games with people’s lives. A hapless Belgian paratroop commander remarked: “My perception of the classic UN operations was that the UN does not fight . . . I was blinded by this logic, paralysed by it.” Such is the grim testimony to impotence in the face of evil. The genocide exposed in tragic relief the fallacies on which our global “order” is still based.

Reading about the Rwandan atrocities set me thinking about my own first trivial experience of collective brutality. It was when I was 14. It took place at my very English boarding school and involved very ordinary English boys. It was a Sunday evening, and the group of small boys in our “prep room” had spent an enjoyable hour or so “ragging” an unpopular, physically unprepossessing boy, who could barely hold back his tears. The chapel bell sounded and we trooped in to a sermon on the evils of bullying. After it was over, the boys went back to their bullying as though the sermon had never been.

I had not taken part in the “ragging” before chapel, and I did not take part after. It was my first clear sense that I was different. Not only did I get no pleasure from bullying, but I viewed the episode from the outside – as something that could easily happen to me. I wish I could say I empathised with the suffering victim. But I do not remember doing so. What I did understand was that for the boys, hunting in a pack was fun. They could not admit this. If asked to justify their behaviour, they would have pointed out certain unpleasant behavioural traits of their victim – he did not wash, he smelt, he was a “weed”. Some of these might have been true. But the same excuses would be trotted out for bullying someone else. It was also clear that the pack could turn just as suddenly against one of their own – or against me. Most of the boys became good friends of mine. But this did not save me from their attentions when the mood turned anti-Skidelsky. Eventually, I learnt that turning my cleverness into verbal attack gave me sufficient protection. The other feature of the situation was the breakdown of authority. The housemaster had lost control; the boys ran wild. Human nature was released from its restraints.

Killing, like bullying, is evil. We find it hard to use the word. The collapse of the theological idea of “original sin” has meant that we are driven to explain killing by social and economic conditions, without being able to explain why those conditions produced that kind of reaction. At the same time, “original sin” cannot explain why certain ages and cultures seem more prone to mass murders than others. So we need to understand why the 20th century was such a “killing” century, even as we recognise that genocidal tendencies lie deep in human nature.

The main killing episodes of the 20th century are the Turkish slaughter of the Christian Armenians (one million) in 1915, Stalin’s “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” in the 1930s (ten million), Hitler’s murder of the Jews in 1941-44 (six million), Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” of 1959-51 (30 million), Pol Pot’s Cambodian “killing fields” in 1975-79 (two million) and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (one million). These are estimates. In Soviet Russia and China, ideologically induced starvation played a central role: if labour camp victims were added, the Russian figure would be much higher. The question is: what, if anything, links these separate outbreaks of mass murder? Are they part of an explicable 20th-century narrative?

Attempts at explanation focus on the role of war, democracy and nationalism. A plausible starting point is changes in the character of war. Industrialisation made possible much more destructive wars, while 20th-century wars were wars of peoples rather than just of rulers and their armies. It was not only that modern weaponry, particularly machine-guns and aeroplanes, made killing on a huge scale technically possible, but that to sustain a war with modern weapons, a war economy had to be built in which every civilian became, in a sense, a warrior. But if civilians were as much conscripts as soldiers, then killing them was as legitimate a war aim as killing soldiers. The slaughter of Christian Armenians by the Turks in 1915, because they were regarded as a Russian “fifth column” in the Ottoman empire, started a chain of wartime civilian massacres that went on through the century. Once killing of civilians for war purposes had become acceptable, it was a short step to detach it from strict military necessity. In the 20th century, mass civilian killing became an object rather than merely a by-product of policy.

The context of war is important for another reason. Since the slaughter of the innocent offends against deep moral taboos, it can occur only when a civilian “enemy” has been identified, hatred against him whipped up and the society sealed off from prying eyes. These circumstances are generally the product of war. Those undertaking the killing also have to be sufficiently desensitised to what they are doing. The Hutu militias who carried out the Rwandan genocide were mostly drunk or drugged, and had been given a licence to rape and torture. This generous mixture of incentives to kill is rarely supplied in peace.

An eruption of civilian mass murder requires some prior breakdown in the established customs and habits of society. As Keynes wisely said: “Civilisation is a thin and precarious crust, erected by the personality and will of the few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved.” The mass military slaughter of the First World War provided the necessary conditions for a breakdown in the “rules and conventions” of civilisation all over Europe. It inflicted sufficient damage on fragile social orders to sweep away restraints against the unbridled exercise of power. It created a moral vacuum in which men without morals could come to power, outcast leaders embodying or exploiting the seething resentments of the losers. And it provided a military model and language that could be suitably adapted to peacetime purpose.

Twentieth-century war legitimised mass killing of civilians for war purposes. Democracy and nationalism served to make it an aim of policy. The weaponry of mass killing has long been available: the Hutus killed Tutsis with machetes. What was lacking, at least after the 17th-century wars of religion, was the required degree of hatred, fanaticism and idealism to kill civilians on a large scale apart from war. The 20th century provided, in the religion of democracy, a project worthy of mass killing. In the 17th century, men killed in the name of God. In the 20th century, they killed in the name of the people.

In one of those fertile half-truths for which he is famous, the late A J P Taylor wrote: “Bismarck fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; democracies fight ‘just’ wars and kill millions.” What Taylor forgot is that “just” wars can never kill millions. But he understood that the scale of the killing we do is not independent of the social order in which we live. There are aristocratic, bourgeois and democratic ways of killing, each with its own motives. The mass killings of the 20th century coincided with the enthronement of “the people” as both subject and object of history. The revolutionary project of secular salvation is the child of democracy. No form of rule in the 20th century has been legitimate that does not at least claim to be based on democracy. Hitler and Stalin were not democrats, but they killed for the sake of the people – to secure them a Thousand Year Reich or the communist millennium. Genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s started with the onset of democracy.

Let me be clear. By democracy, I do not mean the limited democracies we enjoy in the west, girded round with constitutional and customary restraints. I am discussing the consequences of carrying the democratic idea to its logical conclusion. Like war, democracy is in principle unlimited: nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the popular will. The problem is that most people, knowing and understanding little beyond their immediate concerns, can easily be manipulated by propaganda. Without an external limit to the principle of democracy itself, it easily slides into despotism: rule by the people becomes rule over the people. Nazism and Leninism were not perversions of democracy: they were what democracy looks like when carried to extremes. Unless democratic pretension is curtailed, the leader gains unlimited freedom to define the people’s project, to identify the enemy that stands in the way of its realisation and to exclude him from the life of society.

The murderous potential of unlimited democracy was increased by its historical and, indeed, logical twinning with nationalism. If you believe in “rule by the people”, you have first to select the people. And the most obvious principle of selection is the nation. So it is no coincidence that both creeds were born together in the French revolution. Where the nation already existed in well-defined political boundaries, as in France, the nationalist project was simply to end royal absolutism. In multinational empires, it took a much more aggressive aspect, involving not just wars of “national liberation” but often inventing the nation itself and claiming a geographical territory to house it. National self-determination became a warrior creed.

When in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it as the necessary condition of a just and lasting peace, he did not consider the possibility that it might lead to the war of nations. He did not understand that nationalism implies the re-tribalisation of humanity. It seeks to repack the national pieces of multi-national states into tight little parcels, heightening their sense of separateness from each other and making it easier for demagogues to conjure up the spectre of the hostile “other”.

The connections between democracy, nationalism and mass killing are deeply troubling because democracy and national self-determination remain our official creeds. Democracies, we are endlessly told, never go to war with each other. The “neo-cons” in the Bush administration want to make the world safe for American democracy by making the whole world democratic. But experience of the democratic idea shows that democracy can only be made safe by limiting the operation of the principle itself. The European Union, for all its bureaucratic lunacies, has diluted both the democratic and national principles in the interests of a wider union of peoples. Those who criticise its “democratic deficit” might reflect that without it, the union would never have been started, still less persevered with.

So far, I have preferred to talk about mass civilian killing rather than genocide. This is not just a piece of pedantry. I believe that the term “genocide” ought to be reserved for the most heinous form of civilian killing: the attempted annihilation of a race. It was first used in 1944, with etymological precision, to describe Nazi policies towards the Jews. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defined it as a policy which aims to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, chiefly by killing, starvation, or preventing its reproduction. Genocide was regarded as a uniquely wicked form of mass killing, because it is visited on a group with inherent, and thus inescapable, characteristics. Subsequently, the meaning of genocide has expanded to encompass the organised destruction of any unarmed civilian group (or groups). Most of the mass civilian killings of the last century, including massacres, are now routinely called genocides.

There are good arguments for doing this. Races are biological fictions, a product of the human passion for classification. They should not be privileged in political science or international law. And from the point of view of the victim, it matters not whether you are killed for racial or “class” reasons. We need one word to express our equal condemnation of all forms of organised mass murder, and “genocide” is the most evocative we have.

However, there is a powerful counter-argument for reserving the term genocide for racially motivated killing. This is that it pinpoints the most persistent motive in human history for mass killing: hatred of those who are different. Genocidal tendencies lie deeply buried in the tribal origins of human society. They are reinforced by the political organisation of the world into nation-states and by the almost limitless human capacity for credulity. As Michael Shaw points out, genocide involves “pseudo-scientific, irrational and fantastical beliefs” about ourselves and others – but these are the beliefs most people hold. Under their influence, multiracial societies living together in apparent harmony for decades can suddenly explode into genocidal violence.

The framers of the UN Convention were right in their belief that, of all hatreds, racial hatred is the most dangerous, because changes of behaviour by its victims cannot bring about its abatement. “You are our enemy because of what you are, not because of what you do.” “What you are” is often determined by physical characteristics, whether of colour or physiognomy. Physical difference is the crudest and easiest way of identifying a target. Tutsis were distinguished from Hutus by being lighter and taller and by having straight noses. In Britain in the 1930s, the only mass base Mosley’s fascists were able to establish was in east London, the home of recent, foreign-looking, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. The easy identifiability of the “enemy” makes racial politics potentially more murderous than class politics.

The attempt to explain racial hostility in economic terms rarely gets to the heart of things. Economic inequality or injustice can certainly exacerbate racial tensions: it does not account for the common observation that rich foreign capitalists are far more resented than are home-grown ones. It was the Chinese who were attacked, and sometimes killed, in Indonesia when its economy collapsed in 1997. Just as foreign capitalists are blamed for “stealing our wealth”, so foreign, not native, labour is blamed for “stealing our jobs”.

It is a mistake, therefore, to think of all civilian mass murder as genocide. Stalin’s body counts were larger than Hitler’s, but Hitler’s mass murders were genocide, as were those in Rwanda and Bosnia. Stalin’s weren’t. They are part of the history of revolutionary excess and paranoia.

Not only is the conflation of genocide with mass murder wrong as history, it is useless for understanding the challenges we face now. Under communism, ideological murder replaced racial murder. But the era of communism is over. What we are left with is the clash of “national, ethnical, racial or religious” groups, from which genocide can spring. The greater movement of peoples opened up by globalisation makes the situation more fraught.

Can we avoid a bloody clash between Christianity and Islam? The genocidal possibilities of such a clash arise from the “Islamicisation” of parts of Europe, including Russia, through immigration and differential birth rates. The idea of a return to a world of crusades and jihads may seem fantastic, but no one expected the 20th century to be an era of mass civilian murder.

Ethnic tensions can be tempered but not eliminated by economic and social reform, because their source is inherent, not economic. The rituals of forgiveness and reconciliation may help wounded countries such as Rwanda to heal, but will they prevent genocide in the future – in Rwanda or elsewhere?

If it is true that 20th-century mass civilian killing was incubated in war, democracy and nationalism, we need to change our ideas about war and political organisation to avert it in the future.

We have made a start. Total war is unlikely to recur in the centres of civilisation in the foreseeable future. We have learnt to fight “postmodern” wars, which greatly reduce military killing, and restore the distinction between soldier and civilian. Belief in unlimited democracy has also waned; though whether limited, or constitutional, democracy can be successfully exported is an open question. It is challenged by the rise of intolerant religious democracy in the Islamic world. The doctrine of national sovereignty is also in decline: we recognise that it can be inconsistent not just with domestic but with planetary well-being. Pace the Belgian paratrooper cited earlier, the “international community” is relearning the arts of “coercive intervention”.

Multiracialism is widely seen as the political project best suited to cutting out the cancer of racial and religious hatred. The multiracial society is a noble vision. The question of what is the appropriate political community for such a society is harder to answer. Multiracialism in one country has had a very patchy record. The problem is that the concept of the multiracial state stands diametrically opposed to the idea of the nation-state. As long as the national principle remains supreme, the prognosis for multiracialism is poor.

We have not yet overcome the idea that the world should be divided into national units, exercising their sovereign right of self-government. Yet they are not the only, or necessarily the highest, principles of political life. Empires at their best stood for multiracialism and religious tolerance. They also allowed a great deal of devolution in practice. They foundered in the 20th century, because no way could be found of making their rule acceptable to their subject peoples. Our task is to devise forms of political community that combine the scale of the cosmopolitan empires of the past with legitimate government. The European Union points in this direction. Unless much of the world follows in its footsteps, we cannot write finis to the age of mass killing.