Book Review: Forgotten Genocides: Oblivion, Denial and Memory

Forgotten Genocides: Oblivion, Denial and Memory, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011
Edited by René Lemarchand
Reviewed by Monica Ciobanu, Plattsburgh State University of New York

As the title indicates, this volume presents cases of genocide that disappeared into history, remained unacknowledged by the perpetrators, the international community and sometimes by the victims or their descendants themselves. Consequently, the resulting scholarship has been quite modest compared to the abundance of publications on the Nazi Holocaust, the Armenian genocide or more current cases involving Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In part, to compensate for this gap in the general literature of genocide, the authors of this volume use a common theoretical framework coined by Helen Fein who classifies genocide in accordance to the goals pursued by the perpetrators into four categories (Fein, Human Rights and Wrongs, Slavery, Terror, Genocide, Boulder Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

While developmental genocide is motivated by the acquisition of economic wealth, retributive and despotic genocides are triggered by the desire to eliminate enemies either physically or through spreading terror. Ideological genocide lastly, seeks to impose specific beliefs and ideologies. Sometimes, as this volume demonstrates, these types of genocide coexist. While the use of this framework helps the reader understand the contexts and the intricacies of these less known cases, it does not illuminate the causes that led to their neglect. However, this lack is partly compensated by the analysis of those subtle intellectual and political mechanisms – such as myth-making, memory construction, denial, revisionism – that contributed to the forgetting of the eight genocides presented. This interdisciplinary analysis, bringing together legal, sociological and historical concepts, could easily serve as a model for examining controversial and/or current cases of human rights violations in the former Soviet Union and Middle East.

The eight chapters written by experts in the field of human rights cover a wide range of cases that have occurred at very different historical stages and represent different regions of the world. Three cases (chapters 1-3 written by Filip Reyntjens and Lemarchand, Lemarchand and Dominik J. Schaller) are located in Africa and examine the 1996-1997 mass murders in Eastern Congo against the Hutu civilians who fled Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide and took shelter in refugee camps; the 1972 genocide against the Hutu perpetrated by a Hutu-dominated military in Burundi; and the long-forgotten extermination of the Herero and Nama populations by the German colonial power in South-West Africa in the early 20th century. I found Schaller’s analysis of the South-West African case (today’s Namibia) quite convincing as it makes a compelling argument that the story of this genocide has been effectively suppressed for more than a century in the context of ongoing colonialism and the cold war. It was only in the 1990’s when a new emphasis on human rights emerged, and the restitution movement initiated by Holocaust survivors became successful, that similar claims were raised by the descendants of Herero victims in Namibia.

Chapter 4 also illustrates a case of mass extermination of an indigenous population by a colonial power in a discussion of the history of the indigenous people of Tasmania whose fate was sealed when British settlers occupied the island. Seventy years later, in 1871, the ‘death of the last Aborigine’ was recorded by the colonial authorities and interpreted as a final and unequivocal reinforcement of the extinction myth. The extinction myth had been propagated since the 1830’s and was based on the evolutionary idea that Aborigines are weak and inferior and therefore domed to perish as a people.

Shayne Breen provides an excellent analysis of how the interaction between myth-making and revisionist ideology shifted the blame from perpetrator to the victims. His systematic presentation of the major techniques used by British colonists in exterminating the local population – the seizure of hunting grounds, the abduction of women and children, murder and massacre in a war of extermination and incarceration – provides an insight into a distant and largely forgotten history of colonialism. The case of Tibet described in chapter 5 by Claude Levenson as a case of “neo-colonial genocide” examines the repressive policies against the Tibetans and their culture and Buddhist religion exercised by China since 1959 and extending into the present day.

Chapters 6 and 8 focus on mass atrocities perpetrated against the Kurdish and Gypsy populations in wartime. In describing the “Anfal” against the Iraqi Kurds by the Baath government of Sadam Hussein in 1987-1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, Choman Hardi presents a powerful critique of Western countries, and especially the United States, in their failure to take appropriate steps towards preventing the killing of as many as 100,000 civilians as a result of gas attacks, executions and military action. Chapter 8 discusses the repressive policies used against Gypsies during World War II by the Nazi regime and its allies in Europe. It addresses particularly one of the conceptual dilemmas in identifying certain cases of group extermination as genocide. The basis for elimination of approximately 130,000 Gypsies lay in the deeplyrooted perception of their social deviance and not explicitly in their distinctive racial identity. Moreover, it was carried out locally by police and other local agents. Unlike other groups, Gypsies were unable to benefit from restitution policies after the war.

Chapter 7 also discusses a case of genocide committed in time of war. Hannibal Travis analyses the fate of the Assyrian population, which together with Armenians and Greeks had been subjected to the brutality of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 19th century and especially in the early 1900’s. While the chapter provides some background regarding the loss of identity among Assyrians currently living in Turkey and Iraq, it would have been useful for the reader to gain more insight view into these communities, their collective memories and self-identification.

On a final note: the editor makes the important point that although some of these cases show that “the distinction between war crimes and genocide is by no mean self-evident”, he also argues that the United Nations definition of genocide is still useful (Lemarchand, 7). Reading these studies, I would, however, express some doubt about that assertion. War is often times used by governments to carry out genocidal policies against minorities and dissident groups. However, this volume is required reading for students of human rights and the general public alike. By utilizing a common analytical framework and emphasizing similar mechanisms that account for these “forgotten genocides”, the volume stands out as an important and cohesive body of work.

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