Bennedict Kiernan is the founding director of Genocide Studies at Yale Center for International and Area Studies. He has been named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History. Ben talks to Jerry Fowler about his new book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur and how genocide, in practice, is not a recent phenomenon.
JERRY FOWLER: My guest today is Ben Kiernan. He is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, and the founding Director of Yale’s Genocide Studies Program. His new book is Blood and Soil, a World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Ben, welcome to the program.
BEN KIERNAN: Glad to be here.
JERRY FOWLER: I guess the first point to make is that even though genocide is a relatively new term, the practice is basically as old as human existence.
BEN KIERNAN: Well, almost. It certainly can be documented at least way back till the 2nd century B.C. The Roman genocide of Carthage comes to mind, but even other ancient genocides are fairly well documented; less so in the Middle Ages, but from the early Modern Period, about 1400, not only does the evidence start to proliferate, but also I think the number of cases.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I wanted to get to that. That is jumping ahead a little bit, but since you brought it up, there is this gap in the book. You go from antiquity and then pick up with early Modern Period in the 1400s. And is it the case that there was not mass violence in the intervening periods?
BEN KIERNAN: Yes, there was, definitely, especially associated with imperial expansions, the Holy Roman Empire, and other empires.
JERRY FOWLER: And the Crusades fell into that period.
BEN KIERNAN: That is right, absolutely, including ethnic violence, the first massacres of Jews in the 11th Century. But my point is I think partly illustrated by the fact that there had not been many other cases in the preceding say, eight or nine centuries, perhaps because they are not documented. But I think that the Middle Ages, certainly they are less documented, but also I think the focus was much more on religion than on race. And it is only in the 2nd millennium that you start to see the rise of race as an indicator of enemy targeting, much less so in the Middle Ages. But there were cases, including massacres by Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire and other expansionist regimes around the world, in fact. But A, they are not so well documented, and B, there is a suggestion that they were more focused on religion than on race. And secondly, and I would say that there is not so much focus on the ancient precedent. For instance, the story of Carthage in the ancient Roman genocide was not well known during the Middle Ages. It was really only recovered, the literature about it was only rediscovered in the Renaissance and the early Modern Period. And it became a precedent later, but it did not serve as a justification during the Middle Ages, partly perhaps because it just was not so well known. Another difference in the Middle Ages was the agrarian focus on the importance of the peasantry or the importance of the yeoman farmer, was not really there in the Middle Ages. It did not really begin until the early Modern Period. And that, of course, justified territorial land grabs and European expansion and other imperial expansions around the world, which did lead to destruction of indigenous peoples, both in parts of Europe, but particularly in the Americas and later Australia. And that expansion, justified by the cult of cultivation, was relatively new and not so important in the history of the Middle Ages.
JERRY FOWLER: Let me push on that a little bit. For example, you are suggesting that violence in the Middle Ages was more focused on religion, rather than race. And it would seem that religion’s always been a sufficient reason for people to murder others in large numbers. What is the distinction you are drawing there?
BEN KIERNAN: Yes, it is not always an important distinction in the sense that genocide can be committed against religious groups rather than racial groups. But in some of the pre-modern empires, especially in Asia but also in Europe, there was not such a focus on the importance of subjects being of the same ethnic identity as their rulers, or even of the same religion. That rule was, in the Middle Ages, sometimes much more a universal responsibility to cater for rule over all kinds of different ethnic and religious groups. And the ethnic identity issue was not so important in the Middle Ages. I think it is very explosive in combination with religious or alongside religious intolerance and violence. But I think in the absence of it, communities in the Middle Ages did tend to subject one another to violence, but I think less on a genocidal scale than in later, or even earlier, antique periods, ancient periods.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, going back to the ancient periods, in the book and in your title, you basically start with the ancient Greek city of Sparta. And I was wondering why that is. The Spartans did not originate the use of mass violence, and there were a lot of things about Sparta’s social structure that was unique, but it was not really unique in the use of massacre, was it?
BEN KIERNAN: No, it was not. You can trace documented cases of massacre or at least claims of massacre, to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient China and so on. But in the case of Sparta, what we have is a fairly well documented combination of ethnic violence and subjection of another ethnic group by the Spartans. That is, the helots, or mostly Messenians, and their constant subjection to ethnic violence and killing. Also in Sparta, we have documented cases of what might be called political massacres, war crimes committed against other enemy groups which Sparta was at war with. But also in Sparta, we have the most heavily documented case of the agrarian influence on the regime, the idealization of agriculture, as well as of war. And in combination with the domination of a subjected ethnic group, the helots, then we have what I call a precursor to genocide, in the sense that Sparta did not necessarily take it in that full sense that we would call genocide today. But it did evoke some of the themes that are very important in genocidal cases later, including Carthage at the hands of the Romans.
JERRY FOWLER: One of the classic wars of antiquity was between Athens and Sparta.
BEN KIERNAN: Right.
JERRY FOWLER: The Peloponnesian War, which we know about primarily through the classic work of Thucydides. And in many ways, Athens was the antithesis of Sparta, in a lot of the things that you have just outlined. I mean, it was the city state, it didn’t really fetishize agriculture. And it was not quite as militaristic, although it obviously had a military focus. But one of the most striking episodes of what we might today call genocide in the Peloponnesian War was the Athenian destruction of the city of Milos, which was done apparently for totally utilitarian reasons, because Milos wanted to be neutral and the Athenians wouldn’t allow them to be neutral.
BEN KIERNAN: Yes, that is right. And I think it is a case of genocide in the sense that, from what we know about it, which is all from Thucydides, the Athenians, when they conquered the town on the island of Milos, they killed all the men and deported the rest of the surviving population as slaves. It is important to point out too, that one of the reasons the Milians were not trusted by Athens was that they were a long time ago a colony from Sparta. But also, this was a case I think of imperial expansion on the part of Athens. Athens was more of a sea-borne empire, whereas Sparta was more of a land-borne expansionist, expanding into its hinterland on the Peloponnese. And I think in the long term, the Spartan case was more of a precursor for that kind of territorial expansion, which I believe is very important in genocides even today.
JERRY FOWLER: I want to just take a little sidetrack here. Do you have a concern as a historian applying the term genocide to events in the distant past? I mean, it is a very recent term, and it has a certain moral quality of its very nature that is a product of contemporary times, in way that the revolution does not have, or war does not have.
BEN KIERNAN: Yes, that is right, it is definitely a 20th century term. It really was invented during the Holocaust to describe the Holocaust. But when Raphael Lempkin coined the term, he applied it to earlier cases as well, not just the Armenian genocide, which he was very vocal about, but also colonial cases much earlier. And he wrote a long, unpublished book with many cases that he considered being genocide, documented. And I think he saw it as a phenomenon that was important in history, not so much determined by the term. After all, the term is just the name that we give to things. It is important of course, to make sure that you apply the definition consistently across the centuries; otherwise you are not really fairly comparing different cases. But in order to discover whether these cases are similar or dissimilar, the only way to do that is to apply a consistent term. And I believe that genocide can be detected in much earlier cases than in the 20th century.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, we have been focused on the examples in antiquity that you are talking about in your book. And then, as I said, you pick up in the early Modern Period, and you talk about a number of episodes, which unfortunately we do not have time to go into any detail. But you pull out common elements of genocide and mass violence that you see in these. And you have been referring to some of them. But could you just summarize those?
BEN KIERNAN: Yes. Obviously, the first thing that you think about in terms of genocide is ethnic or religious hatred, virulent, violent discrimination and subjection to mass murder of ethnic or religious groups. I think some of the lesser known features that do come out of these earlier, as well as more recent cases, include expansionism, territorial expansionism, which I think is the hallmark of the settler colonialism cases, beginning in the early Modern Period. Not just settlers from Europe, but from other parts of the world as well. And the combination of ethnic hatred and violence with territorial expansion is a very important one. And then another couple of ideological influences that I think are important in at least detecting genocides before they occur or while they are occurring, but also I think they have an influence that exacerbates the genocidal mentality. Those two influences are a cult of cultivation, the idea that the indigenous people or the urban people or the pastoral people who are being subjected to genocide are not using the land by cultivating it, and therefore have no right to retain it, and can be killed or driven off their land with justification, in the sense that the perpetrators will put the land to its proper use. And this an ideology of cultivation, or an agrarian ideology that I think is pretty close to the center of perpetrator thinking in, not every case, but most cases of genocide throughout history. And finally, the cult of antiquity, as I call it, the idea of an ancient precedent for genocide, as the Carthaginian case served for many European perpetrators in later millennia, is important as well. There are other cultures and other empires around the world that have their own record of antiquity, which they draw upon for justifying the subjection of contemporary victims to genocide. But there usually is a sense of an ancient precedent which serves as a model and a justification. There is also a sense of lost glory of a pristine agrarian society which used to exist, but has been either contaminated or undermined by ethnic groups who are now targeted as the enemy. And the cult of antiquity inspires the perpetrators to try to regain that lost past, that ancient glory.
JERRY FOWLER: So you’ve identified these four factors. And what is the relation of them to cases of genocide or mass violence? Do you feel they all have to be present, or is it sufficient that there is one or two present?
BEN KIERNAN: I think in many cases of genocide, they are all present. And I think that is at least a way to try to identify the essential features of genocidal ideology, at least the ones that can be identified in advance of a catastrophe. But sometimes, there are, in the cases that I look at in the book, only three of these four categories. For instance, in the case of Darfur today, there is not really an agrarian influence on the perpetrators.
JERRY FOWLER: It is in fact farmers who are being attacked.
BEN KIERNAN: That is right. Well, it is definitely farmers who are being attacked. But that is quite often the case as well. In previous cases, farmers were attacked, it was just denied that they were farmers in many cases in the 19th century or earlier. The agriculture skills of the victims being targeted were simply denied. But in this case, I think there is no agrarian yeoman ideology which is inspiring the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. Although I think there is definitely an expansionist territorial process going on, which is spreading the genocide from Darfur into neighboring countries like Chad and the Central African Republic. Which I think is very important alongside the rather important sense of ethnic complaint phrased in a historical way by the Arab gathering document of 1987, which makes it very clear that the perpetrators who claim to represent the Arab populations of Darfur were out to restore the long lost position of dominance that they think Arabs had and should have in Darfur.
JERRY FOWLER: But on the other hand, to the extent that the real authors of the level of violence that is been in Darfur in the last few years has been the government in Khartoum, and they have been making use of the Janjaweed, the so called Janjaweed, who are drawn from some of the Arab groups there. The government in Khartoum does not really have an expansionist agenda, and that is not what’s driving their use of violence in Darfur.
BEN KIERNAN: Well, you may be right about that. I would just make the point that the genocidal process has an international dimension. That it’s not a case of a hermit regime targeting its domestic minorities or ethnic groups. But really there are international linkages which naturally militate towards the expansion of the catastrophe. And I think that is definitely happened in this case.
JERRY FOWLER: So it seems the ultimate point of the book is that these themes are very present in cases of genocide, and that knowing this can be helpful in terms of prevention and early warning. So I’m wondering, as you look around the world today, are there places that are not at the point of crisis where you see these four factors that you’ve identified coming into play?
BEN KIERNAN: Well, I think one we need to pay a lot more attention to is Congo. But in fact, it does require a good deal of digging to identify these emerging, say, genocidal factions, or groups, or political parties, or insurgent armies, or terrorist regimes. They do leave a paper trail or some other trail of their ambitions or their ideological components. But it does take quite a bit of evidence seeking to really uncover future cases. And that’s what I hope we can do more of in the future.
JERRY FOWLER: Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, and his new book is Blood and Soil, a World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Ben, thanks for taking the time to be with us.
BEN KIERNAN: Thanks, Jerry.
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