Meredith Alexander, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
New book examines Europe's ethnic cleansing in historical perspective
Ethnic cleansing: It conjures up images of burned-out houses, streets filled with rubble and ragged children crying. And then later, more images: mass graves and human remains being pulled from them.
The term "ethnic cleansing" became common during the years of violence in the Balkans, as news programs were flooded with such images from Bosnia and Kosovo. Now that the fighting has calmed, scholars have started to reflect on what happened. How can we explain this eruption of hatred? And do the horrors of the former Yugoslavia have anything in common with other attacks on ethnic minorities?
Norman Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies, senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies and, by courtesy, at the Hoover Institution, takes a profound new look at these questions in his book Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe.
Naimark's book, released in January by Harvard University Press, is innovative in part because he takes the term "ethnic cleansing" seriously. Most historians look askance at the phrase coined by journalists covering the war in Bosnia. Wasn't it just a euphemism for genocide?
No, Naimark argues. "The book legitimizes the term 'ethnic cleansing,' he says. The more other scholars criticized him for using the term, the more Naimark liked it. For while genocide denotes "an organized plan to murder large numbers of people," ethnic cleansing is about a government "purifying" a territory by removing an ethnic minority, he says.
It begins with a government's desire to transfer a population to a different location, an effort that sometimes turns into a truly genocidal campaign, as in the case of the Nazi attack on the Jews, he asserts.
The book, born from a freshman seminar that Naimark taught about the war in Yugoslavia, became an ambitious attempt to compare European acts of ethnic cleansing from 1915 to the present. Focusing on attacks on Armenians and Greeks by Turks, Jews by Nazis, Chechens-Ingush and Crimean Tartars by Soviets, Germans by Poles and Czechoslovakians, and the interethnic violence in Yugoslavia, Naimark finds some striking similarities among these episodes.
Where does the violence come from? Others who have written about the Balkans insist that age-old resentments and hatreds simply welled up and inspired ethnic cleansing. Naimark strongly disagrees. He thinks the case of the Balkans resembles the other examples in his book and that they are all initiated by modern-style states that had, at their cores, racist, nationalist ideals.
"These are state-organized actions that are carried out for political purposes," he says. "It's not spontaneous, and it's not about ancient hatreds it's about politics and modern history," he explains.
Naimark thinks there is something peculiar about the 20th century that made this level of violence possible. It's one of the more contentious aspects of his book. "I get a lot of heat about the 20th-century argument," he remarks wryly. "I don't deny that it happened before, but I do think that the kinds of attack differed in quantity and quality." The rise of "modern, racialist nationalism" and powerful states really made it possible, he says, along with growth in communications and modern technology.
Other arguments are sure to spark new debates about Europe's 20th-century conflicts.
He shatters the idea assumed by some historians and writers that only a few depraved groups are responsible for this kind of cruelty by showing that ethnic cleansing occurs among many peoples.
"This doesn't belong to particular races or nations," he says. "It can get unleashed anywhere."
Naimark also rethinks the place of the Holocaust in the history of ethnic violence. It's unusual to include the war against the Jews in a comparative history, he acknowledges: "Some historians feel you can't compare it to anything else, and to do so is to diminish it. I don't think that's true."
Instead, he makes a disturbing argument. "The Holocaust started out as a case of ethnic cleansing," says Naimark. Nazis initially were motivated to drive the Jews from Germany and later from Europe. Before the war with the Soviets broke out, Germans concocted plans to transport Jews abroad initially sending thousands to Palestine, and later dreaming up a scheme to ship the rest to the island of Madagascar, far from Europe's shores.
At first, Naimark thought the Madagascar plan was a joke. "But no, it was a serious plan of ethnic cleansing," he says.
As Germany entered the war, Nazi leaders realized they wouldn't be able to move Jews out. So they adopted a policy of genocide instead.
Since Naimark's book appeared, new hotspots for ethnic cleansing have emerged. Macedonia is a prime example, as tensions between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians flare up. And the former Yugoslavia is still rife with problems: Bosnian Serbs attacked the site of a Muslim mosque just this week.
"Europeans are petrified of another explosion of ethnic cleansing it could happen again in the same neighborhood," he says. "I don't see it ending at all."
Naimark's hope is that with continued economic and political stability, and with the support of international organizations that protect minority rights, most multiethnic countries can stay peaceful. But no nation should believe it is immune from this kind of violence, and this terrifying book shows why.
By Meredith Alexander