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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century

Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century. By Benjamin Valentino. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 253).

The twentieth century was the bloodiest in all of human history. The consequences of two world wars left a haunting impression upon the millions of survivors, who became reluctant witnesses to the atrocities of modern warfare. Along with the millions of war victims is another body of mass casualties that is often forgotten in the muddle of twentieth century history. The approximately 60-150 million victims of genocide across the world stand as a monument to the carnage of numerous regimes that embraced mass killing as a necessity. In his book, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century, author Benjamin Valentino attempts to address the causes and motivations that have inspired genocide in the twentieth century. By essentially addressing genocide as nothing more than a “powerful political and military tool,” Valentino provides the reader with a detailed perspective into the motives behind genocide.

First off, it is important to recognize the fact that Valentino’s work avoids a discussion of semantics when dealing with the definition of genocide. Instead, the author’s book centers on “mass killings” of more than fifty thousand in number (Pp. 3-4). In so doing, Valentino broadens the scope of his argument by including numerous mass killings that are often ignored in the traditional study of genocide. Valentino also argues that the traditional understanding of genocide as being motivated by “severe ethnic, racial, national, or religious divisions” does not hold up, since “some of the bloodiest mass killings in history have occurred in relatively homogeneous societies” (Pp. 2). Valentino continues his assault on the traditional historiography of genocide by also suggesting that the “traditional studies of genocide have tended to diminish the role of leadership on the grounds that the interests and ideas of a few elites cannot account for the participation of the rest of society in the violence” (Pp. 2). Instead, Valentino proposes in his research that mass killing “occurs when leaders believe that their victims pose a threat that can be countered only by removing them from society or by permanently destroying their ability to organize” (Pp. 5).

To defend his thesis that leaders are responsible for mass killing as opposed to the masses, Valentino provides a detailed comparison between several similar regimes. For example, Valentino makes special mention of the racial tensions that permeated both German and South African society, along with the various forms of intolerance that covered Asia After briefly discussing the backgrounds of these regimes, Valentino poses a question to his audience: Why does mass killing occur in only some of these regimes, which, on the surface, appear to be very similar? Valentino then answers his question by suggesting that a cohesive leadership of elites, with an objective to consolidate their power, is the catalyst for mass killing. By pointing out that perpetrators of mass killing see their actions as, “a rational way to counter threats or implement certain types of ideologies,” Valentino discards the assumption that these regimes kill simply for the sake of killing.

To support his claims, Valentino focuses on three distinct groups of mass killings: communist, ethnic and counterguerrilla mass killings. In the first of these three classifications (which Valentino claims is responsible for the largest number of mass killings), Valentino focuses on the communist regimes of China, the Soviet Union and Cambodia. Valentino then points out the fact that these regimes have resorted to mass killings in an effort to secure that their social changes are met. As Valentino points out, “the effort to engineer utopia has been the justification for some of the world’s most horrendous crimes” (Pp. 92). For communist regimes to secure this “utopia,” they are often required to redistribute land and wealth, which is understandably a difficult change for the masses to accept. For this reason, communist regimes have embarked on some of the worst mass killing policies in world history. As Valentino points out, “The history of communism in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia is a powerful demonstration of the degree to which historical accidents, serendipity, and the power of individual personalities can determine the rise of extremely radical and violent groups’ (Pp. 150).

In his second group, ethnic mass killings, Valentino pays special attention to the Nazi regime and its motivations for committing to a policy of ethnic mass killings. Valentino emphasizes the fact that the Nazi regime (along with other regimes that are guilty of mass killings) had a specific strategic goal in mind, as opposed to the traditional assumption that they were simply out for blood. As Valentino writes, “Ethnic mass killings, especially the Holocaust, have tended to be portrayed as little more than killing for killing’s sake…The strategic approach, however, suggests that ethnic mass killing occurs when leaders come to believe that large-scale violence is the most practical way to accomplish a policy of ethnic cleansing” (Pp. 155). By focusing on the ethnic cleansing of Turkish Armenia, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda, Valentino provides his audience with ample insight into the evolution of how these regimes came to embrace mass killings as the only plausible solution to their respective ethnic dilemmas.

In the third group of mass killings addressed in his work, counterguerilla mass killings, Valentino discusses how a number of guerilla insurgencies (particularly in Guatemala and Afghanistan) have compelled governments to adopt a policy of mass killing. Valentino points out the fact that these forms of mass killing often come about not because an army becomes undisciplined or fed-up with the guerilla opposition it faces. Instead, Valentino suggests that counterguerilla forces often see their efforts as being “positive policies designed to improve the lives of the civilian population and draw support away from guerillas” (Pp. 199). In essence, the justification for such actions embraces the notion that one must kill in order to save.

Though often contrary to the traditional understanding of genocide, Valentino’s work provides us with a unique perspective into the causes and motivations behind mass killings. By suggesting that mass killings are primarily the result of an elite leadership, Valentino also proposes that we can better prevent these atrocities from happening again, by being proactive against regimes that have committed to the rapid disposal of a specific group from their society. An objective insight into the causes of mass killing, which Valentino considers to be born out of a political motivation to eliminate a perceived threat as opposed to simple hatred, may serve to prevent future atrocities from ever happening again

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