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A Genocide Theory: in Search of Knowledge and the Quest for Meaning

Last modified: 18 November 2007
Henry R. Huttenbach

November 2007

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Henry R. Huttenbach, A Genocide Theory: in Search of Knowledge and the Quest for Meaning, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 4 November 2007, accessed 28 August 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/A-Genocide-Theory-in-Search-of-Knowledge-and-the-Quest-for, ISSN 1961-9898

But before venturing into the realm of genocide comprehension beyond the parameters set by Levene, one needs to be aware of the danger posed by genocides-to-be as a key characteristic of the post-1989 era, the prelude to the early 21st century. With the collapse of the Soviet system, ethnic conflicts have taken center stage. Those in Sri Lanka, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are proving to be previews of a host of genocidal crises. Multi-ethnic post-colonial states are the subject of increasing concern: their viability beyond the new century is seriously in question. The phenomenon of the failing state looms larger every year; Nigeria, India and Indonesia are likely candidates. They may be the Sudans of tomorrow. The polarization of ethnic conflicts over land, oil etc. are undermining the State’s capacity to hold its national territory together. In an age of intensifying ethnic identification throughout the world and growing shortages of scarce resources, a struggle for group survival can easily escalate into exterminational violence, in the absence of strong, inclusive central governments. The failure to accommodate minorities only fans the flames of intolerance and exclusion, both of which are precursors to large-scale killings. Policy-makers will have their hands full identifying pre-crises in order to stem the eruption of genocidal violence, in a world apparently disposed (predisposed?) to genocide. So what is this phenomenon which claims so many victims, and refuses to be fully tamed?

Fundamentally, the act of genocide embodies Man’s willingness to destroy an entire segment of the human population. The propensity to destroy a group of humans is universal: the potential for this is present in all societies. Given the right circumstances, the ability to commit genocide is easily converted into an act of genocide. As such, genocide is a collective enterprise: it involves collective thought, followed by collective deeds. The more a group defines its identity in narrow terms, the more it is likely – under pressure – to consider an annihilationist mode of behavior. This can be found in all cultures threatened by another. There is nothing Asian or European or colonial about genocide: like the universal tendency to go to war, there is a similar urge to use violence of a more radical kind, on an exterminational level. In that sense, genocide belongs to the category of natural behavior, and not aberrant behavior. It follows that those who commit genocide are not bestial but human, no more and no less perverse than warriors, since genocidal wars are seen as wars against an enemy that must be totally erased, an existential war calling for sacrifice and heroics, as in any other war. In other words, before we undertake to understand genocide, we must be aware that it belongs entirely within the scope of normal human behavior. All other interpretations aiming to apprehend it must be limited by this caveat: genocide stems from humanity and not from a supposed perversion of it, even partially. In other words, genocide does not originate from a non-human source. But this is not to say that genocide does not affect those seeking to transfer some of the burden of responsibility from human nature to the meta-human dimension.

It is tempting to avoid the psychological consequences of assigning full responsibility for genocide to the human species, and many resort to attributing genocide to non-human factors such as wickedness, or age-old satanic forces. Rather than limiting genocide to the three-dimensional, human level of a secular crime, these analysts add another element – morality. To them, genocide is an evil emanating from the instigator of all wickedness, namely, the devil. In this view, humans – the génocidaires – become the instruments of evil. This may be some consolation on the psychological level, but it does not facilitate understanding. By dehumanizing genocide one ends up with a misconception of its significance. Consequently, if we are aiming for a realistic assessment of genocide as a human phenomenon, as part of the human condition, we must opt for a secular approach.

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898