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Review Essay of A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation

Review Essay of A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation

by Murray Schwartz
Weitz, Eric D. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Author: Eric D. Weitz

Format: Paperback
Published on: Jan. 2005

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

Blending gripping narrative with trenchant analysis, Eric Weitz investigates four of the twentieth century's major eruptions of genocide: the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the former Yugoslavia. Drawing on historical sources as well as trial records, memoirs, novels, and poems, Weitz explains the prevalence of genocide in the twentieth century — and shows how and why it became so systematic and deadly.

About the author: Eric D. Weitz is Dean of Humanities and Arts and Professor of History at The City College of New York.

About the Reviewer

Murray Schwartz teaches Shakespeare, Holocaust Literature and Literature and Psychoanalysis at Emerson College in Boston.

His writing spans a wide range of interdisciplinary interests and includes essays on Shakespeare’s last plays, the work of Erik Erikson, applied psychoanalysis, modern poetry and trauma studies. He has also co-edited several anthologies, including Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays(1980), Memory and Desire: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Aging (1985) and Psychoanalytic Encounters (2009).

He is President of the PsyArt Foundation and edits the online journal, PsyArt.

His book The Dance Claimed Me (Yale, 2012) is available from Amazon. For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

“Never Again!” read the sign erected at Buchenwald at the hour of liberation in 1945.

And yet since Rafael Lemkin defined the term in 1943, genocides have repeatedly erupted in many parts of the world. Weitz’s valuable book is a comparative study of four waves of mass murder and genocide, beginning before they had this name, with a reminder of the slaughter of the Armenians during WWI, and moving through lucid and sometimes harrowing accounts of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and Serbia and the Bosnian War.

In each case, Weitz sees utopian strivings, and the uses of the categories of nation and race at the core of the genocidal processes.  He studies similarities and differences, as well as the influences of earlier genocides on later instances. A Century of Genocide is at once an excellent summary and a useful introduction, digesting a wide range of sources in compelling narratives.

Weitz’s concern for human rights forms the background against which the malignant categorizations of human groups converge with the conditions of war to release eliminative violence. Early in his book, he invokes the famous 1955 photography exhibit of The Family of Man in New York, and asks how the “essential oneness” of humanity can be reconciled with an insistence on any “fixed” categorizations of human groups, since “nation,” “race,” “ethnicity,” and the state itself are inherently historical concepts. His focus is on the ideologies and utopian and nationalist fantasies of the perpetrators and followers of genocidal regimes for whom these concepts have become “essentialized,” treated as timeless natural characteristics.

Utopia means, and is, “nowhere.” As Ian Buruma has written recently in Year Zero, “Utopian dreams are destined to end in a junkyard of shattered illusions. But they don’t all end in the same way. They tend to leave traces.”1 In each case, Weitz includes representative experiences of the victims, inviting us to imagine the enormity of suffering that the “perfection” of ideas of nation and race has inflicted on tens of millions of individuals in the course of the century, and the intergenerational transmission of those traumatic experiences that continues to ramify in the world today.

Beginning around 1500, the modern concept of race emerged along with the development of the nation-state, and by the early twentieth century, these ideas had been joined by eugenics, social Darwinism and spread of “scientific” racism. In a swift and accurate opening survey, Weitz recounts these interwoven developments. By the time Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1879, the bodily metaphors that had associated Jews with “diseased microbes” and “parasites” infecting the body politic could be elaborated and extended to reductive bodily and animal metaphors by states intent on the “perfectibility” of chosen populations and the forced degradation, removal or elimination of others.

By 1904, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” made Jew hatred an obsessive ideological category divorced from experience of Jewish people in all spheres of life, thus exemplifying a practice of “racialization” that could serve as a model for the treatment of many other groups. In the projective logic of racism, every “I” becomes “one of them,” or “one of us,” a process Donald Moss has called “Hatred in the first person plural.”2

The collapse of empires in World War I supplied the final ingredients: the enactment of “total war” and the creation of “an aesthetics of violence” (p. 51) that could be utilized to reshape society in the interests of population “purification.” The purges and genocides that followed were intended to be both medical and aesthetic, curative and cleansing at once. In totalitarian contexts, elimination and redemption could easily become two side of the same coin, even when the categorization of enemies was not officially based on race.  

In fact, as Weitz realizes, race and “racialization” could never be perfected, even with the relentless professional expertise devoted to their realization in the Nazi Reich. “As all cases in this book demonstrate,” Weitz writes, “ the lines between race-based and political and social forms of population purges are fluid indeed.”(188) Human identity is never simply a matter of “blood.” Biology and cultural experience interpenetrate from birth (and in some respects, even before birth). “Racializing” attempts to freeze both history and individual development.

Soviet ideology envisioned the ultimate transformation of national cultures into a single socialist society, yet in reality groups of all kinds were caught up from the beginning of the revolution in fluid definitions of enemies and friends of the state. “The Soviets created a veritable industry of categorization,” Weitz observes, as he weaves through the history national identifications that “blurred the boundaries between biological and cultural-based criteria for categorizing the population” (p. 83), and opened the way for myriad population transfers, purges and murders that encompassed a vast array of shifting and overlapping groupings, including class, nationality, ethnicity, and political opposition.

In the consolidation of Stalin’s power during the Great Terror of 1936-38, selective targets ranged from these kinds of groups to “people of bourgeois or aristocratic origin” and Old Bolsheviks who deviated from the party line.  Weitz summarizes the sheer obsessionality of a politics in which Stalin and a few trusted aides could assign any individual to an enemy group:

An assessment of individual guilt or innocence was never the principle at work here. Sabotage, murder, betrayal, all the charges leveled against the Terror’s victims, were seen as the manifestations of a more deep-seated orientation that coursed through the entire being of the accused. Hence the accused had to be removed from society by deportation, imprisonment, or execution. Anyone associated with them, families, colleagues, and friends also became ensnared in the whirlwind of terror.” (72-73)

Of course, in every case Weitz examines, such practices led to continuous instability and “unending fear of enemies” (83) even before the German invasion in June of 1941, for which, in a terrible irony, Stalin’s misplaced paranoia had not prepared him.

“The Soviet Union under Stalin,” Weitz observes, “did not become a ‘genocidal regime,’ one in which the actual physical annihilation of defined population groups moves to the very core of state policies, to such an extent that the entire system revolves around human destruction.” (100) Although millions died by starvation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture and murder, essentializing logic was counterbalanced to an extent by the possibilities for “re-education” or “redemption.” Some few could emerge from the Gulag. Nazi Germany held out no such sporadic promise.

Building on the work of Ian Kershaw, Saul Friedlander and many other writings by historians, perpetrators, witnesses and victims, Weitz’s chapter on Nazi Germany offers a powerful condensed account of the interplay of rigid Nazi ideology with the drive to overcome obstacles and exploit opportunities in the implementation of its utopian aims. Race categorization and wars of conquest formed the two absolutes of Nazi ideology.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote:

The state is a means to an end. Its end lies in the preservation and advancement of a community of physically and psychologically homogeneous creatures. This preservation itself comprises first of all existence as a race and thereby permits the free development of all the forces dormant in this race.3

“Free development,” meant not only lebensraum, but perpetual war against the “lesser races” threatening Aryan perfection, the most insidious of whom were the Jews who had no national territory and, provoking Nazi envy, had preserved their “blood” for millennia. Abetted by the vicissitudes of war and the territorial accumulation of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs and other lower races -- “lives unfit to live” -- the SS and the Wehrmacht set out to enact the “will of the Fuhrer” with a demonic energy unmatched in history. Racial categorization was inseparable from the purposes of unrestrained violence. Even as they instituted policies to improve “Aryan” health and cultural purity, the machinery of the Reich turned the vicissitudes of war into a search for ever more radical “final solutions.”

As we now know, Nazi Germany established 42,500 concentration camps, making it exceedingly unlikely that the beneficiaries of slavery, ghettoization and murder were unaware of the effects of Hitler’s project, especially when local populations witnessed or participated in violence. Though the Soviet Union under Stalin killed more people, Hitler unleashed a feeding frenzy directed at Aryan enemies, as the cultures, possessions, institutions and the bodies of Jews and other captured populations were systematically transformed into matter for the Reich.

In Himmler’s infamous 1943 speech to the assembled officers of the SS at Poznan, the evidence of its absence required proclaiming the “purity” of the Nazi soul, since even the assembled SS officers had participated in the enormity of theft. In this context, the language of dehumanization and degradation had ceased to retain its metaphoric quality and had become a property of the real.  Zyklon B was for the extermination of vermin.

The Einsatzgruppen murdered over a million Jews, employing “death by bullets”4 as the Germans captured the vast territory of the “bloodlands.”5 The key turning points during the winter of 1941-42 –- the blockage of the German advance outside Moscow, the attack on Pearl Harbor, which relieved Stalin’s armies in the east, Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, and the operation of Auschwitz and the five other death camps -- led to the full enactment of Hitler’s horribly deluded racial ambitions. Weitz summarizes the centrality of race in the industrialization of genocidal machinery:

The primacy of race thinking joined the various levels of the Nazi regime in distinct but common moves toward intentional annihilation of European Jews and a significant segment of Roma and Sinti, once deportation had been closed off and the fortunes of war had shifted. Many groups suffered enormously from Nazi racial politics, but only in relation to Jews, the objects of “redemptive anti-Semitism,” and Roma and Sinti did these policies escalate into genocide. (133)

Concluding his chapter on Nazi Germany, Weitz cogently observed that the Soviet system “never quite developed the self-reinforcing dynamic of destruction that came to characterize the Third Reich in wartime and made it a ‘genocidal regime.’”(142) With the construction of the death camps, the Nazis were intent on creating a new space on the planet –- the true double of their utopian dream -- the place Edith Wyschogrod has called the “death world,” whose telos is “the destruction of meaning.” 6

The vast and “useless” violence Primo Levi found in Auschwitz was designed to decompose human identity, and not only to perfect the machinery of the gas chambers. In the death world, Zeno’s paradox governed the bizarre logic of elimination. Referring to Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” (“Stop talking nonsense. They can’t run out of people,” Borowski wrote with characteristic irony.), Wyschogrod observes that “[t]he continuing supply of food depended on the continuing destruction of human life,” a statement that can stand as a summation of the ultimately self-consuming psychosis of the Nazi project.7

A self-consuming logic of horrible proportions also gripped Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, 1975-1979.  Weitz writes that “the Khmer Rouge managed to combine all the worst aspects of the twentieth century into one overarching system of compulsion and terror. The purifying ethos of revolution, the drive to create a homogeneous, perfect society, made the Khmer Rouge apply their proclivities with frightening literalness.” (145)

Exceeding even Nazi Germany and their Chinese predecessors in the destruction of traditional forms of life, educated people, urban “new people” and the family and individual identity themselves were to be subsumed by “Democratic Kampuchea,” the “family” of Angar, the Organization. Genocides of degraded nationalities –- Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams -- were only part of the slaughter, as the Khmer Rouge worked toward “one single nation and one single language.” (170)

In The Elimination, his book about “Duch,” and the other members of S-21 that ran the infamous Tuol Slent prison and torture house, Rithy Panh writes:

Everything was subordinated to the Angkar, the mysterious, all-powerful “Organization”: social life, the law, intellectual life, the family sphere, romantic relationships, relations with friends. I know of no other example in history of such dominion, of a sovereignty almost abstract by virtue of being absolute: ‘There are no more sales, no more exchanges, no more complaints, no more whining; there’s no more theft or looting and no more intellectual property.”

I don’t know how to name that political regime – the word “regime” itself doesn’t seem right. It was a state characterized by “non habeas corpus.” In that world I’m not an individual. I have no freedom, no thoughts, no origin, no inheritance, no rights: I have no more body. All I have is a duty, namely to dissolve myself in the Organization.8

As Weitz recognizes, Cambodians even lacked the protections of bureaucracy, which could shield the bureaucrats themselves in exchange for compliance with the state, and “[i]t was only the army of Vietnam that could put a halt to it all” (187), though only after some nineteen percent of the population of 7.9 million was lost. Thus, a murderous rampage in the name of utopian aspirations, precipitated in part by the illegal American bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, came to exemplify post-WWII mass murder and genocide.

Weitz returns to Europe in his final example, the clash of nationalisms and the exploitation of ethnic hatreds in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.  With the failure after Tito of the central government, and the advent of economic crises, “the system devolved to its constituent elements.”  (208) Acknowledging that “all sides committed atrocities, including Muslims” (220), Weitz elucidates the extremely complex history of national, ethnic and religious misalignments that formed the background for Serbian brutality, a “tidal wave of ethnic cleansing and genocide.” (215)

Under Slobodan Milosevic, the mobilization of Serbian historical grievances enabled cruelties against Muslims and Croats reminiscent of the Nazi march through Poland and Ukraine in WWII. (As W.H. Auden wrote in “September 1, 1939,” “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”) As in Weitz’s German and Cambodian examples, the escalating horrors were halted by outside intervention, but it was only after the failure of UN peacekeeping at the massacre of over seven thousand Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica that sufficient force arrived in the form of NATO bombings.

The Serbian goal was not utopian, however, but territorial. Its aim was “to create an ethnically homogeneous country” (220) through the deliberate violence organized by political and military elites. In Weitz’s terms, Serbian ideology “can properly be called a racialized nationalism” (232) within which “policies of discrimination and genocide virtually ran together.”(234) Still, in the name of purification, mass murder, rape, mutilation and torture claimed the bodies of the enemies of the nation-state.

As Jean Amery realized in his famous chapter on “Torture” in The Mind at Its Limits, the torturer desires absolute sovereignty over the body of his victim. According to Amery, torture was not simply enabled by, but was at the very core of Nazi ideology, and Weitz also sees its centrality in all of his examples. He writes:

Torture rarely involves the eliciting of substantive information; it is about “deconstructing” and destroying the individual prisoner and, by extension, the groups he or she is said to represent. Torture is “world-destroying,” as Elaine Scarry says, and the rings of destruction radiate outward from the individual to family, friends, nation. . . (249)   

The key term is “individual.” It is individuality that must be eliminated in the genocidal process, the individuality of perpetrators as well as victims. Although the rituals enforcing mass compliance that Weitz studies help account for the passive and active participation of people in dominating groups, and although motivations may include greed, envy, fear and ignorance as well as willing engagement in violence, it is the abandonment of self-reflective thought that lies at the heart of “the banality of evil.”

The perpetrator of violence seeks relief from the burden of human identity, which requires the capacity to tolerate the tension between self and other and to live with the uncertainties of interpersonal and group relationships.9  As Helga Schneider writes of her aged mother, who had embraced Nazism and had become a prison guard in Auschwitz, “She had transferred sovereignty over her feelings to the Fuhrer, and she continued to defend the fact.”10

Schneider’s mother had abandoned her own identity. “And I had no right to feel compassion; my sole duty was to obey,” she tells her daughter, whom she had also abandoned as a child. On her meeting with Hitler, the mother recalls, “I felt as though I were being hypnotized by a snake.” I think this helps explain Weitz’s observations of the unrelenting virulence of the drive to complete racial and national purifications. 

Having abandoned one’s identity, every threat to the boundary of the group becomes perceived an attack on one’s existence. The violence “redeems” the group. As a child herself, Schneider’s mother encountered other children beating a Jewish couple:

I can’t say exactly how it happened; all I know is that something like an electric charge ran through all of us, as though some kind of primal aggression or some kind of contagious hatred had been awakened in us.11

“Contagious hatred” is the engine of genocides. Recognizing this, Weitz ends his book on a cautiously hopeful note, pointing to the international tribunals of the 1990s established by the United Nations Security Council for the prosecution of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. He invokes Vaclav Havel’s views about “a future devolution of power from the nation-state. . . to transnational and global organizations.” (253)

Since the 1990s, however, accelerating technological advances have brought new threats as well as previously unimagined opportunities for global cooperation in the interest of human rights. We now have virtually unlimited capacity for categorizing populations and individuals within population groups, and, as Arjun Appadurai writes in Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, we are also becoming “a worldwide civilization of clashes,” in which “the target . . . is no longer specific states or political regimes but whole ideologies and ideas of civilization.” Appadurai writes:

Hitler was the first to link this internal issue (German Jews) to a total global project (the elimination of world Jewry). Elements of this globalizing of internal scapegoats can be seen in numerous examples in the past decade. Conversely, there is a growing tendency to see global moral enemies as being morally indistinguishable from local or internal enemies. This double logic – globalizing internal moral opponents and localizing faraway moral enemies – is key to the logic of ideocide and civicide. It adds a powerful globalizing component to existing modalities of ethnocide and genocide.12

In these recent permutations, the struggle Freud saw between Eros and Thanatos continues, and Freud’s final question in Civilization and Its Discontents resonates as strongly as ever: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”13


1. Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945 (London: The Penguin Press, 2013), 270.

2. Donald Moss, ed., Hating in the First Person Plural (New York: Other Press, 2003).

3. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, quoted in Jay Y. Gonen. The Roots of Nazi Psychology: Hitler’s Utopian Barbarism (University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 143.

4. See Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

5. See Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books).

6. Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 33.

7. Wyschogrod, 31. See also Sebastian Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), especially the chapter entitled, “Mistakes.”

8. Rithy Panh, The Elimination (New York: Other Press, 2013), Kindle Loc 762 of 3166.

9. Heinz Lichtenstein, “The Dilemma of Human Identity – Notes on Self-Transformation, Self-Objectivation and Metamorphosis,” Journal of the Amherican Psychoanalytic Association (1963), 11: 173-223.

10. Helga Schneider, Let Me Go (London: Penguin Books, 2001) 78.

11. Schneider, 119, 75, 109.

12. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 117,118.                                                                                                              

13. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press), XXI, 133.