What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out — and we’re just getting started.
Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind). This week I’d like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.
A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia’s Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia’s well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.
It did not shock the slaveholders that some slaves would try to escape, but it badly shocked them that their slaves would conspire with the enemy. This introduced a newly sinister element into the relations between Southern slaveholder and slave, leading to increased tensions and harsher laws. If it were ever possible that the American South would voluntarily ease itself from a slavery-based economy into a voluntary-work economy, the suspicion of betrayal that emerged during the War of 1812 added to the already wide fear of slave revolt and made this natural progress impossible. Alan Taylor’s book explains that many infamous laws — for instance, prohibitions against teaching slaves to read — only came into existence after the War of 1812.
Whenever one people or society or ethnic group begins to suspect that another people or society or ethnic group may conspire with its enemy, an extreme cultural alienation makes itself evident. Once this alienation occurs, it becomes a permanent and infinite condition: you can never trust the enemy, because they might be lying. This is a violent alienation, a blood alienation: kill them before they kill us. Once you begin to look for this pattern of suspicion, you will quickly discover how common it is as the primary cause of some of histories worst atrocities and genocides. Some examples:
- The Armenian Genocide in Turkey. We all know that 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were killed on brutal death marches during World War I. But it’s not as well known that the expulsion of the Armenians was seen by the Turks to serve a practical and necessary purpose: Turkey was now in a brutal war against Russia, and Armenians were believed to be sympathetic to Russia. Armenians had lived peacefully for centuries in Turkey, but once the Great War began the Armenians suddenly became, like the African-American slaves in Alan Taylor’s 1812 Virginia, an internal enemy.
- The Tutsi massacre in Rwanda. The horrifying machete and gun slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans by their Hutu neighbors in 1994 is often described as an outbreak of tribal hatred, though observers have remarked that there did not seem to be an unusual level of personal hatred between Tutsis and Hutus before the disaster began. Rather than hatred, there was an outbreak of a sudden and terrible suspicion: a new power-sharing agreement was about to take effect in Rwanda that Hutus believed would result in their oppression and disenfranchisement by a Tutsi ruling party. A foreign-based army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front was about to march in, the Hutus feared, and destroy their freedom and prosperity. The carefully-planned nationwide massacre of Tutsis was viewed by Hutus at the time as a preventive act of self-defense.
- The Holocaust. The murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its Fascist allies during World War II is probably the most well-known genocide of all time, and it’s often believed that religious or ethnic anti-semitism was the primary cause. Religious and ethnic anti-semitism certainly existed and didn’t help, but in fact there was a practical purpose behind Hitler’s murder of Jews that is often forgotten. Jews were considered Communist sympathizers. Once Germany and Russia began fighting to the death, Jews in German-occupied territories were seen as likely to be aiding and supporting the Russians. They were the internal enemy.
It may seem nearly self-evident that most genocides occur during time of war and are primarily fed by suspicion of national betrayal. And yet this fact is often forgotten when the causes of genocide are discussed, and thus the practical logic behind genocide is also forgotten. Suspicion, it turns out, is even more dangerous than hatred. Sure, ethnic groups hate each other, but it turns out that this is not why genocides occur. Different ethnic groups can hate each other and still coexist in peace for centuries. It’s only when different ethnic groups become suspicious of each other that genocides and atrocities occur.
Hannah Arendt’s well-titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil established the surprising point that Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who organized death camp operations that killed millions of Jews, did not appear to hate Jews at all. Arendt’s findings have been seen as a moral puzzle of history, but I think an understanding of the phenomenon of blood alienation provides the answer. Eichmann did not hate Jews, but he did consider Jews to be Communist sympathizers (as indeed they often were) and thus unreliable inhabitants of Nazi-occupied territory during the war against the Soviet Union. This is why he was willing to kill them even though he did not hate them.
The notion of blood alienation seems particularly important in establishing the co-dependent relationship between war and genocide. I have remarked before on this blog that war has always been the greatest enabler of genocide, and that this is one of the best reasons we should all take principled stands as pacifists. (Unfortunately, our shared histories often deemphasize the fact that genocides occur in the vicinity of war, and often support the ridiculous idea that wars can help prevent genocides, though they have far more frequently caused them.)
Blood alienation does not explain all genocides and atrocities. The horrors of Darfur in Sudan, for instance, seem to be motivated by greed for oil wealth rather than suspicion. Stalin may have feared Ukrainian nationalists in the 1930s when he starved millions of Ukranians to death, but it’s not clear that Ukraine nationalism ever threatened Russia’s existence the way the Armenians threatened Turkey’s existence, or the Tutsis threatened the Hutus’ existence, or the Jewish Communists threatened Nazi Germany’s existence. Likewise, the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China before World War II can not be traced back to suspicion of an internal enemy.
At the same time, though, the concept does shed light on other historical incidents that have seemed puzzling. When the United States of America interred Japanese-Americans in prison camps during World War II, it was clearly because the Japanese-Americans were seen as an internal enemy. To USA’s credit, this imprisonment never led to genocide — however, it’s worth wondering what might have occurred if Japan had been more successful in threatening the mainland. If Japan managed to invade the coast of California during World War II, what would have happened inside the Japanese-American prison camps? We can look to similar examples from history to see the options.
The concept of blood alienation as the primary driver of large-scale atrocity turns up surprising results. Some Americans have puzzled over the violent atrocities against Native Americans at the uncaring hands of Andrew Jackson, who later became president and whose face is on our $20 bill. It helps to understand that Andrew Jackson made his name as a general in the War of 1812 and that many Native Americans, like the runaway slaves of Virginia’s Chesapeake Coast, conspired with the British invaders during the war of 1812. They were, again, an internal enemy.
When a nation or a people becomes riven by blood alienation, a form of violent social psychosis begins to spread like a meme. The nature of this meme is hard to pin down, because the paranoia and suspicion that one group of people feels towards another might not actually be an illusion. Perhaps the Armenians in Turkey really would have betrayed their own nation on Russia’s behalf. The reality of war makes genocide sadly logical at times like these.
What can we do when suspicions of blood alienation become expressions of reality? It may be the realities themselves that need to change, and not just our perceptions of the realities, if we wish to free our hopeful human race from eternally repeating the self-inflicted wounds of our past.