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Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Volume I: The meaning of Genocide, di Mark Levene

Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Volume I: The Meaning of Genocide. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, 384 pp.

Recensione di Andrea Carteny, Universita' di Teramo, in "Nations and Nationalism", Volume 15 Issue 2, pp. 362-363 (April 2009: London School of Economics - Asen).


The paperback 2008 edition of The Meaning of Genocide - following the 2005 first hardcover edition - is undoubtedly an important contribution to the study of a fairly difficult matter. Its complexity is reflected in the projected four-volume study, in which, after understanding the ratio of systematic and exterminatory violent acts, the authors seek to analyse 'genocide' in history and the extensive application of this term. To do this, they must primarily understand the processes and patterns that connect genocides in history until the present day. When they are complete, the four volumes of Genocide in the Age of Nation-State will thus examine this matter within a global historical context and aim to become the definitive work on the subject. On the base of a wide-ranging scientifc production in different disciplines (history, sociology, psychology, political science), the comparative historian Mark Levene - who co-edited The Massacre in History (Berghahn, 1999) - explains a research itinerary to define the term, beginning with the original definition (in Raphael Lemkin's 1944 work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe). Levene contextualizes genocide both geographically and historically, with the rise of the West, modernity, and mainly the advent of the nation-state (as homogeneous state-society). Even considering the differences between 'genos', 'ethnos' and 'demos', the first factor remains the most important element within the book. Levene's premise is a need for wider connections between so called 'genocides' and systemic violence. Thus, the challenge of the author is to differentiate real genocide from other types of massacres. For this reason the author goes beyond the definition of United Nations Convention (1948) which defines genocide as something with a pre-existing teleology. The aim of this book is to give a scientific basis for the civic obligation to understand this kind of human behaviour. For this reason, the author examines the genocide as warfare and as an 'ideal type', and in so doing enlarges the perspective of the 'genocide of genocides' - i.e. the Jewish Holocaust - to other cases, in different times and geographical ranges. The samples - the Shoah (1941-45), the Aghet or the destruction of Ottoman Armenians (1915-16) and the Rwandan genocide (1994) - are examined in order to show the characteristics of so-called 'total genocides'. From these cases emerge common parameters and factors (primarily the government or the regime of state) and 'confirm that it is perpetrator, not the victim (or bystander) who defines the group' (p. 79). In this way, adding two specific samples - often defined 'democides', as the Soviet plan of 'kulaks' murder (1929-33) and the mass killings in Cambodia carried out by Khmer Rouge (1978) - the author adds a last (but not least) parameter: 'the targeted group is the product of the perpetrator's assemblage of social reality' (p. 88), i.e. this group is an 'aggregate' population. The 'genos', in this case, is not made by biological criteria, but is an organic collectivity perceived as such, namely as a group marked off from 'loyal' people because they are 'dangerous' to the state and enemy of the nation. The definition of the perpetrators and victims is at the centre of the rest of book, which opens to the discussant topics for future volumes. This volume, in fact, aims to ask questions more than to give answers. Levene shows how state violence has emerged against groups in connection with the rise of the West to global hegemony and the powerful formation of the modern nation-state, and in these elements thus exist the well-springs of many of the poisonous tendencies of the modern world. The complex connection between different perspectives - from theoretical and methodological grounds to empirical and practical applications - demonstrate to the reader a cautious attitude about this matter and a large bibliographical reference demonstrates the need for deep studies of this subject. Levene's efforts at categorization open up a number of grey areas, but this introduction to the meanings of many dramatic historical events pushes the reader to await the following work, The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide.