Century of Genocide:
Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views

Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons + Israel W. Charny (editors)

Garland 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997 http://dannyreviews.com/
Century of Genocide is a survey of genocide in the twentieth century. It contains fourteen chapters, by specialists, on a broad range of events, including some not usually labelled as genocide (some chapters in fact avoid the term completely). The introduction examines how the strength of our responses to atrocity vary with our distance from the victims, and canvasses the practical problem of how to prevent future genocides. It refrains from abstract theorising about definitions and the chapters mostly follow suit, making Century of Genocide refreshingly free from academic jargon.

Each of the chapters has two parts: a critical essay and a collection of eyewitness accounts. The essays provide an overview of the events, but concentrate on their background and aftermath, on questions such as who was responsible, what historical, economic, and social factors were involved, what the immediate and long-term effects on the victim community were, and what the response of the international community was, both at the time and later. It is left to the eyewitness accounts to provide immediacy and a feel for the actual events. They also provide an emotional and affective complement without which the scholarly essays might seem lacking.

The events are covered in roughly chronological order. First is the genocide of the Hereros by the Germans in Southwest Africa in 1904, a brutal but little known episode of colonial history. The Turkish genocide of the Armenians between 1915 and 1923 is, because of the Turkish government's refusal to accept that it happened, still a contested subject (and the infamous anti-Armenian robo-poster, Serdar Argic, made it a hot topic on Usenet a few years ago).

There is, of course, a chapter on the Holocaust of the Jews, but Century of Genocide also includes chapters on the less well known Holocaust of the Gypsies and the slaughter of the disabled and handicapped in the Nazi eugenics program. There are also chapters on the Soviet-created famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 (in which millions died) and the Soviet deportations of entire ethnic groups during World War II, acts which were genocidal in implication if not intention.

Though half a million people may have been killed in the suppression of the communist party in Indonesia in 1965-66, the event is rarely described as genocidal. Its treatment in this volume doesn't seem at all out of place, however. Still less familiar to most will be the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, notable for the systematic use of mass rape as an instrument of war and the deliberate targeting of educational and cultural elites for destruction. The chapter on the Cambodian genocide (by Ben Kiernan) is one of the few to enter into historiographical debates, devoting a fair bit of space to controversies between figures such as Shawcross and Pilger.

The chapter on East Timor covers events between 1975 and 1979, but the response to those events is very much an live issue. There is a chapter on the genocide in Burundi in 1972 as well as one on the recent genocide in Rwanda, a useful parallel treatment (by the same author). A general chapter on the physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples is the most timely in the volume, since it deals with events which are underway even at this very moment, around the world. A brief final chapter considers the events in Bosnia-Herzegovina from a theoretical perspective, focusing on the difficulties of distinguishing genocide from war crimes and ethnic war, and on the ways in which scholarly analysis is immediately politicised when "genocide" enters the picture.

Century of Genocide is a sobering work, but one that is also accessible and arresting. Though it lacks a consistent theoretical framework, by taking a broad view that encompasses events from throughout the century and around the world it helps the reader to step back from particular events to consider general questions. Genocidal events are a common target for those who would deny or twist history to their own ends, so a widely accessible, scholarly study of them is an important resource. Century of Genocide is one book that really should be on the shelves of every library — and read by everyone concerned with the darkest parts of twentieth century history.

November 1997

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%T Century of Genocide
%S Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views
%E Totten, Samuel
%E Parsons, William S.
%E Charny, Israel W.
%I Garland
%D 1997
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0815323530
%P xxxix,488pp