UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay
“Assessing the Four Key Elements of Genocidal Ideology Throughout the Modern Era: The Full Story or Only One Side?”
Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur
by Sarah Wander
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Sarah Wander
I am a senior majoring in Global and International Studies, with a minor in French. For the past four years I have studied religious and ethnic mass murder and discrimination in my Global and International courses. I have also traveled to Prague and was taken aback by the effects of the Soviet Occupation on the city’s culture and the generational gap it created between those who lived through the occupation and the younger generation who escaped the communist regime. I chose to write about Kiernan’s book because I am interested in how such an inhuman concept such as genocide continuously occurs all over the world and what ideological patterns are consistent in diverse genocidal cases, especially during the twentieth century. I believe that analyzing historical cases of genocide and understanding the reasons for its materialization is especially important in our current global atmosphere. The increasing religious extremism, economic and social inequalities, and historic hatreds are now, more than ever, capable of being acted upon via access to advanced weapons and communication technology.
Abstract (back to top)
Ben Kiernan’s book Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur reveals key ideologies that are present through genocides dating back to the pre Biblical era and to more current genocides in areas such as Armenia, the Nazi occupied territories, the USSR, Cambodia, Iraq, and Darfur. Kiernan argues that the four ideologies of ethnic enmity, cults of antiquity, fetishes for agriculture, and territorial expansionism expose patterns that we can use to identify and possibly thwart future genocides. He asserts that although all four themes are not present in every instance of genocide, at least one of these themes always exists, and it often creates an ideology based on ethnic descent, or “blood,” and homeland “soil,” spurring combinations of the other themes to consistently reoccur. Readers should be skeptical of Kiernan’s “blood and soil” thesis and his portrayal of human nature’s inclination to kill because he excludes historical cases of failed genocide attempts and cases that lack more than one of his key genocide ideologies. What was such a failed genocidal attempt? However, Kiernan effectively presents well-documented facts to prove his core thesis by drawing upon various primary and secondary sources. Therefore, this dense monograph is perfect for scholars looking to gain further intricate knowledge of genocidal ideologies throughout history and the modern era.
Essay (back to top)
Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil deals with the principle features of genocidal ideology in the modern era, which historians date from 1400 into the twenty-first century. Through a well-researched and dense monograph drawing upon sources such as Stalin’s inspirational speeches, CCP Weekly news articles, and original translations of the Arabic Gathering Letter on Darfur, Kiernan portrays four recurring elements of genocide throughout his book: cults of antiquity, fetishes for agriculture, ethnic enmity, and territorial expansionism. He argues that these four persistent aspects of genocidal ideology expose patterns that we can use to identify and possibly thwart future genocides. He asserts that although all four themes are not present in every instance of genocide, at least one of these themes always exists, and it often creates an ideology focusing on ethnicity based on descent, or “blood,” and homeland “soil,” spurring combinations of the other themes to consistently reoccur. Therefore Kiernan’s common genocidal perpetrator theory is concerned not with specific political, regional, or ethnic reoccurrences, but one based on broad ideological ideals present throughout world history, and intensified in the modern era. Although I do not completely agree with Kiernan’s “blood and soil” theory and his portrayal of human nature’s inclination to kill by not including examples of failed genocide attempts and oppositions to genocide regimes, I will examine the specific cases he provides to support his thesis of the four key ideologies of genocide.
Attempting to expand the four common themes of his genocidal ideology theory by analyzing subthemes within his original four, Kiernan identifies further recurrent creeds and obsessions that have provided the violent ideological fuel to ventures of militaristic regimes and territorial expansionism. In addition to agrarian romanticism, idealistic cults of antiquity, ethnic hatreds, and expansionism, he analyzes religious hatreds, obsessions with pristine purity, and “more modern concepts of biological contamination” (Kiernan 21). These additional aspects of genocide are in many cases linked, or one ideology causes the obsession with another. Kiernan suggests that commonalities between “racism or religious prejudice and notions of biological purity, historical decline, and rural romanticism” are “more widespread than genocide and each on its own may not lead to violence or conquest” (Kiernan 27). Thus, to argue his thesis that genocide does not merely consist of violent force and racial hatreds, but usually also an obsession with antiquity, ideal agrarianism, ethnic hatreds, and its operation as justification for territorial expansionism, he downplays the ability of independent idealistic predilections to create genocide. Therefore by concentrating on Kiernan’s four broad features of genocidist ideology, it is easier to identify genocidal symptoms and causes and quickly nip them in the bud.
In addition, Kiernan states that cults of antiquity form when there is a “rapid move towards modernity” and he quotes historian Stephen Vlastors’ claim that “tradition is what modernity requires to prevent society from flying apart,” taken from his book Mirror of Modernity (26). To support this seemingly contradictory statement, Kiernan states that
An efficient new agricultural economy fertilizes the pastoral imagination. The fetish for cultivation produces a romanticization of pristine forest. Urban growth fosters a desire to return to the countryside. Scientific racism incorporates parables about ancient human bloodlines, breeding, and pest extermination (27).
He provides these contradictions in order to show that such “contorted combinations of ideals and material are insufficient for genocide,” but instead that, “the ideals themselves are more complementary” (27). Kiernan thus contends that a common overarching philosophy of all these genocidal ideologies is that “genocidal thinking usually involves idealized conceptions of the world, utopian or dystopian, divorced from reality but capable of being forcefully imposed upon it” (22). For example, Kiernan asserts that racism becomes genocidal when the executor desires to create a world void of specific peoples, just as Hitler’s and Mao’s “ideals inspired mass murder of both the right and the left” (23). Furthermore, Kiernan insists that even in biblical times, extreme violence was often associated with idealistic land use, however, farming became ideologically superior “to hunter-gatherer and pastoral herding,” and eventually to urban life in the modern era. Expansionism thus emerged as a “complementary ideology of cultivation” (5). These ideals of race, antiquity of lost history, land use, and expansionism are all present throughout modern genocidal history and provide detectable red flags of the “blood and soil” theory that often leads to genocide. However, these same ideals have also existed many times in history without directly provoking genocide, such as the use of the Central Valley land in California to develop the most valuable agricultural industry in the nation during the early twentieth century. Yet Kiernan does not provide one example of such a case.
Case Studies Of Genocide in the Twentieth Century
Kiernan revisits history by dividing every chapter by a specific region and time to reveal that genocide is not incapable of being identified and defined because of its diverse guises. Although genocides began to be perpetrated by “national chauvinist dictatorships that had seized control of tottering, shrinking, or new empires,” the twentieth century also provided “new technological, political, or organizational solutions” (393). In accordance with Stephen Vlastors’ theory stated above, as the world modernized, ancient models and traditions intensified. In addition, the increased populations resulted in less land, and thus, less need for human labor, characterized twentieth century genocides (394). This led to a “new series of totalitarian party-states propounding ‘scientific’ race or class ideologies, thus entire groups of specific people became expendable” (394). Despite these new components of the twentieth century, all four elements of Kiernan’s genocidal ideology are still applicable to the genocides of this era and can be can utilized to identify their ideological traits in order to thwart future symptoms from developing.
Beginning with the Armenian genocide, Kiernan argues that in the wake of the weakening Ottoman Empire, national chauvinism arose under the rising Young Turk leader Enver Pasha who announced, “if what was left of Turkey was to survive…he must get rid of these alien people,” referring to the Ottoman Armenian minority, which I documented in the German Foreign Ministry Archives (395). The emerging Young Turk movement’s ideologies portrayed features of previous genocide perpetrators, “including preoccupations with ethnicity, external territories, and land and its cultivation, as well as backward looking visions of preserving or restoring ancient glories” (396). The Young Turks began to claim Turkish nationality as a racial establishment (400). A Russian Tatar, Yusuf Akcura, affirms Kiernan’s assertion that religious, political, and societal ideals are not basis enough for genocide to develop, but combined with one of his four genocidal perpetrator themes, these ideals can play a major role in any genocide. In his 1911 speech Three Kinds of Politics , Akcura stated, “it was only through the union of religion with race” that unified the Turks in the Ottoman Empire to “preserve their political and societal importance” (401). Kiernan additionally quotes the author of Les Turcs Anciens et Modernes , Konstanty Borzecki, as claiming that “Turks belonged to a ‘Turanian’ subsection of the Aryan race,” and emphasizing the “Turkish people’s significant role in human history” (403). The Young Turks dreamed of creating a “pan-Turanian” empire of all Turkic speaking people, devoted themselves to increasing agriculture in every way possible, and stressed the importance of peasants over the feudal lords (406). These goals and justifications illustrate Kiernan’s theory of genocidal perpetrators’ antiquarian ideologies of glorified or forgotten history, cults of agrarianism, national blood ties to the land in the Armenian genocide, and the desire to expand their empire. These ideologies did indeed lead to the burial of living victims, looting and plundering of Armenian property, throwing children into the sea to die, and mass shooting, amassing to a death figure of 800,000 Armenians (415).
Kiernan reveals the Nazi genocide as encompassing many of the same four ideological features that the Armenian genocide embraced, however, Nazi genocide is history’s most extreme case because it was unique in several ways. Hitler’s venomous racial hatred, one based on scientific ideals of purity and extermination, was of a revolutionary degree. Even as early as 1922, “Hitler was very clear about his plan for Jews, ‘once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews,” which was quoted in journalist Major Joseph Hell’s compilation of articles Aufzeichnung (437). But Hitler waited until WWII offered the opportunity to act upon his “pathological hatred for Jews,” utilizing war, propaganda, and the prospect of economic growth to materialize his perpetrator ideology of racial purity and hatred (437). Also, because of Germany’s advanced economy and militaristic modern state, its “state-sponsored attempt at total extermination by industrialized murder of unarmed millions has no parallel before or since” (454). Yet Kiernan maintains that the “Nazi Killing Machine” was so monumentally powerful because of its intertwined ideologies of antiquity that “celebrated race, territory, cultivation, and history” (454).
China and the USSR
Conversely, the genocides that resulted from Maoism in China and the Soviet Terror in the USSR differed from the other genocides Kiernan discusses in his book because both the Bolsheviks and the CCP condemned tradition and broke from antiquity while seeking total modernization. However, these two cases of genocide differed in their peasant and agricultural strategies. While the CCP exalted the proletariat, creating the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966-76, the Bolsheviks urged for “total war against landlords and a communist movement in the villages” (513). In addition, the CCP was more preoccupied with land use and development, whereas the Bolsheviks were dedicated to “crash industrialization” through forced collectivization of agriculture, with little regard for peasantry and agrarian ideals (514). Kiernan is forced to acknowledge that besides the CCP's agrarianism and its internal expansion in Tibet, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution caused unprecedented mass murder in the absence of his genocidal key ideologies of racial hatred and significant territorial expansionism (514). Although the Bolshevik Revolution encompassed Kiernan’s theory of genocidal perpetrator preoccupations with expansionism, cultivation, and racial extermination, both China and the Soviet genocides lack any obsession with antiquarian ideals. However, Kiernan is careful to affirm that all four obsessions are sufficient ideologies to spur genocidal violence, “though not all four are necessary conditions” (38).
Cambodia and Rwanda
However, the perpetrator regimes of Cambodia and Rwanda, which led to momentous genocides in the last quarter of the twentieth century, “shared preoccupations with racism, antiquity, agriculture, and they even harbored significant territorial ambitions, all of which echoed major obsessions of previous genocidal regimes” (539). Yet the Khmer Rouge and Hutu Power were extremely politically and culturally divided. Most significantly, the Pol Pot regime, which replicated many of the same ideals and techniques of Stalin and Mao, targeted its ethnic Khmer majority, while the Hutu Power, which had many ideological similarities to Pasha and Hitler, victimized the Tutsi minority (569). This exemplifies Kiernan’s contention that “there is no evidence that the perpetrators, who inhabited opposite ends of the political spectrum, ever paid any attention to one another” (539). The Cambodian and Rwandan genocides’ lack of compatible political ideologies only further highlights Kiernan’s deeper commonalities of modern genocide.
Recent Cases of Genocide
Kiernan concludes his tragic timeline with the most recent instances of fierce genocide, yet still negating to analyze the benefits advanced technology, human rights organizations and institutions, such as the UN and the Genocide Convention, have provided to prevent or stop genocide worldwide. Conversely, Kiernan focuses on the violent forms of agrarianism and antiquity that have triggered the escalated frequency of genocide in the face of urbanization and modernization. “Three of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships—in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Guatemala—set out to annihilate large opposition movements by mass slaughter” (571). Their opponents were not only political, but also of ethnic, national, and racial affiliations (574). The same is predominantly true for the most extensive of these genocides: the Pakistani army leadership in Bangladesh, whose flourishing fundamentalist ideals and Islamic schools provided the foundations for international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Arab Janjaweed militias in Darfur (575). Even at the dawn of the twenty-first century, “a postmodern commercial terrorist ‘nonstate actor’ like Al-Qaeda” still views itself as fighting ancient conflicts to create “an ethnically pure, agrarian utopia on the graves of those they considered their traditional victims” (605). In different cultural contexts, all these perpetrators from fundamentalist movements hold the principle ideologies that typify prior genocidal regimes.
If you are interested in the facts and statistics in each case of genocide throughout the modern era from a scholarly perspective, then this is the book for you. Although Kiernan does not presume any previous knowledge of any of these genocides, the difficult vocabulary and sheer volume of Blood and Soil makes readers feel lost and confused, sacrificing the fluidity of his thesis and the intrigue of such an important book. Nonetheless, Kiernan successfully and convincingly proves the presence of his four genocidal perpetrator ideologies in all the examples of genocide he provides throughout the last five centuries, as well as the plausibility and benefit of detecting them in genocidal regimes to prevent future mass murder from recurring. However, if you want find tangible solutions to prevent or stop genocide regimes or examples of human nature as inclined to love and forced to kill, you will not find what you are looking for in Blood and Soil.
This is where he fails to inspire and give hope to his readers. Kiernan does not offer any examples of instances when perpetrators with genocidal ideologies failed to carry out genocide, such as all the futile attempts of Tsars to eradicate Ukrainian culture in the 19th century. Blood and Soil did not convince me of Kiernan’s pessimistic human outlook because he only writes about perpetrators and does not even touch on their opponents who have raised their voices against the genocidal fantasy throughout history. By doing so, Kiernan would reveal that humans are capable of resisting the ideologies and propaganda of genocide perpetrators. Kiernan’s pivotal focus is on identifying patterns of genocidal ideologies so they can be used to prevent similar cases, however, he does not provide cases of thwarting these ideologies, thus causing the reader to detect a factual and emotional void in his book. Although addressing the other side of genocidal instances may seem like a deviation from his thesis, I believe it would highlight the positive outcomes of genocide resistance so humans cannot only learn how to identify genocidal ideologies, but also how to react to similar cases in the future.
Additionally, I was disappointed at Kiernan’s lack of analysis into the root of the human genocidal problem throughout history: why do humans continue to massacre their own kind? Are humans naturally predisposed to have the desire to kill each other in mass numbers? As I stated in my thesis, I do not believe that the theory of “blood and soil” is enough to ignite a genocidal desire in humans, but deem humans as naturally inclined to love. When their love is put in jeopardy, humans are then willing to murder and die to save it. This is why we must train soldiers to kill through dehumanization of the enemy, ideologies, nationalism, and convincing them that they are fighting to protect their loved ones. In addition, readers are forced to question Kiernan’s central thesis by the forewarning in his introduction that “catastrophes lacking more than one of the major features of genocide [he] identified” were excluded from his book (38). Overall, Kiernan does not go beyond his chief ideologies of specifically chosen genocides, but effectively and clearly presents well-documented facts to prove his core thesis. Therefore, I would recommend this monograph to scholars looking to write a lengthy research paper and/or gain further intricate knowledge of genocidal ideologies throughout the modern era.
Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)
Books and Articles
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: