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Comparative Genocide

Comparative Genocide

Some of the central questions attending the analysis of any genocide, such as the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, are: Why did it happen? How did it happen? How similar or different is it from other instances? And, what can be learned to prevent such occurrences in the future? A comparative approach may be helpful in providing some answers because the principle aim of scholarly comparison is to identify essential similarities and underlying patterns in order to arrive at credible explanations or theories for some types of genocide. Such explanations should be able to shed light on particular instances of genocide as well as on the process itself. The juxtaposition and comparison of a number of cases do not imply that they are identical or even similar. Indeed, differences from an underlying pattern, such as the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, can be instructive in demonstrating the range of variation among cases or in challenging theories that claim to account for similarities.


Following the United Nations (UN) definition, which distinguishes between genocide in whole or "total genocide," and genocide in part or "partial genocide," and introducing a distinction first suggested by Leo Kuper, between genocide that is domestic and foreign with respect to the geographical and social boundaries of the state, it is possible to distinguish among four basic types of genocide: (1) total domestic, for example, German Jews in the Third Reich, Armenians under the Young Turks, the Tutsi in Rwanda; (2) total foreign, for example, Polish Jews under Nazi occupation, Native Tasmanians in the nineteenth century, and Herero under German colonialism; (3) partial domestic, for example, Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav war, gassing of the Kurds in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein; and (4) partial foreign, for example, Poles and others under Nazi occupation, destruction without extermination of a number of Native peoples in Africa and the Americas.

Except for noting that genocide entails the dehumanization of its victims, there is no general theory for the phenomenon, nor does space permit discussing in detail theories for the four types of genocide listed above. However, there are a number of key variables that writers have singled out for each type.

For total domestic genocides—even when, as in the case of the Holocaust, these mutate into total foreign genocides—nearly all writers have emphasized the ideology of the perpetrators as causal. This would include Nazi biological racism, the Pan-Turkism and organic nationalism of the Young Turks, the radical Maoism of the Khmer Rouge, and the "Hamitic hypothesis" of Hutu power in the Rwandan genocide. Others have pointed to political, social, cultural, and economic crises for the perpetrator regime. Well-known examples are the many crises of the Weimar Republic following Germany's defeat in World War I, and the defeats and crises that confronted the Young Turks following their coup in 1908. Touching on genocide in Africa, Biafra, in particular, Kuper has emphasized the tensions and contradictions between a sovereign state and the culturally plural society over which it rules. Other writers have stressed social or national revolutions within the context of general war and the dynamics of totalitarianism.

For partial domestic and foreign genocides, especially when, as in Yugoslavia, genocide took the form of ethnic cleansing, writers have emphasized the ideology of integral nationalism and the context of war or civil war. For foreign genocides, both partial and total, especially against indigenous peoples, writers have stressed an attitude of dehumanization of the "savage Other" within a context of imperialism, modernity, and capitalist development.


Most scholars would concur that there are both distinctive and comparative aspects to most genocides, including the Holocaust; however, a comparison may also be misleading and fallacious. This can be most clearly observed in the comparative treatment of the Holocaust wherein two fallacies often occur.

The first, the "equivalence" fallacy, suggests that because the Holocaust may be similar to another instance of genocide, it is therefore equivalent to it. The second, the "uniqueness" fallacy, claims that because it was unique, the Holocaust is incomparable. The first is a fallacy, because a thing or an instance can be similar in some dimensions without being equivalent in all. The second is a fallacy because a thing or an instance can be distinctive in one or more important ways without being distinctive in all dimensions.

Perhaps because they wish to undermine the significance of the Holocaust, some writers have drawn a false equivalence between it and other seemingly similar events. They discover Holocaust-like events throughout history and the world, not to understand them or even to exaggerate their import but to relativize and therefore make less exceptional the enormity of the Shoah. The recent controversy among German historians, the Historikerstreit, is one case in point.

It may be that in order to combat the trivializers and the relativizers, some scholars have insisted on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Indeed, one writer, Steven Katz, plainly argues that only the Holocaust fits his narrow definition of genocide. He defines genocide as "the actualization of the intent, however, successfully carried out, to murder in its totality any national, ethnic, racial, religious, political, social, gender, or economic group, as these groups are defined by the perpetrator by whatever means" (1994, p. 131). He observes that only the Holocaust fits his definition, and he comes to the conclusion that the Holocaust is unique and incomparable.

It is apparent that Katz departs from the widely accepted UN definition by excluding the partial destruction of groups (genocide in part); these are seen as "tragedies" not genocides. And in his work he claims that in no other cases was there an actual attempt to exterminate a group. Why scholars of genocide should be limited only to the intended extermination of groups is never convincingly explained. Moreover, other scholars have demonstrated that the Armenian, Rwandan, as well as a number of Native-American and African genocides were instances of attempted extermination. These may not have been equivalent in intent or ideology to the Final Solution, but they were similar enough in other dimensions to prompt comparative research.

By reducing it to the ideologically driven intentions of the Nazis, Katz's definition prevents him and other scholars who would rely on his formulation from making valid comparisons to other aspects of the Holocaust. Thus, studies that have demonstrated that the Holocaust and other total genocides have occurred following revolutionary situations and during war-time conditions could not have been conducted had the authors followed the Katz definition. In effect, a misplaced emphasis on the uniqueness of the Holocaust prevents meaningful comparisons that can shed light on the Holocaust itself.

SEE ALSO Genocide; Sociology of Perpetrators; Sociology of Victims


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Kuper, Leo (1981). Genocide: Its Political Uses in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Melson, Robert (1992). Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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Robert Melson

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