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The term massacre can be defined as a form of action, usually collective, aimed at the elimination of civilians or non-combatants including men, women, children or elderly people unable to defend themselves. The definition may also include the killing of soldiers who have been disarmed. One of the most notorious European examples of the latter was when Soviet troops massacred Polish officers in Katyn in February 1940. There are various definitional problems inherent in the notion of "massacre." For instance, there are divergent interpretations between adversaries, such as can be seen in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the tragic events at Jenin in April 2002. The Palestinians labeled the event a massacre, a charge that Israel denied. The Palestinian charge was further undercut by a report from the Secretary General of the United Nations, which challenged the Palestinian claim of hundreds of dead, substituting instead the much lower estimate of about fiftyfive. This brings up an additional problem regarding the determination of a massacre based on victim tallies. After the Guatemalan Civil War, a UN commission conducting an inquiry on human rights violations stated that a massacre implies at least three murders, while certain experts consider this number to be "very low."

Debates Surrounding the Notion

Another debate surrounds the practices attached to the term massacre. Etymologically, the word derives from the popular Latin matteuca, meaning "bludgeon." The word contains the sense of butchery, designating both the abattoir and the butcher's shop. In Europe from the eleventh century on, massacre became synonymous with the putting to death both of animals and human beings. Massacre has historically presupposed a situation where the perpetrator and his victim are face-to-face, since it is based on the practice of slitting the throat—the technique used to slaughter animals for market. This technique was used in massacres such as the civil wars fought in Algeria or Greece. However, if the concept of massacre implies a type of one-on-one interaction, must we conclude that technologies of murder exercised from a distance cannot be considered massacres? What then of the modern technique of air bombing? If we retain such a limited definition, we ignore the evolution of the technologies of war and the political motivation of the practice. Military forces that employ air strikes to create a climate of terror in order to force a town or country to surrender exemplify this phenomenon. In that regard, it makes sense to distinguish between local massacres (face-to-face encounters) and long-distance massacres (aerial bombings).

The connection between war and massacres poses another problem, because it is easy to assume that massacres only happen within the context of war. However various historical examples show that massacres can be perpetrated in relatively peaceful times. For instance, in Nazi Germany the Crystal Night (Kristallnacht) pogrom against the Jewish community took place on November 9, 1938), and in Indonesia, an even larger massacre was directed against all suspected communist partisans from October 1965 to June 1966. It is also possible to consider famine as a type of slow, "soft" massacre. If we do, we can cite the Ukraine famine that was essentially willed by Stalin from 1932 to 1933. Nevertheless, the context of war can without a doubt generate various practices of massacre, since war provokes a radical social polarization into the dialectic pair "friend vs. foe."

A massacre can then be one of several types. It can be integrated into the act of war when it is an extension of war. Such was the case of the massacre at Oradoursur-Glane in France by a division of the SS on June 10, 1944. In this massacre, the military killed the whole population of this village just to intimidate the socalled terrorists in the area. Alternatively, a massacre can be deeply associated with the objectives of a war. Thus, for example, when a nationalistic power wants to force a given population to flee, one of the most efficient means is to massacre this population. As a result, the flow of refugees generated by this killing is not the consequence of the war but is, rather, its very goal. This was the case in the ethnic cleansing operations within the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Finally, a massacre may be quasi-autonomous with regard to war. This happens when practices of massacre tend to be detached from the battlefield and grow on their own. One such case is the genocide of European Jews during the Holocaust. The logic of war seemed to contrast with the logic of massacre in this instance. Indeed, soldiers or trains were employed to destroy civilian populations instead of being deployed on the front, where they could be more useful from a military standpoint.

This leads to another problem: how can we differentiate between the notions of massacre and genocide? Some authors do not make any distinction between the two, and even go so far as to include within the concepts such industrial catastrophes as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Other experts consider it crucial to distinguish between the notions of massacre and genocide. These experts believe the term massacre refers to the deliberate but unsustained killing of unarmed human beings within a relatively short period of time and in a relatively small geographic area. According to this definition, neither the Saint Bartholomew massacre in France (August 24, 1572) that was perpetrated by Catholics against important members of the Protestant community; the Kishinev pogrom in Russia (April 19–20, 1903), when Moldavian Christians killed dozens of Jews in the city; nor the Amristar massacre in Punjab (April 13, 1919), perpetrated by British general Reginald Dyer against Indian demonstrators, can be considered genocides. Nevertheless, sometimes a variety of massacres tend to evolve in a genocidal process, in which case certain authors use the expression "genocidal massacre." One of the key issues in genocide studies is to explain why and how this particular framework of violence can pass—slowly or suddenly—from massacre to genocide. The answer to this question presupposes developing our understanding of the logics of massacre operations.

Delusional Rationality

When a massacre is committed and is made known by the press, journalists are inclined to stress its apparent irrationality. Why attack children, women, and the elderly? Details of atrocities are also given in such reports. The appalling aspects of massacres must not, however, prevent us from examining the question of the perpetrators' rationale, their operating techniques, their objectives, and their perceptions of the enemy. Beyond the horror, it must be acknowledged that they are pursuing very specific aims, which may include amassing wealth, controlling territory, gaining power, destabilizing a political system, or other goals.

Envisaging the notion of massacre thus means attempting to understand both its rationality and its irrationality. This means taking into account the human capacity for both cold calculation and folly, in sum, for delusional rationality. The term delusional relates to two mental phenomena. The first is psychosis. In this context, the psychotic element of the aggressor's behavior toward the victim or victims stems from the belief that the victim can and must be destroyed. The aggressor in effect denies the humanity of the victims, perceiving them as "other," as "barbarians."

However, delusional can also signify a paranoid image of this "other" (the victim) who is perceived as constituting a threat or even as the embodiment of evil. The particularity and dangerousness of a paranoid syndrome and the conviction that one is dealing with an evildoer are so strong that they create the risk of acting out against the perceived enemy. In a massacre, the "good vs. evil" and "friend vs. foe" binary polarization is at its peak, as is also true in war. Massacre is therefore always compatible with war and, if there is no actual war, it is experienced as an act of war.

Hence massacres are not irrational in the eyes of those who perpetrate them, because they are part of one or more dynamics of war. In this respect, those who commit massacres attribute specific political or strategic aims to them. These aims can, however, change with the course of the action, the international context, the victims' reactions, or other variables. The diversity of historical situations in which massacres occur leads us to distinguish between at least two fundamental types of objectives linked to the processes of partial and even total destruction of a community: its subjugation and its eradication.

Destruction in Order to Subjugate

The aim here is to bring about the death of civilians with a view to partially destroying a community in order to subjugate what remains of it. The destruction process is partial by definition, but it is intended to have an impact on the total community because those responsible for the deed rely on the effect of terror in order to impose their political domination on the survivors. The act of massacre is particularly suited to such a strategy. The slaughter need not be wholesale; it only has to become widely known so that its terrorizing effect spreads throughout the population.

Since the dawn of time, this form of massacre has been associated with warfare. The civilian destructionand-subjugation dynamic can in fact be fully incorporated within a military operation to precipitate an adversary's surrender, speed up the conquest of its territory, and facilitate the subjugation of its people. Massacres can be found in most wars, both ancient to modern, and not merely as excesses of war but as part of its actual dimensions. However, such types of destruction sometimes turn "mad." This occurred during the Japanese invasion of China, when Japanese soldiers, apparently free to pursue their will, raped, slaughtered, and pillaged the Chinese people of Nanking for six weeks from December 1937 to January 1938. What could have been justified as an awful but rational practice of war by some realist strategists became completely irrational in this case, particularly due to the impunity of the invading soldiers.

Such destruction-and-subjugation methods can also be found in contemporary civil warfare, where the distinction is no longer made between combatants and non-combatants. Even if the women and children of a village are unarmed, they can be suspected of supporting enemy forces by furnishing them with supplies. They therefore become potential targets that must be destroyed. Many examples of this phenomenon can be found in certain past conflicts (e.g., Lebanon, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone) or in ongoing conflicts (e.g., Colombia and Algeria).

These destruction-and-subjugation practices can also extend to the ways in which people are governed. A war of conquest, which may have been conducted by massacre, might give way to the economic exploitation of the conquered population, with further recourse to the murder of some of its members if necessary. That was the essential attitude of the Conquistadors toward Native Americans, whom they perceived as worthless beings existing to do their (Spanish) masters' bidding. History offers other political variants of the shift of the destruction-and-subjugation strategy from a means of warfare to a tool of governance. In this instance, Clausewitz's formula ("War is the continuation of politics by other means") could be reversed. Instead, politics becomes the means of pursuing war against civilians.

Those who win a civil war are logically drawn into this power-building dynamic, as illustrated to some extent by the example of revolutionary France. There, the "Colones infernales" slaughtered large segments of the Vendean population in 1793. The Bolsheviks in Lenin's Russia after 1917 and the Khmers Rouges in Pol Pot's Cambodia (1975–1978) illustrate this phenomenon even more radically than the case of the French Revolution. The perpetration of extreme violence that builds up in the course of a civil war tends to be transferred to a power-building phase.

Whether in the case of civil wars or not, this process dates back a long time. Torture and killing to "set an example" constitute one of the standard techniques of the tyrant seeking to quash an internal rebellion. A more recent example was the tactic of hostage execution employed in Europe by the Nazis, who executed one hundred civilians for every German killed in a bid to overcome armed resistance groups. Sometimes dictatorial powers do not hesitate to kill nonviolent demonstrators, as the racist South African regime did in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960 against black opponents. In this case the massacre was committed in order to deter any kind of resistance. Other regimes developed more sophisticated techniques, such as the "disappearance" method implemented by various Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s.

Destroy in Order to Eradicate

The destruction-and-eradication dynamic is quite different. Its aim is not the actual subjugation of a populace, but rather the utter elimination of a fairly extensive community. This involves "cleansing" or "purifying" the area where the targeted group (which is deemed undesirable or dangerous) is present. The concept of eradication is particularly relevant here, because the word's etymology conveys the idea of "severing roots" or "removing from the earth," in short "uprooting," as one would root out a harmful weed.

This identity-based process of destruction and eradication can also be connected with wars of conquest. The massacre process, combined with rape and pillage, is the means by which one group makes its intentions clear and consequently hastens the departure of another group, either because that group is deemed undesirable or because it occupies territory that the attacking group wants for its own use. The partial destruction of the victimized group and the resulting terror bring about and accelerate such departure. This was the practice employed by European settlers in North America against Native American peoples, who were driven further and further west, beyond the Mississippi River. In the Balkans, the forced movement of populations from a territory has been termed ethnic cleansing, in particular to describe the operations conducted mainly by Serbia and Croatia in the early 1990s. However the methods used (e.g., slaughtering people, burning villages, and destroying religious buildings) can be linked to earlier practices in that region. Since at least the nineteenth century, similar practices occurred in the context of the rise of nationalism and the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

These practices of massacre aimed at chasing away undesirable populations are genuinely universal. Regimes often used militias to do their work. These militias could usually rely on the support of conventional armed forces, however, even though the latter might prefer to remain in the background. One example of this situation is the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon (September 18, 1982), in which more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed by the Christian Lebanese militia with the support of the Israeli army. The goal was to terrorize the Palestinians and chase them out of Lebanon. This episode can be related to massacres that were perpetrated in 1948 by Israel in an attempt to chase Palestinians out of the territory claimed by the newly formed Israeli state. Numerous other such examples can also be found dating to the eighteenth century, when state building began to imply a homogeneous population. Achieving this homogeneity entailed the forced departure of populations that did not share in the same cultural, ethnic, or religious heritage. If war makes the State to the same extent as the State makes war, as historian Charles Tilly put it, the same could be said of massacres.

Once again, the processes at work in warfare can be reemployed in terms of the internal governance of a destroyed people. This is the case across the spectrum of ethnic and religious nationalistic conflicts, which include the riots between Muslims and Hindus in India since at least the late 1940s. Generally speaking, these types of conflicts involve the instrumental use of ethnic or religious criteria for the purposes of a group's political domination over an entire community. Recourse to killing is justified by the appeal to homogeneity in order to resolve a seemingly insoluble problem.

This process can, however, take on an even more radical form, such as the total elimination of a targeted community whose members are not even given the chance to flee. In such circumstances, the aim is to capture all of the individuals belonging to the targeted community, with the goal of eradicating them. The notion of a territory to be cleansed becomes secondary to the idea of actual extermination. Some colonial massacres were probably perpetrated with this in mind, such as the slaughter of the Herero population in 1904 by the German colonial army in Namibia. We still know far too little about colonial massacres, including those perpetrated by England, France, and Belgium in their conquest of African territories in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The leaders of Nazi Germany went further than any others in the planned total destruction of a community. Their systematic extermination of European Jews between 1941 and 1945, which followed the partial elimination of mentally sick Germans, is the prototypical example of this eradication process taken to the extreme. In very different historical contexts, the same can be said of the extermination of the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and 1916, and that of the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. In each of these cases, the objective was not to scatter a people across other territories, but rather, in the words of Hannah Arendt, "to cause it to disappear not just from its own land, but from the land."

It is at this final stage of the eradication process that the concept of genocide can be introduced as a notion in social science. In general, the public at large sees genocide as a form of large-scale massacre. In the popular view, whenever the death toll reaches several hundred thousand, it becomes possible to refer to a genocide. This kind of intuitive criteria, based on a large number of victims, is not, however, adequate to describe genocidal behavior. Moreover, no expert could effectively set a minimum number of deaths as the necessary criterion for declaring that genocide has occurred. A qualitative criterion combined with a quantitative criterion, however, could offer a more reliable definition of genocide. For instance, most experts would agree that widespread killing combined with the implicit or express desire for the total eradication of a community qualifies for the label of "genocide."

Genocide thus fits within the same destructivity continuum as ethnic cleansing, but is essentially distinguishable from it. Their respective dynamics are both aimed at eradication; however, in the case of ethnic cleansing the departure or flight of the targeted population is still possible, whereas in the case of genocide, escape is futile or impossible. In this regard, genocide can be defined as the process of specific civilian destruction directed at the total eradication of a community, for which the perpetrator determines the criteria.

However, such reasoning is necessarily further complicated by the fact that the destruction-andsubjugation and destruction-for-eradication processes can coexist and even overlap within the same historical situation by targeting different groups. In general, one is the dominant process and the other is secondary. In 1994, Rwanda saw the attempted eradication of the Tutsi population (which can therefore be classified as a genocide) occurring simultaneously with the killing of Hutu opponents of the government (which constitutes a destruction-and-subjugation process. Conversely, the mass killing in Cambodia clearly constituted a destruction-and-subjugation process because Pol Pot never sought to destroy all the Khmers, but that process included certain eradication offensives directed at specific groups, particularly the Cham Muslim minority. Identifying these different dynamics of violence is often a very complex task, because they may not only overlap, but also change over time, shifting, for example, from subjugation to eradication.

SEE ALSO Algeria; Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Comparative Genocide; Developmental Genocide; Ethnic Cleansing; Genocide; Katyn; National Prosecutions; Rwanda; Sabra and Shatila; Utilitarian Genocide


Horowitz, Donald (2000). Deadly Ethnic Riots. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levene, Mark, and Penny Proberts (1999). The Massacre in History. New York: Bargain Books.

Semelin, Jacques (2003). "Towards a Vocabulary of Massacre and Genocide." Journal of Genocide Research 5(2):193–210.

Jacques Semelin

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