Political Theory

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Political Theory

Political theory can help explain elements of gross human rights violations, especially genocide. Liberalism, for example, is helpful in suggesting that liberal democracies typically do not engage in mass murder, nor do they wage war on each other. Genocides and other massive human rights violations generally have occurred during time of war. In its emphasis on the self-defeating character of war and the need for limitations on its conduct, Grotian international legal theory also is helpful. Common gains for the world's communities as the result of liberal international cooperation suggest the constitution of international regimes that would implicitly or even explicitly prohibit mass murder. International legal frameworks for such cooperation typically do just that. The European Union as a prototypical example has increasingly emphasized democracy and the protection of human rights as a condition of state membership. Utilitarianism, especially in John Stuart Mill's (2002) advocacy of governmental noninterference in individual behavior that does not harm others, indicates a strong ethical basis for the prohibition of mass murder.

Theoretical approaches of this type help in establishing conditions that prevent the occurrence of genocide. However, they do not provide an account of the dynamics through which genocide is effected. Among the many varieties of political theory, realism comes closest and is preeminent for its explanatory power in understanding the etiology of genocide. Most important, realism as a theory of international politics sensitizes us to the presence of Realpolitik as state-centered policy in which "success is the ultimate test of policy, and success is defined as preserving and strengthening the state" (Waltz, 1979, p. 117). It is the state-centric aspect of both realism and Realpolitik that helps explain the onset of genocide. The deadliest genocides of the past century have been initiated by the administrative departments of a state.

Three twentieth-century cases of genocide illustrate the importance of Realpolitik: the Armenian genocide of 1915 and 1916, the Holocaust of 1941 through 1945, and the massacre of the Tutsi of Rwanda in 1994. Two variants of Realpolitik are considered. The first is that of brute force in which state officials initiate and direct genocide; all three of the genocides examined were characterized by such behavior. In the second type, referred to as cynical Realpolitik, the interests of another state or international actor, not the perpetrator, are satisfied by the genocide. Effectively, the bystander abets the genocide because of the unique perception of its own interests. This article will emphasize the latter type.

The Armenian Genocide

Germany was a bystander during the Armenian genocide and the most important superpower influencing Ottoman policy. Already during the period of the 1894 and 1896 massacres, the outlines of German policy concerning the Armenians were decisively formed. In November 1898 a policy brief was put forward by the German foreign ministry that became the basis not only for German official reaction to the massacres, but also for the later genocide. Essentially, it stated that the Armenians were crafty and seditious and had provoked the Ottoman authorities. Further, Germany had little, if any, reason to intervene on behalf of the Armenians, especially given the business interests of many German firms in the Ottoman Empire that might be endangered by German intervention. Very early in the day, Realpolitik had become the basis of German policy on the Armenian Question. Only two years after the end of the 1896 massacres, with great pomp and circumstance, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Turkey, was greeted lavishly by Sultan Abdulhamit II, and the upward trajectory of Turko-German collaboration was firmly established.

Yet this open expression of support by the Kaiser came after the massacres had occurred. How could the Ottomans think that they could massacre 200,000 people, often in the most brutal fashion, without repercussions from interested superpowers such as Great Britain and France? The answer to the question of Ottoman impunity is found in the emerging German presence in Turkey prior to the massacres. Militarily, between 1885 and 1888, huge Krupp cannon were put into place to guard the Dardanelles Straits and the Üatalca defense line north of Constantinople. Upon request, Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, sent some of his best officers to reform the army, including General Colmar von der Goltz of later fame as commander of the Ottoman forces in Arabia during World War I.

When the Ottoman government entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Germany became virtually the official protector of the Ottomans. German military leaders like von der Goltz actively encouraged the development of a religiously, if not ethnically, homogenous Ottoman state. German military officers, in fact, participated in the planning and implementation of the 1915 and 1916 deportations, especially of Armenians working on the Berlin-Baghdad railway under German supervision.

The Holocaust

It has been suggested by contemporary historians that the abetting or permitting agent in the case of the Holocaust was the Vatican. There were several elements to the Realpolitik of Eugenio Pacelli, papal nuncio in Munich between 1917 and 1930, Cardinal Secretary of State between 1930 and 1939, and Pope Pius XII thereafter until his death in 1958. Most important was a virulent anti-communism that demanded the subordination even of national Catholic interests for purposes of defeating the larger threat of Soviet-inspired communism.

As Cardinal Secretary of State, Pacelli had the opportunity to formulate Vatican foreign policy. According to commentators, in that position he was decisive in silencing the German Catholic Center Party that could have provided the only coherent opposition to the Nazi Party. The Nazis were seen by Pacelli as the only effective bulwark against the western expansion of communism from its Soviet base.

Left to its own devices, the Center Party likely would have remained committed to a pluralist democracy, as it had committed itself at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. The last functioning chancellor of the Republic, Heinrich Brüning, a leader of the party and a devout Catholic, was thoroughly committed to parliamentary democracy and utterly opposed to concordats with totalitarian regimes. As chancellor, he also had been opposed to Pacelli's notion of a concordat that had centralized papal ecclesiastical authority at the core of German Catholic decision-making instead of local needs and desires. After Hitler's accession to power, Brüning desperately argued against the concordat that would have depoliticized German Catholicism. His opponent had become the leader of the Center Party, Ludwig Kaas, a Jesuit priest and an intimate of Pacelli, increasingly under his influence. Kaas argued that a concordat with Hitler would better serve the German Catholic Church than its continuance as a political minority opposed to Nazism.

With a simple stroke on July 20, 1933, the Reich concordat was signed, the Center Party was disbanded for good, and Hitler expressed the chilling opinion that the concordat would be "especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry" (Scholder, 1987, p. 404). For the sake of erecting a central European bulwark against communism, Pacelli effectively silenced the only potential large-scale opposition to Hitler's violently anti-Semitic program. Additionally, during the Holocaust the Vatican was almost entirely silent in its public statements on the mass murder of the Jews. In December 1942, at the end of a long Christmas radio message, Pacelli, by then Pope Pius XII, did refer briefly to the need to restore a just society, partly because of the deaths of large numbers of people as a result of their nationality or descent. Not mentioned were anti-Semitism, the genocide of the Jews, or the identity of the perpetrators. After the roundups and deportations of Italian Jews in the autumn of 1943, many Catholic institutions in Italy opened their doors to Jews seeking to evade the Nazis. But had the Pope openly condemned the Nazi genocide, many more Christians might have been encouraged to help Jews in distress throughout occupied Europe, Jews might have been more likely to go into hiding because of the assumed veracity of the papal source, and many more lives could have been saved.

The Genocide of the Tutsi

Finally, in the case of Rwanda, France, another European superpower, was the principal agent in establishing a permissive context. In accordance with the Realpolitik model, Rwanda, precisely because of its franco-phone status and widespread Roman Catholicism, was in the process of inclusion in the French-dominated African community. It would be the first such country not to have experienced French colonial rule. On the negative side, there was potential opposition stemming from anglophone African states, especially Uganda, home base of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel organization that invaded Rwanda in 1990. According to Gérard Prunier (1995), the French were reacting to the so-called Anglo-Saxon threat. The confrontation between the heirs of "les Anglais" and the French in Africa has been dubbed the "Fashoda syndrome" by Prunier, after the 1898 confrontation between English and French troops in southern Sudan. He asserts that this syndrome is the main reason why France intervened so quickly and so deeply in the Rwandan crisis.

Equally, if not more important, for understanding the genocide in Rwanda is the amount of French military aid and troop training supplied to the Rwandan army. Arms and ammunition had been continually supplied, but beginning in early 1993 as many as twenty tons of material per day were sent. According to both French and Tanzanian military intelligence sources, the RPF offensive stopped short of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, in February 1993, only because of the presence of French troops in the vicinity.

Officials in France, Belgium, the United States, and the United Nations (UN) were well aware of the possibility of mass killing, yet did little if anything to stop it. France was in the best position to intervene, but did not. Indeed, when President Francois Mitterrand, the intimate of President Juvenal Habyarimana and architect of France's Realpolitik policy in Central Africa, was asked by a journalist about the genocide, he answered: "The genocide or the genocides? I don't know what one should say!" (Prunier, 1995, p. 339), as if there existed a symmetry between Hutu and Tutsi behaviors during that period. One might just as well have argued that the German mass murder of Jews was occasioned by the Jewish mass murder of Germans.


The cynical variant of Realpolitik identified here is a necessary adjunct to the brute force variety. By establishing a permissive context for the genocide, opposition groups both within the targeted state and without are weakened in their resolve to oppose the perpetrators. At the same time the perpetrators are strongly encouraged to wreak their destruction, as was Hitler after the concordat with the Center Party. Agents with either moral or political authority, or both, can be extremely influential in this regard. The theory of realism with its policy adjunct, Realpolitik, sensitizes us to the potential cynicism of international actors having their own state-centric interests.

SEE ALSO Explanation


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Zuccotti, Susan (2000). Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Manus I. Midlarsky

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