Utopian Ideologies as Motives for Genocide

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Utopian Ideologies as Motives for Genocide

Genocides have existed for as long as humans have recorded history. There are instances of the intentional destruction of an entire group of people in the Hebrew Bible, and the Romans destroyed Carthage in a manner that sought to make impossible the continued existence of Carthiginians. In the Middle Ages the papacy launched a crusade designed to annihilate physically every follower of the Albigensian heresy. Since the late fifteenth century instances of colonial genocides—in the Caribbean, North America, Australasia—have been entwined with the history of European expansion around the globe.

Some of these acts certainly had an ideological dimension. When the Israelites conquered Canaan and "devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old" (Joshua 6:21–24), they were, in the Bible's recounting, inspired by God and his promises to them as his chosen people. The medieval church also believed it was acting in God's name and for the cause of Christianity when it stamped out heresies. But more typically, other genocides were acts of revenge and retribution in war, as with the Roman conquest of Carthage, or simply efforts to obtain land and wealth. In the colonial period Europeans conducted brutal attacks on people considered inferior, but the motivation was generally control over resources. In these actions little evidence of a fully articulated political ideology existed.

In the twentieth century, however, genocides became more systematic, more extensive, and more deadly. They also became far more thoroughly imbued with an ideological character, with the claim, by perpetrators, that the utter destruction of an enemy group would pave the way toward a future of unlimited prosperity, uncontested power, and cultural efflorescence for the dominant group. In short, regimes that practiced genocide promised utopia to their followers.

The word utopia generally conjures up images of peace and harmony, of a society marked by well-being and cozy comfort. Thomas More's classic sixteenth-century fable Utopia (from which the word derives) conveys this vision, although More may well have been writing in an ironic mode. Many religious communities, such as the Anabaptists and Quakers, have seen themselves as the harbingers of the ultimate utopia, God's kingdom on earth. Nineteenth-century liberals and socialists also imagined a utopian world free of hostile conflict, one in which either the natural workings of the market or the social ownership of property would bring prosperity to all and, in the socialist version, social equality as well. Nationalists such as Guiseppe Mazzini believed that once every group had its own state, individual nations would flourish and create a harmonious community of nations.

Utopian goals of these kinds have never been fulfilled, but their advocates struggled mightily and contributed powerfully to many of the democratic and socially progressive advances of the modern era, from universal suffrage to the abolition of slavery to social welfare programs. However, there has also been an underside to utopianism. Invariably, its advocates have imagined a homogeneous society of one sort or another. In religious versions of utopia everyone would follow one god and one set of beliefs. In liberal utopias every country would operate according to the same market principles, and nationalists and socialists imagined each country possessing the same sort of political institutions.

These utopian visions have constantly come up against the sometimes harsh reality of human difference. For all the advocacy of equality many utopians presumed the inferiority of women. Nineteenth-century advocates of political rights and social equality often reserved these advances for men of property and the white race. The rest of the world, including eastern and southeastern Europeans in the view of some, was presumed to be too backward to excercise their rights responsibly, either because the populations had not yet reached the proper stage of development or were constitutionally inferior, usually by virtue of race, of ever reaching that level.

Utopianism became far more dangerous in the twentieth century because it so often was linked to mass-based social movements that seized power, established revolutionary regimes, and venerated the state as the critical agent of social transformation. By no means were all these states practitioners of the worst kinds of violence against civilian populations. At the same time the most prevalent perpetrators of genocides in the twentieth century were revolutionary regimes of either fascist or communist commitments (Nazi Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge) or states in the throes of some kind of uneasy revolutionary transformation (the late Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks, the former Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic, Rwanda under the Hutu).

The particular utopias these regimes or states advocated varied significantly. Yet every one of them envisioned a homogeneous society of one sort or another, which necessarily meant the expulsion or extermination of particular groups. Indeed, all these regimes claimed that utopia would be created only through the destruction of one or more enemy groups. The historian Saul Friedländer has coined the powerful term redemptive anti-Semitism to describe the Nazi hatred of Jews. According to the Nazis, Aryan life would flourish once Jews had been driven completely from the German realm. Similarly, one can see a kind of redemptive vision at work in the Young Turk attack on Armenians, the Khmer Rouge assault on Muslim Chams and Vietnamese, and the murderous actions of the Hutu against Tutsi. Each of these regimes promised their followers a brilliant future once the enemy was destroyed. The redemptive vision, the annihilation of one group as the decisive means for creating the future, marked the road to utopia.

The regimes defined by explicitly national or racial ideologies were most open about the enemy status of the "other." In a Nazi-dominated Europe so-called Aryans would stand astride a continent cleansed of Jews, while Slavs would be reduced to subordinate status. In the Greater Serbia envisioned by Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters, there could be no place whatsoever for Muslims and Croats. Even under some communist regimes, the differences among people would be reduced to mere exotica, whereas the fundamental institutions and life forms would be the same. Those who refused to follow the socialist path (Chechens and Tatars in the Stalinist Soviet Union, Cham and Vietnamese in Cambodia) would either be driven out or killed. All these genocidal regimes expressed in their propaganda and policies the sharp, binary distinction they drew between the goodness of the dominant group and the utterly benighted and dangerous character of the enemy population.

The Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917 fully confident that they could create a classless, egalitarian society. By clearing away the rubble of the past, they believed, the path would be opened to the creation of the new society that would permit the ultimate efflorescence of the human spirit. In Marxian terms the "realm of necessity" would finally be surmounted by the "realm of freedom," material prosperity in conditions of social equality would lay to rest all the pathologies of class-riven societies and the nefarious traits of individual human beings. Within the harmonious socialist society human freedom would develop in unimaginable ways, resulting in a society marked by unbounded prosperity and cultural creativity and the emergence of the new Soviet man and woman. However, the creation of that society first required the pursuit of the class opponents who would never be reconciled to the socialist vision.

From the civil war of 1918 and 1920 to the forced collectivization campaign of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviets developed a set of purge practices targeting entire population groups characterized as the enemies of socialism. Then in the 1930s and extending until Stalin's death in 1953, the designated enemies were increasingly defined as members of particular ethnic and national groups, including Koreans, Chechens and Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Jews, and many others. All of them were viewed as security concerns, but even more important, as somehow constitutionally resistant to the siren song of Soviet socialism. As Stalin elevated the Russian nation to the most heroic and progressive within the Soviet federation, certain other nationalities and ethnicities were assigned the typical Soviet language for outcasts: traitors, vermin, blood-suckers, parasites. This kind of biological language indicated a racialization of nationality and ethnicity, because virtually every single Korean or Chechen was seen to carry the nefarious traits within his or her body. Soviet socialism could only be saved by the purge of these groups, usually forced deportation in such horrendous conditions that the results were extremely high mortality rates.

The Nazis claimed that only Aryans were a "culture-producing" and economically productive people, who, therefore, were entitled to dominate others. Aryans are the "Prometheus of mankind from whose bright forehead the divine spark of genius has sprung at all times," Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. In contrast, Jews were a "culture-destroying race" who embodied filth and disease. Through their inherent, biologically driven desire for domination, they threatened to overwhelm Aryans. Hard-fought racial struggle, through which Aryans would demonstrate their mettle, was the path to the utopian future. This would be a war of annihilation in which one side would triumph and the other would be utterly destroyed. Aryan health and prosperity would be restored and become even greater through the victorious struggle against the Jews. With final victory Germany as a nation would be powerful, its rule uncontested, its domination feared. As a people, Germans would be productive and prosperous, the masters of nature through engineering and science, yet at the same time they would be able to revel in the retreat to a pristine natural order. Everyone would be joined in a racially homogeneous grouping, with healthy members and the elderly well cared for. This was the Nazi ideal of Volksgemeinschaft, the organically unified, racially select people's community that would create a new culture that brought together rural and urban, menial and intellectual workers. As Hitler claimed in 1937, "a new feeling of life, a new joy in life" and a "new human type" were emerging, with men and women who would be "healthier and stronger."

The post-World War II genocidal regimes also espoused utopia coupled with the utter castigation of those perceived to stand in the way of its fulfillment. On the second anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory, President Khieu Samphan depicted in bucolic terms a Democratic Kampuchea with freely flowing water, freshly flowering plants, and smiling people. Radio Phnom Penh described Cambodians of all sorts toiling together happily in the fields, harvesting rice, building dams, and clearing forests as they developed a new, prosperous, and egalitarian society. According to the Khmer Rouge vision, proper politics would enable Cambodians to vastly increase the rice harvest, and all of Cambodia's peasants would benefit from electricity and tractors. This was a developmental vision, but also a deeply utopian one in which efforts of will would surmount existing limits of production. "When a people is awakened by political consciousness, it can do anything," suggested one party slogan. Cambodians were to become "masters of the earth and of water," "masters of the rice fields and plains, of the forests and of all vegetation," "masters of the yearly floods."

With its completely collectivized society, Democratic Kampuchea had even surpassed the fellow communist states of China, Vietnam, and North Korea. But the enemies of the revolution, urban dwellers, peasants who retained "individualistic" views, and, especially, ethnic and religious minorities, were beyond the pale. They were deemed impure and unclean, and therefore threatened the health of the noble Khmer population. Echoing the biological language that both the Nazis and Soviets used, the Khmer Rouge claimed that enemies were microbes, which, if not removed, would burrow their way into the healthy population. Rotten, infected parts of the population had to be removed and eliminated, and this applied especially to the Vietnamese and Cham.

The leaders of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and 1990s also projected a utopian future based on the exclusive reign of one particular segment of the population, the Serbs. Over and over Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb nationalist leaders invoked the supposedly glorious history of Serbs and their tragic present, in which, it was claimed, Serbs were oppressed by the inferior peoples around them, whether Muslims, Croats, or Westerners of various stripes. Serbian Orthodox clerics associated with the national cause claimed that God looked down with special grace on the Serb people. Others claimed that Serbs were the "historic" people of the South Slav lands, who for hundreds of years had fought heroically against the Turks and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had led courageous struggles for democracy and national independence. Places of mixed ethnicity such as Sarajevo and Dubrovnik were thus sites of pestilence and prostitution. Muslims especially were called dogs, even packages or cabbages, particularly dehumanizing terms that perpetrators used to refer to their victims. Only an exclusive nation-state, cleansed of Muslims, Croats, and any non-Serbs, Serb nationalists claimed, would allow the potential of the people to burst forth in torrents of creativity and development.

Cleanliness and purity are terms that, necessarily, signify their binary opposites, the unclean and the impure. In all these instances, and others as well, such as the genocide of Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire, those who were considered unclean were an active source of pollution that threatened to contaminate the clean and the pure. Hence, they had to be at least quarantined and, in the most extreme cases, eradicated altogether. For some of the powerful revolutionary systems of the twentieth century, the dirt that anthropologist Mary Douglas famously described as "matter out of place" was, in fact, human matter, and it had to be eradicated through political action. In excluding "dirt," these systems were reshaping the very composition of their societies.

Such immense, wide-ranging efforts required the mobilization of populations, both as active participants and complicit bystanders. Regular security forces did not suffice for actions that involved the killing of hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. The active killers in the armies and internal security units were supplemented by paramilitaries, and also by the citizens who denounced their neighbors to the authorities and seized the property and possessions of those who had been deported and killed. In this manner twentieth-century genocides became social projects.

Utopian ideologies have often generated activism directed at a more humane and peaceful future. But the propensity of utopians to think in homogeneous terms, of creating societies devoid of difference, also lurks behind many of the massive violations of human rights that have occurred in the twentieth century. In so many instances the perpetrators of genocides were those who believed that it was indeed possible to create a future of unlimited prosperity and creativity once the enemies—so often defined in national or racial terms—had been eliminated. Utopian ideologies, alongside the immense organizational capacities of the modern state, helped to make genocides prevalent and the number of their victims staggering in the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO Cambodia; Developmental Genocide; Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; Linguistic Genocide; Milosevic, Slobodan; Pol Pot; Stalin, Joseph; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Utilitarian Genocide


Chandler, David (1991). Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Friedländer, Saul (1997). Nazi Germany and the Jews. Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939. New York: HarperCollins.

Kiernan, Ben (1996). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Popov, Nebojŝa, ed. (2000). The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Weitz, Eric D. (2003). A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Eric D. Weitz