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Ethnic Cleansing









Cultural diversity within the same state or society has often led to problems of accommodation in sharing space and designing an acceptable form of governance. With few exceptions, nearly all of the 187 countries of the world are polyethnic, with about 40 percent comprising five or more ethno-national communities. This proliferation of ethno-national groups within states has resulted in numerous internal struggles, which in turn have generated costly humanitarian crises and created millions of refugees. Among the more nefarious tactics for coping with ethnocultural diversity, apart from genocide and partition, has been the policy called “ethnic cleansing.” This peculiar practice involves a deliberate and often planned program of forcible removal and expulsion of an ethno-cultural community from its homeland and territory. The term itself is derived from the Serbian-Croatian phrase etnico ciscenje. It emerged in the early 1990s during the Bosnian-Yugoslav war, and it has since become generalized and popularized for any similar practice by any perpetrator, not only in relation to contemporary ethnic conflicts but for all structurally similar conflicts throughout history.

Episodes of ethnic cleansing have generally been marked by violence and egregious human rights violations and atrocities. The “cleansed” community is compelled to leave, usually on very short notice, and they are transported to inhospitable regions, with many dying along the way. The intent, however, is not to physically eliminate the community, as in genocide, but to remove it from a territory. The brutal methods employed, however, often border on the genocidal. The context of a security threat or war, either before or after the event, usually offers the cover for the cruel and callous mass removal of the victims to inhospitable or dangerous destinations. Often implicated as ethno-cultural factors are ethno-racial motives and patterns.


In ethnic cleansing, the target may be a group that is perceived as possessing a distinctive way of life, or it may simply be an ethnic or ethno-cultural community. Ethnicity can be defined as a collective group consciousness that imparts a sense of belonging and is derived from membership in a community putatively bound by common descent and culture. The ethnic group is thus a cultural community, an intimately interactive society of shared symbols and meanings, and, as Walker Connor notes, it is “the largest group that can be aroused, stimulated to action, by appeals to common ancestors and to a blood-bond” (Connor 2004, p.23). Generally, ethno-cultural communities in polyethnic states tend to stake their claims to a distinctive identity by attributing to themselves in their narratives of origin not only cultural and historical differences, but also racial myths of superiority over rival groups.

The term race, as used here, refers to socially constructed categories assigned to putative physical and biological human differences, which tend to establish structures of inequality and political hegemony (UNESCO 1951). In many cases, racial claims in the construction of cultural identities tend to be quite explicit, as in apartheid in South Africa. In many other cases, however, the racial aspect is less evident and intermixed with other factors. It is also frequently denied altogether. Some communities that are deemed “ethno-racial” are actually recent inventions, as in the case of Rwanda. In the nineteenth century, colonial conquest, accompanied by European theories of scientific racism, led to the creation of many “racial” categories among colonial peoples.


Many economic, strategic, religious, and other justifications have been advanced by perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Outright racial reasons have also been used. Under the apartheid system in South Africa, for example, this involved the uprooting of African peoples and the setting up of segregated residential townships and “homelands.” In nineteenth-century Europe, the development of so-called scientific theories of racial differentiation and hierarchy served to justify the forcible displacement and expulsion of indigenous and colonized Third World peoples from their homelands. In 1797 the British expelled the indigenous Caribs from St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean because they offered sanctuary to escaped slaves. The people of St. Vincent were removed to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. The larger context for this action was a concept of racial categorization in which a militarily superior European group could displace a black community deemed to be inferior.

Similar racial categorizations allowed the indigenous peoples of North America to be pushed into the interior hinterland and finally consigned to reservations. While mainly executed under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, there were numerous cases of Native Americans being forcibly uprooted and relocated. The practice of expelling native peoples from their land to peripheral areas was also enacted in conjunction with the establishment of white settler colonies in Africa, South America, and Australia. In Tasmania, systematic displacement eventually led to the virtual liquidization of an entire aboriginal community.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing, ranging from internal psychological drives to materialistic and rationalistic economic propositions. Perhaps the best known of these theories focuses on the idea of “ancient hatreds” to account for the periodic resurgence of ethnic strife in certain regions, such as the Balkans. Ethnic cleansing is thus linked to deeply embedded animosities. Implicit in this explanation is the idea of descent, or blood, suggesting an inherent feature inscribed in the rituals, historical narratives, and cultural symbolism of these communities, and implying a natural and recurrent trajectory of revenge and retaliation. Yet in an empirical investigation on the recurrence of ethnic cleansing worldwide, John Fearon and David Laitin found that in sub-Saharan Africa, where all states are multiethnic, “there are only a few cases of murderous ethnic cleansing” (Fearon and Laitin 1996, p. 21).


Another notable explanation of ethnic cleansing identifies nationalism as the key factor. In this proposition, the idea of “territory” has become connected with the cultural and linguistic uniformity of the state. Nationalism thereby becomes a homogenizing element, with national identity as the acid test of belonging. Each of the major European states, although populated by several minorities, has a dominant ethnic core so that the imperatives of nationalism, in sanctioning the demand of each ethno-cultural people for its own state, create a justification for mass expulsion, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Hence, since the inception of the nation-state, there have been waves of ethno-nationalist movements accompanied by mass expulsions and ethnic cleansing.

After World War I, with the dissolution of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, the principle of ethno-national self-determination guided the creation of several new states that required the transfer of several minority groups. Under the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, compulsory population transfers between Greece and Turkey occurred, involving 1.5 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. Under the Neuilly Treaty of 1919, some 100,000 Bulgarians and 35,000 Greeks were exchanged between Greece and Bulgaria. Under the Potsdam Protocol of 1945, German minorities in certain European nations were forced to migrate back to German soil. This movement of some 12 to 16 million persons expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia remains the largest mass expulsion in history. Finally, after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, some three million persons were displaced as Croats, Serbs, and Muslims took turns—each often using mutually dehumanizing racio-cultural slurs and categories—cleansing claimed territory of their communal adversaries. It was from these campaigns of terror and inhumane brutality that the Croat-Serbian term ethnic cleansing was coined.

In implicating the state as a main culprit of violence against minorities, especially through ethnic cleansing, not only have nationalism and industrial technology been implicated, but so has the principle of democracy. According

to this view, majoritarian democracy, combined with the statist ideology of nationalism, offers a potent justification for the expulsion and repression of minorities. Michael Mann has argued that in the making of contemporary liberal democratic states in the West, especially settler democracies like the United States, “murderous ethnic cleansing” was pervasive. “The countries inhabited by Europeans are now safely democratic, but most have been ethnically cleansed” (Mann 2005, pp. 4–5).


Many theorists of ethnic cleansing have singled out the ethno-religious factor as paramount. Andrew Bell-Fialkoff argues that in ancient times religious diversity and tolerance were the norm, and that population cleansing was mainly motivated by economic gain and political power. Following this period, with the emergence of Christianity and Islam as universalizing faiths linked to the state and the territory of empires, religion became politicized and the main marker of identity and belonging. As a result, religious fervor and intolerance became widespread, compelling conversion, expulsion, and even massacres. Hence, the First Crusade (1096–1099) left wide swaths of territory cleansed of Muslims and Jews. The expulsion of Jews from various parts of Europe, including expulsions from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, is a well-known example of ethno-religious cleansing. After the Reconquista in Spain, expulsions of Muslims and Jews occurred from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries. When the Christian Church suffered its major schismatic division following the Reformation, religious wars between Catholic and Protestant forces, especially in France and Germany, led to numerous massacres and expulsions. Noteworthy is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France in 1572, as well as the dispersal of French Protestants after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Other notable cases of European ethno-religious cleansing refer to the expulsion of the Catholic Irish from Ulster between 1609 and 1641, when their land was taken over by Scottish and English settlers. Religion also played a pivotal role in the Balkan Wars in the 1880s, when the pushing back of the borders of Ottoman Empire saw the wholesale expulsion of Muslims. In the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, widespread ethno-religious expulsion and exchanges occurred, including the large-scale movement of Armenians and Greeks from Anatolia and other areas. In the twentieth century, the partition of India to create two separate states, India and Pakistan, led to extensive ethnic cleansing as millions of Hindus and Muslims were removed from their old communities. Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, the civil wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, and Croatia saw widespread ethnic cleansing with a religious motive. In Kosovo, both Albanians and Serbs took turns forcibly removing one another. In the twenty-first century, religious differences between Muslims and Christians have played a pivotal role in the murder and cleansing that has occurred in Darfur, Sudan. Hence, while the religious variable is rarely the sole motivator, it often offers a justification for economic and political greed.

Quite frequently, religion is combined with other factors to justify the mass expulsion of a group. For instance, religion and economic interests have featured in European colonization projects that included the displacement of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, and Africa. These settlers saw the acquisition of the land of native peoples as divinely ordained, while it simultaneously served economic interests and provided land for settlement.


Economic motivations for ethnic cleansing, including the expropriation and looting of property of the victims, have accounted for the forcible displacement of ethno-cultural communities. Among the most frequent claims by perpetrators of ethnic cleansing is a demand for equity and rectification in the face of exploitation and unjust gain by the other group. In culturally plural societies, this proposition relates to the perception of comparative collective shares and benefits that the communal groups enjoy relative to each other. Any perceived incidence of inequality assumes a particularly piquant and penetrating quality that can awaken images and stereotypes of rival ethno-cultural communities in the same state. Many of the claims of an aggrieved community, which could be the majority ethno-cultural group against a relatively more prosperous minority group marked off by religion and culture, seem to be elucidated by this dynamic. Both the Chinese in Indonesia and the Asian Indians in Uganda were deemed economic exploiters and expelled. In part, the displacement of the Armenians and Greeks by the Turks after World War I was driven by jealousy because these groups were relatively more prosperous and industrious than the majority Muslim population.


Political and strategic explanations have often taken center stage in elucidating ethnic cleansing. Included in this category are security and power perspectives. Essentially, as a political act of power, ethnic cleansing incorporates multiple motives of a military and strategic nature, as well as political acquisition and consolidation, economic aggrandizement, land settlement, cultural domination, racial discrimination, greed, and jealousy. In the Ottoman Empire, which was ethnically diverse, Armenians and Greek communities located in frontier or strategically significant regions were removed. Stalin’s uprooting of the Chechen-Ingush peoples in the Caucasus during World War II was similarly motivated. Among the most prominent of the ingredients that enter into the calculus for territorial cleansing, apart from military-strategic interests, is the creation of a culturally homogenous state.

State creation that seeks congruence between territorial claims and cultural uniformity has already been discussed under the rubric of nationalism. Population transfers became part of the process of establishing more homogenous states with cruel expulsions and uprooting being part of the process, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian empires after World War I and with the defeat of the Axis powers after World War II. With the growth of industrial technology in the well-organized centralized states, ethnic cleansing became more complete and bordered on genocide. The twentieth century witnessed the worst cases of large-scale ethnic cleansing culminating in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed leaving some 25 million ethnic Russians living outside of their homeland. Many of these Russians, though they had resided in these other countries of the Soviet Union for many years—even generations—were subject to overt and covert pressures by the liberated states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and forced to leave. Likewise, when the Yugoslav state disintegrated there was a massive displacement of peoples. In the twenty-first century, ethnic cleansing continued in Darfur, Sudan, as well as in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias expelled each other from their regions and neighborhoods.


Overall, several controversies and areas of ambiguity surround the use of the term ethnic cleansing. Are instances of the phenomenon always violent and swift? As a deliberate and planned policy of population transfer, can it not also be gradual and nonviolent? Among the nonviolent methods that can be applied, a state can deploy discriminatory policies and sanction unofficial abusive tactics to pressure an ethno-cultural community to migrate voluntarily. In Fiji, for example, after the military coup of 1987, the new regime—claiming to be guided by Christian principles— resorted to religiously discriminatory policies and terrorist tactics aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the Asian Indian community, the members of which were mainly Hindus and Muslims. Over the course of a few years, with procedures simplified for their departure, Indians went from being the majority population in Fiji to being only 35 to 37 percent of the population.

Another question is whether the removal of an ethno-cultural community has to be officially planned and executed to qualify as ethnic cleansing. The use of terrorist tactics by thugs and paramilitaries can be condoned with impunity, for example, while a complicit governing regime denies any involvement.

In practice, it is not always clear that ethnic cleansing is a distinct category. It often seems to shade into other related practices, such as genocide and pressured migration. The term genocide was first coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Russian lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent. It is defined by the United Nations as a criminal act aimed at destroying, in whole or part, an ethnic, religious, or national group. What distinguishes it from ethnic cleansing is the intent of genocidal acts to exterminate a community rather than transport them to another area. Periodically, however, during the frenzy to uproot and remove an ethno-cultural community, as in the cases of the expulsion of Germans after World War II and the Armenians and Greeks during World War I in Turkey, methods may quickly degenerate from nonviolent pressure to open massacres suggestive of genocide. It thus seems to fit in a continuum of methods ranging from the most indirect and subtle, such as policies of multiculturalism and assimilation, to the most brutal, such as physical extermination. Likewise, the intent of the perpetrators can alternate between displacement and genocide. Given the wartime context and aura under which most programs of ethnic cleansing tend to occur, the role of old prejudices and the settling of scores can be concealed from view, as can greed for the easy acquisition of the property and wealth of the victims. Official strategic justifications can thus obscure the true intent of perpetrators.

Generally, the racial aspect of ethnic cleansing raises fundamental issues in the general scholarship pertaining to race, culture, and biology. The biological perspective, in which genetic heredity and phenotype are paramount, is often embedded in a culturalist idiom. This means that many of the ethno-cultural conflicts in which the expulsion of minorities occurs should be categorized as ethno-racial as well. All of this suggests that race, as an idiomatic expression of culture, is a much more pervasive feature of social relations and constitutes a silent subtext in many conflicts, including ethnic strife in the industrial countries of the West. In effect, in many ethnic conflicts that are not manifestly focused around racial categorization, the claims and identities created by ethnic groups have a subtext that includes a belief in some sort of common descent. In the contemporary international context of widespread media exposure it is difficult to conceal ethnic cleansing, but the true intent of perpetrators remains, such that many brutal acts of murder and mayhem seem to border on genocide. The case of Darfur in the Sudan is such an example.

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Genocide; Genocide and Ethnocide; Genocide in Rwanda; Genocide in Sudan; Holocaust; Mayan Genocide in Guatemala; Social Problems.


Appiah, K. Anthony, and Amy Gutmann. 1996. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew. 1996. Ethnic Cleansing. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Bulmer, Martin, and John Solomon, eds. 2004. London: Routledge.

Connor, Walker. 2004. “A Few Cautionary Notes on the History and Future of Ethnonational Conflicts.” In Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism, ed. Andreas Wimmer, et al. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Fearon, John D., and David D. Laitin. 1996. “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation.” American Political Science Review 90 (4)715–735.

Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Naimark, Nornam M. 2001. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Premdas, Ralph. 2004. “Belize: Identity and Ethnicity in a Multi-Ethnic State.” Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism 31 (1-2): 1–21.

———. 1997. Ethnic Conflict and Development: The Case of Fiji. Aldershot, U.K.: Avebury Press.

UNESCO. 1961. The Race Question in Modern Science: Race and Science. New York: Columbia University Press.

Várdy, Steven Béla, and T. Hunt Tooley, eds. 2003. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ralph R. Premdas

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Ethnic cleansing is similar to the main term used to describe Joseph Stalin's terror, chystki (purges), as well as Adolf Hitler's word for racial "hygiene," Säuberung. The term cleansing appeared in various languages (Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian) in the 1940s in the context of national violence. In the 1990s a mass viewing public was introduced to practices known as ethnic cleansing as they took place. During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the term ethnic cleansing found its way from Serbs to the world mass media. The term opened new paths of interpretation of the history of Europe in the twentieth century. In general, these emphasized the continuity of national violence, the connections between the First and the Second World Wars, the similarity of practices between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the importance of war in the social history of modern Europe.

There is no accepted definition of ethnic cleansing as a term of scholarly investigation, although it is perhaps most often used in the sense of "coercive actions justified in national terms designed to clear territories of putatively undesirable populations without aspiring to their total physical extermination." Ethnic cleansing occupies a middle position between voluntary migration and total genocide. People can be ethnically cleansed without being killed, although the credible threat of murder is a basic tool of ethnic cleansers. Ethnic cleansing refers to the cleansing of a territory rather than the cleansing of a population. It and similar expressions are employed in a military or partisan context, when forces are used to eliminate civilians and thus putatively secure territory. As a term of analysis, ethnic cleansing captures the willingness to use force, which need not include the aim or desire to murder the entire population. The perpetrators of ethnic cleansing are usually acting on behalf of a state, although in some important cases they have been revolutionaries or partisans.


If ethnic cleansing is analytically distinct from earlier forms of politically motivated mass violence against civilians, this is because it contains a certain modern assumption about the national identity of populations. Modern nationalists believe that legitimate political power over a given territory flows from the national identity of its inhabitants. Many modern nationalists also believe that the national identity of populations is determined by factors that transcend human choice, such as mother tongue or family origin. These two views, taken together, are usually referred to as ethnic nationalism. Ethnic cleansing is a practical reconciliation of these two ideas of the nation and power. If political legitimacy rests with the nation, and the nation is defined in ethnic terms, minority groups have a poor claim to political rights. Yet political actors who express such views can rarely put them into practice, absent other favorable circumstances. These ideas may be more or less widely held, but they will generally seem more cogent at moments of threat, especially in times of war. Ethnic minorities connected to foreign powers during warfare are at special risk.

Over the course of the twentieth century, ethnic cleansing has taken place in much of Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, from the Rhine to the Volga. Although the circumstances and actors present a tremendous variety, most cases, when examined closely, exhibit most or all of the following conditions: (1) the prior collapse of state authority; (2) the cover of a larger war or the plausible threat thereof; (3) the practical anticipation that the political map of the region in question can be redrawn, borders changed, and new states created; (4) the presence of a dedicated and committed group of ethnic cleansers, usually at work far from home; (5) historical propaganda that only seems plausible because of ongoing cleansing, and that seems to justify that cleansing projects be completed; (6) a conscious escalation by dedicated propagandists, who seek to transform the individual experience of loss into a social commitment to national war; (7) a property motive that attracts and implicates large numbers of people who have no apparent political or ideological motivation.

The popular explanation of ethnic cleansing, which also became current in the 1990s, can be summarized as "ancient hatred." Yet the very idea that the groups who cleanse and are cleansed are ancient is itself an artifact of modern nationalism. That such an explanation found credulous listeners testifies to the persuasiveness of nationalism itself. Even if national groups were antique and ever hostile, such a presentation of the issue can never provide an explanation of a given episode of ethnic cleansing. If the existence of ethnic groups and their hostility are taken as constants, they cannot explain the variable: a sudden eruption of forced population movements. In most recorded cases of ethnic cleansing in Europe, international or domestic political actors created, intentionally or unintentionally, a propitious moment for the expression of ethnic nationalism and the fulfillment of its program. At the level of high politics, those who resort to or profit from ethnic cleansing need not themselves be convinced ethnic nationalists. In some cases, especially in the communist world, leaders seek rather to divert national energy away from themselves.

At the level of society, ethnic cleansing, once it has been started, tends to self-perpetuate. Perpetrators initiated into murder and rape acquire the habit. Victims who respond with armed force, and even victims who flee, can be presented as evidence that the initial action of cleansing was justified. Since some kind of self-defense or revenge can be expected, ethnic cleansers consciously or unconsciously are targeting their own group when they attack another. Once attacks on civilians of different groups are underway, the question of blame becomes a matter of propaganda. In general, populations that are attacked will believe that they are the victims, even when organizations acting in their name initiated the violence. A situation can quickly emerge in which rival organizations kill civilians in the name of the self-defense of their own civilians. In some cases of ethnic cleansing, this moment of general violence seems to destroy older social norms of cohabitation and create fertile ground for the spread and reception of nationalist propaganda. In a situation that seems senseless, nationalism seems to provide an explanation for what is happening and a program for collective survival. In the proper conditions, an armed attack on a small number of civilians can become a war of nation against nation.

This dynamic of escalation well describes the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the Ukrainian-Polish ethnic cleansing of the 1940s, and the Greco-Turkish violence of the 1920s. It need not obtain in all cases. In Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the state carried out massive policies of ethnic cleansing at a moment when it enjoyed a monopoly or a near monopoly on the use of force. Soviet and Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing generally met little or no effective resistance. Yet even in such cases, many of the same conditions hold. Both Moscow and Berlin justified ethnic cleansing by the threat of war. Both, and especially Nazi Germany, radicalized their approach to enemy groups when war was actually underway. Both redrew the map of Europe, using national propaganda to justify their actions. Both deployed bureaucratic cleansers, trained security policemen or soldiers of paramilitary forces. In both cases, but far more in the German case than the Soviet one, venal motives drew in collaborators. People who are cleansed leave behind more property than the cleansers can themselves exploit. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, this motive of property was especially important. After the Red Army defeated the Germans, many Soviet citizens retained the apartments they had seized from murdered Jews.

One of the most controversial questions is the distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide. In a legal sense the question is badly put, because the legal definition of genocide is rather broad. It includes the motivated murder of part of a national group, for example. In this sense, almost all examples of ethnic cleansing are genocidal. Legally speaking, there can also be instances of genocide that do not involve ethnic cleansing. "Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group" is legally genocide if motivated by the intention to destroy that group. Such a policy need not involve ethnic cleansing. Even directly murderous policies of genocide need not involve ethnic cleansing. If part of a population (its educated classes, for example) is murdered in situ without the intention to expel the rest, this is legally genocide, but is not ethnic cleansing. In popular usage, however, genocide is sometimes taken to mean the attempt to exterminate an entire national or racial group. In this sense, not all episodes of ethnic cleansing are genocidal. The example of the Holocaust of the Jews, however, shows that episodes of genocide in this strong, popular sense of the term may be preceded by attempts at ethnic cleansing.


After Germany occupied western Poland in 1939, it encountered large Polish and Jewish populations. Between 1939 and 1941 Germans expelled a few hundred thousand Jews from the expanded Reich, and compelled their settlement into ghettos. At this time, the Germans ethnically cleansed more Poles than Jews and placed far more Poles than Jews in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. In the Jewish case, ethnic cleansing preceded a policy of total extermination; in the Polish case, it coincided with a policy of eliminating the educated classes. During this period, the German leadership considered what to do with the large Jewish population under German rule. Two of the plans discussed, expulsion east to the Soviet Union and forced transport to Madagascar, would have been further and more radical ethnic cleansing. Had they been carried out, they likely would have led to mass murder by neglect or starvation. The decision to murder all the Jews of Europe, taken after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was no longer ethnic cleansing. From autumn 1941 the German goal was no longer the removal of Jews from territory, but their total physical elimination as a people.

During the 1930s, Stalin ordered Soviet security forces to deport all or part of every national group that inhabited both the Soviet Union and one of its neighbors. The entire Korean minority, for example, was deported to central Asia. Poles were probably the first national group in the Soviet Union to be targeted as such for deportations. In 1936 some sixty thousand Poles were ethnically cleansed from the western border of the Soviet Union. Some one hundred thousand Soviet citizens were also executed in 1937 and 1938 for supposed contact with Polish intelligence. This episode, the bloodiest part of the Great Terror, cannot be defined as ethnic cleansing. Although Poles predominated in that number, members of other nations were killed as well. Something similar holds for the famine of 1933, in which millions of Ukrainians and others perished. By directing resources in one way rather than another, the Soviet leadership chose which Soviet citizens would starve to death. This was not a policy of ethnic cleansing as such, since there was probably no intention of cleansing territory. Ethnic cleansing provides a useful lens through which to see important policies, but does not exhaust the possibilities for state violence against national groups.

At the end of the Second World War, after direct contact with German policy, the Soviet Union modified its policies in one respect. Throughout the 1930s, no group was actually deported from the Soviet Union. The official hope remained that individuals and communities could redeem themselves in exile or in the gulag, and one day become loyal Soviet citizens. In 1944, for the first time, the Soviet Union dispatched some of its own citizens beyond its borders. Stalin deported Poles and Jews from the Soviet far west, from territories that had been Polish before 1939. As before the war, the concern after the war was the consolidation of communist power. The Soviet Union was anything but a national state. Its leaders, however, were perfectly aware of the importance of nationalism. Initial optimism that national loyalties could be channeled to communist faith by way of administrative concessions was exhausted by about 1930. The less optimistic view that national questions could be resolved by deportation and execution no longer held by the 1940s. By 1944 the Soviet Union had in effect conceded a defeat to nationalism, treating Poles and Jews in its western territories as inassimilable, their ethnic identity as determinative of their future loyalty.

The negative moral coloration of ethnic cleansing obscures an important fact of the twentieth century: that many states, not only Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, believed that the forced resettlement of peoples was justified for political reasons. In several cases, ethnic cleansing was actually regulated by treaty. The first such instance was apparently a treaty between Turkey and Bulgaria of 1913, which provided for the mutual transfer of civilian populations at the end of the Balkan Wars. Its implementation was interrupted by the First World War. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 regulated the mutual expulsions of Greeks and Turks after the Greco-Turkish War that followed the First World War. Mutual ethnic cleansing was already underway, and the treaty was seen as a way to regulate and civilize a process that should be brought to its conclusion rather than reversed. At Potsdam in 1945, not only the Soviet Union but the United States and Great Britain took for granted that the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe was inevitable and desirable for the cause of future peace. While Potsdam led to an informal agreement between great powers rather than a formal peace settlement, it nevertheless stands as an important example of the attempt to regulate a process of ethnic cleansing seen as desirable. The Soviet Union did sign formal agreements with its satellite regime in Poland regarding the transfer of Poles westward and Ukrainians eastward.

In the Europe of the twentieth century, only Soviet state power and ideology seem to provide an exception to the general observation that ethnic cleansing is enabled by war. If the ideologies most associated with ethnic cleansing are Nazism and communism, the points of temporal concentration are the First and Second World Wars. Major examples of the ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe are: (1) the Bulgarian-Greco-Turkish "exchanges" of 1913–1922; (2) the mass murder of Armenians in Turkey in 1915–1919; (3) the deportation of "enemy nations" by the Soviet Union in 1935–1938; (4) the expulsion of Poles and Jews from the expanded Reich by Nazi Germany in 1939–1941; (5) the deportation of "collaborating nations" by the Soviet Union during the Second World War; (6) the mass murder of Poles by Ukrainian insurgents in Volhynia in 1943–1944 and the Polish response; (7) the "repatriations" of Poles and Ukrainians between the Soviet Union and communist Poland in 1944–1946; (8) the forced resettlement of Ukrainians in communist Poland in "Operation Vistula" in 1947; (9) the expulsion of Germans (and some Hungarians) from Czechoslovakia in 1945–1946; (10) the expulsion of Germans from Poland in 1945–1947; and (11) the murder of Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars, and others in the Yugoslav wars of 1992–1999.

The United States, Britain, and their NATO allies fought a war against Yugoslavia (Serbia) in 1999 with the aim of halting ethnic cleansing. By the end of the century, ethnic cleansing was a term not only of perpetrators and victims but of scholars, reporters, diplomats, and human-rights activists.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Deportation; Genocide; Gulag; Holocaust; War Crimes; Warfare.


Browning, Christopher R. Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Ladas, Stephen P. The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. New York, 1932.

Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.

Naimark, Norman M. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Ther, Philipp, and Ana Siljak, eds. Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948. Lanham, Md., 2003.

Timothy Snyder

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Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is a relatively new term for the ancient practice of expelling a people, using a variety of means, from a geographic area to secure it for another people's exclusive use. The term began to be used extensively in an international context during the early 1990s in relation to the wars surrounding the collapse of Yugoslavia. It was a translation of a Serbo-Croatian phrase for the practice of using forced deportation, random attacks, and systematic rape to encourage people of a specific ethnic origin to leave a region. Ethnic cleansing was practiced to varying degrees by several sides in the conflict as a strategic goal to help establish ethnically homogeneous areas that could then be incorporated into a larger nation-state .

Since its use to describe events in Yugoslavia, the term has been widely utilized by reporters, international governmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and social scientists to characterize other ethnic conflicts, both current and historic. Distinguishing ethnic cleansing from related phenomena such as genocide and ethnically targeted governmental repression is not easy, and any effort to do so must examine the goals of the perpetrators. Ethnic cleansing is best understood as a conscious policy of population removal by a variety of means to achieve firm political control of a region by establishing "facts on the ground"; that is, establishing a strong position by removing people from an unwanted ethnic group.

Ethnic cleansing has not always been portrayed in a negative light. Certainly, many extreme nationalists throughout history have extolled the value of creating, by force if necessary, ethnically homogeneous areas that will help to build and defend a nation. More interestingly, some political scientists have suggested that the resulting separation of communities created by ethnic cleansing or population transfers may help to reduce ethnic conflict and promote peace. The majority opinion, however, both in the social sciences and among human rights organizations, is that ethnic cleansing is clearly a violation of human rights, and that international efforts must try to end or prevent ethnic cleansing from occurring and correcting the damage caused by it.

ethnic cleansing over the centuries

The transfer of population as a policy of war is almost as old as the recorded history of war. Assyria, one of the first historic empires (existing from around 2400 to 612 b.c.e. in the region of today's Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), practiced transfer of population as a regular policy of state to secure its hold on newly conquered areas. When Assyria conquered the Israelites in 722 b.c.e., the victorious Assyrians expelled a majority of the population, replacing the Hebrews with settlers from more politically sympathetic peoples. This policy of population transfer as a tool of empire building was practiced by other imperial powers that followed. In Europe during the Middle Ages and early modern era, the practice of ethnic cleansing frequently took on a religious cast, and the targets were most often Jews, who were expelled from England, France, Hungary, Austria, Portugal, and Spain (in this instance, along with the Muslim population).

The expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain was an important turning point, because scholars have identified this ethnic cleansing as central to Spain's formation as a state. Indeed, several scholars have argued that efforts to homogenize a population through ethnic cleansing or genocide have been essential to the formation of many states. Scholars who make this argument point not only to Spain but also to the persecution of the Huguenots in France, the forced relocation and killing of Native Americans in the United States from the 1830s to 1880s, and the English expulsion of Irish Catholics from the Ulster area of Northern Ireland during the 1700s.

treaty of lausanne

The expulsion of Greeks from Turkish lands and corresponding expulsion of Turks from Greek territory in the period between the two world wars is an example of ethnic cleansing as an attempt to stabilize international relations. The redrawing of European national boundaries at the end of World War I (1918) created several nation-states that contained large ethnic minorities. Mass transfer of these minority groups was proposed as a way to prevent ethnic separatist movements within the newly defined countries. The Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed on July 24, 1923, defined the political boundaries of Turkey and Greece, and required a population exchange between the two countries.

The population transfer involved 1.2 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. Although the exchange was supposedly peaceful and humane, it was in reality a harsh and brutal process. Many people died during their journeys, and Greece in particular was overwhelmed by a large number of diseased and starving people. The 1923 treaty had specified monetary compensation for people uprooted from their homes but these debts were never paid. Instead of easing relations between Greece and Turkey, the forced transfer of populations led to decades of bitterness and anger between the two countries.

The Spanish repression of Protestants in the Low Countries illustrates that it can sometimes be difficult for historians to differentiate ethnic repression from ethnic cleansing. More than a hundred thousand Protestants fled that area in the sixteenth century, but many other Protestants remained in the region. Although Spain did engage in religious and ethnic repression, it is not clear whether this particular policy qualifies as ethnic cleansing.

During the twentieth century, ethnic cleansing reached new heights; the old tools of expulsion, massacres, and deportations were superseded by the planned extermination of entire ethnic groups. One of the first groups to suffer this fate were the Armenians during World War I (1914–1918). The Armenians had previously endured an attempt at ethnic cleansing toward the end of the nineteenth century at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (1899–1922). During World War I Turkey renewed this effort to annihilate the remaining Armenians with particular vigor, representing one of the first genocides of the twentieth century. The war's end also witnessed other episodes of mass ethnic cleansing: Turkey's attempts to eliminate Greeks, Greece's attempts to obliterate Turks, and Bulgaria's attempts to kill off both groups.

The Nazi campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Jews began with their expulsion from Germany and the occupied lands, but it escalated quickly to an attempt to exterminate them as a people. The same could be said of Nazi policies toward the Roma (or gypsies). Nazi policy toward the Poles, however, more closely corresponded to the classic model of ethnic cleansing; the Third Reich expelled over a million Poles from areas that German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) wanted to incorporate into Germany.

the indian wars

Relocation and killing of Native Americans as official policies of the U. S. federal government occurred between 1830 and 1890. Before 1830 Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi interacted with the governments of individual states. During the presidential campaign of 1828, however, victorious candidate Andrew Jackson promised to achieve Indian removal: the relocation of Eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which ordered the relocation of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations to Oklahoma and Kansas. The Seminoles resisted removal, however, resulting in the Second Seminole War (1835–1842).

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U. S. Army was involved in a series of conflicts with the Native American tribes in the Great Plains and the Southwest. The so-called Indian Wars resulted from the country's rapid westward expansion and the closing of the frontier, in which the U.S. government gave away the Native Americans' land to homesteading pioneers traveling west from the former British colonies and Europe. Not only did this practice deprive the western tribes of their ancestral lands, it also drastically reduced available land upon which the relocated eastern Indians could be resettled. In addition, the farming practices of the pioneers threatened the buffalo with extinction, eliminating a major source of food and shelter for the Plains tribes. Many tribes chose to fight rather than give up their ancestral lands. The Indian Wars ended in defeat for the tribes and their relocation to reservations throughout the American West.

Native Americans regained political power in the 1970s, following several years of protests and court cases. As of the early 2000s, federal law regards Native American tribes as political communities with powers of self-government greater than those given to the U.S. states. The tribes are not, however, considered independent nations.

Aside from the Nazis, several other major examples of ethnic cleansing are associated with World War II (1939–1945) and its aftermath. The former Soviet Union ordered the deportation of Volga Germans, Crimean Tartars, and Chechens to Central Asia in 1944. At the war's end, Russian forces also expelled ethnic Germans from Eastern Prussia. In addition, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania expelled many ethnic Germans.

ethnic cleansing after world war ii

Despite the growth of human rights norms and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, ethnic cleansing remains a significant problem on an international scale. Europe continues to see cases of ethnic cleansing, such as the expulsion of ethnic Greeks from Turkish-occupied Cyprus and ethnic Turks from the rest of Cyprus after Turkey's invasion of the island in 1975. Toward the end of the 1990s, Yugoslavia engaged in policies of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo toward ethnic Albanians. After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened on the side of the ethnic Albanians, reverse efforts to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of all Serbs occurred. In Bulgaria during the late 1980s the government engaged in the expulsion and repression of those ethnic Turks who had remained after the forced removals of the interwar period.

Ethnic cleansing is not just a European phenomenon, however. Ethnic cleansing took place during the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947, with countless Muslims forced to flee to the north, and Sikhs and Hindus to the south. During the 1990s Armenia expelled all Azeris from the region of

Nagorno-Karabakh, laying claim to the entire region. Others have characterized the continuing ethnic repression in Sudan and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as examples of ethnic cleansing.

international response

Throughout most of history there was no immediate international response to episodes of ethnic cleansing, and international law remained silent on the issue. Starting with the development of rules of war and human rights law, however, this situation began to change. The practice is clearly illegal under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and qualifies as a crime against humanity as defined by the 1945 charter that established the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg, Germany. Even as international law was being developed after World War II, however, the 1945 Potsdam Conference, at which the United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and United Kingdom were key participants, authorized the expulsion of ethnic Germans from wide areas of Eastern Europe.

Indeed, for most of the second half of the twentieth century the international community's response to ethnic cleansing has been ineffective and mute. In a European context at least, this began to change with the end of the Cold War and NATO's involvement in the Bosnian conflict, which pushed all sides to come to peace terms and resulted in the repatriation of expelled peoples to their former homes. In the case of Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia, international involvement led to NATO forces remaining in both areas, policing the regions to maintain tenuous levels of ethnic peace, protecting ethnic minorities from ethnic majorities, and in some cases preventing the reverse situation. These conflicts in the Balkans, in fact, led to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which continues to prosecute those individuals involved in ethnic cleansing during the war.

See also: Crimes Against Humanity; Dictatorship; Genocide.


Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew. "A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing." Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993):110–122.

Kaufman, Chaim D. "When All Else Fails. Ethnic Population Transfers and Partitions in the Twentieth Century." International Security 23, no. 2 (1998).

Petrovic, Drazen. "Ethnic Cleansing: An Attempt at Methodology." European Journal of International Law 5, no. 3 (1994).

Preece, Jennifer. "Ethnic Cleansing as an Instrument of Nation-State Creation: Changing State Practices and Evolving Legal Norms." Human Rights Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1998).

Rae, Heather. State Identities and the Homogenization of Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Walling, Carrie Booth. "The History and Politics of Ethnic Cleansing." International Journal of Human Rights 4, no. 3 and 4 (Autumn–Winter 2000).

Victor Asal

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Ethnic Cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing came into common parlance during the war in Bosnia in the spring of 1992. It was initially used to describe the attacks by Serbs on Bosnian Muslims, which were undertaken for the purposes of driving the Muslims out of targeted Bosnian territory that was claimed by the Serbs. Eventually, the term was also applied to similar attacks by Croats against Bosnian Muslims, as well as, retroactively, the attacks of Serbs and Croats against each other during the fighting of the late summer and fall of 1991. In the winter of 1998–1999, ethnic cleansing was similarly used to describe the assaults of Serbian forces against Kosovar Albanians, which prompted an enormous refugee crisis and, subsequently, NATO military intervention. In 2004, Kosovar Albanians were accused of the ethnic cleansing of Serbs living in Kosovo. Beyond the Balkans, ethnic cleansing has also been used to describe attacks on native populations. In the Sudan, for example, the deadly fate of the people of Darfur at the hands of government-supported Arab militia has been documented as a contemporary case of ethnic cleansing.

From the outset of the war in Bosnia, some analysts challenged the validity of using the term "ethnic cleansing" as a euphemism for genocide. However, the term remains in use precisely to distinguish ethnic cleansing, which is considered both as a crime against humanity and a war crime, from genocide. The definition of genocide, codified in the UN Convention of December 9, 1948, and upheld in the International Courts formed for the purposes of trying criminals from the wars in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, focuses on the intentional murder of part or all of a particular ethnic, religious, or national group. The purpose of ethnic cleansing, by contrast, is the forced removal of a population from a designated piece of territory. Although campaigns of ethnic cleansing can lead to genocide or have genocidal effects, they constitute a different kind of criminal action against an ethnic, religious, or national group than genocide. The transcripts of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia frequently mention ethnic cleansing, but subsume it under the category of forced deportation, a crime against humanity that was widespread particularly in Bosnia. Genocide, on the other hand, has been much more difficult to prove in court, since it involves the intent to murder a part or all of a population. However, the mass murder of roughly 7,300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 has been designated by the court as genocide.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing occupy adjacent positions on a spectrum of attacks on national, religious, and ethnic groups. At one extreme, ethnic cleansing is close to forced deportation or what has been called "population transfer;" the idea is to get people to move, and the means are meant to be legal and semi-legal. At the other extreme, ethnic cleansing and genocide are distinguishable only by the ultimate intent. Here, both literally and figuratively, ethnic cleansing bleeds into genocide, as mass murder is committed in order to rid the land of a people. Further complicating the distinctions between ethnic cleansing and genocide is the fact that forced deportation often takes place in the violent context of war, civil war, or aggression. At the same time, people do not leave their homes peacefully. They often have deep roots in the locales; their families are buried in local graveyards. The result is that forced deportation, even in times of peace, quickly turns to violence, as local peoples are forcibly evicted from their native towns and villages and killed when they try to stay.

Ethnic cleansing takes on genocidal overtones not only at the initial point of violence. Victims often die in transit or in refugee camps at their destinations. The history of ethnic cleansing is replete with cases where transportation on foot in long treks, in rail cars, in the holds of ships, or in crowded buses causes severe deprivation, hunger, starvation, and death by disease. Disease-ridden refugee camps similarly contribute to the high mortality of people forced not just from their normal homes, but from their work places, their land, and their traditional sources of food and medicine. When international or state organizations are allowed to step in to help, they are often late and erratic with relief. As a consequence, the victimization of the ethnically cleansed cannot be said to cease once they have been chased from their homes.

Scholars argue about the modernity of ethnic cleansing, whether it is something that can be traced back to the origins of human history or whether it, like genocide, constitutes the kind of attacks of one nation, religious, or ethnic group on another that belong to the twentieth century. There are abundant examples from the ancient world, documented in Homer, as well as the Bible, where nations attack others for the purposes of expulsion. The medieval and early modern world saw countless examples of such expulsions—of the Incas and Aztecs of South America, of the Jews of Spain, the Albigensians, and the Huguenots. Settler and government attacks on the North American Indians, the Australian aborigines, and the African peoples by their colonial oppressors also could be classified in this way. In this sense, ethnic cleansing can be seen as a constant feature of human history.

Yet the twentieth century brought with it a number of aspects of modernity that made ethnic cleansing more virulent, more complete, and more pervasive. The development of the nation state and the end of empires gave the state unprecedented power, the ostensible mandate, and the means for attacking and transferring large, allegedly alien populations. The drive of the modern state to categorize and homogenize its populations has contributed to this phenomenon, as has its intolerance for economic or political anomalies within its society. Modern ethnic entrepreneurs, politicians ready to exploit ethnic and national distinctions through the media, have also played an important role. The development of integral nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century emphasized the racial essence of national groups, thus serving as a convenient ideological motivation for ethnic cleansing. The origins of industrial murder during World War I serves as the backdrop for a century of ethnic cleansing, as well as for the horrors of genocide.

Prominent cases of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century underline its modern character. The modernist Young Turk government attacked its Armenian population in 1915, forcing the vast majority on fearsome treks through the Anatolian highlands to Mesopotamia. These death marches were at the heart of the first widely recognized case of genocide in the twentieth century. At the end of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921–1922, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), at the head of the infant Turkish Republic, engaged in an ethnic-cleansing campaign against the country's Greeks. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 completed the process of the forcible transfer of the Greeks by confirming a "population transfer" between the remaining Greeks in Anatolia and the Turks in Greece. Hitler is known to have said on the eve of his murderous attack against Poland, August 22, 1939, "Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?" Certainly, the indifference of the world to the fate of the Armenians and Greeks gave Hitler every confidence that his planned attack on the Jews would rouse little opposition. Like the mutation of the Young Turk campaign of ethnic cleansing into genocide, one could argue that what started as a Nazi campaign of ethnic cleansing in the 1930s—the expulsion of Jews from Germany and Europe—ended in the genocidal mass murder of the Jews.

Other prominent cases of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century underline its murderous character. When Stalin and Beria decided to deport entire nations, such as the Chechen-Ingush and Crimean Tatars, from their homelands to Soviet Central Asia during World War II, there was no discernable intent to kill large numbers of these peoples. Yet the brutal processes of transfer and resettlement to barren and hostile lands served as the source of substantial mortality, perhaps as much as 40 percent of some of the peoples involved. Similarly, when the Polish and Czechoslovak governments decided at the end of World War II to forcibly deport their respective German populations, totaling more than 11.5 million people, as many as 2 million died, mostly from disease, exposure, and hunger. In both sets of cases, the modernity of the operations was evident in the completeness of the transfers, the nationalism that drove them, the state-defined legality that supported them, and the means of moving people from their homes. The transfer of the Germans should be seen as a case of ethnic cleansing, one that was given an international imprimatur by the Potsdam Treaty of July–August 1945.

Many of the characteristics common to ethnic cleansing over the course of the twentieth century are exemplified by the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. War itself serves as a cover for ethnic cleansing, offering the means and the strategic justification for its perpetrators. Yet the violence of ethnic cleansing goes beyond the rules of war and involves the brutalization, humiliation, and torture of victims. In the campaigns to drive out all Bosnian Muslims (Serbs, Croats, or Kosovar Albanians), the authors of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans also mimic the totalist preoccupations of earlier perpetrators. Attacks on women and mass rape, most notable in the case of the Serbian assault on Bosnian Muslims, similarly is often part of the general process of ethnic cleansing. Instances of robbery, theft, the killing of animals, the burning of homes, and extortion accompany ethnic cleansing, whether in the Balkans or elsewhere. The Yugoslav cases demonstrate, as do the others, that ethnic cleansing involves not just the driving out of a people, but the eradication of their culture, architectural monuments, and artifacts. The idea is to eliminate entire civilizations from targeted territories, along with the peoples who represent them.

SEE ALSO Bosnia and Herzegovina; Cossacks; Ethnicity; Ethnocide; Holocaust; Karadzic, Radovan; Kosovo; Massacres; Mladic, Ratko; Nationalism; Sri Lanka; Sudan; United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity; Yugoslavia


Bell-Fialkoff, A. (1996). Ethnic Cleansing. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Cigar, N. (1995). Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of 'Ethnic Cleansing'. College Station: Texas A&M Press.

Gellately, R., and Ben Kiernen, eds. (2003). The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hayden, R. M. (1996). "Schindler's Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Population Transfers." The Slavic Review 55(4):727–749.

Martin, T. (1998). "The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing." The Journal of Modern History 70(4):813–861.

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

Naimark, Norman (2001). Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ther, P., and A. Siljak, eds. (2001). Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, Boulder, Colo.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Norman M. Naimark

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Ethnic cleansing, once a term of perpetrators, has become a term of art in the study of population movements. The term spread to English and other languages from Serbian in 1992, as the mass media broadcast a label that was borrowed from the lexicon of Serbian perpetrators. Although ethnic cleansing may be a new coinage, variants involving cleansing as the purification of the nation are not. In fact, similar language was used throughout the twentieth century, by Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, and others. Indeed, Stalin's purges (chystki) could easily betranslated as cleansing, as could Hitler's racial hygiene (Säuberung).

Although use of the term in scholarly discourse remains controversial, its function is fairly clear. The term is most often used to mean something like "coercive actions justified in national terms designed to clear territories of putatively undesirable populations without aspiring to their total physical extermination." It thus occupies some of the broad middle ground between voluntary migration and genocide. Part of the analytical value of the term is precisely that it captures a willingness to use force that need not include the willingness to exterminate the entire population.

Ethnic Cleansing and National Politics

Implicit in the idea of ethnic cleansing is a certain modern nationalist view of history and politics. In most, if not all, versions of modern nationalism, legitimate political power in a given territory is believed to be vouchsafed in a mass nation. According to certain important variants of modern nationalism, national identity is determined by ethnicity, which is connected to language and family origin. Ethnic cleansing connects these two ideas. Political legitimacy over territory rests with the nation; the nation is an ethnic group; therefore it is reasonable to expel other ethnic groups from desired territory. Since the political execution of ethnic cleansing involves the realization of a certain idea, the analytic use of the term ethnic cleansing involves a judgment about motives.

Such ideas are only one of a set of necessary conditions for the actual event. Most cases of ethnic cleansing involve the following conditions:

  1. The prior collapse of state authority;
  2. The cover of a larger war;
  3. The practical anticipation of future states to be created;
  4. Dedicated cleansers, with military or police training, at work far from home;
  5. Historical propaganda that both requires cleansing to be plausible and justifies cleansing already underway;
  6. A conscious escalatory push by dedicated elites and propagandists, allowing individual experiences to be understood as a national war; and
  7. A motive for seizing property that implicates society after the cleansing has begun.

Ethnic cleansing has nothing to do with ancient hatreds. The idea that ethnic groups exist and are constitutive of national identity is modern. In recorded cases of ethnic cleansing, hostility did not simply express itself in violence. Rather, international and domestic political factors created a propitious moment for the expression of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalists then seek to use existing institutions, such as armies, police forces, or partisans, for new purposes. The cover of war and the habit of military discipline often facilitates the commencement of ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing, once begun, tends to self-perpetuate. Some perpetrators acquire the habits of murder and rape, and many construe the reaction of victims as a reason to continue. While political circumstances create the opportunity for ethnic cleansers to begin their work, the social world they create then allows ethnic cleansing to continue. The initiation of ethnic cleansing usually requires the breakdown of international order and the rule of law; its progress usually brings the destruction of local norms and customs.

By murdering individuals in the name of the nation, ethnic cleansers in effect target their own group for revenge. Once vengeance is taken, survivors on both sides will see the other as the aggressor, and propagandists can present both sides as nations. What began as an attack by a small number of people against certain localities becomes a battle of nation upon nation. With time, the property motive tends to become increasingly important. Leaders are ideologically motivated; their first followers often seek revenge; but others soon realize that coveted property is there for the taking. These dynamics are most important in cases where there are, or come to be, two national sides. In some cases of ethnic cleansing, the state or another actor enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly on force. Nazi and Soviet ethnic cleansing are the most important examples.

Ethnic Cleansing and International Politics

In many cases, ethnic cleansing is regulated by treaty, and comes to be seen as a matter of regulated population movements. Yet accords such as Lausanne (1923) and Potsdam (1945) serve to legitimize an ongoing practice. The first regulated the mutual expulsions of Greeks and Turks; the second the flight of Germans from Eastern Europe. Much the same can be said of the agreements between Turkey and Bulgaria (1913) and between the Soviet Union and communist Poland (1944). Although such agreements preserved the semblance of international order, they organized and legitimated ethnic cleansing that was already underway.

Because ethnic cleansing is associated with modern nationalism, it is a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Because it usually requires demanding permissive conditions, its main instances are associated with war, and especially world war. Major examples of ethnic cleansing include:

  1. the Bulgarian-Greco-Turkish "exchanges" of 1913–1922;
  2. the massacre of Armenians in Turkey in 1915–1922;
  3. the deportation of "enemy nations" in Stalin's Soviet Union in 1935–1938;
  4. the ethnic cleansing of Jews and Poles from Nazi Germany and occupied Poland in 1939–1941;
  5. the mass murder of Poles by Ukrainian insurgents in 1943–1944 and the Polish response;
  6. the forced mutual repatriations of Ukrainians from Poland and Poles from the Soviet Union in 1944–1946;
  7. the expulsion of the Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia in 1945–1946;
  8. the expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe in 1945–1947; and
  9. the murder of Bosnians, Kosovars, and others in the Yugoslav wars of 1992–1999.

It is impossible to rigidly separate ethnic cleansing from migration, on the one side, and genocide, on the other. Ethnic cleansing works in part by creating conditions in which people choose to leave a given territory. People need not have been coerced themselves to make such a decision. Ethnic cleansing in practice almost always involves acts of genocide, even if it falls short of the total destruction of a group. Ethnic cleansers may be indifferent to the survival of individuals; they may even wish to exploit them in some other locations, as with the resettlement of Ukrainians from Poland in 1947 or Stalin's pre-World War II cleansings. Yet ethnic cleansing may also provide a transition to full-scale genocide. In Hitler's Final Solution, policies of ethnic cleansing preceded a policy of total physical annihilation of Jews in Germany and the occupied territories. As the term ethnic cleansing has entered historical discussions, it has helped to shed light on the stages of Hitler's policy immediately antecedent to the Jewish Holocaust.

Soviet ethnic cleansing may be divided into two phases, before and after direct contact with German practices. Before and during World War II, Stalin deported all or part of nine "enemy nations" to the Soviet east. After World War II, Stalin deported all Poles west, across the newly expanded borders of the Soviet Union. In both cases, the motivation was the preservation of communist power and the creation of political calm, but the second involved accepting the need to remove groups not only from their homes but from the Soviet Union itself. The Soviet Union was not a national state, and neither were its constituent republics, but its leaders were aware of national questions, and sought to exploit or, at a minimum, defuse national questions. This new ethnic quality in postwar Soviet policy was part of a general trend, as the connection of homogeneity and stability came to be widely accepted.

After World War II, not only the Soviet Union but the United States and Britain accepted that ethnic homogeneity was needed for European peace. After the end of the Cold War, these perspectives changed. The United States, Britain, and their NATO allies prosecuted a war in Yugoslavia in 1999 with the express aim of bringing ethnic cleansing to a halt. Ethnic cleansing came to function as a term of both perpetrators and human rights activists, as a term of moral endorsement and moral opprobrium. The shock of the Yugoslav wars and the fact of a Western military response forced a reconsideration of the history of the twentieth century, in which ethnic cleansing as a social fact took a prominent place.

See also: Communism, Population Aspects of; Forced Migration; Genocide; Refugees, Demography of.


Browning, Christopher. 2000. Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge University Press.

De Zayas, Alfred M. 1977. Nemesis at Potsdam: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsion of the Germans: Background, Execution, Consequences. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ladas, Stephen. 1932. The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, Terry. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Naimark, Norman. 2001. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Renan, Ernest. 1996 (1882). "What is a Nation?". In Becoming National. trans. and ed. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny. New York: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, Timothy. 2002. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ther, Philipp, and Ana Siljak. 2001. Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Weber, Max. 1996 (1914). "The Origins of Ethnic Groups" from Economy and Society. In Ethnicity trans. and ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Timothy Snyder

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ethnic cleansing the mass expulsion or killing of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another. The term has been in use since the early 1990s, as conflict spread in the former Yugoslavia; it became particularly associated with the bitter fighting between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, and later with events in Kosovo.

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eth·nic cleans·ing • n. the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society.