Genocide: Proof of Concept
19 August 2010
Last June in Putting Ideas First I made a distinction between ideas that precede their concrete instantiation and ideas that are only formulated in order to express something that is already instantiated in the world. With the former class of ideas, when the idea comes first, there is possibility of a “proof of concept” — that is to say, the question arises whether the idea can be put into practice in the world, and a demonstration of this mundane efficacy is called “proof of concept.” This consideration wouldn’t even seem to arise in regard to ideas formulated in order to express pre-existing realities, but there may be a sense in which this is the case, and I will try to explain this.
It would seem to be a paradigmatic case of an idea that follows the concrete realization of a given state of affairs when one must coin a new word and define a new concept in order to understand and explain some historical phenomenon. I have argued previously that one of the things that made Marx a true visionary is that he saw the Industrial Revolution around him and saw that it was a revolution (in Blindsided by History), whereas most people simply responded to circumstances without realizing the extent of the transformation in which they were quite literally embedded.
It is relatively well known that the term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 (or, at least, first published in that year). In his report Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Lemkin introduced the term and defined it as, “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” This definition has the virtue of brevity, but further development of the concept has come from its extrapolation through earlier history, and the inevitable complexity of history has muddied the waters of the sententious clarity of Lemkin’s first definition. At present there is no definition of genocide that separates all historical instances of genocide from non-genocide in a way that has the agreement of all scholars.
In several previous posts I have mentioned Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Genocide and the Nation-State and A Political Theory of Genocide, inter alia). This book made a real impression on me, and I strongly recommend it, though I certainly did not agree with all of Goldhagen’s arguments.
I am thinking of Goldhagen’s book in this context because of the emphasis that he placed on the mistaken emphasis that others have placed upon the Nazi genocide and its distinctive technological, industrial, and modern character. And he is certainly right that many who write on genocide focus on the peculiarly “modern” character of the Nazi genocide, with its bureaucratic organization of “factories of death” — it is frighteningly like an evil twin of the actual industrial civilization that we inhabit daily, and many have found in this resemblance something deeply disturbing that is then projected onto industrialized civilization itself.
Goldhagen is right to point out that genocides can and do happen without the characteristically modern features that mark the Nazi genocide, but being right on this particular is not the whole story. There is a sense in which the Nazi genocide is a “proof of concept” of the very idea of genocide. While the Nazi genocide was not successful in exterminating the Jews, it was clear that it was conceived in this totalistic fashion, and it could be argued that explicit, conscious planning to exterminate an entire ethnic group, and the attempt to put this plan into practice, was in fact new in human history. The totalitarian mind not only seeks to regiment and regulate life according to totalitarian ideals, but it also seeks to regiment and regulate death according to totalitarian ideals, and it is this totalitarian conception of death that has given us conscious and explicit genocide.
There are many horrific events in history prior to the Nazis that seem to merit being called genocides ex post facto, and some of these were apparently premeditated instances of mass death. The obvious example of the Armenian genocide comes to mind. Perhaps a more obvious example was the desire to exterminate the Native Americans of the American West during the nineteenth century, and there are documents that suggest that those who directed the Indian Wars did explicitly seek the extermination of Native Americans. This is a large topic and cannot be discussed in detail here, so I won’t now attempt an argument but will simply assert that I see this as distinct from the mass killing that emerged in the twentieth century.
With the emergence of an explicitly formulated plan to exterminate an entire ethnic group and the social and technical infrastructure mobilized in order to put that plan into practice, we have an historical novelty. Before the Nazis there were horrors and brutality and cruelty aplenty in history. Hegel referred to the “slaughter bench of history,” but the Nazis proved that consciously formulated genocide is possible and can be brought close to being effectively put into practice. This is the sense in which I say that the Nazis provided a “proof of concept” of genocide. Genocidal practices in fact predated the Nazis, but the concept of genocide is distinct from practices that are in fact genocidal and it is this concept that the Nazis provided, as well as the proof of concept.
Everyone knows that first attempts at putting an idea in practice are not necessarily the simplest and most straight-forward implementations. That is why such an attempt is a proof of concept: simply a proof and nothing more. The first US test of a hydrogen bomb, the Ivy Mike test of 1952 was in this sense a proof of concept of a fusion reaction. The Ivy Mike test showed what was possible, but it was not a “bomb” in the sense of being weaponized, and later developments of the technology considerably improved the design of warheads that were weaponized as practical munitions.
The Nazi genocide was thus more complex, more technological, more industrialized, and more “modern” in a sense that it needed to be, but it was humanity’s first genuine foray into genocide conceived and understood as genocide. Once the Nazis had shown what was possible, others could follow with refinements that would make genocide far simpler and easier to implement. This is, in a sense, the weaponization of genocide. And I think that this is a fair way to describe many of the conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: as genocide weaponized.
Genocide has now become a recognized institution of human society, and is rapidly becoming a method of warfighting at its most brutal. No one is surprised today when genocidal means are employed to attain war aims, and thus we can extend Clausewitz’s famous aphorism defining war as the pursuit of policy by other means and assert that genocide has become one form of violence that is the pursuit of politics by other means.
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