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History’s early warning signs of genocide

By Ben Kiernan - posted Monday, 24 August 2009

The University of Queensland’s Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has launched a new program on the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, which it calls “the single most important element” of its mandate. The program’s leader, historian Deborah Mayersen, is the author of a Melbourne University doctoral dissertation entitled Countdown to Genocide.

The new Queensland program is part of a worldwide attempt to stop genocides by recognising early warning signs and acting to prevent them. In addition to tracking proximate causes of genocides, scholars and activists can draw on historical cases to identify possible perpetrators and propose timely preventive action.

History’s most extreme and most extensive case of genocide was the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Warning signs of a murderous project appeared well in advance. For example, as early as 1924, Adolf Hitler mused in his book Mein Kampf that during World War I, if only … “twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas”.


In addition to such proclamations, other warning signs, present in most genocides throughout history, also escaped much notice during Hitler’s rise to power. Besides racism and religious hatred, which in Hitler’s case combined in a vicious anti-Semitism, three other factors have recurred through the centuries. Genocidal leaders have often been preoccupied with antiquity and have envisaged themselves as heirs of a sometimes mythical ancient heritage. They have also been aggressively expansionist and have combined their hunger for territory with a conviction that only people of their own nationality and race are equipped to farm or use the land. Along with their historical fetishes and expansionism, this agrarian preoccupation often leads perpetrators to despise and distrust forest or city dwellers.

For example, in Mein Kampf, Hitler complemented his vicious anti-Semitism with early inklings of a historical fantasy. He conjured up a mythical, pristine, agrarian Germandom, whose people had supposedly once farmed and fought over large territories. He praised the ancient Arminius (“Hermann”), who annihilated Roman legions, as “the first architect of our liberty”. To Hitler, Roman history was “the best mentor,” and Rome’s genocide of Carthage in 146BC, the “execution of a people through its own deserts”. Classical Sparta was another Nazi model, “the first racialist state”.

Along with ancient precedents, Hitler fantasised about agriculture. “I’ve just learnt,” he remarked after invading the USSR in 1941, that Roman army rations were “based on cereals”. With new German agricultural settlement, Nazi-occupied Ukraine and Russia could become “the granaries of Europe”. Germans were more advanced, Hitler claimed, because “Our ancestors were all peasants”. The German peasant “zealously exploited … every inch of ground,” and “Nothing is lovelier than horticulture”. Besides, “A solid stock of small and middle peasants has been at all times the best protection against social evils.” Nazi agrarianism, which characterised Jews as town-dwellers, reinforced anti-Semitic hatred.

Similar telltale racist, rural, archaic and expansionist thinking can be detected through the centuries in the mindset of many other genocide perpetrators and may be spotted in advance by those seeking to prevent future catastrophes.

If this cluster of attitudes on Hitler’s part forewarned the worst genocide in history, it also accompanied one of the earliest. Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato, author of perhaps the first recorded incitement to genocide, “Delenda Est Carthago” (Carthage Must be Destroyed), was an expansionist and agrarianist, determined to preserve Roman rural values against mercantile threats like Carthage. While Cato claimed descent from Spartans, his work De Agri Cultura began: “it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected.”

Genocides of indigenous peoples around the world have also betrayed preoccupations with antiquity, agrarianism, and empire. In the United States, the slaughter of Native Americans lasted more than a century, through a variety of political regimes. Yet, the justifications for killing stayed remarkably similar. In 1838, the second president of the short-lived Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, abandoned his predecessor Sam Houston’s policy of reconciliation with Indians, and moved to exterminate Cherokees and Comanches. Lamar announced: “Our young Republic has been formed by a Spartan spirit. Let it progress and ripen into Roman firmness, and Athenian gracefulness and wisdom.”


Like Rome besieged by barbarians, Lamar saw Indians attacking Texas with “Vandalic ferocity”. He imagined the Republic, “her vast extent of territory, stretching from the Sabine to the Pacific, and away to the Southwest as far as the obstinacy of the enemy may render it necessary for the sword to make the boundary; embracing the most delightful climate and the richest soil in the world, and behold it all in the state of high cultivation”. The consequences were dire for Indians.

Yet California was possibly the most extreme case. After the US annexed it in 1845, California’s Indian population fell from more than 100,000 to only 15,000. The San Francisco newspaper Alta California predicted in 1850 that Indians would vanish “like a dissipating mist before the morning sun from the presence of the Saxon”.

The US governor of California predicted that “[a] war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct”. His successor repeated that unless Indians surrendered their lands, the state would “make war upon” them, “which must of necessity be one of extermination of many of the tribes”. A San Francisco paper agreed: “Extermination is the quickest and cheapest remedy.”

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This article draws on the author's August 5 lecture to the Sydney Democracy Forum, and on his recent book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale/Melbourne University Press). Blood and Soil won the 2008 gold medal for the best work of history, awarded by the US Independent Publishers’ association. In June, its German edition Erde und Blut won Germany’s Nonfiction Book of the Month Prize.

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About the Author

Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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