24.07.2009 / 16:01 CET
The inflation of genocide
By Leonidas Donskis

A Lithuanian philosopher rejects political calls for the Soviet Union's slaughter of Lithuanians to be labelled an act of genocide.
Editor's note: Was the slaughter of Lithuanians by the Soviet Union an act of genocide? If so, should denial of the term ‘genocide' be considered criminal? The Lithuanian parliament is set, in the coming months, to consider precisely those questions. In this essay, without downplaying the horrors of Soviet rule, the Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis argues against application of the term. It would, he contends, be wrong historically, wrong legally, wrong conceptually. It is, rather, an example of our age's inflation of concepts – one that risks marginalising genocide. The essay also comes against the backdrop of the formulation of a law in Russia that would criminalise those who equate Stalin and Hitler or deny that the Red Army “liberated” eastern Europe from fascism.

We are living in an era of not only monetary inflation, but also of the inflation – hence devaluation – of concepts and values.

Sworn oaths are being debased before our very eyes. It used to be that by breaking an oath a person lost the right to participate in the public square and to be a spokesman for truth and values. He would be stripped of everything except his personal and private life, and would be unable to speak on behalf of his group, his people or his society.

Pledges have also suffered a devaluation. Once upon a time, if you went back on your word you were divested of even the tiniest measure of trust.

Concepts are also being devalued; they are no longer reserved for the explicit task of describing precise instances of human experience. Everything is becoming uniformly important and unimportant. My very existence places me at the centre of the world.

Genocide and its inflation
In my experience, the pinnacle of concept inflation was reached ten years ago, when I came across articles in the American press describing the “holocaust” of turkeys in the run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. This was probably not a simple case of a word being used unthinkingly or irresponsibly.

Disrespect for concepts and language only temporarily masks disrespect for others; and this disrespect eventually bubbles to the surface.

In recent decades, the concept of genocide has undergone a perilous devaluation. Here, I would like to stress that the devaluation of this concept has not been underpinned by a concern for humanity as whole or for the condition of contemporary humaneness; just the opposite – it is a symptom of the history of the revaluation of the self as the world's navel and, concurrently, of an insensitivity towards humanity.

Moreover, the immoderate use of this word threatens to stifle dialogue.

The concept of genocide
Genocide is a term used in philosophy, political science and sociology, but also in law; it is clearly defined in UN legal documents, and a precise definition of genocide exists in international law.

After the mass slaughter of national and ethnic groups by the Nazis, the term began to be used to designate the doctrine of deliberate extermination of national, religious or ethnic groups; and to designate the execution of this doctrine.

A genocide is the annihilation en bloc of a people or of a race, irrespective of class divisions, dominant ideology and internal social and cultural differences.

Genocide does not denote a battle against an enemy which, under conditions of war or revolution, is something that is clearly defined by classical military, ideological or political-doctrinal criteria.

If this were the case, any revolution, and the systematic annihilation of those opposing it, would need to be labelled genocide.

Genocide is anihilation without pre-selection, where the victims are utterly unable to save themselves – in theory or in practice – by an ideological change of heart, by religious apostasy or, ultimately, by betraying the group and going over to the other side.

On this view, let us then agree that the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris and the bloody killings of Huguenots throughout France; the terror unleashed during the Middle Ages by the Inquisition, which led to the murders of masses of women, witches, soothsayers, Jews and homosexuals; and the wiping out of entire village populations in the Vendée by French revolutionaries in 1789-94 – regardless of how harrowing all of this carnage was – did not amount to genocide.

Those people met with a barbarous end, but almost all could have saved themselves by going over to the side of their enemies or persecutors.

Genocide is both a theory and a praxis (although it is a praxis first and foremost) that leaves its intended victims without any hope of escape – even if they choose to go over to their enemy's side.

You are guilty at birth, and this fatal error of having been born – this original sin – can be corrected only by your extermination. Such is the metaphysics of genocide and absolute hatred. The only way of resolving the 'problem' is by the complete and utter annihilation of bodies, lives, blood and skin pigment.

In his Nobel address, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn compared nations to thoughts of God; it was the murder of this single God – which goes beyond good and evil and which promotes the destruction of the entire world – that is the true genocide.

It is a symbolic murder of humanity, because the annihilation of one form of human existence relegates the existence of other peoples to the margins of mere future practicalities.

Killing one person makes it that much easier to go out and kill others.

Genocide and history
There is no point in devaluing the concept of genocide through ratiocinations about the genocide of cultures and languages. Such phenomena, quite simply, do not exist – nor have they ever existed.

Until the 20th cenury, larger and more powerful states not only defeated but also assimilated smaller countries and nations, as much as we are loath to admit this.

Doubtless, the forced assimilation of individuals and nations is a repellent part of imperialism and of imperial politics as a spiritual principle; but it is not a crime against humanity once it becomes a routine and voluntary practice undertaken by the elites of smaller nations who later go on to rise to influence in the adopted metropolis.

After all, we cannot regard the history of all our civilisations as one ongoing crime and one endless genocide of some group or other. Whitewashing a concept benefits no one.

Whether we like it or not, the Holocaust was the one and only bona fide genocide in human history.

It was unique not only because of its scale, its praxis and its industrial methods of annihilation, but because of its determination never to call a halt to the Final Solution as long as a single Jew remained alive.

Ultimately, it was not a garden-variety mass killing; it was a policy decision taken by an industrial and civilised state; one into which the country's entire economic and and industrial machinery was plugged in, bolstered by military might and a political propaganda apparatus.

Which is why other genocides of the 20th century need to be discussed with provisos, although this does not in any way diminish the scale of these other tragedies, nor does it diminish the culpability of the perpetrators in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although they were more sporadic and involved less forward thinking, the other 20th century mass killings of nations which exhibited genocidal features, beyond any shadow of a doubt, were no less sickening.

The massacre of Armenians during the First World War; the slaughter of Roma during the Second World War; Stalin's Holodomor, which unleashed mass starvation on the Ukranian populace; the killing spree that saw millions of Tutsis cut down in Rwanda; and, lastly, the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia – all of these macabre 20th century events can be considered mass killings with genocidal traits.

Compared with the Holocaust, these mass murders were smaller in scale, were not as global and were somewhat less international in their ideological reach and practical scope, but they were nonetheless horrific and were certainly crimes against humanity of a genocidal type.

Their aim was not to destroy isolated groups or social strata among the enemy, but to liquidate as many members of an ethnic group as possible.

Genocide, Lithuania and stratocide
Did Lithuania experience genocide? No, it did not.

No matter how cruel the Soviet terror that was visited upon the Baltic states, a large segment of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian society, by going over to the other side, by becoming collaborators, was not only able to save itself, but also secure for itself successful careers in the administration of the occupying regime. This group was able to wreak havoc on and settle scores with its own people, doing so with impunity.

There was never any project for a complete annihilation of the Baltic peoples – had this been the case, it is very unlikely that we would still be around. In writing this, I am in no way downplaying the scale of the atrocities committed in the name of Soviet communism.

I will always deplore any attempt to exculpate or to diminish the scale of the crimes committed by that bloody and essentially criminal regime. Nonethless, let us be honest and honourable by acknowledging that we did not experience a true genocide.

It was not for nothing that philosopher and Soviet dissident Grigory Pomerantz suggested referring to the Soviet terror not as genocide, but as stratocide – the annihilation of certain strata and classes within a nation.

He explained that it was not an entire nation that had been wiped out, as a racial or ethnic whole, but its most educated, most cultured and most conscious strata.

Russians do not refer to the physical annihilation of their intelligentsia and bourgoisie – numbering in the millions of lives lost – as genocide, just as the purges during China's Cultural Revolution, which carried off the lives of tens of millions of Chinese, was never proclaimed a genocide of the Chinese people.

Genocide is not a mass slaughter motivated by an internal ideological or political struggle – if that were the case, civil wars would end up falling into the category of genocide.

In the case of genocide, one nation engages in the premeditated annihilation of another; the aggressors do not seek to subjugate the victims, nor to bring them to heel and foist upon them an alien doctrine, religion or ideology.

So let us be precise. Let us call a spade a spade.

The end result of a totalitarian revolution, and of the institutionalised social engineering that seeks to level a society's composition by liquidating a particular class, is no better than genocide – but it is not genocide. This is why the excessive use of this word is not benign at all.

Genocide and its marginalisation
If you want to downgrade the Holocaust or shove it into the margins of history, well then, all you need to do is come up with another genocide that took place in that same country, even if it is one that does not quite fit the legal criteria for and definition of genocide.

If the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania is not investigating the Holocaust, then a question surfaces: what is it investigating? And what is its definition of genocide?

A new law currently being drafted for debate by Lithuania's legislature would make it a crime to deny that a genocide against the Lithuanian people was ever conducted by the Soviets.

It follows from this that whenever historians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers and law professors discuss the concept of genocide, or discuss historical cases of genocide, they end up running the risk of landing in jail if they express any doubts about a genocide of Lithuanians by the Soviets – as if this genocide could be somehow identical to the one conducted by the Nazis against Jews.

In my view, attempts to criminalize discussion are totally out of place in any democratic state. Such attempts pose a grave threat to the freedoms of thought and of conscience, which could easily end up being stifled in the name of a threat to national dignity or security. Forgive me, but this sounds like a melody from the repertoire of some authoritarian regime.

If the reply to this charge is that Holocaust denial is forbidden and punishable as a crime in Germany and Austria, I will readily admit that I am in no way enamoured with that practice.

The criminalisation of Holocaust denial causes a slackening of conscience, safely removing the Holocaust from the sphere of ethics and morality and tucking it into the neatly arranged sphere of law.

Furthermore, a halo appears above the heads of Holocaust deniers and revisionists – and it is the dangerous ideas of these people that must be defeated through forthright discussion, not by shutting away the proponents of such ideas in a windowless cell.

You can put someone in the dock for denying the past tragedies of a country or nation – you can even put such a person behind bars – but this will not hinder him from demonstrating contempt and insensitivity towards that nation or state in the present.

Leftist politicians in countries that prohibit Holocaust denial, who shun lengthier discussions of the topic and who, at the same time, merrily fulminate against Israel, labelling it a fascist state and referring to the suffering of the Palestinian arabs as genocide, leave me wondering if the criminalisation of Holocaust denial in western Europe is not a phenomenon marching in step with a new form of anti-Semitism that has begun growing shoots – a politically correct, left-leaning, anti-globalist anti-Semitism (one strain of which is ideological anti-Americanism) that employs criticism of Israel as a disguise.

Anti-Semitism, it would seem, has been thrust out the front door only to be allowed to climb back in through the window.

Therefore, when addressing the painful episodes of human history we should ponder the dangers of our contemporary amoral and relativist culture.

By quashing open and rational discussion, we will never restore to our concepts and values their original content. And there are no laws that can help us here either.