Lithuanian philosopher rejects political calls for the Soviet
Union's slaughter of Lithuanians to be labelled an act of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.