Blood and Soil: Modern Genocide, 1500–2000

Ben Kiernan, History, Yale University

Research Grant, 2002, 2003

As the twentieth century closed, historians debated whether it should be labeled the “Century of Genocide” or whether mass slaughter of ethnic, national, or religious groups began much earlier, for instance during colonial expansion and domination of the New World. Resolution of this important question will answer key intellectual issues, including the nature of settler colonialism (whether it is inherently genocidal); the origins of twentieth century totalitarianism (which Hannah Arendt saw in the history of imperialism); the uniqueness of the Holocaust (which Steven T. Katz distinguishes from other historical genocides); the causes of mass slaughter (economic destabilization, poverty, and war, and more proximate causes, such as the seizure of power and decisions made by violent extremists); and, perhaps most important, the essential features and early warning symptoms of genocidal ideologies.

Racial discrimination is not always genocidal. Expansionism does not always produce mass slaughter. But their combination is explosive.

My book describes and analyzes genocide and its perpetrators’ ideological preoccupations in the period from 1492 to 2002. Genocidal ideology exhibits four major distinguishing features: racism, religious or antireligious prejudice, territorial expansionism, and the idealization of a specific social class. Targeting of racial and religious groups is specifically outlawed by the UN Genocide Convention, but the book shows that expansionism and, for instance, ideological preoccupations with cultivation are key factors when combined with such prejudices. Racial discrimination is not always genocidal. Expansionism does not always produce mass slaughter. But their combination is explosive. In pragmatic terms, expansionist ideology is more likely to provoke war, providing genocidists with legitimacy and cover essential to success. Idealization of the peasantry, and a preoccupation on the part of a range of perpetrators with specific forms of land use, combines with racialist and expansionist ideology to inspire hand-in-hand “purification” of both peoples and territories: genocide.

Genocide is the most serious and violent crime against humanity. My book links it with territorial aggression and with ideological notions of land use and class purity and superiority. Identifying the specific combination of such factors essential to genocidal policy and practice enables emerging human disasters resulting from dominance, aggression and violence to be detected in advance and hopefully, in a timely fashion, prevented.

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