A History of Hatred

Photo: Peter Fox

As a graduate student in the late 1960s, Norman Naimark got to know Yugoslavia well. An amalgam of three main religions, multiple languages and a wide variety of ethnic groups, Yugoslavia was then a federated state under the nationalist and socialist leadership of Marshal Tito. "I liked all of the people I met there," says Naimark. "It seemed to be a real multiethnic society that was getting along quite peacefully."

Thirty years later, that national fabric has been ripped apart by succeeding storms of sectarian violence marked by what has come to be known as "ethnic cleansing." Now history department chair and a specialist in Eastern Europe, Naimark, '66, MA '68, PhD '72, says he "simply couldn't understand what was happening in Yugoslavia, given my extremely positive base of experience. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere, I thought. So I got curious as to what causes 'ethnic cleansing' and what can be done about it."

The results of Naimark's research and reflection can be found in his sobering new book, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Harvard University Press, 2001). Using the techniques of comparative history, Naimark examines five cases over the past century: the Turkish expulsion of Armenians and Greeks in the period surrounding World War I; the Nazi attack on the Jews; Stalin's deportation of Chechen, Ingush and Tatar ethnic groups during World War II; the postwar expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia; and the recent "Wars of Yugoslav Succession," including Kosovo.

While exploring this subject in a seminar with freshmen, Naimark found that American students have real difficulty with the concept of "ethnic cleansing"--they see it as happening elsewhere and based on ancient hatreds incomprehensible to Americans. But he's quick to point out that it has happened here and could happen again. Andrew Jackson's expulsion of Southeastern Indians in the 1830s, Lincoln's idea of sending freed slaves out of the country, Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II--all had broad public support.

After looking at the historical evidence, what does Naimark conclude about the nature of "ethnic cleansing" in the last 100 years? First, he points out the fuzzy demarcation between the "unintentional" consequences of forcibly removing a minority group--"ethnic cleansing"--and genocide, the intentional liquidation of that group. One often leads to and merges into the other. Mass mortality in cattle cars or on snowy footpaths is often indistinguishable from more direct means of extermination.

Second, he notes that modern warfare has been a cover for both "ethnic cleansing" and genocide. The Armenians, the Jews and the Tatars could all be accused of "collaborating with the enemy" and their removal rationalized as just another emergency wartime measure. If warfare is usually armed men fighting other armed men, Naimark graphically describes "ethnic cleansing" as more often armed men brutalizing unarmed women and children.

Finally, he reasons that ethnic violence is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The current experience in Yugoslavia, he writes, "is related to previous instances in the twentieth century but not a product of 'ancient hatreds,' as so often suggested by politicians and journalists." Using eugenics and other popular racialist theories of the past century, "political elites" in modern nation-states have played up ethnic differences and vilified minority groups to further their own political ends. The Young Turks, Hitler, Stalin, Milosevic--all ruthlessly used "internal enemies" to help consolidate their power and authority. "Using the power of the state, the media, and their political parties," he argues, "national leaders have manipulated distrust of the 'other' and purposefully revived and distorted ethnic tensions, sometimes long-buried, sometimes closer to the surface."

If Fires of Hatred presents a solid synthetic overview of a true 20th-century horror, its predictions and prescriptions for the future are somewhat less convincing. Naimark argues that "ethnic cleansing" can be averted only if multinational agencies such as nato or the United Nations show an increased willingness to intervene, even in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

Naimark also assumes that multiethnic nation-states are good by definition and forced population movements bad. One could argue, however, as does Andrew Bell-Failkoff in his 1996 book Ethnic Cleansing, that some antagonisms are so intense that forced population transfers, such as those that took place with the creation of modern India and Pakistan, offer the best long-term solution. Under this view, international agencies would try to both stop "ethnic cleansing" and legitimize last-resort transfers, ensuring they take place as humanely as possible.

But is the picture really as bleak as these two solutions imply? Can't the root cause of ethnic intolerance be weeded out over time? In fact, things have changed in the last 100 years. Social Darwinism, eugenics and other racialist concepts are no longer widely accepted. Jewish groups and educators have mounted extensive efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive while teaching the consequences of ethnic hatred to younger generations. The Pope is breaking bread with Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Apartheid is dead in South Africa. A civil-rights movement has taken place in America and global human-rights standards have been agreed upon. And democracy is on the upswing globally, giving a liberally educated population increasing power to resist the xenophobic entreaties of would-be demagogues.

Norman Naimark's fine new book will add to our understanding of the modern phenomenon of ethnic violence. It will help to heighten public awareness of man's inhumanity to man and thus enhance the prospects that the mass disasters of the 20th century will have few echoes in the 21st.


Bernard Butcher, '64, MA '95, is a historian living in San Francisco.