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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2008
Number 68
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide: Similarities and Differences

“Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe by Benjamin Lieberman.” Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
A review essay by Paul R. Bartrop

Like “genocide,” the term “ethnic cleansing” is new, but what it describes is centuries old. The phrase was originally introduced by reporters covering the Yugoslav wars of disintegration between 1991 and 1995, but as a course of action it is much older than that. In its essence, ethnic cleansing means the forced and permanent removal of one group of people, by another, from a region or territory, and the subsequent occupation of that land by members of the perpetrator group as though the target group had never existed there.

Generally speaking, any means can be (and have been) employed to effect such removal: legislation; forced expulsion; voluntary evacuation; intimidation through threats; intimidation through violence; and genocide – the ultimate form of permanent removal.

It is this final means that causes the greatest degree of confusion for observers of the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing in the modern world. In the eyes of many, genocide and ethnic cleansing equate directly with each other, but a closer look at the two terms reveals that such is not the case. Genocide, a crime in international law defined by United Nations statute and incorporated precisely into the legal codes of a majority of the world’s nation states, is a very precise category of crime. Ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, is the name given to a form of behavior embracing a number of crimes that fall within other groupings: war crimes, crimes against humanity (both of which, it should be emphasized, are categories of crimes, rather than crimes per se), and, on occasion, the crime of genocide itself.

Consequently, there is no universally-recognized definition of ethnic cleansing; nor is there a specific crime in international law that outlaws it – even though elements of the practice are banned under other legislation (for example, murder, deportation, torture, rape, persecution on political, racial and religious grounds and genocide).
When Raphael Lemkin introduced the term genocide in 1944, in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” he wrote about the destruction of a nation or ethnic group. The means to achieve such destruction, as he saw it, did not include deportation or forced removal of populations from a territory; these acts are not necessarily aimed at destroying the group, just at moving it away from a designated piece of land. Then, when the United Nations enacted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, on December 9, 1948, its key definitional term was “intent to destroy” – not “intent to remove.” All of the ways in which this could be achieved, as outlined in Article II of the Convention, are the means by which the United Nations, through to today, considers that group destruction can take place. Removal of a group in order to obtain coveted land, according to which the group may retain its existence in another place – that is, ethnic cleansing – is not group destruction occasioning genocide.

That having been said, of course, genocide can be employed to clear territory of an unwanted population, but when this happens we find that we have to interrogate the perpetrators as to their preferred goal: acquisition of “cleansed” territory, or destruction of a targeted group? Which is the priority? Is one simply a means to an end? And, ultimately, why should the distinction matter?

Untangling the knot is one of the tasks Benjamin Lieberman, of Fitchburg State College, Massachusetts, has set himself in “Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe.” As can be readily ascertained from the title, his primary concern is with the notion of ethnic cleansing: genocide plays a part, certainly, but Lieberman is most interested in the huge population movements that took place in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and what impact these movements had on forming the Europe we see before us today.

In considering his topic, Lieberman does not plead or moralize about the justice or injustice of this or that situation: there is more than enough of a damning or condemnatory nature, within the narrative itself, that anything more from Lieberman would seem superfluous. Commencing with an account of the fate of the Turks and Bulgarians of Salonica in the nineteenth century, Lieberman takes his readers on an engagingly-written tour of Eastern and Central Europe, the Near East and the Russian Empire, and shows how it came about that vast areas within these regions are no longer peopled in the same manner as they used to be. Along the way, we witness pogroms, mass murders, forced population movements, voluntary exile and genocide.

We see the Holocaust, described in its ethnic cleansing dimension, as a phenomenon in which the Nazis and their collaborators sought the total elimination of the Jews from society in order to reinforce their own sense of ethnic “purity.” The territories then occupied would be – as the terms in the German language expressed it – “Judenfrei” (“Jew Free”), or “Judenrein” (“Cleansed of Jews); and this was well before the majority of Jews who died in the death camps were even sent there. Deprivation of liberty and incarceration in ghettos was a vital step on the road to the ethnic cleansing of Europe’s Jews, as it began the process of removal from the general (non-Jewish) population.

Lieberman is adamant that the Holocaust is not to be separated out from the broader experience of European horror during the 20th century, and is most skillful in pointing out how it was a culmination of all that had been developing beforehand. Yet perhaps the most appealing dimension of Lieberman’s work is in the form his analysis of ethnic cleansing takes. While his thematic division is largely chronological and geographic, his “big picture” perspective shows that ethnic cleansing over the past two centuries has in fact been a phenomenon that has transcended boundaries; that has operated from a variety of motives; that has caused a massive amount of damage in physical, economic and psychological terms; and that has had a lasting – and probably permanent – impact on the composition of modern European society and politics.

While this might seem so self-evident as to be a given, Lieberman’s extensive research brings to the fore – “rescued” might be a more useful word – a history that needs to be re-examined for a new readership precisely because of its obviousness. It is not enough simply to presume that ethnic cleansing is a bad thing; scholars need to be aware of just how extensive that destruction was, of which people were targeted, and of why they were. In short, a 21st century audience needs to become aware of the finer details of each and every case of the horrendous criminal acts to which various peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries were subjected. Benjamin Lieberman’s work will prove to be of exceptional assistance to a new generation of scholars tackling the important task of asking serious questions about what was perhaps the most defining characteristic of the last 150 years, and for his efforts he is to be commended, and his work disseminated widely.

Paul R. Bartrop is head, Department of History, Bialik College, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and a contributing editor.

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