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Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur

Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur by Ben Kiernan. Yale University Press, 2007, 768 pp.

Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil makes manifest the claim of social theorist René Girard that such collective violence as genocide, far from being the exception to the rule, has been the norm throughout human history. This book analyzes campaigns of genocide and extermination from some of the earliest historical records available down to the present day with atrocities that remain in the news, revealing commonalities among genocidal regimes in both the ancient and modern worlds all across the globe. Such an in-depth study offers policy makers and others the background for recognizing potentially genocidal regimes in their early stages and thus the opportunity to ensure that the phrase “never again” actually means something in the future.

Kiernan’s thesis rings clear as he argues that “The main features of modern genocidal ideology emerged . . . from combinations of religious and racial hatred with territorial expansionism and cults of antiquity and agriculture” (p. 3). While other authors have noted the obvious implications of hatred combined with imperialism, the focus upon cults of antiquity and agriculture is fairly new, and Kiernan demonstrates the relevance of both aptly, showing that an idealization of the two can “encourage a sense of victimization at perceived historical loss and even justify restitution by conquest of those perceived to be misusing lands to which they have inadequate claim” (p. 29). Of course, from a practical standpoint, carrying out genocide requires the development of military superiority over the intended victims. But this is also related to cults of antiquity, for such technological advancement “provokes a concomitant ideological reaction, and so antimodern thinking, whether politically invented by leaders or authentically summoned by supporters, accompanies genocide and fuels it” (p. 26). Finally, the author connects genocidal initiatives not with sociopolitical consensus but rather with the “attempt to silence domestic differences by focusing attention on an external, supposedly common threat” (p. 34).

Kiernan begins his analysis of global historical genocide by examining the ancient world, focusing upon Sparta and the Roman destruction of Carthage, the latter of which provided a template for later such campaigns, especially as displayed in the rhetoric of Marcus Porcius Cato, who lauded Roman peasantry over Carthaginian merchants and who viewed the mere existence of Carthage as reflecting a variety of threats internal to the Roman republic.

From such classical campaigns of extermination, the author moves to the early modern era, focusing first on the Spanish conquest of the New World, during which in Mexico alone the population dropped from 11 million to 1 million by 1600. Taking the book from the usual Eurocentric focus of early modern genocides are two chapters on East Asia that tackled the Vietnamese campaign against the kingdom of Champa, Japan’s unification and its invasion of Korea, Spanish conquistadors and later ethnoreligious violence in Cambodia, and campaigns of extermination in Java and Burma.

Blood and Soil assumes a much sharper focus as Kiernan examines the settler colonialism that grew from European exploration of the world. The English conquest of Ireland provided the template for later English colonization, especially as it was underwritten by racism and a cult of antiquity that saw the Irish as “contemporary counterparts of the barbarians Rome had conquered and enslaved, with no more right to their lands that any surviving inhabitants of the scorched earth of Carthage” (p. 177). In North America, English colonists and later American settlers disregarded the reality of native systems of agriculture to lay claim to land ostensibly going to waste—and cleared those lands with massive campaigns of extermination.

The ideology of cultivation also fueled expansionist regimes in nineteenth-century Australia and Africa; in fact, Germany used campaigns against the Herero and other peoples, which served as a kind of trial run for the later holocaust, to “increasingly seized upon U.S. wars with Native Americans as precedents or justification for colonial war and, eventually, genocidal tactics” (p. 376).

With the world having been largely partitioned by the great colonial powers by the beginning of the twentieth century, the characteristic of genocide changed to those “perpetrated by national chauvinist dictatorships that had seized control of tottering, shrinking, or new empires, aiming to reverse real or perceived territorial losses or conquer new regions from established powers” (p. 393). Armenian and Nazi genocides, for instance, both combined the cults of antiquity and agriculture to refine the nation as much through the extermination of internal enemies as through expansion and war against external threats. Kiernan also considers Japan’s expansion into East Asia, the Soviet and Maoist reigns of terror, and the more modern genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda—noting exceptions to his usual framework—as with the Soviet and Chinese outright attacks upon tradition and antiquity.

In his epilogue, Kiernan briefly details a scattering of other genocides in this modern era, noting that—despite “postwar decolonialization, the emergence of multiple new states, and a global arms trade”—such genocidal campaigns as those that have occurred in Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor, Guatemala, Iraq, Bosnia, and Darfur are still underwritten by familiar ideological themes (p. 571). The author even considers al-Qaeda in conjunction with these themes given its own fetish for purity, obsession with antiquity, and anti-urban bias.

As the social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has written, globalization and the free flow of capital and ideas have been met with increasing ethnic and political violence as nations seek to reconstitute themselves existentially, often upon ethnic lines. For that reason, a book like Blood and Soil proves itself all the more relevant, for by drawing out the common themes of genocides past and present, Kiernan makes it possible to formulate a predictive strategic picture of the world, to recognize those trends leading toward genocide, and thus to deal with the conditions leading to mass extermination before they can result in large-scale murder and the destabilization of entire regions of the globe. Blood and Soil is more than another work of history—it is a tool for waging peace.

Guy Lancaster

PhD candidate, Heritage Studies Program

Arkansas State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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