The twentieth century’s death-toll through genocide is somewhere over sixty million and still rising.footnote＊ Yet most scholars and laypersons alike have preferred to focus on more salubrious topics. If they think about genocide at all, they view it as an unfortunate interruption of the real structural tendencies of the twentieth century—economic, social and political progress. Murderous ethnic and political cleansing is seen as a regression to the primitive—essentially anti-modern—and is committed by backward or marginal groups manipulated by clever and dangerous politicians. Blame the politicians, the sadists, the terrible Serbs (or Croats) or the primitive Hutus (or Tutsis)—for their actions have little to do with us. An alternative view—often derived from a religious perspective—sees the capacity for evil as a universal attribute of human beings, whether ‘civilized’ or not. This is true, yet capacity for evil only becomes actualized in certain circumstances, and, in the case of genocide, these seem less primitive than distinctly modern.
But let us remark a quality they all share. They have justified themselves—and their genocides—‘in the name of the people’. In this respect, they are no different from more moderate twentieth-century ideologies, for this has been the age of the masses. In all the varied German law courts of the last eighty years—from Weimar to Nazi to communist ddr to the Bundesrepublik—the judges have used the same opening formula: ‘In Namen des Volkes’, ‘In the Name of the People’. American courts prefer the formula ‘The Case of X versus the People’. By claiming legitimacy in the name of ‘the people’, genocidal régimes claim kinship to movements which are usually recognized as the bearers of true modernity, like liberalism or social democracy. Indeed, I argue here that modern genocide can be regarded as ‘the dark side of democracy’.
This is an unconventional view, however. The now dominant ‘democratic peace’ school has declared that democracies are essentially pacific, rarely fighting wars, and almost never against each other. They are the absolute antithesis of genocide. The school’s main representative in genocide studies is Rudolph Rummel.footnote5 He claims
Robert Melson attempts to explain genocide in terms of wars following hard upon a revolution. He says revolutions undermine the institutional and moral restraints of the old régime, creating a potential moral vacuum.footnote6 They also throw up revolutionaries seeking a wholesale transformation of society in the name of a mythical ‘people’. That ‘people’ then needs defining and delimiting, which may result in the exclusion of opponents, perhaps by violent means. And war, he says, aggravates régimes’ feelings of vulnerability and/or invincibility, permits states to become more autonomous, allows them the option of more ‘radical’ policy alternatives and increases the vulnerability of the victims. The combination of revolution and war may thus persuade a régime that domestic opponents are in league with deadly foreign enemies, to be legitimately killed. But Melson is careful to say that this is not a necessary outcome. In Cuba, for example, the revolution/war cycle was followed only by the expulsion of the bourgeoisie, not by its murder. He also concedes that earlier
Rummel and especially Melson offer us genuine insights, but they do not go far enough. If we want to understand the growth of ideologically-legitimated and state-perpetrated genocide, we must realize that this has been the perverted product of the most sacred institution of Western modernity: democracy. For genocide can be seen in two distinct ways as ‘the dark side of democracy’—the most undesirable consequence of the modern practice of vesting political legitimacy in ‘the people’.
Let us first meet ‘the people’ in one of its earliest declarations: