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.

In fact, most of the small group of scholars studying the most notorious twentieth-century cases of genocide and mass killing—Armenia, the Nazi ‘Final Solution’, Stalinism, Cambodia, Rwanda—have emphasized the modernity of the horror. Leo Kuper essentially founded genocide studies by noting that the modern state’s monopoly of sovereignty over a territory that was, in reality, culturally plural and economically stratified created both the desire and the power to commit genocide.footnote1 Roger Smith has stressed that genocide has usually been a deliberate instrument of modern state policy.footnote2 Some emphasize the technology available to the perpetrators: modern weapons, transport and administration have escalated the efficiency of mass, bureaucratic, depersonalized killing.footnote3 However, Helen Fein detects modern ideological goals, as well as technological means, for ‘The victims of twentieth century premeditated genocide . . . were murdered in order to fulfil the state’s design for a new order.’footnote4 She stresses the genocidal potential of modern ‘myths’ or ‘political formulae’—ideologies of nation, race and class.

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 that the more authoritarian a state, the more likely it is to commit genocide. Wielding many twentieth-century statistics of genocide, Rummel concludes that democracies commit virtually no genocide. He concedes a few cases where they do, but argues that these have been in wartime, where mass murder has been perpetrated secretively and without a democratic mandate. They are, therefore, exceptions that prove the rule. This is not an unreasonable argument in the case of small-scale atrocities like My Lai, during the Vietnam War—which, when exposed, was indeed prosecuted and condemned by American democracy. But Rummel fails to distinguish the more important cases of ‘democratic mass killings’, like the fire-bombing of Dresden or Tokyo, the dropping of the atomic bombs or the napalming of the Vietnamese countryside—whose casualties he also minimizes. Though some degree of military secrecy was obviously maintained in these cases, nonetheless, the American and British governments took these decisions according to due democratic constitutional process. Moreover, authoritarian genocides are also committed in wartime and with an attempt at secrecy. Hitler committed almost all his murders during the war, and he did not dare make them public—indeed, nor did Stalin. But there are larger exceptions to Rummel’s ‘law’: the frequent genocidal outbursts committed by seventeenth- to early twentieth-century European settlers living under constitutional governments. Rummel mentions these briefly, absurdly minimizes the numbers killed, vaguely suggests that ‘governments’ may have been responsible, and fails to explain them. In fact, Rummel never makes clear why a régime would want to murder vast numbers of people. After all, almost all historical régimes were authoritarian yet did not commit mass murder. As I will argue below, there is a relationship between democracy and genocide, but it is more complex and double-edged than Rummel acknowledges.

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 revolution/war combinations—for example, the English, American and French revolutions—were less likely to produce genocide than later ones, though he offers no good explanation of this. Finally, he does not note that the growth of the ideologies of nation, race and class, which were used to legitimate genocide, all surged in modern times with or without the accompaniment of revolution or war.

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: