Interview with Ben Kiernan, author of Blood and Soil
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A conversation with

Ben Kiernan

Ben Kiernan
Michael Marsland, University photographer, Yale University Office of Public Affairs

Q: What have been the main causes of genocide throughout history?

A: The genocidal impulse involves not only violent ethnic or religious hatred but also territorial expansionist ambition and, with some exceptions, related cults of agrarianism and models from antiquity. These obsessions of perpetrators recur rather consistently. From ancient times, genocide is a documented process of individual human decisions made in circumstances of military dominance. But global historical changes in the modern era accentuated both ethnic conflict and technological disparity. The past five centuries saw worldwide demographic explosions and spreading settler colonizations, including conquests of nearly two entire continents in the nineteenth century alone. Escalated territorial conflict and an increased labor supply both made genocidal outbreaks more likely. Advances in technology and communications made them more feasible.

Q: Your book deals with a current topic of huge importance. How does genocide today differ from other times in history?

A: After centuries of imperial genocides across the globe, twentieth-century Europe and East Asia gave rise to powerful new states propounding “scientific” race, class, or national ideologies. Entire groups became inimical and expendable. Hitler’s Nazis were obsessed by anti-Jewish hatred, the pristine antiquity of an idealized agrarian Germany, and vast territorial conquest. Stalin’s
A: USSR and Mao’s China, somewhat less preoccupied with racial categories or territorial expansion, pursued mass killing of domestic political enemies, social classes, and some national groups. Unlike the Nazis, both dismissed models from antiquity, while Stalin’s exterminations in the 1930s accompanied massive urban industrialization and did not reflect the agrarianism common to most genocidal ideologies. The contemporary genocide in Darfur is in part a land war conducted by state-sponsored pastoralists against settled farmers. Yet its perpetrators demonstrate racialist, historical, and expansionist preoccupations, like many of their predecessors.

Q: What practical applications has your research found for preventing future mass murders and do you see hope for change?

A: Centuries of genocides, leading up to the 1971 Bangladesh catastrophe and more recent cases in Cambodia, Guatemala, East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the current depredations of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, reveal a series of perpetrators sharing violent obsessions with ethnoreligious enmity, territorial aggrandizement, romantic agrarianism, and ancient models. Extremists who display these four common ideological characteristics give early warning of potential calamity. Long-term historical analysis offers new ways for advocates of genocide prevention or intervention to help monitor political groups in vulnerable regions wracked by war or economic destabilization.