The modernity of genocides


In the past decades, there have been many attempts to understand and explain the causes of genocide. Consequently, two theories have emerged and each gives different accounts of genocides; micro and macro theories. Micro theories show that genocide is a result of situational or depositional factors and a lot of emphasis is put on individuals, personal motivations of the individual through authority, obedience and group pressure while macro theories depict genocide as more of an elite driven project. Whatever their viewpoints, in this paper, I argue that to understand genocide, one need to combine the two theories. For the purpose of this paper, I will choose the example of Eric Weitz and Barbara Harff. The essay proceeds by first, describing their alternative approaches. Secondly I will show how Weitz and Harff differ from micro theories and the gaps in the two macro theorists and finally show the major point of agreement between Weitz and Harff and why Harff is more convincing than Weitz and conclude the essay.

Perspective of Weitz and Harff

To begin, Eric Weitz, a historian, in the article, "The Modernity of Genocides: War, Race, and Revolution in the Twentieth Century,"[1] argues that genocide is an ideological nation-building project. His argument is based on three factors: Modernity, ideology and race and finally the role of rituals which binds people and makes killing becomes meaningful although he recognizes that "genocide emerge for a variety of reasons and no single explanation can cover every case."[2]

He suggests that modernity has made it easier to kill mass number of people but that in itself is not a cause of genocide.[3] Weitz describes modernity as a process of change that started in the 1600s in the West and this led to the creation of modern states as well as the creation for bureaucracy for war. To Weitz, modernity led to the rise of new nationalism tied to the state, the rise of scientific outlook that challenges the theological truth, imperialism and colonialism, the emergence of mass politics and the rise of new technology and warfare which led to what he calls the "modern spectacle of violence."[4] He cites an example of Rwanda to show how a rise in new technology made it easier to kill thousands of people.[5] But Weitz points out that clearly development in new in weaponry are not a prerequisite to perpetrate genocide, but it is the development in new technology and bureaucracy for war which can create opportunity for mass killing.[6] He also states that modernity made it easy for nation states to gain access to mass media and this led to spreading of propaganda and ideology to a wider population.

To Weitz, modernity alone is inadequate to explain genocide. He adds that "two additional factors came into play, namely, the hegemony of race thinking...and the seizure of state power by revolutionary movements."[7] He argues that the race thinking developed from around the mid-fifteenth century.[8] This led to categorization of racial attributes which were linked to biology and social behaviors[9] consequently, there was institutionalization of race and this changed the way ethnic, national and class identities were interpreted. This eventually led to a "radicalized" society where it was easy to mobilize based on racial identity. It is the racial thinking that led to the rise of particular identities in societies hence mobilizing and recruiting legitimate members based on ideological utopias.

Weitz states that the twentieth century, witnessed a rise of a new phenomenon whereby race and violence became associated with the aims of the revolutionary movements and consequently, "Revolutions...[became] social projects; they mobilized populations for economic development and literacy campaigns, for political repression and population purges."[10] Weitz emphasizes that the 20th century revolution was different because they "...invariably deploy the powerful metaphor of 'cleanliness' and 'purity.'"[11] Those who were considered unclean or impure were bound to become political suspect of the people.[12] Therefore the revolution was meant for "...the inclusion of some groups and the eradication of the other who are deemed enemies."[13]

Despite the role of ideology and race, Weitz adds that for genocide to occur there must be performance of rituals to bring one group of people together.[14] Weitz argues that rituals play an important role in that "rituals create and maintain a particular set of assumptions by which experience is controlled...[They] work upon the body politics through the symbolic medium of the physical body."[15] He adds that "Rituals of genocidal killings create emotional bonds among the perpetrators, joining them together in a structure of feeling and a community of action."[16] However, he argues that rituals alone are not important but it is the act of performance that brings group identity and popular participation. He states that "the exercise of power is never solely a matter of command. It is an ongoing process of negotiation, one that is marked by conformity, compliance, distance, and withdrawal."[17] He sums up that once rituals are created and performed, it becomes "...a means of binding the population to a new order and thereby securing legitimacy"[18] and in this way a stage is set for genocide.

In a conclusion, Weitz's analysis is a useful contribution to the genocide debates because he brings out role of modernity, race and ideology and rituals. His biggest input to this debate is that he tries to show particular conditions under which genocide can be attempted or occurs. His argument is persuasive especially on how individual and society come to support genocide but he does miss out on some points like the role of historical, economic factors and external players in causing genocide. He puts too much emphasis on modernity, race, ideology which is useful in explaining understanding and genocide but has been criticized by other macro theorists like Benjamin Valentino[19]. Valentino argues that racial cleavages are common in many societies but there is "little evidence that social cleavages are more intense in societies that have experienced mass killing than in those that have not"[20]

On the hand, Babra Harff, a Political Scientist, in the "The Etiology of Genocides,"[21] argues for structural factors in explaining genocide which are a critique to both Weitz and Valentino. In her first few pages of the article, she responds to both Weitz and Valentino. To Valentino who describes genocide as elite-driven violence, she says "genocide is not just another policy instrument of repression; genocide is the most extreme policy option available to policymakers" She responds to Weitz on the idea of race and ideology that it inadequate to explain a genocide.

Like Weitz, Harff also argues for three factors in understanding and explaining the causes of genocide. These includes: first the "structural changes as exemplified in the concept of national upheaval."[22] Secondly, "sharp internal cleavages combined with history of struggles between the groups prior to the upheaval"[23] and finally she emphasizes the "lack of external constraints on or foreign support for, murderous regime."[24] She argues that when these three conditions exists, then "the stage is set for genocide"[25]

The core of Harff's argument is based on national upheaval which she defines it as "an abrupt change in the political community."[26] This could be as a result of lost war, national pride and violent state formation. She argues that losing a war can affect national pride which can lead to the targeting of groups who are seen as enemies making genocide likely.[27] She adds that genocide is also more likely during the process of consolidation of power because competing groups or tribes tend to fight for power. She contends that the "greater the changes affecting society through new governments, the likelier it is that genocidal policies are implemented to insure total obedience"[28]

She justifies her claim on how national upheavals could provide such a fertile breeding ground for mass violence by citing examples from Cambodia, Uganda and Indonesia where genocide was a result of the consolidation of power.[29] She argues that in Uganda, "In an effort to consolidate his power, Amin was responsible for slaughter of an estimated 500,000 people"[30] secondly she discusses the genocide of conquest as was the case in what is Namibia today as another case of how political circumstances can lead to genocide. She notes "The Hereros, a pastoral people noted for their large cattle herds, saw themselves slowly stripped off their land by German settlers."[31]

To Harff, national upheaval or political circumstances is just one account and is not enough for genocide to occur; there must be social cleavages and history of struggles before the upheaval. She argues that "national upheaval always intensifies internal cleavages"[32] she claims that sharp schisms between groups are often pre-existing and a product of the elite group. She adds that when differences exist in society like religion, wealth, ideology, values and traditions "groups which are most 'different' from the dominant group are more likely to become targets than those which more closely resemble the dominant group."[33] Here, Harff's analysis is much broader than Weitz. She is not limited to racial thinking as Weitz.

Finally, she identified the final factor as the role of international community. This can be due to: "Lack of external constraints on, or foreign support for murderous regime."[34] This is either by completely ignoring the intervention in genocide or by supporting the murderous regimes as she claims that "sometimes genocidal elites enjoy support/protection from powerful neighbors."[35]

In a conclusion, like Weitz, Harff's analysis is another useful contribution to the genocide debates because she brings out the structural account, explains how sharp cleavages and history of the group and role of foreign power can lead to genocide. However, she has been also criticized on her definition of genocide. She widens it to include political opponent. She states, "in addition, my definition differ from the official definition....Thus political opponents are included in my definition, though they lack the formal legal protection of the Convention of the Genocide."[36] Harff states that Cambodia was the reason for her expansion of the definition but she uses several conflicts that have not been agreed to as genocides.

Additionally, Harff makes a kind of contradiction on the role of the elite that makes it difficult to agree with her argument. She states that "murderous leaders voted into office, are allowed to propagate their pathological ideas, and often have ample time to plan and meticulously execute genocidal policies,"[37] but in the middle of the article she states that, "genocide needs more than re-enforcement through societal acquiescence. Genocide is a product of state policy, with an involvement and commitment of massive resources, and is only marginally beneficial to people involved in the process."[38] Despite the above two criticisms: broadening the definition and ambiguity on the role elites can play, her analysis is more grounded and predictive than Weitz.

How Weitz and Harff differ from micro theories and their gaps

In looking at the difference between these two schools of thoughts; theories put forward by micro theorists like Stanley Milgram[39] Philip Zimbardo[40] and Ervin Staub[41] try to account for situational explanation for individuals. According to the micro theory, emphasis is put on the importance of obedience, authoritarian value in shaping behavior and upbringing as well as family structure etc.

Specifically, Milgram's experiment explains the role of authority which makes an individual either conform or become an agent in executing orders. Zimbardo's experiment contributes to understanding "powerful effects roles can have on individuals" while Ervin Staub contributes to the debate by offering sequential build of violence along the continuum, ways of thinking about the process of violence, role of group dynamics and the bystanders. These theories are useful in understanding and explaining roles of individuals in committing violence.

However, these micro theorists fall short of explaining a number of issues which are very important in explaining genocide. This includes: the timing and sequence of the genocide, why there is excessive cruelty, the role of propaganda and mass participation, structural factors, account of state institutions, and the ability to predict when the genocides will occur.

Milgram admits that his works did take into account the role of propaganda or mass ideology. He states that: "systematic devaluation of the victim provides a measure of psychological justification for brutal treatment of the victim and has been the constant accompaniment of massacres, pogroms, and wars. In all likelihood, our subjects would have experienced greater ease in shocking the victim had he been convincingly portrayed as a brutal criminal or a pervert."[42]

Secondly, micro theories have again been criticized because they do not take into account personal responsibility. Many times obedience is often used as an excuse for atrocities carried out, as evidenced in the Nuremburg Trials. These are the major critique for micro theories but the macro theories of Weitz and Harff become useful in that they offer additional explanations which micro theorists do not offer which become the difference between the schools of thoughts.

Weitz offers an understanding into some of these issues enumerated above. For instance, he accounts for why excessive cruelty is used, and the role of mass participation and ideology. This is something which micro theorists miss out on and becomes useful in explaining and understanding the genocide.

Additionally, Weitz brings out the role of ritual to explain how societies can be drawn into performing genocide. He discusses how ritual creates groups, reinforces solidarity and therefore creates legitimacy of making killing meaningful. This is another useful addition because micro theorists explain only how individuals can be drawn into killings without explaining how a society can be drawn into violence.

On the other hand, Harff offers an understanding of structural factors and how they can help the perpetration of genocide. For example, she cites national upheaval like the process of state formation through violent conflicts, loss of national pride and how they can lead to genocidal policies. This process of societal transformation and how it can lead to genocide has not been brought out in the micro theories of Milgram, Zimbardo and Staub.

Furthermore, looking at Zimbardo and Milgram, their experiment does not make predictions of when and why genocide occurs, while Harff's analysis on structural factors, offers a useful contribution to predicting when genocide is likely and why it occurs.

Finally, Harff explains how history is important in explaining the genocidal violence. She argues that for genocide to occur, there must be a history of struggle between the groups before the national upheaval. Her point on role of history is useful in understanding violence in some societies like Rwanda where a history of hatred existed before but coupled with other factors like economic hardship and civil war, the stage was set for the 1994 genocide. Weitz has been criticized because he does not take into account role of history. However, Harff again does not show how states can mobilize support and participate in genocide and again this is where Weitz becomes useful because he brings out the role of ritual in uniting and securing legitimacy for mass violence.

Agreement and Convincibility of Weitz and Harff

In closely analyzing Weitz's arguments that genocide is an ideological nation building project, I find him in agreement with some of Harff's arguments on the structural conditions that can lead to genocide. They agree on three major issues: First they all recognize micro theorists in explaining personal motivations. Secondly, they all agree that state formation through violence may lead to genocide, thirdly, they recognize the role of cultural differences as backdrop in genocidal violence and finally both make predictions for the likeliness of genocide although Harff is more explicit and persuasive.

To begin with, both authors agree on theories put forward by micro theorist in explaining genocide by emphasizing both obedience and the role of groups. Weitz remarks that "in practice of violence, perpetrators sometimes followed direct orders from above."[43] Harff also agrees that many killings have been as a result of order from authority. She notes that "...capabilities of implementing ruthless decisions are always...aided by the decision made in countless bureaucracies."[44]

Additionally, both agree that state formation through violent conflict can lead to genocide. They agree that genocide normally happens during wars or internal upheavals. Harff states that "lost wars and resultant battered national pride lead to genocide against groups perceived as enemies"[45]and Weitz remarks that genocide "...almost invariably develop in the context of warfare and extreme social and political crisis."[46]

Furthermore, both macro theorists recognize that cultural differences within a society can instigate genocidal violence. Harff notes that "Polirasation is usually intensified by such factors as the extent of differences in religion, values and traditions between contending groups."[47] Weitz's discussion of Cambodia, on the concept of "clean" and "unclean" confirms the link between cultural differences and genocidal violence.

Despite the agreement, Harff is more convincing than Weitz because of two accounts: She discusses the role of international community and the role of the history of struggles that come to play in genocidal violence. She cites that the inaction of foreign power always leads to lots of mass killings and genocide. In looking at recent genocide in the 20th century, one cannot dispute that the inaction of the international community led to genocide. If they had had intervened, the genocide could have been halted. The case in point is Rwanda in 1994 where international community did not intervene despite the presence of the UN peace keeping force in the country. Further cases of inaction of the international community which led to genocide, are in East Timor and Kosovo in 1999. This makes Harff more convincing.

Secondly, her analysis that when "sharp internal cleavages [is] combined with a history of struggles between groups prior to national upheaval"[48] can lead to genocide, is persuasive given that many societies are already torn apart either by religious or ethnic difference or both but there has been no genocide. Harff argues that ethnic and religious cleavages only polarize society and when there is national upheaval, it becomes easier for the elite to mobilize along ethnic and religious and given the history of struggles between the groups, a stage is set for genocidal violence. This is true given examples of Rwanda and Burundi. There were already ethnic problems, history of struggles between the groups but the civil war and the economic hardship only worsened the situation and hence the 1994 genocide.

Finally, both Weitz and Harff try to predict conditions under which genocide is likely to occur. Both agree that genocide is likely to happen during social crises like wars or internal upheavals. Despite the agreement, Harff offers a more comprehensive and persuasive understanding of genocide. She is more predictive than Weitz although she misses to explain mass participation during genocidal violence and this is the strength of Weitz. He shows how ritual and performance can strongly bring people together and encourage mass participation in genocide. Harff is again useful in bringing in the role history can play in understanding genocide which is again a gap with Weitz.


Understanding genocide is complex. I concur with Weitz that "genocides emerge for a variety of reasons and no single explanation can cover every case."[49] Therefore, both the micro theorists and the macro theorists cannot present a complete explanation alone. Explaining why genocide occurs requires a combination of the two theories. Of the two macro theorists chosen, Harff is more comprehensive and persuading than Weitz although there are loopholes as well in her arguments as mentioned in the preceding pages but Weitz makes up for her gaps in analysis to make macro-theory persuasive. I would argue that combining Weitz and Harff, offers gives a good account from macro theorists perspective and when combined with micro theorists of Staub, Milgram and Zimbardo, the stage is set for understanding why individuals and people have committed genocide in the past and Harff's most important contributions to the genocide discourse is that she is the most predictive than any other macro theorists.

  1. Weitz, Eric. "The Modernity of Genocides: War, Race, and Revolution in the Twentieth Century." The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Eds. Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 53-73.
  2. Weitz, Eric, pp56
  3. Weitz defines modernity as "the combined force of new technologies of warfare, new administrative techniques that enhanced state powers of surveillance, and new ideologies that made population the choice of objects of state policies and that categorized people along strict lines of nation and race" pp54
  4. Weitz, Eric, pp55
  5. Weitz, Eric, pp54
  6. Weitz, Eric, pp 56
  7. Weitz, Eric, pp56
  8. Weitz, Eric, pp56
  9. Weitz, Eric, pp56
  10. Weitz, Eric, pp57
  11. Weitz, Eric, pp 59
  12. Weitz, Eric, pp 59
  13. Weitz, Eric, pp 59
  14. See Weitz, Eric, pp 62, he defines rituals as "...performances that binds people together both the active participants and the spectator"
  15. Weitz, Eric, pp 62
  16. Weitz, Eric, pp 70
  17. Weitz, Eric, pp 61
  18. Weitz, Eric, pp 63
  19. Valentino, Benjamin. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
  20. Valentino, Benjamin pp 9
  21. Harff, Barbara."The Etiology of Genocides." Genocide and the Modern Age: Etiology and Case Studies of Mass Death. Eds. Isidor Wallimann and Michael Dobkowski. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000: 41-59.
  22. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  23. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  24. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  25. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  26. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  27. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  28. Harff, Barbara pp 48
  29. Harff, Barbara pp 54, 55
  30. Harff, Barbara pp 55
  31. Harff, Barbara pp 56
  32. Harff, Barbara pp 48
  33. Harff, Barbara, pp48
  34. Harff, Barbara, pp43
  35. Harff, Barbara, pp 49
  36. Harff, Barbara, pp44
  37. Harff, Barbara, pp42
  38. Harff, Barbara, pp 48
  39. Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; an Experimental View. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974.
  40. Zimbardo, Philip, et. al. "Interpersonal Dynamics in A Simulated Prison" International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1973. 1:69-97
  41. Staub, Ervin. "The Origins of Genocide and Mass Killing: Core Concepts." The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 13-34.
  42. Milgram, Stanley, pp9-10
  43. Weitz, Eric, pp64
  44. Harff, Barbara, pp41
  45. Harff, Barbara, pp43
  46. Weitz, Eric, pp 56
  47. Harff, Barbara, pp 43
  48. Harff, Barbara pp 43
  49. Weitz, Eric pp 56

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