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Britain and genocide: historical and contemporary parameters of national responsibility


This article (originally given as the Annual War Studies Lecture at King's College, London, on 25 January 2010) challenges the assumption that Britain's relationship to genocide is constituted by its ‘vigilance’ towards the genocide of others. Through a critical overview of the question of genocide in the historical and contemporary politics of the British state and society, the article suggests their wide-ranging, complex relationships to genocide. Utilising a conception of genocide as multi-method social destruction and applying the interpretative frames of the genocide literature, it argues that the British state and elements of identifiably British populations have been involved directly and indirectly in genocide in a number of different international contexts. These are addressed through five themes: the role of genocide in the origins of the British state; the problem of genocide in the Empire and British settler colonialism; Britain's relationships to twentieth-century European genocide; its role in the genocidal violence of decolonisation; and finally, Britain's role in the genocidal crises of the post-Cold War world. The article examines the questions of national responsibility that this survey raises: while rejecting simple ideas of national responsibility as collective guilt, it nevertheless argues that varying kinds of responsibility for genocide attach to British institutions, leaders and population groups at different points in the history surveyed.

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1 Home Office, Government Proposal for a Holocaust Memorial Day (October 1999), available at: {} accessed on 11 December 2009.

2 Although Levene, ‘Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day’, suggests that this day results from a Swedish initiative, Pearce, Andrew, ‘The Development of Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain 1979–2001’, Holocaust Studies, 14:2 (2008) , emphasises Britain's role in this instituting this event internationally.

3 The German literature is too extensive to cite, but for Australia, see Moses, A. Dirk (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History (Oxford: Berghahn, 2004) , and for the US, Power, Samantha, A ‘Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide (London: Flamingo, 2003) .

4 Stone, Dan, ‘Day of Remembering or Day of Forgetting? Or, Why Britain Does Not Need a Holocaust Memorial Day’, Patterns of Prejudice, 34 (2000), pp. 5359 . Mark Levene, ‘Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day’, while approving the institution of the Day, went further in accusing the government of ‘brazen hypocrisy’.

5 Cesarani, David, Britain, the Holocaust and its Legacy: the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (2002) , {–22.pdf} accessed on 30 December 2009, p. 2, emphasis added.

6 In this sense I do not agree with Mark Levene's proposal (in Genocide and the Nation-State (London: I. B.Tauris, 2005) that genocide should be seen as a problem of the modern world system in its most general sense: rather I see it as a product of specific historical conjunctures in the development of this system, an argument I develop in my forthcoming paper, ‘Genocide in International Relations: Endemic and Systemic Manifestations in Twentieth-Century Europe’.

7 For example, genocide is defined by Fein, Helen as ‘sustained purposeful action to physically destroy a collectivity’, ‘Genocide: A Sociological Perspective’, Current Sociology, 38 (1990), p. 23 ; by Chalk, Frank and Jonassohn, Hans as ‘a form of one-sided mass killing’, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 24 ; and by Charny, Israel as ‘the mass killing of a substantial number of human beings’, ‘Toward a Generic Definition of Genocide’, in Andreopoulos, G.A. (ed.), Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), p. 75 . For a critique, see Shaw, Martin, What is Genocide? (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), pp. 2833 .

8 Lemkin, Raphael, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (New York: Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, 1944), pp. xixii .

9 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948).

10 Chalk, and Jonassohn, , The History and Sociology, p. 24 .

11 Shaw, , What is Genocide?, p. 154 .

12 Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew, Ethnic Cleansing (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996) ; Naimark, Norman, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001) ; Ther, Phillip, ‘A Century of Forced Migration: The Origins and Consequences of Ethnic Cleansing’, in Ther, and Siljak, Anna (eds), Redrawing nations: ethnic cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948 (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), p. 51 ; Mann, Michael, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) . Schabas, William A. points out that the term is a ‘euphemism for genocide’: Genocide in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 194 . For a critique of the concept, Shaw, , What is Genocide?, pp. 4862 .

13 Schabas, William, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 196 ; quotation abbreviated by Schabas.

14 See International Court of Justice, ‘Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), ‘Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), {}; and Martin Shaw, ‘The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide’, {} both accessed on 2 May 2010.

15 See Curthoys, Ann and Docker, John, ‘Defining Genocide’, in Stone, Dan (eds), The Historiography of Genocide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 942 .

16 Moses, A. Dirk, ‘Introduction: The Field of Genocide Studies’, in Genocide: Critical Historical Concepts (London: Routledge, 2010), Volume 1 .

17 Moses, A. Dirk (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society ; A. Moses, Dirk (ed.), Colonialism and Genocide (London: Routledge, 2007) ; Kiernan, Ben, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination (London: Yale University Press, 2007) ; Levene, Mark, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Volume 2, The Rise of the West, (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005) ; Pappé, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Zed, 2007) .

18 Bloxham, Donald, The Great Game of Genocide: imperialism, nationalism, and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) ; Bessell, Richard and Haake, Claudia B. (eds), Removing peoples: forced removal in the modern world (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) ; Ahonen, P. et al. , People on the move: forced population movements in Europe in the Second World War and its aftermath (Oxford: Berg, 2008) .

19 Kuper, Leo, Genocide (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 32 .

20 Chirot, Daniel and McCauley, Clark, Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder, p. 14 .

21 {} accessed 10 November 2009.

22 Levene, , Genocide, Volume 2, p. 56 , emphasis in the original.

23 Levene, , Genocide, Volume 2, p. 57 .

24 Pat Coogan, Tim, The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal and the Search for Peace (New York: Roberts Rinehart, 1997), p. 6 . Of course ‘genocide’ has been used and abused on both sides of the Irish divide: McVeigh, Robbie, ‘“The balance of cruelty”: Ireland, Britain and the logic of genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 10 (2008), pp. 541563 .

25 A. Dirk Moses (ed.), Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History (Oxford: Berghahn, 2008); Jones, Adam and Robbins, Nicholas A. (eds), Genocides by the Oppressed: Subaltern Genocide in Theory and Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) .

26 Of course the consolidation of the British state can also be seen through the perspective of colonisation, as argued by Hecter, Michael, Internal Colonialism: the Celtic fringe in British national development, 1536–1966 (London: Routledge & Paul, 1975) .

27 Levene, , Genocide, Volume 2, pp. 5859 . See also, Richards, Eric, The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000) .

28 See, for example, Thompson, E. P., Whigs and Hunters: the origin of the Black Act (London: Allen Lane, 1975) .

29 Trotsky, Leon, Where is Britain Going? (London: Pathfinder, 1970), p. 17 .

30 Ward Churchill, quoted by Moses, A. Dirk, ‘Genocide and Settler Society in Australian History’, in Moses, (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society, p. 4 .

31 A. Dirk Moses cites Hannah Arendt's ‘naïve paen to British expansion’: ‘Genocide and Settler Society’, pp. 4–5; for a more recent version, see Ferguson, Niall, Empire: how Britain made the modern world (London: Allen Lane, 2003) .

32 Misra, Maria, ‘Heart of Smugness’, Guardian (23 July 2002) .

33 The role of ‘ordinary’ people in genocide is another major theme of the literature: see Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men: reserve police battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) .

34 Mann, , The Dark Side of Democracy, p. 4 .

35 Moses, ‘Genocide and Settler Society’, p. 19.

36 Moses, A. Dirk, ‘An antipodean genocide? The origins of the genocidal moment in the colonization of Australia’, Journal of Genocide Research, 2 (2000), pp. 89106 .

37 Moses, ‘Genocide and Settler Society’, p. 5.

38 A scholarly account which recognises this issue is Stone, Dan, ‘Britannia Rules the Waives’, in his History, Memory and Mass Atrocity: Essays on the Holocaust and Genocide (Edinburgh: Mitchell, Valentine and Co., 2006) . As to political discourse, in this context it is interesting to note the coordinated apologies of the Australian and British governments for the harm caused to British children separated from their families and sent to Australia in the mid-twentieth century. See, Walker, Peter, ‘Brown to apologise to care home children sent to Australia and Canada’, The Guardian (16 November 2009) . It is also important to recognise the limitations of the official Australian acknowledgement of genocide: Barta, Tony, ‘Sorry, and not sorry, in Australia: how the apology to the stolen generations buried a history of genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 10 (2008), pp. 201214 .

39 Mazower, Mark, Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (London: Allen Lane, 2009), p. 229 .

40 Shaw, Martin, War and Genocide (Cambridge: Polity, 2003) .

41 Dalrymple, William, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), pp. 143et seq.

42 Conquest, Robert, The harvest of sorrow: Soviet collectivization and the terror famine (London: Hutchinson, 1986) ; Becker, Jasper, Hungry ghosts: China's secret famine (London: John Murray, 1997) .

43 Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Ñino famines and the making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), pp. 2560 .

44 Davis, , Late Victorian Holocausts, p. 32 .

45 Lest we think that these issues concern only the distant past, these attitudes were echoed in the Bengal famine of 1943, in which, according to Khan, Yasmin, ‘the Bengali public had been left starving to death, and perhaps as many as three million people died because of shoddy government food allocation and skewed political priorities.’ The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 17 .

46 Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), p. 366 ; see also, Anderson, David, Histories of the Hanged: Britain's dirty war in Kenya and the end of empire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005) .

47 Howe, Stephen, ‘Forgotten Shame of Empire’ (review), The Independent (21 January 2005) .

48 Lemkin, Axis Rule, referred to the Nazi genocide in general.

49 Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide; ‘The Great Unweaving: The Removal of Peoples in Europe, 1875–1949’, in Bessell, and Haake, , Removing Peoples, pp. 167208; and The Final Solution – A Genocide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) . Although Bloxham's idea of a ‘great game of genocide’ suggests that genocide, in the sense used here, was a general phenomenon, he is definitionally more cautious than this suggests and refers only to the Armenian case conclusively as a genocide. See also, Carmichael, Cathie, Genocide before the Holocaust (London: Yale University Press, 2009) .

50 Bloxham, , The Great Game, p. 138 .

51 On this history in general see Weitz, Eric D., ‘From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions’, American Historical Review, 113 (2008), pp. 13131343 .

52 Bloxham, , The Great Game, p. 163 .

53 Bloxham, , The Great Game of Genocide, p. 165 .

54 Cohen, Michael J., Churchill and the Jews, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Cass, 2003), pp. 261305 .

55 Cesarani, , Britain, the Holocaust and its Legacy, p. 2 .

56 Brandes, Detlef, ‘National and International Planning of the “Transfer” of Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland’, in Bessel, and Haake, , Removing Peoples, pp. 286287 .

57 Brandes, ‘National and International Planning’, pp. 290–91.

58 de Zayas, Alfred M., Nemesis at Potsdam: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsions of the Germans, 2nd edition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) .

59 Bloxham, Donald, Genocide, the World Wars and the Unweaving of Europe (Edinburgh: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008), p. 122 .

60 Frank, Matthew, Expelling the Germans: British Opinion and the Post-1945 Population Transfer in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) .

61 Zayas, De, Nemesis at Potsdam, p. 108 .

62 As the Air Staff directive of 14 February 1942 put it, ‘The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the civilian population […]’: Grayling, A. C., Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War Ever Justified? (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 50 .

63 RAF press briefing, quoted by Grayling, , Among the Dead Cities, p. 72 .

64 Grayling, , Among the Dead Cities, pp. 59, 8291 .

65 Ibid., pp. 159162, 176 .

66 Ibid., p. 168 .

67 For the idea of ‘degenerate war’, applied to total war in 1939–1945, see Shaw, Martin, War and Genocide (Cambridge: Polity, 2003) , chap. 2.

68 Whereas the UN Charter (1945) defined the character of the international organisation to succeed the League of Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) was just that, a declaration without binding legal significance, and the Geneva Conventions (1949) extended the laws of war previously agreed at The Hague, the Convention was a legal instrument creating a completely new supreme type of international crime.

69 Werth, Nicholas, ‘The Crimes of the Stalin Regime: Outline for an Inventory and Classification’, in Stone, Dan (ed.), The Historiography of Genocide (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007), pp. 400419 ; Werth points out (p. 413) that on 26 November 1948, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR ruled that the Chechens, Ingush, Tartars, etc., whose societies Stalin had destroyed through brutal deportation and extensive loss of life, should be punished ‘in perpetuity’. Only two weeks after ratifying this genocide (as Werth rightly sees it), Soviet representatives in the UN voted for the Convention which they had helped draft.

70 Schabas, William A., Genocide in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 196 .

71 Naimark, Norman, Stalin's Genocides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) .

72 Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon, Mao: The Unknown Story (London: Cape, 2005) .

73 Khan, , The Great Partition, p. 6 .

74 Khan charges Mountbatten with ‘almost breathtaking callousness’ in seeing renewed violence as helping to influence political leaders to accept his plan: The Great Partition, p. 7.

75 Khan, , The Great Partition, p. 62 .

76 Brass, Paul R., ‘The partition of India and retributive genocide in the Punjab, 1946–47: means, methods, and purposes’, Journal of Genocide Research, 5 (2003), p. 75 ; Talbot, Ian, ‘The 1947 Partition of India’, in Stone, (ed.), The Historiography of Genocide, pp. 420437 .

77 International Crisis Group, Kenya in Crisis, Africa Report No. 137 (21 February 2008).

78 Rice, Xan, ‘Kenyan leaders fail to sanction tribunal to investigate post-election violence’, The Guardian (5 November 2009) .

79 I have explained my view of these issues more fully in ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’, ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’, Holy Land Studies 9:1 (May 2010).

80 Pappé, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: OneWorld, 2007) ; Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) . Levene, Mark agrees that ‘on all this, only one verdict is available, and it is the one that Pappé uses: ethnic cleansing’. Levene, review of Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Journal of Genocide Research, 9 (2007), p. 680 . However this is too simple a conclusion: in the sense used here, ‘genocide’ is appropriate.

81 I have discussed the issues surrounding this case in ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’, Holy Land Studies, 9:1 (2010), pp. 125 .

82 This Levene sumarises as follows: ‘After its onset in the initial tentative attacks, the general lack of Arab resistance provided a green light to a formula in which villages were surrounded, often at night or at dawn, and a range of ordnance loosed off to cause panic. The village having usually then surrendered, able men and boys were lined up, and sometimes shot – on the spot, or elsewhere. In worse cases, some where resistance had occurred, sometimes where it had not, a more general massacre ensued.’ Levene, review of Pappé, p. 676.

83 Schafer, G., ‘New Humanitarianism. Britain and Sierra Leone, 1997–2003’, Anthropos, 104 (2009), pp. 260261 .

84 Simms, Brendan, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London: Allen Lane, 2001), p. 317 .

85 ITN News at Ten (4 April 1991), quoted by Shaw, Martin, Civil Society and Media in Global Crises: Representing Distant Violence (London: Pinter, 1996), p. 89 .

86 Shaw, , Civil Society, pp. 7996 ; see also Robinson, Piers, The CNN Effect: the myth of news, foreign policy and intervention (London: Routledge, 2002) .

87 Simms, , Unfinest Hour, p. 339 .

88 Simms, , Unfinest Hour, pp. 340341 .

89 Kent, Gregory, Framing war and genocide: British policy and news media reaction to the war in Bosnia (Cresskill, NJ.: Hampton Press, 2005) .

90 Quoted by Melvern, Linda, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide (London: Zed, 2000), p. 230 .

91 Barrnett, Michael, Eye-Witness to a Genocide: the UN and Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 171 .

92 Melvern, , A People Betrayed, p. 230 .

93 Prunier, Gérard, From Genocide to Continental War: The ‘Congolese’ Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (London: Hurst, 2009), p. 219 .

94 This ‘risk transfer’ is a structural feature of contemporary Western warfare: see Shaw, Martin, The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and Its Crisis in Iraq (Cambridge: Polity, 2005) .

95 For an account of international failures in Kosovo, , King, Iain and Mason, Whit, Peace at any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) .

96 For a discussion of both within a genocide frame, see Levene, ‘Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day’.

97 Thus Iraq Body Count estimates the death toll in Iraq since 2003 as within the range 94,768–103,410 up to December 2009; {} accessed on 16 December 2009. In contrast, Burnham, Gilbert, Lafta, Riyadh, Doocy, Shannon, and Roberts, Les, ‘Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey’, The Lancet (11 October 2006) , estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5 per cent of the population, up to the end of June 2006.

98 UN High Commissioner for Refugees, {} accessed on 30 December 2009, reporting the situation as of 1 January 2009. Of course a considerable proportion of the refugee and displaced populations undoubtedly result from earlier wars and genocidal campaigns.

99 Shaw, The New Western Way of War.

100 Gow, James argues that Milošević's capitulation over Kosovo can only be explained by his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia: The Serbian Project and Its Adversaries: A Strategy of War Crimes (London: Hurst, 2003), pp. 292301 .

101 For an optimistic view, Kaldor, Mary, Global Civil Society: An Answer to War (Cambridge: Polity, 2003) .

102 For a critique of this approach in the context of unilateral nuclear disarmament, see Hinton, Richard, Protests and Visions: Peace Politics in Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Hutchinson, 1989) .

103 Moses, ‘Introduction’.

104 Cesarani, , Britain, the Holocaust and its Legacy, p. 1 .

* This article is a revised version of the Annual War Studies Lecture given at King's College, London, on 25 January 2010, on the eve of the annual Holocaust Memorial Day.

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