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21 October, 2015

“One thing you feel in Ukraine, Donetsk or Crimea is this almost unbearable pressure that Russia is putting”

American historian about propaganda and political manipulations as triggers of genocides in the 20th century

The Ukrainian Week spoke to the American historian about propaganda and political manipulations as triggers of genocides in the 20th century, forced resettlements in Europe and repressions against Crimean Tatars as part of Russia’s war crimes today.

Interviewed by Hanna Trehub

The genocide of Armenians and the forceful expulsion of Pontic Greeks preceded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern Turkey. Why do you place an accent on those developments? What role do they play in our comprehension of the 20th century genocides?

My newest book which will come out in spring-summer next year is called “World History of Genocide”. The phenomenon of genocide has been present in three millennia of human history. It’s not that we are evil within ourselves. But humans living in the society have a proclivity to turn on minorities or others in one way or another, and eliminate them.

The 20th-century genocide actually does not begin with Armenians, but with the genocides of the Herero and Nama people in South-Western Africa by the Germans in 1904-1907. The next major case is the Armenian genocide at the end of the Ottoman Empire. It then carries forward to the present, where we have cases of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and others.

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Why does it happen? There are different periods in the history of mankind. The 20th century has a lot to do with what you might call “race thinking” and the development of modern states, which went in the hand of people who were ready and able to use it. As a way to build their own power, they were willing to exploit some popular feelings of resentment against other people, whether it was Jews, gypsies or Ukrainians, and try to eliminate them. That is pretty much genocide by the UN definition of 1948.

The genocide of Armenians and expulsion of Pontic Greeks happened in 1915, i.e. way before Ataturk, and it was part of a larger story of Turkey, meaning the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks. The movement’s leaders, Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and Djemal Pasha, were worried about the preservation of their empire in 1915. The Russian Empire was one of their main opponents -- it supported Armenian attempts on autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks interpreted this as a danger to their very existence. Another danger, in their view, came from the British who, after the war, more or less forced the new “regime of human rights” for Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians themselves – some of them, more specifically, -- did look to the West to help them protect their rights, because they had experienced some massacres and pogroms under the Turks. All of this together worked to gather a storm of resentment and anger against Armenians on the part of the Young Turks. So, their first measure between 1914 and 1915 was to deport several hundred Armenian intellectuals from what is Istanbul today. And that was the beginning of “a gathering storm”, where deportations turned into the mass shooting of men and driving women and children across the desert, towards Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq). When they started to die in huge numbers, the Young Turks basically decided to let them die. Even when American Ambassador Henry Morgentaugh went to Talaat Pasha and said that “tens of thousands of people are dying. We have to do something about it”, Talaat Pasha basically said that it was the fault of Armenians, so let them die. We don’t know exactly how many Armenians were killed then. Estimates range somewhere around 1 million people. Armenians claim it’s a million and a half. That was genocide because the Turkish government more or less created the conditions for those people to die, and did not stop even knowing that they would.

Under the Ottomans, Armenians lived in so-called millets, or religious communities. They were able to trade, live as they wanted and practice their religion. Then, gradually, the system started to break down in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, Armenians saw big pogroms and increasing resentment as they looked outside the Empire for help and protection, which the Turks didn’t like. The result was a terrible catastrophe.

Do you trace any common aspects in all genocides of the 20th century, from those committed by the German Reich to the slaughter in Darfur? What are they, if any?

These are political decisions made by the leadership of the countries for their own purposes. And they find excuses. Take Ukrainians: Stalin thought in the 1930s that, should the Poles invade and take over the soviet territory, there would probably be quite a few Ukrainians interested in joining the Poles against the Russians. Or take the example of Yugoslavia, the Serbs and Milosevic. I spent a lot of time in the Balkans to comprehend the history of resentment between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. This sentiment had been very muted, things were actually good between them for decades after WWII. But then, it was something that could be exploited by political leaders like Miloshevich, who managed to convince Serbs that Muslims were terrible enemies. The same thing happened to Croatia. The Croats began to look at the Serbs as terrible people and enemies. Without that political manipulation you wouldn’t have genocide. You need state armed forces to create one.

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Take pogroms. Some, like the ones against Jews in the 19th-century Russian Empire, happened spontaneously. But that’s different from genocide, where the state gets involved in elimination and persecution of part of its people, while convincing others that there are good reasons for doing this. It’s about politics and political leadership. They can prevent mass killing, they can be indifferent to it, or they can perpetrate it. Genocide is almost always about perpetration of mass killing.

You’ve talked of two sides – political regimes and victims. But the third one is societies. Do they affect the way genocides unfold?

It’s crucial. In almost every case of genocide you see a kind of propagandistic exploitation of people’s lowest instincts to make them hate, dislike and remove the people who are being persecuted. The population is vulnerable to this, especially in hard times of economic troubles or social upheaval. People are vulnerable to the idea that others are to blame, that it’s not their own responsibility. Again, the classic case is the Jews or Armenians. In Ruanda, the Hutu would blame everything on the Tutsi. Stalin’s killings involved propaganda, but they were much more about a police state. Propaganda was used to justify what had been done, to tell party members or colleagues that “these people are to blame”, i.e. Ukrainians were to blame for their own troubles during collectivization. However, Stalin was not interested in drumming up popular hatred against Ukrainians. He was using the police state apparatus instead. For that, you need less popular involvement. And still, Stalin’s repressions had hundreds of thousands of people involved.  

Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust, faced the Nuremberg tribunal. Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union, one of the victorious parties in WWII, therefore he faced no trial that would give just assessment to his genocides, deportations of entire peoples or other crimes. Is it possible to have at least a symbolic trial for the crimes of Bolsheviks and Communists today? Who would have to initiate one?

The symbolic court right now is history. As to judicial options, there seem to be few. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky tried very hard to set up a kind of Nuremberg for Stalin and the soviet system, as well as Communism in general. There was hope early on that there would be some kind of judicial coming to terms with Stalinism and Communism. Bukovsky was able to get a lot of documents that were published in the West, but he never managed to get the Russians to be involved in a court and bring this in front of judicial proceedings.

Not all Russians admire Stalin today: about 50-55% do. This means that 45% know about his crimes. But the way the Russian increasingly authoritarian government, as well as the press, TV and propaganda are working now, results in a feeling that the West is out to get them in Russia. So, it wouldn’t do any good to have such a court of justice against Stalin and his crimes in the West. They would just say that it’s one more anti-Russian activity on our part. All we can hope for in terms of judicial procedures is groups like Memorial which do a fantastic job, but they’ve been having troubles recently. They can no longer get money from the West without being accused of being spies. It really is quite a terrible situation.

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Still, there are people who know exactly what happened. There are books published in Russian, with plenty of documents about Stalin’s crimes. There are few radio stations, such as Echo Moskvy, which have very honest historians who talk about Stalin’s crimes. I don’t think there is going to be any reckoning judicially. It is now really about historians to sit down and do their job properly, trying to understand what Stalin did and why he did it. It’s important to understand that there is still disagreement among historians about this. Some of my friends and colleagues don’t like my books about Stalin’s genocide, and thought that “you can’t accuse Stalin of genocide”.

The history of mass deportations of certain ethnic groups is not only about Crimean Tatars or Chechens expelled by Stalin. It is also about the Germans, the Poles and Ukrainians who had been driven out from where they lived and resettled to different places after new borders were set as a result of WWII. Were these deportations really unavoidable in the process of redrawing borders?

Some people would say that you had to have ethnically pure Poland, Ukraine or Turkey. But my view is that there was absolutely no good reason or need for these mass deportations. I was just in Lviv -- you can smell and see the multinational city that is was with Poles, Ukrainians Jews, Austrians, Germans, Tatars, Armenians and others. It was a wonderful mix of peoples who lived next to each other. There wasn’t a lot of assimilation. They didn’t intermarry very much, kept separate, and had their own church, economies and sections of the town. It’s wonderful to see all this in the architecture, but it’s also sad and unnecessary that the peoples had to become “unmixed”. This “unmixing” of populations, an artificial one, which happened throughout Eastern Europe and included ethnic cleansing, killings and driving people out of their homes, was a terrible thing.   

At the end of the war and the beginning of peace, the Poles and the Czechs basically got the permission of the allies to drive out the Germans. Nobody really cared much about the Germans in 1945 given what they had just done. So they were driven out violently – I called this “ethnic cleansing” in one of my books. Some Polish, Czech and German historians don’t like that. Many of those Germans were killed, some of them committed suicide, some were raped and driven out. That was one of the biggest mass movements of people in history of Europe, involving 11.5-12 million. Now, those parts of Europe don’t have Germans, just like they don’t have Jews left. That’s a shame, because many of them had been there for centuries.

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The other part of the story has to do with the Polish-Ukrainian problem and the fact that the Polish Communist-run government and the Soviet one had an agreement whereby they would exchange populations, conduct “repatriation”. But it wasn’t repatriation. The Poles had lived in the East – places like Lviv or Vilnius – for years. But they were mostly forcibly removed, although they didn’t want to go. My wife’s father lived in a small village outside of Lviv. The family was packed up and told to go. They had no choice. They were sent to Silesia, a town called Gnadenfeld (today, the village of Pawlowiczki in south-western Poland – Ed.) that was all German. The Germans were, too, packed up and sent out. Ukrainians were sent out from south-eastern Poland in Operation Vistula to parts of western Poland where few people were left by that time.

In some parts of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, you see a revival of interest both in the Germans and in the Jews. They are rebuilding Jewish monuments in Poland, including a new fantastic Jewish museum where they talk about the fact that for hundreds of years the fifth of the population in Poland was Jewish, and it gave a lot to Polish culture and society. In Wroclaw, they are rebuilding German monuments. They want to talk about the past together. It is as if there are ghosts of all these peoples there. But you don’t want to live just with ghosts. That’s why Ukrainians worry about Crimean Tatars who may be expelled from their peninsula again.

Stalin’s deportations of Crimean Tatars and Chechens continue in modern time with two wars in Chechnya, then the annexation of Crimea. In all of these, Russia is involved. What should we remember and note in order to prevent another possible genocide or ethnocide in our days?

The wars in Chechnya were terrible, brutal confrontations, where what you might call “counterinsurgency” on the part of the Russians went beyond any reasonable attempt to hold on the territory. In other words, their idea was to keep the Chechens from separating. On the next level, they destroyed so much and so many people that it became a horrible case of what I would call “crimes against humanity”, massacres, torture. Those are probably the rubrics where the Chechen wars fit.

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In the case of today’s Crimea – the last time I went to teach there was probably four summers ago, and one thing I noticed there was that many people felt that they belonged in Russia, not in Ukraine – Putin’s attacks were against international law. This is a war of aggression and it’s certainly possible that war crimes are being committed by the Russians in Crimea. Look at the two Ukrainians – Oleh Sentsov and Oleksiy Kolchenko (sentenced to 20 and 10 years in Russian prison respectively – Ed.). But this is not genocide or crimes against humanity. It is putting pressure. One thing you feel in Ukraine, Donetsk, Crimea is this almost unbearable pressure that Russia is putting on Ukraine. There is a lot pressure on people in Crimea to leave or say they are Russians. The same thing with Crimean Tatars – they can leave for the continental Ukraine, but actually they have nowhere to go; the peninsula is their home. They fought hard to get back there after the exile in 1944. I don’t think they will submit or leave easily despite even this pressure on their land and ability to support themselves, and amidst the economic situation that’s going downhill.


Norman Naimark is Professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. One of the top experts in soviet history, Mr. Naimark specializes in the rise of Bolshevism and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, nationalism in the USSR, the role of Eastern Europe in World War II, Russian and Polish revolutionary movements, ethnic cleansing and genocides. He wrote a number of books, including A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (2011), Stalin’s Genocides (2010), Fires Of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing In 20th Century Europe (2001), and The Russians In Germany: The History Of The Soviet Zone Of Occupation (1995), among others.

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