The Inflation Of Genocide

By Leonidas Donskis

European Voice
July 24 2009

A Lithuanian philosopher rejects political calls for the Soviet
Union’s slaughter of Lithuanians to be labelled an act of genocide.

Editor’s note: Was the slaughter of Lithuanians by the Soviet Union
an act of genocide? If so, should denial of the term ‘genocide’ be
considered criminal? The Lithuanian parliament is set, in the coming
months, to consider precisely those questions. In this essay, without
downplaying the horrors of Soviet rule, the Lithuanian philosopher
Leonidas Donskis argues against application of the term. It would, he
contends, be wrong historically, wrong legally, wrong conceptually. It
is, rather, an example of our age’s inflation of concepts – one that
risks marginalising genocide. The essay also comes against the backdrop
of the formulation of a law in Russia that would criminalise those
who equate Stalin and Hitler or deny that the Red Army "liberated"
eastern Europe from fascism.

We are living in an era of not only monetary inflation, but also of
the inflation – hence devaluation – of concepts and values.

Sworn oaths are being debased before our very eyes. It used to be
that by breaking an oath a person lost the right to participate in the
public square and to be a spokesman for truth and values. He would be
stripped of everything except his personal and private life, and would
be unable to speak on behalf of his group, his people or his society.

Pledges have also suffered a devaluation. Once upon a time, if you
went back on your word you were divested of even the tiniest measure
of trust.

Concepts are also being devalued; they are no longer reserved
for the explicit task of describing precise instances of human
experience. Everything is becoming uniformly important and
unimportant. My very existence places me at the centre of the world.

Genocide and its inflation In my experience, the pinnacle of concept
inflation was reached ten years ago, when I came across articles
in the American press describing the "holocaust" of turkeys in the
run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. This was probably not a simple
case of a word being used unthinkingly or irresponsibly.

Disrespect for concepts and language only temporarily masks disrespect
for others; and this disrespect eventually bubbles to the surface.

In recent decades, the concept of genocide has undergone a perilous
devaluation. Here, I would like to stress that the devaluation of this
concept has not been underpinned by a concern for humanity as whole
or for the condition of contemporary humaneness; just the opposite –
it is a symptom of the history of the revaluation of the self as the
world’s navel and, concurrently, of an insensitivity towards humanity.

Moreover, the immoderate use of this word threatens to stifle dialogue.

The concept of genocide Genocide is a term used in philosophy,
political science and sociology, but also in law; it is clearly
defined in UN legal documents, and a precise definition of genocide
exists in international law.

After the mass slaughter of national and ethnic groups by the Nazis,
the term began to be used to designate the doctrine of deliberate
extermination of national, religious or ethnic groups; and to designate
the execution of this doctrine.

A genocide is the annihilation en bloc of a people or of a race,
irrespective of class divisions, dominant ideology and internal social
and cultural differences.

Genocide does not denote a battle against an enemy which, under
conditions of war or revolution, is something that is clearly defined
by classical military, ideological or political-doctrinal criteria.

If this were the case, any revolution, and the systematic annihilation
of those opposing it, would need to be labelled genocide.

Genocide is anihilation without pre-selection, where the victims are
utterly unable to save themselves – in theory or in practice – by an
ideological change of heart, by religious apostasy or, ultimately,
by betraying the group and going over to the other side.

On this view, let us then agree that the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day
massacre in Paris and the bloody killings of Huguenots throughout
France; the terror unleashed during the Middle Ages by the Inquisition,
which led to the murders of masses of women, witches, soothsayers,
Jews and homosexuals; and the wiping out of entire village populations
in the Vend̩e by French revolutionaries in 1789-94 Рregardless of
how harrowing all of this carnage was – did not amount to genocide.

Those people met with a barbarous end, but almost all could have saved
themselves by going over to the side of their enemies or persecutors.

Genocide is both a theory and a praxis (although it is a praxis first
and foremost) that leaves its intended victims without any hope of
escape – even if they choose to go over to their enemy’s side.

You are guilty at birth, and this fatal error of having been born –
this original sin – can be corrected only by your extermination. Such
is the metaphysics of genocide and absolute hatred. The only way of
resolving the ‘problem’ is by the complete and utter annihilation of
bodies, lives, blood and skin pigment.

In his Nobel address, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn compared nations to
thoughts of God; it was the murder of this single God – which goes
beyond good and evil and which promotes the destruction of the entire
world – that is the true genocide.

It is a symbolic murder of humanity, because the annihilation of one
form of human existence relegates the existence of other peoples to
the margins of mere future practicalities.

Killing one person makes it that much easier to go out and kill others.

Genocide and history There is no point in devaluing the concept of
genocide through ratiocinations about the genocide of cultures and
languages. Such phenomena, quite simply, do not exist – nor have they
ever existed.

Until the 20th cenury, larger and more powerful states not only
defeated but also assimilated smaller countries and nations, as much
as we are loath to admit this.

Doubtless, the forced assimilation of individuals and nations is a
repellent part of imperialism and of imperial politics as a spiritual
principle; but it is not a crime against humanity once it becomes a
routine and voluntary practice undertaken by the elites of smaller
nations who later go on to rise to influence in the adopted metropolis.

After all, we cannot regard the history of all our civilisations
as one ongoing crime and one endless genocide of some group or
other. Whitewashing a concept benefits no one.

Whether we like it or not, the Holocaust was the one and only bona
fide genocide in human history.

It was unique not only because of its scale, its praxis and its
industrial methods of annihilation, but because of its determination
never to call a halt to the Final Solution as long as a single Jew
remained alive.

Ultimately, it was not a garden-variety mass killing; it was a policy
decision taken by an industrial and civilised state; one into which the
country’s entire economic and and industrial machinery was plugged in,
bolstered by military might and a political propaganda apparatus.

Which is why other genocides of the 20th century need to be discussed
with provisos, although this does not in any way diminish the scale
of these other tragedies, nor does it diminish the culpability of
the perpetrators in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although they were more sporadic and involved less forward thinking,
the other 20th century mass killings of nations which exhibited
genocidal features, beyond any shadow of a doubt, were no less

The massacre of Armenians during the First World War; the slaughter of
Roma during the Second World War; Stalin’s Holodomor, which unleashed
mass starvation on the Ukranian populace; the killing spree that
saw millions of Tutsis cut down in Rwanda; and, lastly, the ethnic
cleansing of Bosniaks and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia – all
of these macabre 20th century events can be considered mass killings
with genocidal traits.

Compared with the Holocaust, these mass murders were smaller in scale,
were not as global and were somewhat less international in their
ideological reach and practical scope, but they were nonetheless
horrific and were certainly crimes against humanity of a genocidal

Their aim was not to destroy isolated groups or social strata among the
enemy, but to liquidate as many members of an ethnic group as possible.

Genocide, Lithuania and stratocide Did Lithuania experience
genocide? No, it did not.

No matter how cruel the Soviet terror that was visited upon the Baltic
states, a large segment of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian society,
by going over to the other side, by becoming collaborators, was
not only able to save itself, but also secure for itself successful
careers in the administration of the occupying regime. This group
was able to wreak havoc on and settle scores with its own people,
doing so with impunity.

There was never any project for a complete annihilation of the Baltic
peoples – had this been the case, it is very unlikely that we would
still be around. In writing this, I am in no way downplaying the
scale of the atrocities committed in the name of Soviet communism.

I will always deplore any attempt to exculpate or to diminish the
scale of the crimes committed by that bloody and essentially criminal
regime. Nonethless, let us be honest and honourable by acknowledging
that we did not experience a true genocide.

It was not for nothing that philosopher and Soviet dissident Grigory
Pomerantz suggested referring to the Soviet terror not as genocide,
but as stratocide – the annihilation of certain strata and classes
within a nation.

He explained that it was not an entire nation that had been wiped out,
as a racial or ethnic whole, but its most educated, most cultured
and most conscious strata.

Russians do not refer to the physical annihilation of their
intelligentsia and bourgoisie – numbering in the millions of lives lost
– as genocide, just as the purges during China’s Cultural Revolution,
which carried off the lives of tens of millions of Chinese, was never
proclaimed a genocide of the Chinese people.

Genocide is not a mass slaughter motivated by an internal ideological
or political struggle – if that were the case, civil wars would end
up falling into the category of genocide.

In the case of genocide, one nation engages in the premeditated
annihilation of another; the aggressors do not seek to subjugate
the victims, nor to bring them to heel and foist upon them an alien
doctrine, religion or ideology.

So let us be precise. Let us call a spade a spade.

The end result of a totalitarian revolution, and of the
institutionalised social engineering that seeks to level a society’s
composition by liquidating a particular class, is no better than
genocide – but it is not genocide. This is why the excessive use of
this word is not benign at all.

Genocide and its marginalisation If you want to downgrade the Holocaust
or shove it into the margins of history, well then, all you need to do
is come up with another genocide that took place in that same country,
even if it is one that does not quite fit the legal criteria for and
definition of genocide.

If the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania is not
investigating the Holocaust, then a question surfaces: what is it
investigating? And what is its definition of genocide?

A new law currently being drafted for debate by Lithuania’s legislature
would make it a crime to deny that a genocide against the Lithuanian
people was ever conducted by the Soviets.

It follows from this that whenever historians, political scientists,
sociologists, philosophers and law professors discuss the concept
of genocide, or discuss historical cases of genocide, they end up
running the risk of landing in jail if they express any doubts about
a genocide of Lithuanians by the Soviets – as if this genocide could
be somehow identical to the one conducted by the Nazis against Jews.

In my view, attempts to criminalize discussion are totally out of
place in any democratic state. Such attempts pose a grave threat
to the freedoms of thought and of conscience, which could easily
end up being stifled in the name of a threat to national dignity or
security. Forgive me, but this sounds like a melody from the repertoire
of some authoritarian regime.

If the reply to this charge is that Holocaust denial is forbidden and
punishable as a crime in Germany and Austria, I will readily admit
that I am in no way enamoured with that practice.

The criminalisation of Holocaust denial causes a slackening of
conscience, safely removing the Holocaust from the sphere of ethics
and morality and tucking it into the neatly arranged sphere of law.

Furthermore, a halo appears above the heads of Holocaust deniers and
revisionists – and it is the dangerous ideas of these people that
must be defeated through forthright discussion, not by shutting away
the proponents of such ideas in a windowless cell.

You can put someone in the dock for denying the past tragedies of a
country or nation – you can even put such a person behind bars – but
this will not hinder him from demonstrating contempt and insensitivity
towards that nation or state in the present.

Leftist politicians in countries that prohibit Holocaust denial, who
shun lengthier discussions of the topic and who, at the same time,
merrily fulminate against Israel, labelling it a fascist state and
referring to the suffering of the Palestinian arabs as genocide,
leave me wondering if the criminalisation of Holocaust denial in
western Europe is not a phenomenon marching in step with a new form of
anti-Semitism that has begun growing shoots – a politically correct,
left-leaning, anti-globalist anti-Semitism (one strain of which is
ideological anti-Americanism) that employs criticism of Israel as
a disguise.

Anti-Semitism, it would seem, has been thrust out the front door only
to be allowed to climb back in through the window.

Therefore, when addressing the painful episodes of human history we
should ponder the dangers of our contemporary amoral and relativist

By quashing open and rational discussion, we will never restore to
our concepts and values their original content. And there are no laws
that can help us here either.

Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher. This text appears in
his recent collection of essays, "Nepopuliaros izvalgos" (Unpopular
insights), Vilnius: Versus Aureus, 2009. The translator is Darius Ross.