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Myth-Making and the Rationality of Mass Murder – René Lemarchand

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (March 2004), pp. 31-43] [The Annual African Studies Lecture, University of Leeds, 7 May 2003]

Myth-Making and the Rationality of Mass Murder: Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia in Comparative Perspective

René Lemarchand, University of Florida

Is mass murder amenable to rational explanation? What kind of perverse logic lies behind the killings of millions of human beings in Europe, Asia and Africa at the end of the last century? Merely to raise these questions confronts us with a disturbing thought: if there is such a thing as a logic to genocide, the motives behind it are not to be dismissed as aberrations; they are rooted in forms of rationality, which, however abhorrent they may seem in retrospect, could conceivably make genocidal killers of each and everyone of us.[1]

Every act of understanding includes a large element of subjectivity. All the more so when we try to comprehend the ultimate in man’s inhumanity to man. Rather than coming to grips with the full range of factors behind the appalling brutality of the cases under review, this discussion focuses on their mythical dimensions. My interpretation owes much to Norman Cohn’s pioneering inquest into the roots of anti-Semitism. In laying bare “the myth of Jewish world conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, he brings out the existence of a “subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-hearted fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and the superstitious”. There are times, he adds, “when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility”.[2] The underworld is also part of the genocidal universe of Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia; it is inhabited by fantasies that are ominously reminiscent of the murderous lucubrations of 20th century European anti-Semites.

Although the bloodbaths in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia, can only be described as genocides under the terms of the 1948 UN Convention — as cases of planned annihilation of ethnically, religiously or culturally distinct communities — the killings occurred in specific historical and cultural contexts. Above and beyond the ideologies that helped legitimize mass murder, the convergence of history and culture lies at the root of the mythologies that shaped the behavior of the killers. Myth-making in this sense is part and parcel of what Paul Veyne calls l’imagination constituante,[3] and thus must be seen as the constitutive element of genocidal behavior.

Ideological Dimensions

In the minds of most outside observers ideology is generally viewed as a key ingredient in the arsenal of forces that presided over the killings of millions of civilians in all three countries: majoritarian ethnocracy, irredentist nationalism, and Marxism, these are the central themes that helped legitimize mass killings in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia, respectively. Tempting though it is to exaggerate the instrumental significance of imported models at the expense of forces indigenous to these societies, ideology nonetheless provides a convenient point of entry for sketching out the broad outlines of each bloodbath.

Rwanda: Majoritarian Ethnocracy

If there is such a thing as an ideological rationality behind the systematic extermination of over half a million Tutsi, it stems, first and foremost, from the claims of an extreme, Jacobine type of majoritarian democracy born of a Hutu-led (and Belgian assisted) revolutionary upheaval. Because Hutu rule meant majority rule, and Tutsi rule meant minority rule, it is hardly surprising that the attack on Rwanda by Tutsi refugees from Uganda on October 1st, 1990, should have been denounced not merely as a flagrant violation of international law, but, even more significantly, as an intolerable assault against the democratic rights of the majority. Never mind that the ultimate test of a democracy is its capacity to guarantee the rights of minorities. Measured by the ominous threat posed by the Tutsi invaders, the scale of the killings was consistent with the magnitude of the stakes.

From another perspective, Rwanda could also be described as a classic case of retributive genocide[4] , occurring in response to what was widely perceived as a mortal threat to the nation. The killing of some 600,000 Tutsi and tens of thousands of Hutu must be seen against the backdrop of the bitter civil war unleashed by the armed invasion of Tutsi refugees from Uganda in October 1990. The immediate result was to sharply polarize a society already rife with ethnic enmities. At stake in the Hutu-Tutsi conflict was “les acquis de la révolution”, i.e. everything that had been accomplished since the Hutu revolution of 1959-62, arguably the only genuine revolution ever recorded in independent Africa (with the possible exception of Zanzibar). From this vantage point, the enormity of the bloodshed in 1994 could be interpreted as a desperate attempt on the part of the génocidaires to prevent the Tutsi invaders from re-establishing their hegemony over the Hutu masses.

Bosnia: Irredentist Ethno-Nationalism

Nor is there any question about the significance of the Greater Serbia ideology as the driving force behind the extermination of non-Serbs. The surge of Serbian nationalism made it imperative to redraw national boundaries around self-proclaimed national communities, even if it meant the physical liquidation of tens of thousands and the displacement of many more. The process of self-determination served to unify and tear apart: to unify ethnic kinsmen around the new symbol of nationhood – Greater Serbia – and at the same time to tear asunder the long-standing social and economic ties binding different communities together. In Michael Ignatieff’s words, “the very idea of national determination could only be realized by destroying the mutli-ethnic Balkan reality in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.”[5]

Unlike Rwanda, the text-book example of a vertically structured social system, Bosnia was conspicuous for its lack of a sharply delineated pecking order. Segmentation rather than stratification was the key characteristic of a society where Serbs, Croats and Moslems lived side by side, free of ethnic subordination. The driving force behind the genocide of Moslems was not to prevent a reversal of ethnic status (as in Rwanda) but to translate the claims of Greater Serbia into ethnically homogeneous territories. Ethnic cleansing inexorably led to genocide. Although the human losses were relatively small compared to Rwanda, the mass killings perpetrated in Banja Luka, Trebinje, Projedor, Visegrad, Srebenica – only to mention the most notorious – should disabuse us of the notion that “ethnic cleansing” and not genocide was involved.

Cambodia: Marxism-Maoism

To an even greater extent than Bosnia, Cambodia is a perfect illustration of an ideologically-driven carnage. Marxism, with a dash of Maoism, was of course the overriding ideological force behind the Khmer Rouge revolutionary crusade. Pol Pot’s trajectory, beginning with his student days in France, where he developed close ties with the French Communist Party , bears witness to his early commitment to the class struggle as the motive force of history, soon to find its ghastliest expression in the systematic decapitation of the educated urban bourgeoisie. Intertwined with a Marxist view of history, however, another strand emerges in Khmer Rouge ideology: the resurrection of an original Khmer polity, free of the corrupting influences of foreign cultures, and most prominently of Western capitalist influence. Here lies the unique quality of the Khmer revolution, its mix of Marxism-Leninism with ideological ingredients indigenous to Khmer culture.

In terms of its social structure, Cambodia stood half-way between Rwanda and Bosnia. The combination of both ranked and unranked social structures made Cambodia doubly vulnerable: seen through the lens of the Khmer Rouge ideology the elimination of ethnic and religious minorities was a key requirement for the restoration of the “Original Khmer” peasant society; on the societal front, on the other hand, the liquidation of the urban-based bourgeoisie was the price to be paid for the institutionalization of the Marxist-Maoist nirvana. In the name of this hybrid, half-baked ideological agenda as many as 1.5 million people were killed, with ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham minorities specifically targeted for wholesale destruction.


But if ideology matters, it does not tell the full story. What is left out of the accounting are the culturally specific ways in which mass murder was legitimized and carried out. Rarely does ideology make a lasting impact on the consciousness of the masses, especially when its roots are foreign. Or else its language has to be radically altered, and the historical context redefined. This is where myth-making emerges as a critically important tool of political mobilization. In all three states history and myth are the two sides of the same coin. The aim is to give historical depth and emotional resonance to a political agenda, in short to give a new meaning to the past in order to justify the genocidal present.

Myths are not pure inventions. They are designed to transform rather than obliterate historical realities; the aim is to shape collective memories, and ultimately human behavior, in accordance with a specific objective, in this case the mass extermination of human beings. The twisting or falsification of historical facts is perhaps the single most important common denominator behind the mythologies that helped legitimize this sinister task.

Tutsi as Hamites

Rwanda offers the clearest example of how Western myths about race were manipulated by the media to justify the elimination of an entire ethnic community. As has been shown time and again, the Hamitic myth was a critical ingredient in the rabidly anti-Tutsi propaganda of Radio Mille Collines; by then, however, it had morphed into a very different version from its early 19th century formulation.

Seen as the epitome of the Hamitic race by early European colonizers, the Tutsi have been the subject of two radically different streams of myth-making (and possibly three if one takes into account the myths of origins of the Rwanda monarchy).[6] The first, historically, was the Seligman/Westerman view of the Tutsi as a kind of master race. Portrayed by Seligman as the “pastoral Europeans” of Ethiopian origins, endowed with a striking physique – “light-skinned, with a straight nose, thin lips, without prognathism” according to Westerman – and an exceptional gift to exercise authority, they were the ideal candidates for putting into practice the postulates of indirect rule. The title of Father Pages pioneering work on Rwanda, Un royaume Hamite au coeur de l’Afrique, captures the extraordinary power of seduction exercised by the Hamitic myth on early European missionaries and colonial civil servants.[7]

At the hands of Hutu ideologues, however, this early version of the Hamitic myth is turned upside down: what Europeans naively perceived as a superior brand of humanity is in fact the embodiment of the worst in human nature. For the Tutsi as superman is substituted a cunning and cruel foreigner, hell bent upon subjugating the unsuspecting Bantu populations, making the most of their poisoned offerings of cows and beautiful women to bait them into submission. Only if we remind ourselves of the sheer virulence and frequency with which this kind of racist propaganda was diffused through the media and in public discourse, not to mention the extraordinarily offensive racist iconography published in the printed press, can one grasp the contribution of the Hamitic myth to the killings.[8]

It is one thing to incite people to kill; how the killing is performed – through mutilation, evisceration, impalement – refers to an altogether different dimension of analysis. Not the least of the merits of Christopher Taylor’s captivating inquest into the cultural aspects of the Rwanda genocide, aptly titled Terror and Sacrifice, is to point to the connection between the symbolic significance of the concept of “fluidity” in dynastic rituals and the techniques of murder employed by the genocidaires.[9] To obstruct is to harm. Whether obstruction affects the flow of rain, milk, honey, sperm, menstruation, the direst consequences will follow. In the symbolic universe of the genocidaires the Tutsi were the incarnation of evil because of their obstructive capacity. Hence the need to block the movement of people at check points and obstruct once and for all their bodily functions, by severing their limbs, disemboweling pregnant women, even impaling the victims. As Claudine Vidal observes, there is plenty of evidence to show that the atrocities committed in 1994 tended to replicate traditional modes of execution, rooted in the symbolic universe of the monarchy, but as she goes to note, and in contrast with what Taylor suggests, to see in such phenomena a direct causal connection with the genocide stretches the imagination.[10] What is beyond question is that the techniques of murder employed in 1994 were part and parcel of a cultural universe which did not end with the overthrow of the monarchy.

Bosnian Muslims as Turkifiers

The genocide of Muslims in Bosnia calls to mind some alarming parallels with Rwanda. Just as the Tutsi were portrayed as cruel foreigners hell-bent on making slaves of the Bantu, a central theme in the mythology of Bosnian nationalism – what some refer to as Christoslavism – is the image of the Muslims as “Turkifiers”, to use Michael Sells’s expression, that is as the incarnation of evil. Although the myth has ancient roots – traceable to the story of Prince Lazar’s defeat by the armies of Sultan Murad in Kosovo, in 1389 – not until the 19th century did it become enshrined in Serbian collective memory. Njegos’s epic tale, The Mountain Wreath, published in 1847, served as the major literary vehicle for the diffusion of “Muslim as Turkifier” mythology: in Michael Sells’s words, “it offers a brooding lyricism in which cosmic duality of good (Serb) versus evil (Mulsim) is reinforced through metaphor, historical analogy, and explicit assertion; the antagonism in this representation is not just ‘old’, it is eternal”[11] .Njegos (the pen name of Petar Petrovic) thus helped crystallize the view that “by converting to Islam from Christianity, the Muslims had changed their racial identity and joined the race of the Turks who killed Christ-Prince Lazar” [12].

The myth was kept alive in the 20th century in the works of Ivo Andric, Yugoslavia’s Nobel laureate in literature. His prize-winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina, published in 1942, could also be read an anti-Ottoman manifesto. The central episode in Andric’s novel is about the impalement of a Serbian renegade whose crime was to try and destroy the bridge built by the Turks. In terms of sheer horror nothing in the Balkan literature matches the clinically detailed account of the torture visited upon the slowly dying Serbian victim. Quite aside from his talent as a novelist, there is no denying Michael Sells’s conclusion that Andric deserves credit for doing more than any one else to “turn the practice of impalement… into a symbol of Turkish and Muslim depravity, despite the fact that the punishment of impalement was also practiced in Christian Austria and elsewhere in Europe at the time”[13] .

Against the background of this fictionalized account of Turkish rule in Bosnia, the following statement, from the author’s doctoral dissertation – written in German and defended in Graz (Autsria) in 1924, under the title The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule– is unsurprising, for it, too, belongs to the realm of fiction:”All researchers into Bosnia… have felt in a position to state in concert and more or less forcefully that the effect of Turkish rule was absolutely negative”. The reason for this, we are told, is that “Bosnia was conquered by an Asiatic military people whose social institutions and customs spelled the negation of any and all Christian culture and whose religion – begotten under other skies and social circumstances and quite incapable of adaptation – shackled the life of the spirit and the mind in Bosnia, disfiguring it and molding it into an exceptional case (Ausnahmeerscheinung)”.[14]

To return to the parallel with Rwanda: although the few cases of impalement reported during the 1994 Rwanda genocide were inflicted on Tutsi, it is significant that the media at the time did not shrink from identifying impalement as a specifically Tutsi practice, going so far as to print images of Melchior Ndadaye – the popularly elected Hutu president of Burundi assassinated in 1993 – being impaled by his Tutsi murderers with Paul Kagame blandly watching the severing of Ndadaye’s sexual organs about to be affixed to the royal drum (a reference to the treatment inflicted on those Hutu chiefs who, in pre-colonial times, fought against the monarchy).[15]

The realm of sexuality offers another fascinating parallel with Rwanda. Just as Tutsi women play a disproportionate role in Hutu discourse (and inconography) – either to explain how the Hutu majority was seduced into bondage by the minority, or why the Europeans conferred upon the Tutsi a privileged role during the colonial period, or why the United Nations Mission in Rwanda was so strongly predisposed to protect Tutsi lives and not Hutu lives – the Serbs’ “obsession with the sexuality, fertility and prosmicuity of the Muslims”, to quote from Roger Cohen, is equally striking.[16] Thus the explanation offered by a young Serb soldier as to why the Turks emerged triumphant at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 is strongly reminiscent of the reasons invoked by some Hutu ideologues as to why the Hamites came out on top in their struggle against the Bantu: “The Muslims expelled us from Kosovo with their sexual organs”. In its more extreme form, anti-Muslim sentiment finds its full flowering in the alleged affinity between unbridled sexuality and Islam. This is how a former professor of biology from Sarajevo articulates the argument in the pages of the Belgrade newspaper Borba: “Rape is the war strategy of Muslims and some Croats against the Serbs. Islam considers this something normal since this religion tolerates polygamy. Historically, during the five centuries of Turkish occupation it was quite normal for Muslim notables to enjoy ‘jus primae noctis’ with Christian women”.[17]

In Bosnia as in Rwanda memory operates selectively. It resembles a palimpsest, where only some layers are visible, leaving others buried in obscurity. The oppression and cruelties of Ottoman rule are magnified out of all proportion, while the more positive aspects are ignored. Nothing is said, for example, of the religious tolerance allowed through the millet system, which goes far in explaining why so many Christian minorities, Catholic and Orthodox, not only did not disappear but flourished. Nor is any reference made to the comsiliuk, a practice of “good neighborliness” inherited from Ottoman rule.[18] But if it is all too facile to exaggerate the misdeeds of the Ottomans, less easy to figure out is why the atrocities committed against the Serbs during World War II should be viewed as a premonitory sign of the same genocidal massacres waiting to happen.

Admittedly, given that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed at the hands of the Ustashe by the pro-Nazi puppet regime of Croatia between 1941 and 1944, mostly at the Jasenovac death camp, it is no wonder that the horrors of Jasenovac should have left a deep scar on the collective memory of the Serbs. But why then assume that history is about to repeat itself? Quite aside from the fact that the non-Serb victims (Jews, Gypsies, and Croats) were never mentioned in public discourse, and that the number of Serbs killed at Jasenovac exceeded all reasonable estimates (from 700,000 to a million according to Serb nationalists), the most perplexing aspect of the mythology spun by Serb-controlled media lies in their consistent efforts to impute genocidal intentions to Muslims and Croats alike, as if the exigency of survival left no other choice but to commit a pre-emptive genocide. As Roger Cohen perceptively noted, “there was a mirror at work in the Serb mind… Genocide, concentration camps and rape were the perennial lot of the Serb people; so they imposed them on others”.[19]

Angkor and the Myth of the “Original Khmer”

Just as the concept of Greater Serbia found its moorings in the past, so also with Cambodia, where the vision of a Marxist nirvana had little purchase on the minds and hearts of the peasant masses. In his discussion of the “high modernist applications of Marxist-Leninist theory” to Cambodia, Alex Hinton notes that “these models were almost always localized and enacted in culturally distinct ways that had more ontological resonance, and thus motivating force, for the actors”.[20] This is where the myth of Angkor, the embodiment of past glories followed by imperial decline, played a major role in legitimizing mass murder. The reproduction of the Angkor Vat temple on the flag of the Khmer Rouge is not a matter of coincidence.

The theme of decadence runs like a red skein through much of the thinking of Khmer commentators and historians. For Keng Vannak, for example, founder of the Democratic Party in the 1940s (later emprisoned by Sihanouk), Hinduist influences have had a profoundly corrupting impact on Khmer culture: its pristine purity was destroyed by foreign influences, and its glorious achievements reduced to naught. Is it a coincidence if the post-Angkorian decline, in the 14th century, marks the culmination of foreign intrusions, and the perversion of Khmer Buddhism? The phantasm of the cultural purity and virtuousness of the “original Khmer” people is also inscribed in the folk poems of Krom Ngoy, a Khmer troubadour born in 1860, whose ideas reappear in filigree in much of the Khmer Rouge rhetoric.[21] In the Pol Potist eschatology the same thread of historical perversion links early Hinduist influences to the destructive impact of colonial and post-colonial intruders. Only by the radical excision of all domestic vectors of foreignness can the promise of an original Khmer identity be recovered.

A visit to the Tuol Sleng museum – site of the most horrendous killings perpetrated by the Khmer Rouges [22] – is evocative of yet another, more sinister manifestation of the hold of the Angkorian myth on the minds of the Pol Potist butchers: in many ways the tortures inflicted on the prisoners remind one of nothing so much than the atrocities reproduced in painstaking detail on the bas-reliefs of Angkor Vat by 10th century sculptors.

As in Rwanda, myth-making in Cambodia owes much to the fantasies of Western observers. The reconstruction of Khmer history by French orientalist historians offered the Khmer Rouge ideologues a rich quarry from which to extract the makings of a new order. The idealized vision of a “pre-Hindu, pre-urban, pre-state, original Khmer society”, according to Serge Thion, draws some of its inspiration from a French historian’s interpretation of state formation in Cambodia as involving the imposition of Indian patterns on pre-Hindu kingdoms.[23] In his work on Les états hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie (1948) Georges Coedes referred to the Cambodians as “hinduized Phnongs (peasants)”, suggesting in effect that much of original Khmer culture disintegrated under the impact of Hindu conquests. To recover this lost paradise was the obsessive concern of the Khmer Rouge revolution. Whether Pol Pot ever came across the name of Coedes is unknown. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that in the minds of the Khmer Rouge ideologues mass murder was a necessary surgery to save the “authentic” peasant masses from the mortal contamination of the Hinduized, Buddhist, urban-based Sihanoukiste bourgeoisie.

There is a strong ethno-regional dimension to “peasant authencity”, which brings to mind the traditional opposition between the Founan and the Chenla, between the Mekong delta region, traditionally more open to external influences (the Founan), and the interior region (Chenla), geographically more difficult of access and culturally insulated. According to Francois Ponchaud, it is from the Chenla that the Khmer Rouges recruited their more dedicated supporters.[24] The traditional hostility of the forest-based Chenla populations towards the rice-growing farmers of the Founan is only part of the explanation. Equally significant is the fact that they were seen by Pol Pot and his men as the incarnation of the “true Khmer”. This is entirely consonant with one of the basic themes of Khmer folk tales: the forest is where hermits retire, where regeneration is sought and moral rebirth is achieved. Again to quote from Ponchaud: “The moment one enters the forest, there is a break with the familiar, everyday world, with the domesticated universe of srok, a world where everything becomes possible”[25] – including the recruitment of dedicated killers.

The gap between the language of Marxism and the mobilizing discourse of the Khmer Rouges points to the crucial significance of semiotics in giving a familiar resonance to a Western ideology. This is what emerges with striking clarity from Henri Locard’s painstaking exegesis of the many slogans and tropes fashioned by the Khmer Rouges to elicit support for their genocidal enterprise. Locard’s work offers a rich sample of proverbs, aphorisms and maxims found in the Khmer Rouge lexicon, most of them borrowed from traditional folk tales and poems (bhasit and cpap). “Angkar has the eyes of a pineapple”, “When you take out the weeds, take out the roots”, “One hands holds the hoe, the other the gun”, “Better make a mistake by arresting someone than by releasing him”, “Angkar kills but never explains” [26] – these are only some of the elements in what Alex Hinton calls “the semiotics of terror”, and which he describes as “those free-floating discourses, ranging from explicit ideology to colloquial idioms and non verbal behaviors, that help generate an atmosphere of terror”.

All this lends a hauntingly familiar resonance to Benedict Anderson’s masterful inquest into the imagined roots of nations.[28] And it also suggests a chilling addendum to his analysis. Communities can be imagined for destructive as well as constructive purposes. As we now realize, the workings of the genocidal imagination went far beyond the creation of new, unsullied revolutionary communities; the immediate imperative was the extermination of pre-existing ones.

Variations on the Same Theme

It is worth remembering, by way of a conclusion, that myth-making, in the broadest sense, is not limited to the cultural appropriation and recasting of Western ideologies. It may also shape the perceptions of outside observers in politically significant ways. In at least two of the cases at hand, Bosnia and Rwanda, the distortions conveyed by journalists have had a major impact on the perceptions – and decisions — of policy-makers, most notably in the United States.

Hardly suspect of partiality in this matter, Richard Holbrook, a key actor in the Bosnian crisis, notes “the profound impact of what he calls “the Rebecca West factor” on “”President Clinton and other members of the Administration shortly after they came into office”.[29] The author of the classic work on the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Rebecca West’s pro-Serb biases – for which few apologies were needed when the book first came out in 1941 – were uncritically endorsed by Robert Kaplan in his 1993 best-seller, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. Avidly read by President Clinton, the Kaplan view of the Balkan crisis – seen as the inevitable outcome of ancestral hatreds – came to be widely accepted by US policy-makers, and, according to Holbrooke, was invoked by them “to excuse their own reluctance or inability to deal with the problems of the region”.[30]

In post-genocide Rwanda Philip Gourevitch may have played a role somewhat similar to that of Robert Kaplan with regard to the Bosnian crisis. In a widely read 1997 New Yorker article Gourevitch saw in “the new leaders of Africa” the promise of a new dawn. The phrase soon acquired pavlovian spontaneity in the lexicon of Clintonian experts on Africa to designate the architects of this rebirth, i.e. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Issaias Afewerki of Ethiopia and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. Under their guidance democracy would replace dictatorship, tolerance would prevail over ethnic hatreds, and good governance would translate into economic prosperity. Many of these themes were echoed in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s address to the OAU, on December 9, 1997 – only to be shown painfully at variance with reality a few months later. Just as the “new leader” model has had a determining influence on the official thinking of US policy-makers, Gourevitch’s breathless tribute to Kagame and the Tutsi cause – reminiscent of Kapan’s pro-Serb leanings, and typical of the “good guys vs. bad guys” of Rwandan history – has contributed in no small way to the decided pro-Tutsi tilt of US policies in Rwanda.

Concluding Thoughts

In the same way that David Lodge speaks of “meta-fiction” in the sense of a fiction about fiction, it is useful to think of genocidal violence in terms of “meta-conflict”, of conflict about conflict. Not of conflict as interpreted by outside observers but by the parties to the conflict. This is a perspective that takes us far beyond the realm of formal discourse; it brings into view the collective representations of alterity though which mass murder becomes morally acceptable, indeed desirable.

At best ideological frames can only reveal a fraction of the dynamic forces at work in the genocidal process; at worst they are likely to convey a wholly distorted picture of the motivations operating at the grass-roots. Contrary to an all too prevalent conception, there is no such thing as a neat chain of command running from the top down, where ideological directives travel from one echelon of the social pyramid to the next, commanding blind adherence to orders from above. What the “grammar” of mass murder shows – to use Semelin’s phrase – is a far more complex set of motivations, where images of the past are summoned and filtered through the prism of culturally specific tropes, where local arenas bring to light distinct fields of forces, traditions and histories, where the events taking place in the wider environment – national and international – take on radically different meanings when translated into the political idiom of grass-roots communities. The grammar of mass murder admits of many variations.

By casting the formal ideologies of genocide in the context of myth-making – a phrase intended to cover not just blatant mystifications or phantasms, but what Georges Sorel calls “un ensemble d’images motrices” [31] or motivating cues – we tried to shed light on a set of motivations that has remained largely hidden from much of academic discourse about genocide. Uncovering this “mythical” space is a necessary first step if we are to comprehend the darker side of mass murder, and in so doing come to grips with the enigma of our own barbarism.

René Lemarchand is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. He has taught in several universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and served as Regional Advisor on Governance and Democracy with USAID in West Africa between 1992 and 1998.


1. This argument is implicit in the title of Jacques Semelin’s outstanding contribution, “Eléments pour une grammaire du massacre”, Le Débat, no. 124 (March-April 2003), 154-170, and stands in sharp contrast with the views set forth by other commentators, notably Elie Wiesel, who sees in the Holocaust a phenomenon beyond human comprehension.
2. Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Serif, London: 1996), xiv.
3. Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? (Paris: Seuil, 1983).
4. For the distinction between “retributive” and “ideological” genocide, see Helen Fein, ‘Genocide: A Sociological Perspective’, Current Sociology, special issue vol. 38, no. 1 (Spring 199).
5. Michael Ignatieff, “The Balkan Tragedy”, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 1993, p. 3.
6. See R. Lemarchand, Ethnicity as Myth: The View from Central Africa, Occasional paper, Center for African Studies, University of Copenhagen, May 1999.
7. For an excellent critical commentary on “Hamitic” historiography, see Jean-Pierre Chrétien, L’Afrique des Grands Lacs (Flammarion, Paris: 2002), 54-68.
8. The latest metamorphosis of the Hamitic myth takes us into a realm of even more extraordinary fantasy – that of the Hebraic Tutsi, originating from land of Kush in south Abyssinia. The Brussels-based Havila association (Havila being the biblical reference to what is now the Great Lakes region of Central Africa), under the guidance of a Burundi academic, Professor Yachannan Bwejeri, Prince of Nkoronko, takes as its divinely inspired mission to articulate, defend and propagate the notion of a Jewish origin of the Tutsi people. See “Havila renforce les liens avec les organizations juives des Etats Unis”, by Professor Yachannan Bwejeri, Prince of Nkoronko, available from institut_de_havila@yahoo.fr
9. Christopher C. Taylor, Terror and Sacrifice (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999)
10. Claudine Vidal, “Rwanda 1994: L’imaginaire traditionnel perverti par le génocide”, L’Homme, no. 163 (2002), 205-216.
11. Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1996), 42.
12. Ibid. 41.
13. Ibid. 49.
14. Ivo Andric, The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule, Zelimir B. Juricic and John F. Loud, editors and translators (Duke University Press, Durham and London: 1990), 27, 38.
15. See Lemarchand, Ethnicity as Myth, op. cit.
16. Roger Cohen, Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (Random House, New York: 1998), 222.
17. Ibid.
18. Xavier Bougarel, Bosnie. Anatomie d’un conflit (Paris, La Découverte: 1996), cited in Semelin, op. cit. p. 163.
19. Cohen, op. cit., 222.
20. Alex Hinton, Planting a Kapok Tree: Terror in the Cambodian Genocide, a paper presented at the 2001 Vienna conference on Genocide, 10.
21. I am grateful to Christian Macquet for drawing my attention to the contribution of Keng Vannak and Krom Ngoy to the theme of decadence in Khmer folk traditions.
22. See David Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1999).
23. Serge Thion, “Genocide as a Political Commodity”, in Ben Kiernan ed., Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph series 41, New haven: 1993), 170.
24. Francois Ponchaud, Cambodge annee zero (Editions Kalash, Paris: 1998), 280.
25. Ibid. 283.
26. Henri Locard, Le ‘petit livre rouge’ de Pol Pot ou Les paroles de l’Angkar (L’Harmattan, Paris: 1996).
27. Hinton, op. cit., 6.
28. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, London and New York: 1991)
29. Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (The Modern Library, New York: 1999), 22.
30. Ibid.
31. For a discussion of the Sorelian and other conceptions of political myths, see Raoul Girardet, Mythes et mythologies politiques (Editions du Seuil, Paris: 1986) 13 ff.

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