A New Name for an Old Crime

Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe

By Benjamin Lieberman

Ivan R. Dee, 416 pages, $27.50.

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While Serb paramilitaries were driving Muslims from their homes in Bosnia during the spring of 1992 in an effort to rid the region of its “Muslim fundamentalist” population, Serb radio stations proudly coined a term that would soon gain household notoriety. “Ethnic cleansing,” they said, would displace the disloyal Muslim population in order to create an Orthodox Christian majority in Bosnia. The next year, after the stories of refugees had made news worldwide, a United Nations High Commission defined ethnic cleansing, based on the Bosnian experience, as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups.”

As the name of Benjamin Lieberman’s new book, “Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe,” suggests, this coinage was merely a new name for a much older process — one that has in large part determined the ethnic makeup of Europe and the Near East as we know it. Sofia, Bulgaria, was an ethnically Turkish city in the 1870s. Before World War II, half the residents of the present-day Ukrainian city of Lvov were Polish and one-quarter of them Jewish. Smyrna, on the Turkish island of Izmir, was overwhelmingly Greek speaking in the early 1920s. But today, as a direct result of successive waves of ethnic cleansing, “Greeks live without Turks, Turks without Greeks, Czechs and Poles without Germans, Armenians without Azerbaijanis, Christian Cypriots without Muslim Cypriots,” he writes. “And in many countries virtually no one lives with Jews.”

Lieberman, a professor of history at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, tells a story that begins in 1821 with the fleeing of Muslims from newly independent Greece, formerly of the Ottoman Empire, and ends in the present day. He argues that modern ethnic warfare broke out at the edges of collapsing, ethnically diverse states, most notably the old Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the early part of the past century, and then later in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In the power vacuums that ensued, nationalist leaders from Serbia to the Ukraine created new nation-states often designed to represent one people — that is, people of their own ethnicity, however arbitrarily defined.

The problem was, as a result of the diversity normal within empires, different kinds of peoples lived side by side as neighbors all over Europe and the Ottoman lands. Political borders did not correspond neatly to ethnically homogenous areas. The ethnic Rubik’s Cube of Europe, therefore, had to be twisted by nationalists who desired more uniform regions. In theory, at least, this could have been achieved nonviolently; in practice, ethnic reorganization resulted in tens of millions murdered and many more involuntarily displaced. Not a few nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe were born out of the carnage of ethnic homogenization, and no one is talking seriously about a right of return for Muslims, for example, to Bulgaria.

About halfway through the book, we arrive at Lieberman’s account of the Holocaust: a crime committed not in a region of collapsing empire but in a country with imperialistic aspirations of its own. The larger context of his narrative gives us an extremely useful lens through which to see one of the most vexed questions of the Holocaust: To what extent was it unique in the history of Europe, and to what extent was it the same story writ large?

Lieberman convincingly points to more similarities than particularities. The Nazis’ industrialization of mass murder and the centrality of racism to their ideology were unquestionably unique, he argues, but in other respects the “Final Solution” of the Jewish Question was conceived as just “one key step in a larger program to move and remove entire peoples. They wanted to get rid of Jews, but they also wished to redraw the ethnic and religious map of Europe all the way to the Ural Mountains in central Russia.” Lieberman quotes Hitler in 1939 pronouncing “a new ethnographic order” that would “resettle the nationalities so that in the end, better lines of demarcation exist than is today the case.” One plan included driving 16 million to 20 million Poles from their homes and resettling the Jews outside of Europe, but Nazi decision-makers ultimately deemed these dreams unfeasible. They needed to keep some Poles in Poland for labor, and Jewish extermination was determined to be a more efficient means of removal than resettlement.

The most fascinating part of the story is how the idea of ethnic homogenization came to be widely recognized across Europe, and not only on the right wing. A “general acceptance of the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing,” if not extermination, “was one of the few things that united Europeans divided by war,” he writes. Not just German but also Soviet and many Central and Eastern European leaders took the opportunity of World War II to expel or attack ethnic groups they condemned as traitors — disloyalty to the nation being the most common pretext for ethnic cleansing in the modern period.

But even democratic leaders sometimes viewed forced migration as pragmatic and consistent with their belief in national self-determination. European diplomats approved of the 1923 population exchanges that sent embattled Greek speakers in Turkey to Greece and Turkish speakers in Greece to the new Turkey, often unwillingly. At the Potsdam Conference of 1945, Harry Truman and the Allies — sensing the overwhelming anti-German sentiment in Eastern Europe — rubber-stamped the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from the East, which ended in the “largest ethnic cleansing in European history.” Zionists in Palestine before 1948, attempting to gain a Jewish majority, also considered the idea of population transfer. In fact, we don’t have to look further than the recent past and imminent future: Just months ago, most Israelis favored the forced removal of settlers from Gaza, and next week’s election in Israel might set the course for another population transfer out of the West Bank.

Is “ethnic cleansing,” then, as Lieberman says, always a crime? What if the removal of a group is carried out for the protection of that group, and we call it evacuation? Part of the confusion here testifies to Lieberman’s sometimes-misleading application of a term originating in a specific Bosnian context as a synonym for forced migration. Cleansing as a metaphor carries with it the inevitable medical associations — the removal of an infection or impurity from the national body — while the motivations for population transfer are sometimes less obscene.

Lieberman is right to say that the inculcation of nationalism, the force that helped destroy the old multiethnic empires in the first place, played an important role in turning ordinary people against their neighbors in the 19th and 20th centuries. But he also should have pointed out that it was not nationalism in general but a certain exclusivist strand of it — one that identifies citizenship with ethnicity instead of with adherence to a society’s laws — that contributed so much to ethnic violence.

In the final chapter of his book, Lieberman turns to the issue of reconciliation after ethnic cleansing. In addition to legal and economic measures of judgment and restitution or reparation, he argues that history itself can be a remedy for communities with such legacies. The fact that advocates of ethnic violence often justify their views with nationalist stories of “age-old hatred and repeated betrayal by rival groups” makes it all the more important to write balanced, honest and comprehensive accounts that do not deny or overlook historical injustice — as we see in Turkish textbooks on the Armenian genocide, for example. If history can aid reconciliation by revealing atrocities, then Lieberman has certainly done more than his fair share with this book.

Noah Strote writes on Jewish and European history. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.

A New Name for an Old Crime


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