Genocide: When Does State Violence Pass the Threshold?



In this short text, Zoé Samudzi comes back to a question she had articulated in the issue she guest edited for The Funambulist 37 (Sep-Oct 2021): who has the right to use the term “genocide,” and is it politically useful for us to hold on to it? Here, she takes this questioning further by wondering about the point at which the production of mass violences potentially becomes genocidal.

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Beyond NoDAPL (No to the Dakota Access Pipeline) March on December 8, 2016 in Washington DC. / Photo by Rob87438.

In 1956, Alain Resnais released his film Nuit et brouillard (“Night and Fog”). The documentary short was an archival assemblage of the ruins of the Nazi extermination machine a little over a decade after Allied forces liberated the camps in 1945. It would become a vanguard of the cinematic genre of Holocaust witnessing. Panning across the skeletal remains of formerly electrified barbed wire fencing, guard towers, heavy iron gates, and wood-paneled barracks of Auschwitz, a jarringly lively flute melody plays as the narrator, actor Michel Bouquet, somberly begins to speak:

Even a peaceful landscape, even a meadow in harvest with flights of crows and grass fired, even a road for cars and peasants and couples, even a resort village with marketplace and steeple can lead to a concentration camp.”

We are compelled to consider how it is possible that these pastoral lands could have housed an industrialized production of death the postwar world had never seen, and the world has yet to see since. How could the weed-overrun paths in the abandoned camps once have been paved and constantly trodden by Jewish, Roma and Sinti, partisan, queer, disabled, otherwise nonwhite, “criminal,” and other targeted and captured people led to slaughter as part of the National Socialist Party’s years-long attempt to colonize and cleanse Eastern Europe? This simple poetic provocation commenced the cinematic counterpart of a historiography of the Shoah, past and present, that emphasizes an aberrant incomprehensibility.

It is, as the narrative stands, unimaginable that eleven million people could have been murdered in under a decade; and more unimaginable still that such a large part of the German—and European—populous would either actively support or be tacitly complicit with the exterminatory campaign.

Nazi genocidal crimes would become the archetype for the very definition of the word “genocide,” created by Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the brutality of the party and its various militarized apparatuses—the SS, the SA, the Wehrmacht, and so on—in its occupied territories.

The one-way trains Resnais shows us in collected footage are packed with chattelized Jews en route to a fate of slavery and/or imminent attempted murder by gas chamber, exposure to the elements, gunshot, illness, or starvation. As the crammed train cars marked with the numbers of terrified inhabitants speed on, the couture-clad officers stand calmly chatting, jotting notes, watching the train pass. The entire spectacle is ghastly, unfathomable, barbarous, evil. It is unprecedented. Or so are we led to believe.

In 1955, one year before the release of Resnais’s film, Martinican writer Aimé Césaire published the most widely read and circulated version of his seminal text, Discourse on Colonialism. In it, he, contra to the historical and scholarly narratives of Nazism to that point, refuses the twinned proposition of Nazi German exceptionalism and European innocence. Against the claim that there was a widespread profession of ignorance about the function of the camps and the exterminatory campaign writ large, Césaire launches a searing accusation of doubled complicity. Not only was Hitlerism made possible by the complicity of attempted European appeasement, its machinations were made entirely possible and even conceivable by the Eurocolonial systems that had preceded it by and for centuries.

More difficult than Resnais compelling us to imagine the unimaginable—to interpolate the footage with the affectivities of sleepless terror, gnawing hunger, frozen hands working in the winter and unquenchable thirst under the unforgiving summer sun, furtive notes and whispered plans under cover of darkness, the endurance of care for one’s fellow man, cruel experiments and torture at the hands of supposed doctors—is Césaire’s ethical demand to acknowledge the quotidian nature of mass violence and the structures of imperial dehumanization. He trained our attention not only its ordinariness, but the cultural and political hierarchies that would position some premature and collective deaths to be more necessary and inevitable than others: that Eurocoloniality itself “has a Hitler inside him, […] Hitler inhabits him, […] Hitler is his demon.”

It is within this paradox, between the inconceivability of Nazi genocide and the turpitude of justifiable colonial violence, that consideration of the political utility and the deployment of “genocide” must delicately rest.

Because how can we understand a framework of and for human rights when the very systems purporting to enforce the notion of universal humanity actually foreclose it?

Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines “genocide” as any one of a set of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” The nuclear question of intention to commit genocide is one of the most fraught parts of the crime’s assignation, with responsibility falling to an individual’s participation or a group’s conspiracy and collective action. But the rigidity of legal interpretations can come squarely into conflict with the everyday machinations of the nation-state. How does one prove intent when both written and unwritten social contracts exist to altogether preclude entire groups of people from citizenship—i.e. from recognition, deservingness of safety and protection, rights, and access to legitimate victimhood—while deliberately privileging others? Further, how can one prove intent or even decry the violences of genocide when the actor itself is a settler or colonial state whose very foundations constituted and necessitated racial dispossession, widespread theft, and collective punishment on native or other populations?

The near-synonymity of the Holocaust with genocide and its study has meant that intent is often evaluated alongside the clear centralization of the Nazi Party’s execution of its Final Solution to the Jewish Question. But genocide, as an evaluation of perpetrator behavior and intentionality, is multi-causal: in addition to racial or ethnic ideologies and the outright desire to annihilate, it can be attributed to “careerism, situational and local circumstances, […] obedience to authority and conformity, to greed, abuse of power, brutalization or ‘cumulative radicalization,’” per Holocaust studies scholar and social psychologist Olaf Jensen.

Often, the word “genocide” or adjectival “genocidal” is expressed as punctuation to emphasize an extraordinary political badness or a deliberateness in killing. Yet the inconsistent application of the word, alongside aforementioned considerations of intentionality, serves, at best, the political interests of the statesmen and governments making these declaratives. Further, there is a stark incongruence between the deployment of the term, the complementary humanitarian obligations, and a disturbing lack of self-implication such that the historical international legal arbiters of genocide criminality might also fail to self-implicate in consideration of their own crimes against humanity, whether committed against civilians at home or abroad.

One of the most glaring examples to explicitly conjoin the act or event of genocide with the processes of global imperialism is the US response to the We Charge Genocide petition. Delivered to the United Nations by the Civil Rights Congress in December 1951, nearly a year after the Genocide Convention went into legal effect, the petition held that “the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, and unified policies of every branch of government.” Not only was this allegation placed within the longué durée of anti-Black statecraft from slavery to Reconstruction-era brutality to the Jim Crow present, but the petitioners internationalized genocide. They noted that just as the Nazi campaign and its attendant racial ideologies demonstrated how “genocide at home can become wider massacre abroad, […] domestic genocide develops into the larger genocide that is predatory war.” They deliberately globalized W.E.B. Du Bois’s analytic of the Black/white color line to connect “the racial terror of the lynch mob directly to more organized campaigns of colonial warfare,” according to global politics scholar Benjamin Meiches.

In their attempt to translate Lemkin’s foundational conception of genocide into a grammar of anti-imperialism, the Civil Rights Congress articulated an early conception of genocide as intimately related to Western states’ permanent security, which historian Dirk Moses contends is the impulse by nation-states to “make themselves invulnerable to threats,” whether this includes, in the US case, the threats of Black freedom, indigenous sovereignty, or an increase in non-white populations, evidenced by the brutal and often fatal means through which the country’s southern border is militarized and secured against northward migration.

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Srebrenica Genocide Memorial honoring the over 1,800 Bosniak Muslims murdered by the Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. The memorial is situated in so-called “Republika Srpska,” the parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina under Serbian control after the 1995 Dayton Agreement. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2015).

If we are to extend Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” into a logic of genocide, how do we understand the genocidal threshold, i.e. the understanding of so-called “regular” or “justifiable” acts of mass violence as genocide or ethnic cleansing? This threshold, to be clear, is not constituted by the number of people killed as quantities of death alone do not define genocide.

But if, following Césaire, there is a genocidal will imbricated in the colonial will to enclose, govern, dominate, and destroy, how useful is it really to conceptualize genocide as something that is rare and/or preventable?

If a nation-state defined by its monopoly on violence must be able to un-make life in order to sustain itself, could it follow, if we consider a more expansive framework, that the Westphalian form—the current international legal principle that upholds the exclusive sovereignty of nation-states over their territory—is always already genocidal?

The contradictions of genocide, and of human rights discourse generally, is the de facto global hierarchy of humanity: the demarcations of certain people and lands as mere capital and labor for the benefit of others, capitalism’s calculus of the necessary destructions of lifeworlds—whether targets or so-called “collateral damage”—so that others may live and flourish. If the world is organized around a necropolitical regime where the maintenance and elimination of certain populations are the governing logics of geopolitics, what, then, is the crime of genocide in a world where masses of people were never meant to survive? ■