t on Tue, 30 Mar 1999 21:05:56 +0200

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Syndicate: Killing Fields

It is now part of the European pattern of politics, to use historical
atrocities, as a primary legitimation for social and geopolitical
structures. This pattern is historically recent. Until the 19th century,
the primary reference point for political argument was classical
antiquity. I would not expect Tony Blair (for instance) to quote Cicero
in a crisis: I would expect him to compare someone to Hitler.

Three specific historical events recur in these legitimations: the Khmer
Rouge genocide, the Holocaust, and the Gulag. Three historic figures
also recur: Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin. (The last 10 mails on the
syndicate list included references to Hitler, and the killing fields).

Note that there is no historical logic in these. According to recent
studies, the Belgian occupation of the Congo killed 5 to 10 million
people in a 20-year period. Yet no European politician would use this in
connection with Kosovo. No-one would say "Milosevic is like King
Leopold". Nor is a historical reference to Stalin and the Gulag logical
either. Most of Stalins victims did not die in the Gulag, but during the
forced collectivisation, and the forced ethnic relocations of 1940-45.
These three are reference points because they have _become_ reference
points, not because of any inherent quality. That applies especially to
the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine now, but in the 1950's the
Netherlands government sent the police against commemorations of Nazi
vistims - because they were communist-organised. The Holocaust only
acquired its present status, as the main western historical reference,
during the last 25 years. Only in the last 15 years, I think, did the
Holocaust become the ultimate moral reference in most western cultures.

So these references are historically and culturally specific. In 50
years time they will seem outdated. Yet that does not mean, that people
do not believe the comparisons are true. More important, they believe in
the legitimation. They believe, (in this case) that the NATO is the
negation of the Killing Fields, or the negation of Hitler, or the
negation of Stalin. It is not relevant, that the NATO did not fight in
Cambodia, or only came into existence after Hitlers death. (It did
oppose Stalin, but without firing a shot). The historical reference is,
_for them_ the full and complete legitimation: ironically Serbian and
pro-Serbian rhetoric makes just as much use of Hitler. (Serbian
demonstrators in Den Haag referred to the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam, a
reference which is only understood in the Netherlands). So for instance
Michael Benson refers to "Those in trucks headed for the killing
fields...", but he could say "Those in trains headed for the Gulag...",
or even "Those in river steamers headed for King Leopold's slave
plantations...". It is structurally the same: the political intent is
the same, the legitimation claim is the same. Does it have anything to
do with the suffering of the people in the trucks, the trains, or the
steamers? Judge for yourself.

If anyone wants to read more on the ethics involved, you can see this
comment (written when Pol Pot died):
Pol Pot: das Bild und die Ethik

Paul Treanor