Michael Schwartz. Ethnische ‚Säuberungen’ in der Moderne: Globale Wechselwirkungen nationalistischer und rassistischer Gewaltpolitik im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert: … Darstellungen Zur Zeitgeschichte, Band 95. Oldenbourg Verlag: München, 2013. 697 pp. € 69,00.

Michael Schwartz, a assistant professor at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich-Berlin (Institut für Zeitgeschichte München-Berlin) and a private lecturer at Münster University (Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster) for recent and modern history, has written a classic on a disturbing topic which should stir all free states around the world. It is quite rightly observed on the jacket of the book that

“Ethnic ‘cleansings’ are the dark side of our modern democratization and nation-building. As early as the 19th century, the Balcans and the non-European colonies developed into locations where this form of problem resolution was learned. Beginning in 1914, these techniques of violence came back to hit Europe. In both of the World Wars, their destructive power exceeded everything that anyone could have imagined. Since that time, developments in the world have been shaped by ethnic ‘cleansings.’ – from Palestine, India/Pakistan all the way to Rwanda, where in the past there would have been peaceful alternatives. Michael Schwartz describes the global connections and showcases the shocking diversity examples of acts of ethnic violence in our modern world. This difficulty has never been presented with more urgency and dedication.”

What is understood by ‘ethnic cleansing’ is the removal of an ethnic, national, or religious group from a certain territory. This occurs through violent displacement, resettlement, population exchange, deportation, or murder. The term emerged internationally during the wars in Yugoslavia in 1992 as a loan translation out of the Serbian (etničko čišćenje) and has established its use around the world over the past decade. The term and the word ‘cleansing’ always belong in quotation marks since it is a euphemistic expression by the perpetrator.

Of course, the term designates something which is much older. Ethnic ‘cleansing’ is in a certain sense a broader term for genocide, which represents the worst, but not the sole form, of ethnic ‘cleansing.’ On the back side of the book at hand, he above all refers to the intention to drive out or remove an ethnic group out of an area claimed by the perpetrators.

The victims of ethnic ‘cleansing’ often belong to a party (for instance an ethnic or religious group) which likewise has wings which utilize violence. Indeed, as the consequence of a planned population exchange, it can be that those who are perpetrators and victims in a region are found to be the victims and the perpetrators in another region. In the case of a shift in the distribution of power, revenge can result in perpetrators and victims exchanging roles.

The central thesis of the book is as follows: Ethnic ‘cleansings’ are unthinkable without the context of the modern West. They are closely linked with the emergence of modern nation states and with nationalism as a legitimization of modern states (p. 6). According to the historian Michael Schwartz, deportations and the displacement of people groups are the dark side of the building of nation states – up to the present day. In his new book he successfully places this thesis in a global context. Ethnic ‘cleansings’ are the signature of modernity. They are, as Michael Schwartz writes, the dark side of democratization and of the building of nation states: ‘The formation of ethnically homogeneous states has not been a natural development and in no case a peaceful development. Rather, it has been a violent process which has not been concluded’.

Surely there were ethnic ‘cleansings’ – according to Schwartz – in the past (7), above all at the beginning of the banishment of Muslims from Spain in the 17th century. This is when ethnic ‘cleansings’ gradually began to replace religious ‘cleansings.’ But present day Europe, according to Schwartz, actually did not begin until the Serbian and Greek revolts of 1804 und 1821, when the modern nationalism of Western and Central Europe leapt over to Eastern Europe (6). According to Schwartz, this is where one finds the final transition from religious to ethnic ‘cleansing’ (9). If in 1555 the saying was “cuius regio eius religio (who rules the region, decides on the religion),“ beginning in the 19th century it was “cuius regio eius natio“ (who rules the region decides on the nation). In 1555 it was set down that those who had the wrong religious affiliation had to emigrate – if not worse – and then it came to be applied to the wrong ethnic background.

Already according to the writings of Edward H. Carr (1945), ethnic ‘cleansings’ were seen to be a consequence of the 1789 French Revolution. That is when massive ‘sacrifices’ of human life were taken for granted for the idol of ‘nationalism.’ Therefore, genocide and ethnic ‘cleansings’ are inconceivable without the modern administrative state. This idea has been primarily defended by Zygmunt Bauman, for whom above all the holocaust would not have been conceivable without the modern industrial society and its bureaucracy. In such a society, the legal and authoritative guidelines and the breakdown of events into individual, rationally optimized processes technically and morally enabled things which as an overall picture would have actually scared away the parties involved. For this reason, the Holocaust was not the result of uncontrolled feelings. Rather, it was the result of the rationality of the modern state (Zygmunt Bauman. Dialectic of Modernity. London: Sage, 2000).

Schwartz provides many proofs and examples of this view, which extends far beyond genocide. Ethnic ‘cleansings’ are for that reason a part of modernity and, with that said, also a part of the history of democracy. They cannot be simply assigned to dictators.

“He correctly emphasizes that the comprehensive population exchange between Greece and Turkey, as was regulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, was if nothing else a work of two democratic states, namely France and Great Britain. And Churchill as well as Roosevelt saw their optional courses of action largely in relation to the world of experience brought on by Lausanne. Ethnic ‘cleansings’ thus actually not only comprise a dark side of modernity. Rather, they are also the dark side of democracy, as the American sociologist Michael Mann once formulated it” (Carsten Kretschmann, FAZ).

Schwartz addresses colonial genocide around 1900 in Southwest Africa, the Indian massacres of 1947, and our present day Near East conflicts, to mention just a couple of examples. They allow one to surmise that completeness with respect to his topic is not to be achieved, even if the term were to be specified more precisely and rigidly limited.

However, Schwartz mentions examples not only briefly. He takes them up more rigorously, handling them in a thorough manner. And he does this with respect to every ethnic ‘cleansing’ that has its own research debate. For instance, Schwartz does this with the question of the genocide of Armenians and the question of whether the displacement of Germans from Eastern Europe in 1945 comes under this rubric (according to Schwartz) or whether it was a ‘humane’ and legally enacted resettlement (according to what were once socialist states).

As a rule, however, Schwartz emphasizes certain features. On the one hand, that applies to the ‘early places of learning,’ above all in the Balkans, where nationalization and ethnic ‘cleansing’ have sinisterly gone hand in hand since the early 19th century. On the other hand, this applies to World War I, the consequence of which was not only that colonial powers ‘returned home.’ Rather, at the same time, people groups became victims of arbitrary treatment and violence: Armenians (‘genocidal deportation’) and likewise Greeks (‘deportation and genocide’) and Jews (‘impeded deportation’). Above all, however, this applies to the racist displacement and resettlement policies of the Nationalist Socialist regime, in particular with respect to the killing of Jews.

Schwartz treats “’cleansing’ settlement democracies in American and Australia in the 19th century (189-202), genocide and deportation in the colonies around 1900, for example in Southwest Africa and in the Philippines (202-219), and how this spilled over into colonies within Europe (220-235). What followed was “national liberation through displacement” with respect to Muslims in the 19th century: Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria (238-261); alternating projects of intervention and coexistence in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia (261-297), and the culmination in the 1912/13 Balkan wars (298-309) – in 1912 the victims were primarily Muslims and in 1913 primarily Christians.

All parties to World War I at least played with the thought of ethnic ‘cleansing,’ be it as an ‘ordered population exchange’ (309-318) or as displacement. The climax in World War I was the genocide of Armenians (61-98) and of Ottoman Greeks (98-114).

“The Concept of ethnic ‘cleansing’ in the intellectual discourse of World War I was not the sole possession of a single party involved in the war. Between 1914 and 1919, the fronts escalated on all sides. What fascinated intellectuals and academics was the thought of organizing a post-war future with ‘clean’ separations between nations and, with that, having peace, even thereby hoping to safeguard humanity” (60).

World War I brought on population movements in a magnitude which had been inconceivable up to that time. For instance, Czarist Russia itself deported 700,000 ethnic Germans and up to one million Jews from its western provinces to the east. The worst example of such excesses was surely the murder of Armenians by Turks.

According to Schwartz, there were three models (319-424) during the period between the World Wars from 1919-1939. There was the 1919 Versailles model with protection for minorities, which was hardly able to be asserted. There was the 1929 Moscow model with federalism and autonomy, and finally there was the model of the Lausanne Agreement, which planned peaceful population exchanges to avoid violent separation of ethnic groups but which in reality ended in ethnic ‘cleansings.’

The 1923 Lausanne +Agreement separated “Turks” and “Greeks” (396-424), for instance, whereby the forced resettlement of two million people from two empires became two nation-states. From 1918 to 1925, 1.38 million Germans living in Poland migrated to the scaled-down German Empire.

The Third Reich and the Holocaust are naturally featured (425-466), but so are the resettlement agreements of World War II generally (467-491). The transfer plans of the anti-Hitler coalition follow (492-519). Stalin’s punitive actions initially followed cries regarding class-struggle, but then increasingly became ethnic ‘cleansings’ (519-532). A very good presentation is made of the movement of refugees during World War II and displacement after World War II, with a total of 2 million deaths (532-564), and the 1946-1950 forced resettlement which was enacted (564-578). There were 31 million people in Central and Eastern Europe who became the victims of forced migration policies (579). In parallel, there were 30 million victims as part of decolonization, 4 million of whom met their death (579-580).

Schwartz gives a detailed discussion of the two large cases of ethnic ‘cleansing’ after 1945 with millions of victims, respectively: the displacement of Germans from central and eastern Europe (564-578) and the population exchange and displacement on the Indian subcontinent (580-599) when the British colony disintegrated into two states. In the process, the number of victims is difficult to estimate. Schwartz comes to a number of 17.5 million victims, of whom 200,000 – 600,000 were fatal victims (580-599). Finally, Schwartz presents the situation in Israel and Palestine since 1947 (600-621).

From my point of view, it is very unfortunate that the book ends at around 1950 – apart from brief perspectives on Palestine and the Indian subcontinent. What has happened since 1950? What has happened in eponymous Serbia? How does the thesis of modernity as a precondition for ethnic ‘cleansings’ relate to ‘cleansings’ in Africa (e.g., Sudan) or in the Near East (e.g., Turkey and the Kurds, IS in Syria and Iraq)? One can only hope that the author makes up for this in a subsequent volume in order to bring the debate completely up to date!

Not always, but often and above all at the beginning, resettlements and population exchanges have been planned as civil and sensible means. However, practically without exception, they have slowly or more quickly slipped into violent conflicts. For instance, this occurred at the end of the British colonial era in India, where theoretically all Muslims were released to resettle in Pakistan. Hindus were likewise released to leave Pakistan. And yet, when the stream of resettlers brushed up against each other as they passed, the atmosphere heated up more and more until it evolved into an unbelievable amount of bloodshed.

The September 1913 agreement in Constantinople between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire counts as the first peace agreement which foresaw a planned population exchange between the contractual partners, with the goal of an ethnic rectification. Both preceding Balkan wars (1912/1913) were threatened by strong ethnically justified violence, by which civilians on both sides were killed and displaced. It was hoped that with the peace agreement, the problem would be able to be resolved by geographically separating the involved ethnicities.



  1. JHartlieb 13. August 2015 at 11:40

    Müsste die These nicht eher lauten, dass ethnische Säuberungen in der Moderne/Demokratie moderner Prägung angelegt, dh deren Implikat sind? Dann wären eher ethnische Säuberungen Voraussetzung für (das Funktionieren der) Moderne. Oder Moderne als hinreichende Bedingung für ethnische Säuberungen, aber nicht notwendige – neben den angesprochenen außermodernen Beispielen fällt mir da noch die neuassyrische Imperialpolitik ein, wie sie an Nordisrael exemplarisch deutlich wird: nicht unmittelbare physische Ausrottung, sondern kulturelle und institutionelle durch Bevölkerungsaustausch.

    Interessant fände ich die politphilosophische Frage, welche Anlagen der Moderne/Demokratie (aber auch anderer PHilosophien/Weltanschauungen) denn nun dafür verantwortlich sind und wie zentral diese Anlagen für die jeweilige Philosophie sind – also gewissermaßen eine systematische Auswertung der historischen Deskription und Analyse.

  2. Schirrmacher 23. September 2015 at 17:14

    Ich habe ja zunächst einmal nur referiert, was Schwartz vertritt und kurz auf mein Referat einiger anderer Autoren in meiner Arbeit “Hitlers Kriegsreligion” verwiesen. Aber tatsächlich müsste das Ganze einmal systematisch aufgearbeitet werden. Dabei kommt man nur leicht in den Verdacht, man wäre gegen Demokratie oder gegen die Moderne, das dürfte der Grund sein, warum sich kaum einer dieser Fragestellung zuwendet. Aber es ist sehr wichtig, der Frage nachzugehen, ob und wenn, wie Demokratie/Moderne von der Begeilterscheinung thnischer Säuberungen und verwandter Phänomene befreit werden kann. So aber bleibt man lieber bei dem guten moralischen dass Demokratie und Moderen doch eigentlich anders können, das das Gute hervor zu bringen.


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