Scholars often complicit in perpetration of mass violence, historian says

February 05, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Throughout the last century, the scholarly community played a prominent role in providing the rationale and supplying the know-how and personnel for the perpetration of state-directed mass violence, according to new research by a University Brown historian.

Omer Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History, cited incidents of ethnic cleansing, genocide and terrorism which were legitimized and supported by academics in his paper "Extreme Violence and the Scholarly Community," published in the current issue of the International Social Science Journal.

"We must recall that scholars and intellectuals have not infrequently found themselves at the forefront of support for mass crimes and inhumanity and have often distinguished themselves by their extraordinary political blindness and moral callousness," Bartov wrote. "We ignore its implications at our peril."

The enactment of Nazi policies in Germany, the criminal communist regimes in countries ranging from the Soviet Union to China and Cambodia, the genocide of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and the more recent Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, all enjoyed the support of academics and intellectuals at different points in time, according to Bartov.

Refusal to admit past sins may lead to further complicity in crime, he said. Bartov cited as an example the fact that little effective pressure was put on the French, American or German governments by their scholarly communities to step in and put a stop to the recent genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Overt state pressure or secret police activities are generally not needed to produce this kind of patriotic self-censorship, according to Bartov. Many American scholars failed to stand up to McCarthyism; Israeli scholars writing on the expulsion of the Palestinians and the Jewish State's expansion policies have only experienced academic and institutional marginalization.

However history also provides examples of situations in which academics were active in speaking out against the state. They include the widespread pacifist reaction to World War I, the appeasement policy in France and Britain, the opposition to the Algerian War, and the opposition to the Vietnam War.

Bartov considered the terrorist acts of September 11 to be different from the other cases of mass violence he cited. Instead of a scenario in which violence was perpetrated by the strong against the weak, the violence came from the most impoverished and underprivileged regions of the world. "Reacting effectively calls for a revolution in thinking about the use of force and economic policy abroad and the necessary domestic changes this would entail," he wrote.

"What we should learn from a century of scholarly complicity in evil is not that we must always oppose violence, but that we should be able to identify - better than others - whether and when force should be used against those who seek our destruction and then, that we should explain as eloquently as we can why the use of such force is legitimate." Bartov is the general editor of the series Studies on War and Genocide, published by Berghahn Books. He has written on Nazi Germany, interwar France and the Holocaust. Among his most recent publications: Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity.

Brown University

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