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Book Review


John Cox, To Kill a People: Genocide in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv + 215. Bibliographical essay and suggested films, Timeline, Credits, and Index. $24.95 (paper).


     Journalist Philip Gourevitch tells the story of standing in line to enter the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C., in 1994. To pass the time he thumbed through a newspaper, in the pages of which he was confronted with photos of bloated corpses clogging the waterways of Rwanda: victims of the Hutu-led genocide targeting ethnic Tutsis. With these gruesome images etched on his retina, he looked up in time to see USHMM staffers arriving for work, sporting lapel buttons with the mottos "Remember" and "Never Again."

     In his scintillating new textbook To Kill a People, historian John Cox relates Gourevitch's story without comment in the opening paragraph to his chapter on the Rwandan genocide (151). This throwaway incident of the lapel buttons seems trivial enough, yet it underscores the importance of books like To Kill a People. It is not enough to intone the vacuous phrase "Never Again." Rather, as Professor Cox emphasizes, we are better advised to study the phenomenon of genocide from as many angles as human knowledge allows. Although greater knowledge is unlikely to erase genocide from the human experience, a reckoning with the conditions that have enabled it in the past may afford us a slugger's chance, if not to eliminate genocide from the world, then at least to minimize its future perpetration.

     Toward this end, To Kill a People undertakes an approach of comparative genocide that is masterfully concise and clearly written. The Introduction considers genocide as a concept and as a practice. Conceptually, the Introduction reproduces the legal definition found in the UN Convention on Genocide ("acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group, as such"), but points out that many scholars, including the man who coined the word "genocide," Raphael Lemkin, conceived of it in far broader terms. Lemkin himself urged an expansive cultural meaning of genocide, one that would recognize not only physical extermination but the calculated plan to destroy a group's "collective existence" (4). As Professor Cox makes clear, an expansive definition of genocide, which might have included victims killed for political or social motives, was stymied by UN States-Parties opposed to it (e.g., the USSR, Brazil, and South Africa). Professor Cox himself defines genocide broadly as "an attempt to destroy any recognized, stable, and permanent group as it is defined by the perpetrator; it is a concerted effort to eliminate its individual members and to destroy the group's ability to maintain its social and cultural cohesion and, thus, its existence as a group" (11). In short, the author embraces a definition reminiscent of Lemkin's original concept, a definition that the International Tribunal for Rwanda has also adopted and that the author believes will become the future norm in international criminal law. This capacious, culturally-focused interpretation of genocide informs the pages of To Kill a People.

     It is with genocide as a practice, however, that Professor Cox is most concerned. Construing genocide as a practice raises two of the most vexing, interesting, and significant issues in genocide studies. Why do human beings commit genocide? Are there attributes common to the various genocides that have scarred the 20th century? The raw materials for this inquiry are found in the four chapters that form the cornerstone of To Kill a People. Each is devoted to an in-depth exploration of a single genocide: Chapter One to the Armenian genocide, Chapter Two to the Holocaust, Chapter Three to the Cambodian genocide, and Chapter Four to Rwanda. In each chapter, the author imbeds his analysis within a rich socio-political context. The Armenian genocide was preceded by decades of territorial losses and Turkish-Armenian ethnic conflict against the backdrop of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The prelude to the Nazi Holocaust was German defeat in World War I and the blows dealt to Germans' national self-esteem by the postwar settlement, which included the forfeiture of territory (including all of Germany's colonies) and imposition on Germany of full responsibility for the damage caused by the war. French and then US-American colonialism, as well as civil war, wracked Cambodian society in the runup to the Khmer Rouge's forays into mass extermination. Similarly, the path to the Rwandan genocide was cleared by nearly a century of European colonialism and appalling outbursts of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis. In short, the perpetrator nation in each of these cases suffered foreign intervention, perceived insults to its national self-esteem, and a period of social chaos before the killing started. As the author shows, the ingredients of nationalist resentment and social upheaval become particularly deadly under the radicalizing effects of war and significantly, none of these genocides would likely have been committed but for the catalyst of war or civil war. Civil war in particular tears a society apart and locates "the enemy" not outside the country's borders but squarely within them. In all the cases Professor Cox examines, ethno-nationalist insecurities powered racist initiatives that assailed the victim group for being not only racially inferior but a miasmic danger to society. In times of war, the isolated minority assumed a still more menacing aspect in the eyes of the dominant group, darkening into an evil fifth column that had to be eradicated. With this latter step from peacetime denigration to wartime demonization, genocide became nearly inevitable.

     Professor Cox teases out the implications of his empirically grounded comparative genocide in the Conclusion to the textbook. Here, he demonstrates that the position genocide occupies at the crossroads of politics, sociology, culture, and psychology requires a careful analysis of the killers and the motives that drive them to their acts. At the macro level (based on the findings of genocide scholars Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn)1, these include acting to eliminate alleged threats, terrorize real or imagined enemies, acquire wealth, and actualize an ideology. At the micro level (following the categories outlined by scholar Michael Mann)2, genocide comprises "ideological" killers who murder in furtherance of a belief system, "violent" killers actuated by sadism, "fearful" killers desirous of avoiding the consequences for non-participation, "careerist" killers driven by the compulsion to perform an assigned job, "materialist" killers bent on self-aggrandizement, and "disciplined" killers influenced by peer pressure. Add to these factors the discoveries of social psychology, which stress the contributory roles of "feelings of collective superiority" (201) and a primal aggressiveness rooted in human beings' animal nature, and genocide presents itself as an enormously complex phenomenon, one that will perpetually escape monocular efforts to comprehend it. Such complexity more than justifies Professor Cox's "integrated approach" (190) to genocide in his textbook.

     For high school and university courses on genocide, I cannot recommend any textbook more highly than To Kill a People. It is lucid, compact, and jargon-free. While it is copiously erudite (the author seems to have read and digested every secondary source on the topic), the scholarly apparatus of footnotes, a bibliographical essay and film list, excerpts from primary sources after each chapter and associated discussion questions, and a genocide time-line does not at all clutter the central argument and its subsidiary themes. Students and instructors alike will not only be drawn to this text due to its accessibility; they will also find the moral ardor of Professor Cox's prose winsome and compelling. Without overplaying his hand he has written his passion into the book, infusing each chapter with an energy of outrage entirely appropriate to its odious subject matter. This is not a history of the cinquecento or early modern crop rotation in Burgundy; it is a study of how governments and their auxiliaries have murdered millions of innocent men, women, and children, often under the most torturous of circumstances. At times readers may be tempted to leap to their feet with exclamations of "Bravo!," as I nearly did on at least two occasions (see 208, footnote 64, and 214). The author's insistence that all human beings, including self-righteous Americans convinced genocide couldn't happen here (spoiler alert: it already has, and numerous times), inhabit a permanent "Gray Zone" in which the most criminally barbaric actions are forever possible, is an unblenching cry from the heart. So, too, is his refusal to honor the "Never Again" mantra as anything more than anodyne self-deception, however sincerely it may be believed. Whether books like Professor Cox's will ever help reduce the incidence of genocide is an open question. That he has written a first-rate, engaging history of 20th century genocide for a general audience is not.

Michael S. Bryant is Professor of History and Social Sciences at Bryant University. His research focuses on legal history, human rights, German criminal law, international humanitarian law, and the impact of the Holocaust on the law. Professor Bryant is the author of Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945–53 (University Press of Colorado, 2005), Eyewitness to Genocide: the Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials 1955–66 (University of Tennessee Press, 2014), and A World History of War Crimes: From Antiquity to the Present (Bloomsbury, 2015). You may contact him at



1 Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 29.

2 Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2729.




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