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Book Review


Lisa Pine, Debating Genocide. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. xiv-202. Index. $24.95 (paper).


     One of the more challenging subjects to teach effectively and responsibly in the classroom is genocide, for it is among the most destructive behaviors that a society could possibly witness. The emotional and sensitive nature of this topic almost ensures that some students will invariably view such uncomfortable material quite subjectively, rather than critically. Moreover, the different circumstances and influencing factors certain groups throughout history have pointed to in their attempt to legitimize their systematic slaughter of others is arguably the part of these important events that are occasionally glossed-over or treated somewhat superficially in a number of survey textbooks. Lisa Pine's Debating Genocide, the third and most-recent installment in Bloomsbury Publishing's "Debates in World History" series, cogently tackles this issue. Designed with the undergraduate student in mind, these 'debates' provide short, concise primers on the contemporary arguments surrounding some of history's crucial and notable events. Pine's contribution examines the subject of genocide and addresses instructors' long-felt need for a brief and convenient introductory-level book that clearly articulates world history's more illustrative examples of this horrifying phenomenon.

     Following a short Preface, the book's Introduction begins by providing the reader her rationale for the careful study of historic genocide and explains how the very definition and comprehension of the term has evolved since it was first introduced by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944 (2). He had recognized that crucial loopholes or gaps existed at the time within the framework of international law concerning state sovereignty, which allowed for the possibility of targeted violence by a state against its own citizenry without the fear of interference or sanction from others within the international community. Ethnic and other national minority groups in particular were most often the recipients of state-directed violence and persecution. Lemkin was a vocal critic and questioned the legitimacy of such loopholes in the law that tacitly permitted this type of conduct and worked throughout the war to draw as much attention to the issues as possible. The United Nations later incorporated several of his arguments along with his definition of the term genocide when it drafted of the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 (2).

     Pine then explores the relationship between Lemkin's terminology and the multi-stage model conceptualized by Gregory Stanton which researchers and watchdog groups alike have come to use in identifying genocide's distinguishing phases and characteristics. She concludes her opening arguments by tracing the development of modern Genocide Studies, which have now also begun to examine its more recent relationship to various environmental and climatic factors as other possible influences on state-organized violence.

     Several important atrocities that have occurred since the colonial era were selected for this book, including the genocides in the Americas and Africa during the 19th century, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust against European Jews and 'Gypsies' (Sinti and Roma), the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, the 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and the 2003 genocide that occurred in the Sudan. The book's nine chapters are all accompanied by a short set of discussion questions and a selected bibliography of the latest published scholarship for further reading. Pine focuses on delivering careful explanation of the historical context and the salient features of these different genocides rather than relying on a heavy proliferation of graphic photographs to convey the monstrousness of these crimes. The book does include a handful of pertinent maps that help keep it quite compact, yet still informative for readers.

     Interestingly, Pine's examination points out that unlike the ethnic or racially-driven murders associated with so many other genocides, the Khmer Rouge-led action in Cambodia during the 1970s was to a large degree politically motivated. She cites Rutgers' political scientist Manus Midlarsky's recent work1 in further suggesting that the murders in Cambodia represented the easternmost anchor of a broad "arc of Communist politicide," in which identical forms of violence were exacted against a state's own population: the kulaks in Stalin's Soviet Union and the intelligentsia in Mao's China during the Cultural Revolution (90–91). In all three examples, the Communist regime viewed groups who represented the older or experienced classes of society as a threat to their collectivization and indoctrination efforts and marked them for extermination. Students reading this book can take note that the Cambodian "Killing Fields" should not strictly be regarded as politicide, because the incident possessed a genocidal dimension that was also at work alongside it. The persecution of Buddhist monks and Muslims throughout the country demonstrated the Khmer Rouge's secondary aim of eliminating religion in Cambodia (96). Other foreigners and ethnic groups, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese, were also victims of that genocide.

     Pine finishes her examination of genocide by briefly introducing the reader to other relevant themes that have found their way into contemporary studies on the subject, including gender, the development of preventive mechanisms, and whether appropriate justice is realistically possible for victims in the aftermath of future genocides.

     Despite its overall brevity, Debating Genocide is a solid, foundational text that instructors can turn to when introducing students to the topic of genocide. Its prose is direct and clear enough to enable young readers' swift comprehension without the undue distraction found in more dense and lengthier monographs on the subject.

Robert Klemm chairs the History, Economics, and Political Science department and teaches at Lanier Technical College in Gainesville, Georgia. He may be contacted at



1 Manus Midlarsky, The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2005).


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