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The Dark Side of Nation-States: Ethnic Cleansing in Modern Europe

0 Comments 🕔12.Feb 2015

Philipp Ther’s book, The Dark Side of Nation-States, is a comprehensive account of ethnic cleansing in Europe. The book provides a description of most cases of large-scale deportations that targeted ethnic groups in twentieth-century Europe, as well as a number of cases that took place in former European colonies. Theoretically, the book emphasizes two interrelated macro-historical developments that played a role in the path to ethnic cleansing: the emergence of the nation-state, with an emphasis on ethnic homogenization, and the conversion of this state-level phenomenon into an organizing principle at the international level. The first argument that focuses on the emergence of homogenizing nation-states has also been underscored in previous works that analyze the causes of ethnic cleansing, and hence this argument constitutes the part of the book that is less original (see, for example, Mann 2005; Naimark, 2001). The second argument that focuses on the role of nation-states as an organizing principle at the international level, which, according to Ther, resulted in the endorsement or encouragement of ethnic cleansing by the great powers, constitutes the book’s original contribution. The detailed account of ethnic-cleansing episodes and the original argument on the impact of international principles on mass deportations definitely makes this book a notable contribution to the study of ethnic cleansing.

There are, however, several aspects of the book that could have benefitted from further theoretical expansion or more precise empirical analysis. The first one of these relates to Ther’s argument on the role of international principles and actors. Roughly speaking, the book identifies three periods that vary in the extent to which the idea of nation-states as an international principle played a role. The first one corresponds to the period after the Napoleonic Wars until the Balkan Wars, during which the international principle that endorsed homogenous nation-states had not yet reached its maturity. The second corresponds to the period between the Balkan Wars and the end of World War II, during which the principle becomes the dominant paradigm for state formation. Finally, in the third period, which corresponds to the post-World War II era, the principle, while still in existence, starts to decline because great powers recognize the enormous costs that are associated with the population movements and exchange agreements that are used to homogenize populations.

Ther’s argument on homogenous nation-states as an international principle provides clear empirical expectations that relate to these three periods. It suggests that under similar circumstances such as wars, military occupations, or civil wars, states should be more likely to use ethnic cleansing, and that great powers should be more likely to encourage this type of policy in the second period compared with the other periods. Given this expectation, it would have been very useful to organize the book according to these three periods. The discussion then could have focused on evaluating whether the states in general, and great powers in particular, behaved differently in otherwise similar circumstances in the three periods because their understanding of the ‘right’ way to organize the international system was different. It would have been especially interesting to see if there were cases in the first and third periods in which ethnic cleansing was avoided due to differences in international principles. Instead, the book uses anecdotal evidence from cases of ethnic cleansing to support the argument on international principles, but it does not engage in a systematic comparison of the three periods. As a result, the argument on nation-states as an international principle remains an interesting idea rather than an empirically supported argument.

The second aspect of the book that could have benefitted from further theoretical clarification relates to the role of the international actors, in particular the great powers. In various parts of the book, Ther suggests that great powers as diverse as Nazi Germany and the United States have endorsed or encouraged ethnic cleansing due to their belief in nation-states as an organizing principle in the international system. Yet, it is one thing to endorse a decision that has already been made at the local level and another to actually push states to expel populations that they did not plan to expel in the first place. There are some exceptional cases, such as the Germans in Hungary after World War II, in which great powers (in particular the Soviet Union) played an active role in instigating ethnic cleansing. Yet, as Ther himself acknowledges, in most instances of ethnic cleansing, such as the exchange agreement between Greece and Turkey (1923) or the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II, the local actors had already moved toward deportations before international treaties endorsed these moves. If this is the case, why does it make sense to theoretically focus on great powers instead of actors within the states that ultimately decide to deport ethnic minorities? As I mention above, one way to show that great powers played a significant role would have been to focus on how they stopped ethnic cleansing during periods in which the international principle that endorsed homogenous states was not robust. As it stands, however, the book does not include this type of analysis.

Finally, the book’s emphasis on the emergence of homogenizing nation-states, while undoubtedly important as a macro-cause of ethnic cleansing, leads to an incomplete account of the process that resulted in ethnic cleansing in many contexts. Nationalism and ethnic competition were of course central to politics in twentieth-century Europe, but they were far from the only ideological divisions that played a role in Europe in general, or even in the ethnically heterogeneous Central and Eastern Europe in particular. Other cleavages between left-wing and right-wing worldviews or secular-religious divisions played a role in the politics of most countries and, critical for the potential for ethnic cleansing, ideologically divided majority or dominant ethnic groups. At least during periods of peace, there were political factions within dominant groups that preferred to work with actors from within the minority groups rather than the members of their own group. Thus, a complete account of ethnic cleansing requires an understanding of how factions within the dominant groups that were politically allied with minorities either lost political clout or came to switch to the side of their more nationalistic co-ethnics. To be fair to Ther’s book, most existing works of ethnic cleansing ignore the political diversity within dominant ethnic groups and the implications of this diversity for our understanding of ethnic cleansing. Thus, this particular comment is best viewed as a call for a better understanding of the domestic political dynamics within states that ultimately conduct ethnic cleansing.

To sum, The Dark Side of Nation-States is an interesting and thorough contribution to the literature on ethnic cleansing. It will undoubtedly create a lively discussion and, hopefully, further research on the role of international principles and actors in the process that leads to ethnic cleansing.

Reviewed by H. Zeynep Bulutgil, Tufts University

The Dark Side of Nation-States: Ethnic Cleansing in Modern Europe
by Philipp Ther
Berghahn Books
Hardback / 288 pages / 2014
ISBN:  978-1-78238-302-4

Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Naimark, Norman M. 2001. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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