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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 .


Terror, Force and States: The Path from Modernity
Rosemary H.T. O'Kane

(Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 1996).
214pp. Index. Bibl. 49.95;
ISBN 1-85278-694-9.


This is a difficult but rewarding book. However, its scope is slightly less wide than the title might suggest. In particular, O'Kane's concerns are theoretical rather than empirical. Further her theoretical concerns themselves are limited to a rigorous analysis of the concept of totalitarianism. Case studies of the Soviet Union under Stalin, Germany under Hitler and Cambodia under Pol Pot take up about half of the book, but the detail on the cases is primarily used to illustrate the theoretical themes identified in the first part of the book. O'Kane argues, following Hannah Arendt, that there is an important distinction to be drawn between totalitarian dictatorships, which operate through the state, and totalitarian regimes, where terror is government. The latter is a much rarer phenomenon, of which the prime cases are Germany between 1938 and 1945 and the Soviet Union from 1930 to Stalin's death, while Mussolini's Italy provides an example of the former. O'Kane admits that in practice it is difficult to separate out cases of totalitarian regimes from less exceptional instances of totalitarian dictatorships, especially in respect of governments that are still in power. She suggests in this context that 'rumours of terror used as a deliberate policy against the innocent, resulting in the extermination of large numbers of people, will be the best pointer to the likelihood of terror as government'(p.179). Of current governments, she argues that the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq provides the likeliest candidate for classification as a totalitarian regime. O'Kane put forward two key propositions in respect of totalitarian regimes; firstly, that, although modernity provides the basis on which a secret system can be built, modernity is not a cause of totalitarian regimes, and secondly, that schemes for the extensive use of forced labour are an important element in the establishment of totalitarian regimes. Given the limited scope for schemes of forced labour in the current global economy, an implication of her argument would appear to be that there is little reason for fearing the rise of new totalitarian regimes. But unfortunately, as the cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have strongly underlined, that does not mean that the phenomena with which totalitarian regimes are frequently coupled, of ethnic cleansing and of genocide are things of the past. Further, research such as that of Goldhagen on the readiness of ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany to continue killing even in the absence of orders from above have provided a new perspective on totalitarian regimes that seems more relevant to contemporary realities than O'Kane's revisiting of the debates that the publication of Arendt's masterpiece on the origins of totalitarianism provoked over forty years ago.


Professor Adrian Guelke, Queen's University of Belfast



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