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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century
Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack (Eds)

New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001
410pp, HB: 47.00, ISBN no 1-57181-214-8

This work is the fourth volume in a series Studies on War and Genocide edited by Professor Bartov. The series focuses largely although not exclusively on the Holocaust and more generally on German atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s; the edited volumes present original, fully referenced research papers. Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that most of them are also passionate, not to mention extremely depressing. Political developments in the past decade (for example in the Balkans and in Rwanda) and specifically since September 2001 have again put a spotlight on the connections between religion, politics, and violence. The content of the studies has contemporary as well as historical relevance.

There are seventeen papers in this volume. Eleven of them are closely related to the Nazi period and its aftermath. Of the rest, there are three on the Armenian genocide of 1915-16; two on Rwanda in the 1990s; and one on Bosnia. The volume is edited into three sections: Part 1- The Perpetrators: Theology and Practice; Part 2- Survival: Rescuers and Victims; Part 3- Aftermath: Politics, Faith, and Representation. There is also a useful summary and reflection, "Afterthought", by Professor Ian Kershaw.

Most of the papers point to the unavoidable conclusion that, given certain contexts, ethnic competition, distrust, and hostility will degenerate into violence and, in the worst cases genocide. The estimated figures of fatal casualties are of course too horrible to think about: up to 70 percent of all Armenians in Turkey; perhaps 80 per cent of the one million Tutsis in Rwanda; perhaps six million Jewish people in Europe. Not to mention the traumas of all kinds inflicted on generations of survivors. The outlines of these events are rather widely acknowledged. The specific contribution of this set of papers is to focus on the way in which "religious" people, usually senior leaders of religious institutions, contributed to the genocides.

Various levels of complicity are analysed: first, failure to resist and protest; second, collusion with ideological incitement and racist propaganda; third, actual involvement with mass murders. Several of the papers in this collection go into meticulous detail at all levels, for example showing how traditional Christian anti-semitism adapted to the political power of the Nazi regime.

It is perhaps in Rwanda that we find the most shocking stories: that church leaders, not to mention congregations, became actively, explicitly involved in massacres. This followed a long history of church involvement in racist politics, to some extent creating, and then exploiting, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. At the worst period of the massacres, spring and summer 1994, parishioners and clergy handed over tens of thousands of victims to their murderers, and even personally joined the death squads. Consequently, "Many Christians clearly believed that in participating in the massacre of Tutsi, they were doing the will of the church?.People came to mass each day to pray, then they went out to kill" (p. 157).

Instead of ending on a totally depressing note, it is worth mentioning that several papers describe the value of faith to survivors and to a few brave individuals who worked in rescue operations. They also touch on the continuing resonance of, particularly, the Holocaust, in art and literature. Unfortunately one is left with the over-riding feeling that, if religion were a new drug, it would have failed all clinical trials and would not be allowed onto the market.

Dr. Alan Hunter

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