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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2005, Vol. 5 No. 1 .


Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century
Benjamin A. Valentino

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004
317 pp HB 17.95 ISBN 0-8014-3965-5


Now that the twentieth century is safely behind us there has been an upsurge in studies of the horrendous crimes committed during the last hundred years. This monograph has an advantage over some of these in that it seeks to present an original and coherent thesis that wants to revise our understanding of mass killings. The core of the book is a claim that we should focus on the strategic choices of a small number of leaders rather than on the structural factors (regime type, degree of polarization, insecurities caused by war and revolution) which have attracted the interest of many previous studies. The problem with these studies, Valentino contends, is that there are many societies that possess these structural factors yet do not experience mass killings or genocide. Of course, in response, it could also be pointed out that there are probably a large number of potential mass murderers who never get to fulfil their fantasies because structural factors do not allow them to gain leadership positions in the first place.

In developing his arguments, Valentino claims that mass murder does not need the active support of the vast majority of people and so he does not feel the need to focus on the social, cultural and economic forces that might affect their attitudes. All that a homicidal leadership needs is the passive acquiescence of the majority and the active support of a relatively small number of perpetrators who are attracted to drastic solutions because of their sadistic characters, their willingness to follow orders or their fanatical commitment to murderous ideologies. The analysis goes on to provide a comprehensive typology of mass killing that identifies six types of strategic motives. They are communist revolutionary engineering, racial or ethnic cleansing, territorial expansion, counterguerrilla wars, the terrorising of groups by states (allied bombings of Germany and Japan) or sub-state actors, and imperialist conquest. However, the book only offers a comprensive analysis of three of these: communist, ethnic, and counterguerrilla. As a result, the evidence comes from eight short case studies: The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Guatemala and Soviet actions in Afghanistan. The book concludes with some suggestions about anticipating and preventing mass killings.

This book is an important contribution to the rapidly growing literature on mass killings and genocide. The claim, in the conclusion, that the downplaying of deep structural explanations should lead to a realization that effective action against mass murder does not require the transformation of societies but rather effective interventions to remove homicidal leaders, deserves serious consideration. So does the claim, not directly linked to the central thesis, that more attention should be given to providing escape routes for potential victims of genocide. Nonetheless, some doubts remain. Is the category ?mass killing? a useful one for comparative analysis, or is it too broad ranging, dragging in everything from anti-guerrilla warfare in Guatemala to the Holocaust? Can one clearly separate the strategic and structural dimensions of mass killing? This reviewer would also have liked more on the legal prosecution of mass murderers, because one of the factors influencing strategic choice by perpetrators might be an assessment of whether they can get away with it.


Stephen Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Ulster



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