There are certain genocides that become the foci of genocide scholarship at certain moments, and for many years, scholarship’s main preoccupation was with the Holocaust. Over the last decade or so, while attention remains on this European killing, investigation into other mass killings has looked to, most notably, the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda. Eighty-years separates these two murderous episodes, and while culture and politics and demographic differ, Deborah Mayersen’s book On the Path to Genocide: Armenia and Rwanda Reexamined, highlights the similarities that exist not only between the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, but among genocides in general. In reinvestigating these two mass killings, Mayersen offers eight temporal stages that she discerns in the lead up to, and in the act of committing genocide; stages that reveal the predictive, pragmatic and bureaucratic processes that humans adopt during the onset, and in the implementation, of the killing of other peoples.
Mayersen has done a great deal of research here, and On the Path to Genocide provides background that expertly explains the advent of each investigated incident. Both the Armenian and Rwandan genocides are given historical context, showing how, for example, German and Belgian colonisation affected relations between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, or how the outbreak of the First World War made possible the bulk slaughter of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenian population. Similarly, the first third of On the Path to Genocide provides historiographical context, explaining certain approaches that historians and genocide scholars have taken in relation to the study of genocide.
I have two minor reservations in regards to the book, one pragmatic and the other more to do with Mayersen’s theoretical content.
One of the questions raised as I read the book is where it fits in regards to readership. As someone who teaches on aspects of social identity theory and genocide in tertiary institutions, I would willingly suggest the book to students. It provides a great platform for any who are beginning to grapple with an understanding of the nature of genocide, in particular Armenia and Rwanda. The book, however, sits just outside what might be considered populist reading, in that On the Path to Genocide is academic in tone rather than a more mainstream writing of history. Conversely, for those who have studied these genocides over a number of years, On the Path to Genocide may not offer as much as a book that is more theoretical in nature.
A large percentage of Mayersen’s book is a descriptive overview of two particular genocides with some theoretical inclusion when drawing on her own eight temporal stages. Here, in regards to the more theory-based aspects, Mayersen provides an account of how genocide builds in certain cultural and political situations. She incorporates ideas from scholars who discuss a similar progression, suggesting her eight stages of the temporal model as a more comprehensive chronological means of mapping genocide, and emphasises the need to look not only at predictive elements but also at constraints that might inhibit the eruption of genocide. This is where the book offers space for discussion, and occasions my second reservation, as this approach to mapping the onset of genocide, while shown to be relevant in regards to Armenia and Rwanda (and in smaller case studies of Darfur and Haiti), seems particular to a certain type of genocide. For example, in respect of the killing of Queensland’s Indigenous population in the 1800s, while some aspects of the eight stages are apparent in those killings, such as regarding the Indigenous population as an outgroup, whether there was political internal strife or whether there was any existential crisis in regards to the colonisers—two of the eight stages—might be debatable.
Overall, the book is well written and insightful, and while I argue On the Path to Genocide sits somewhere between the popular and the academic, this could well be its strength: readable, accessible, knowledgeable and educational. As someone academically situated in this field of enquiry, and knowing something of these two genocides already, I still learned a great deal from On the Path to Genocide and very much engaged with Mayersen’s approach to predicting the onset of genocide. Some may not altogether agree with all the stages suggested in regards to the mapping of this type of mass killing, but On the Path to Genocide fosters dialectical debate and that, together with its comprehensive historical overview, makes the book a very welcome and valuable addition to the study of genocide.
This Plus61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au ’
One place to purchase the book is here