The Massacre in History

The Massacre in History
by Eric Sterling

Mark Levene and Penny Roberts, eds. New York: Berghahn books, 1999. ISBN: 1-57181-934-7, cloth; 1-57181-935-5, paperback.

Mark Levene’s and Penny Roberts’s collection of essays, which is part of the War and Genocide series, covers various massacres from Herod’s murder of the Innocents to the fighting in the former Yugoslavia during World War II and currently.

The first chapter, Laura Jacobus’s essay on the Murder of the Innocents, focuses on medieval representations of the massacre in both theatre and art. Although Jacobus begins with a quotation from Matthew 2:16-19, which states that Herod became angry and slaughtered many innocent children and that Jeremiah prophesied that Rachel would cry inconsolably, she quickly shifts from the Bible to medieval theatre and art to manifest that the representations in these two media illustrate that the massacre was considered “‘a women’s problem’” (39). As portrayed in two medieval plays of the eleventh century, Rachel cries incessantly, failing to perceive that the massacre is part of God’s larger plan for human salvation; furthermore, foreshadows the Virgin Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion.

Jacobus adds that the “two texts, central to the liturgy on Holy Innocents’ Day, established women’s God-given roles: women mother, women grieve, and women defile” (40). The massacre was performed through words and not swords (the soldiers simply order the innocents to die, who die upon the command. In the late Middle Ages, churches attempted to teach as many of their parishioners as possible about The Bible, so in order to present their didactic teachings to the uneducated, they employed artistic narratives. In order to teach people about the massacre, artists created a narrative about the event, but they compressed the three events (Herod’s wrath, the slaughter, and Rachel’s crying) into one because of what Jacobus refers to as “visual economy” (43).

She adds that medieval art manifests the changing attitude towards women and marriage. Prior to the twelfth century, the church disdained marriage because they were against copulation, but marriage became a sacrament in the twelfth century. Married women were not perceived as virtuous, as chaste women or widows, but sex in marriage was considered acceptable, and wives were considered redeemable. Thus, in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century art concerning the massacre, Rachel transformed from an individual woman to a representation of collective mothers’ grief.

The following chapter concerns the massacre of Jewish Christians in Cordoba in 1473-1474. The massacre began, according to Alfonso de Palencia (a chronicler of fifteenth-century Castilian history), in March 1473 when a young convert girl threw water out of her window onto a long religious procession of the Brotherhood of Charity and hit the canopy that covered the image of the Holy Virgin. The blacksmith (Alonso Rodriguez) insisted that the liquid poured onto the canopy was urine and claimed that this was a heinous act that demanded vengeance. John Edwards, the author of this intriguing chapter, notes that after the mayor, in an effort to protect the conversos, lanced Rodriguez to death, people claimed that Rodriguez was resurrected like Christ and in the midst of his resurrection demanded revenge on the conversos. This supposed resurrection rekindled the thirst for violence that had begun to diminish and renewed the massacre and looting. The mayor eventually decided that it was politically imprudent to protect the conversos (imprudent to his political career) and therefore let them fend for themselves, which resulted in more murders and looting. Edwards likens this massacre to the violence in Cordoba in June 1391 and refers to both massacres as “ethnic cleansing.” He also observes that Luis de Cordoba’s will in August 1478, in which the man strives to make peace with the world by compensating for his sins, requests that 5,000 maravedis be distributed to conversos because that is how much money he stole during the looting; the fact that he was a full member of the Cordoba city council indicates that the looting was done not only by ordinary citizens, but also by the city’s elite.

Massacres during the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century is the subject of Mark Greengrass’s contribution to the book. Greengrass even points out that the word massacre in its modern meaning derives from the religious cleansing in late sixteenth-century France; the word, formerly meaning a butcher’s chopping block, acquired this new meaning from Protestants who were victimized by this sectarian hatred--Catholic against Protestant (Huguenot)--in bloody encounters such as the St. Bartholomew Massacre in August 1572. After 1577, the massacres began to diminish in number and intensity, partly because so many Huguenots had fled the cities, particularly in northern France. Edicts of pacification permitted Protestants freedom to worship in certain locations outside the cities in the northern parts of the country, which, ironically, exposed them to more danger because they were easily targeted during their religious processions on Sundays. Greengrass concurs with French historian Denis Crouzet that a marked distinction concerning religious violence separated Catholics from Protestants; this demarcation involved Catholic literature written at the beginning of the French reformation that stressed apocalyptic and prophetic forces. The notion that the world would soon come to an end indicated that a holy authority was immanent and struggling against a dark force. The emergence of Protestants (heretics in the eyes of many Catholics) as well as portents such as monstrous births and miracles made many zealous Catholics believe that an apocalypse was soon coming; they saw themselves, consequently, as agents of God who, like Him, struggled to wipe out evil in what they considered a pivotal moment in history. Viewed as Christ-like bearers of God’s blessings during the end of the world, children were invited to participate in the horrific atrocities. Many of the murders were astonishingly brutal and gory because the perpetrators saw themselves as scourges of God and considered their enemies subhuman and diabolical creatures who deserved the pain and suffering they experienced. Greengrass discusses various testimonies, “hidden transcripts,” related by survivors. He points out that many testimonies were related decades after the incidents because of trauma, fear, and repression; he compares this to Holocaust testimonies, many of which has been recorded long after the Shoah.

Massacres and codes of conduct during the English Civil War are the focus of the subsequent chapter. Will Coster discusses massacres committed by both sides, the Parliamentarian and the Royalist factions. The author concentrates on the fighting that took place during the first civil war in England and Wales from the summer of 1642 to the spring of 1646. Contrary to what some previous historians have claimed, the fighting during the war was not conducted according to chivalric codes of gentlemanly comportment. Coster provides the example of the Christmas Day 1643 massacre of Bartholomy in which Royalists surrounded a church occupied by twenty men, burned it, and then stabbed or slit the throats of the men who had agreed to surrender. The massacres committed by the Parliamentarians increased during the war, perhaps because they saw victory in sight and perhaps because they became less tolerant of the losing side, especially after learning of Royalist massacres. Coster adds that the massacres became an integral propaganda tool in the pamphlet war that ensued. He, furthermore, provides a very specific definition of “massacre”: they are murders of groups by groups, employing overwhelming force and are performed outside the normal moral codes of behavior of the culture who witnesses it.

According to Robin Clifton, civil war ravaged all three kingdoms of King Charles I (England, Ireland, and Scotland) from 1640-1660, but unquestionably, the most violent massacres occurred in Ireland. The massacres resulted from a struggle over land and power that ensued between the Irish Catholics and the English Protestant settlers--a struggle that was exacerbated by differences in language, social structure, and cultural values. Clifton remarks that English Protestant hatred for the Irish was so intense that it was virtually racial. In 1644, the English Parliament, thinking so little of the Irish, declared that captured Irish soldiers were not to be classified as prisoners of war, but were to be executed. But the Irish manifested their own hatred in a rebellion that began on October 22, 1641; it was a massacre against the English settlers that was surprising because it was unprovoked and not even the rebels’ original intention. Irish aristocrats in Ulster, desiring to maintain their “Graces” (measures that would guarantee Irish land-holding tenures so that the aristocrats would not lose their lands to the settlers), decided to scare the British government into negotiating with them (the Scots had also coerced the English Parliament to negotiate with them) by exercising a bloodless, non-violent terrorism of the settlers while manifesting that they still were loyal to King Charles. But in order to carry out this non-violent terrorism, they required the aid of their servants, who also had their gripes against the settlers, such as the loss of jobs, land, prosperity, and social status. The servants acted with more aggression and violence than the aristocrats wanted them to exhibit. The violence began slowly and then increased rapidly as the servants got carried away. The servants turned the settlers out of their houses and murdered those who resisted; many of the settlers who were removed from their houses died of exposure to the cold (the Irish winter was beginning in late October-early November) as well as exhaustion, thirst, and hunger. Part of the problem is that the settlers, not knowing where to turn, decided to go to Dublin, which was hundreds of miles away. Clifton remarks that for every settler murdered, two or three died from being turned out of their homes. Clifton reports that two thousand settlers were murdered during the first three months of the rebellion, and four thousand died from exposure. Later in the chapter Clifton discusses the subsequent rebellion, the Cromwellian massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, and the 1650s forced population clearance.

Allan I. Macinnes’s chapter concerns clan massacres in light of the formation of the British state. State formation, the creation of the United Kingdom, required peace along the Anglo-Scottish border and in Irish and Scottish Gaeldom. Preparing for the unification of the United Kingdom under his rule, King James of Scotland made a statutory alteration to the laws of treason in 1587: “Henceforth, perpetrators of premeditated massacres of rivals were indictable for slaughter under trust” (127). Macinnes relates violent stories of clan massacres, such as Lachlan Maclean of Duart’s murder of eighteen Macdonald followers after a wedding party because he objected to John McDonald of Ardnamurchan as his new step-father. The groom was tortured and imprisoned but not killed because of the intervention of Maclean’s mother. Another intriguing story involves the Campbell massacre of the Lamonts in June 1646. Laying siege to Lamont strongholds in Cowal,, the Campbells spared James Lamont of Inveryne as a means of getting the clan to surrender, yet thirty-six of the gentry and another one-hundred Lamont men, women, and children were murdered subsequent to the surrender of two castles; those who survived that day were hanged during the following week. While reading Macinnes’s essay, one discerns the sense of arbitrary and senseless violence--feuds that victimize the innocent and that perpetuate the violence.

The massacre of the Circassians, a forgotten people, serves as the subject of Stephen D. Shenfield’s essay. The Circassians were forced to resettle after the tsarist conquest of their territory. Their homeland rested in the northwestern Caucasus and on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea--along the southern border of the Russian empire. Before the Russian invasion, Circassia possessed two million people and an area of 55,663 square kilometers. They fought against Russian invasions from 1763-1864 and ultimately were defeated, with many Circassians being deported to Turkey. The decision to deport the Circassians came in 1860; the Russians invaded from the north, accompanied by mobile columns of riflemen and Cossack cavalry; four thousand Circassian families left for Turkey. In 1862, Russian soldiers burned Circassian villages and trampled the crops; those who fled died in the forests and mountains of hunger and exposure. The Russian General Babich took his soldiers south, burning Circassian villages along the way. In May 1864, the remaining Circassians bonded together in a frenzied battle and emerged triumphant over the Russian invaders; the victory, however, proved to be short-lived because the Russians returned with more artillery and soundly defeated the Circassian men and women; dissatisfied by only killing the Circassian adults, the triumphant Russian soldiers sought out the children and shot cannon shells at them.

Peter Coates’s essay is the most unique in this collection in that the victims of the massacres he focuses on were not human beings: his piece concerns the mass killings of wolves in America. Coates initiates his essay by claiming that killing is part of--and commonplace in--American culture. He mentions that the American Indians were victimized by mass murders--but not to the extent that wolves were murdered. Although animals such as the buffalo and the passenger pigeon were massacred in the United States (the passenger pigeon, for instance, numbered from 3-5 billion when white settlers appeared, but massacres have left the species extinct since 1914) because of profit and sport, wolves and other wild predators were persecuted because of a pathological hatred felt towards them: “Hatred towards them--and wolves in particular-- is peerless in Euro-American relations with other creatures” (166). Coates believes that the mass killings of wolves demonstrate the true meaning of the word “massacre” because the slayings were not meant to control the wolf population but rather were intended to completely obliterate the species. Because of the vilification of the wolf’s reputation, the species was hunted throughout North America, primarily west of the Mississippi from the 1860s to the 1920s. The wolf population in North America before white settlement may have been two million, if not higher; by 1800 practically no wolves were left in New England, and by the early 1900s, only about two hundred thousand were left, mostly in Alaska and Canada. Coates believes that only two thousand survive today in the continental United States.

Robert M. Levine’s essay concerns the Canudos massacre in October 1897 in the State of Bahia at the hands of the Brazilian army. Thousands of men, women, and children were murdered as they attempted to save their homes. Levine reports that Brazilian soldiers slit the throats of many members of this Roman Catholic spiritual organization and required the family members of the victims to observe. The Canudos defended themselves for several months before losing, and subsequently their 5,200 homes were destroyed. All Canudo men perished, as did most of the women and children; the few women who managed to survive were forced into servitude or prostitution while the remaining children were adopted or taken as trophies of war. Levine attributes the fighting to the uncertain transition that occurred when the monarchy became a Republic in the November 1889, with the ensuing economic and employment problems. Legislation separated church and state, creating a secular primacy. Visitors to the Canudo community greatly exaggerated their observations of the religious fanaticism of the Canudos; these tales of religious fervor, along with the decline in surplus labor from neighboring areas, led to the massacre.

The destruction of the Hereros in German South West Africa in 1904 is the topic of Tilman Dedering’s contribution to Levene’s and Roberts’s volume. In the essay, Dedering manifests how a German colonial war got out of hand and led ultimately to the massacre and almost to the destruction of an African people. The Hereros relied heavily on their livestock for survival in their pastoral lifestyle. However, the rinderpest in southern Africa had decimated the Herero livestock since 1897, rendering the Hereros vulnerable and desperate. Furthermore, the German colonists, who had colonized land in Hereroland since 1884, started to interfere with the power of Herero chiefs. European colonists took advantage of the Hereros, offering them aid on credit. By 1904, the Hereros had amassed great debts, making them more vulnerable to the European traders. When many Hereros found themselves heavily in debt, the Europeans seized many of the remaining livestock, thus incurring the wrath of the Hereros and inciting the rebellion. The Hereros initiated their rebellion in January 1904, after Governor Theodor Leutwein had recently sent his soldiers away from Hereroland to quell another revolt. The Hereros began with victories against the remaining German forces. When attacking people’s homes, the Hereros selectively chose German men as targets for their aggression. Supreme Herero Chief Samuel Maharero did not want Britons and Boers killed because he feared that if they were also killed, whites would side with the Germans. In the first attack, the Hereros killed approximately 150 men. Because Leutwein proved unsuccessful in his attempts to curb the rebellion, he was replaced by General Lothar von Trotha. Von Trotha, unlike Leutwein, was bloodthirsty and was merciless in his attacks on the disorganized Hereros. While Leutwein had attempted to reach an agreement with the Hereros, von Trotha massacred them. Von Trotha’s genocidal strategy led even the German media to condemn them.

Callum MacDonald writes of the Nanking Massacre of December 1937, which proved to be the worst massacre of the China Incident and of the Pacific War. For more than six weeks after the capital of Republican Kuomintang (KMT), China fell into the hands of the Central China Expeditionary Army of General Matsui Iwane on December 12, 1937, Japanese troops committed countless acts of murder, rape, arson, and looting. Twenty thousand Japanese soldiers acted lawlessly in part because their supervisors refused to prevent them from committing these atrocities. Because the heinous deeds occurred in the capital, many members of the foreign community were on hand to document them; still major differences exist between various accounts: the Nanking District’s Chief Prosecutor claimed that 278,586 murders were committed while witnesses counted at least 42,000 murders and between 8,000-20,000 rapes. On December 21, 1948, General Matsui was condemned to death by the International Military Tribunal held at Tokyo and hanged for his responsibility for the Nanking Massacre. Macdonald asserts that the brutal treatment exhibited by the Japanese soldiers derived partly from their arrogant and racist attitudes felt toward other Asians: the Japanese felt that “Japan was a divine land and the Japanese a chosen people. . . . Chinese, Koreans, and others were at best dependent members of a family headed by the Japanese. And just as it would be unnatural to treat women and children as equals, so also must Asians be treated as dependants and controlled for their own good. The Japanese were thus wholly unable to understand those who resisted their unique mission ” (227).

John Gittings contributes a powerful essay on the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966. The massacre of hundreds of thousands of people--many of them Communists--occurred after the failed Communist Gestapu coup, which took place on September 30, 1965. After the rebellion failed, General Suharto led his own coup, supplanting the current leader, President Sukarno. Although Gittings admits that the number of killings is far less than the number who died at the hands of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, these massacres happened in a much shorter time frame and thus, he claims, were at least as intense during the time they occurred. Gittings attempts to piece facts together, which proves difficult because the events are shrouded in a wall of secrecy. Gittings does interview a man (either a perpetrator or an eyewitness) who points out a well that contains a hundred dead bodies; the perpetrators put whitewash over their victims’ eyes and drank their blood in a superstitious attempt to prevent the victims from seeking revenge in the other world. Gittings shows that the United States and England not only were aware of the massacres of the Communists, but also, for political reasons, enabled the perpetrators to carry out their violence.

Robin Okey’s chapter concerns the “Jasenovac Myth” and the breakdown of Communist Yugoslavia. Okey begins with a discussion of the evaluation of the number of victims who died in Jasenovac during World War II. On November 15, 1945, the report of the Commission for Croatia assessed the number of victims to be five or six hundred thousand people. This estimate was part of the figure provided to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. Okey connects the massacres to the collapse of the State that was created in 1918 and claims that these killings “are among the most notorious of the twentieth century, their memory having been rekindled by the horrors of the 1990s” (263).

The essays in this collection are beautifully written in a clear prose. The chapters are informative and cover some notorious massacres as well as some that are known to very few people. It would have been appropriate to have included an essay about the Holocaust (the back cover even claims that the book concerns Holocaust studies, yet the work lacks a chapter on it). Nevertheless, this is an excellent and valuable book on the subject of massacres and genocide--a book that will prove useful to scholars and students of history.

Eric Sterling--Auburn University Montgomery

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