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Levene (Mark) and Roberts (Penny), (Eds.), The Massacre in History

Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1999, 20 pp., 6 half-tones, maps, ISBN 1 57181934 7
Thomas W. Gallant
p. 146-148
Référence(s) :

Levene (Mark) and Roberts (Penny), (Eds.), The Massacre in History, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1999, 20 pp., 6 half-tones, maps, ISBN 1 57181934 7

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1Massacres are everywhere. At least that is the impression one could get from recent newspaper headlines like : « Massacre at Columbine High School ». « Jaguars massacre Dolphins ». « Massacre in Yugoslavia ». From a shooting by some disgruntled teenagers to sports, like the devastating defeat meted out to the Miami Dolphins by the Jacksonville Jaguars, to the annihilation of a village in the Balkans, massacres seem to be all around us. A search of the word « massacre » on the Internet produces at a minimum over 250 000 sites. And therein lay the problem. The concept of massacre has become so ubiquitous in common and scholarly discourse that it has lost much of its analytical utility. The publication of a collection of scholarly essays devoted to the massacre in history should, therefore, be most welcome. Unfortunately, the essays in this volume only muddy the already murky waters about « massacres ». While laudably broad in geographical scope, encompassing Europe, Asia, Africa, South and North America, and chronological coverage, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present, the studies often employ very different definitions of what constitutes a « massacre ». So in the end, they generate more confusion than clarity. Thus, even though some of the essays are of high quality and make a genuine contribution, the volume as a whole cannot be judged a success.

2The book contains thirteen case studies and a lengthy introduction by Mark Levene. Since there is little thematic unity among the essays, other than that they deal with death, the editors have arranged them in chronological order. Some deal with well-known historical episodes, like the French St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre during the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion, the 1937 Nanking atrocities, and the recent horrors in Croatia. Others attempt to label as massacres events that are already well known, like Will Coster's examination of England and Robin Clifton's of Ireland during the English Civil War and John Edwards’discussion of violence against Jewish Catholics (conversos) in fifteenth-century Spain. While others examine relatively unknown episodes of bloodletting like the Russian annihilation of the Circassians, the eradication of the religious Canudos community in Brazil, and the German slaughter of the Herero of West South Africa. One paper deals with medieval images of a biblical story, the slaughter of the Innocents, and yet another examines the near extermination of the wolf in the United States during nineteenth-century.

3The very wide range of topics listed above suggests part of the book's problem. How can we encompass so very diverse an array of phenomena within the single concept of « massacre » ? Some of the episodes recounted in the book took place on a single day or even a matter of hours, the street riots in Cordoba described by Edwards for example, whereas others, like the annihilation of Circassians, transpired over the course of a century or more. Some witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths, as in the Nanking massacre discussed by Callum MacDonald, while others accounted for only a handful of fatalities. Some of the slaughters labeled as massacres took place during wartime and involved mostly combatants, like the cases examined by Coster, and Clifton during the English Civil War, while others claimed the lives of common folk during peacetime, like the slaughter of the Canudos of Brazil discussed by Robert Levine. Some resulted from state-sponsored or state-tolerated actions, such as the German war against the Herero analyzed by Tilman Dedering or the Indonesian atrocities of 1965-1966 discussed by John Gittings, while others, like the anti-conversos riots recounted by Edwards, occurred in spite of official attempts to stop them. Finally, in one of the studies, that by Peter Coates on the extermination of the wolf, it is not even human beings who were being killed. Utilizing a definition of massacre drawn from these essays would mean that massacres are indeed ubiquitous – indeed, even daily – events. Compounding this confusion further is that some authors use as synonyms for massacre « ethnic cleansing » « genocide », and even « holocaust ». Even as elastic a concept as massacre must snap when stretched to encompass the range of events described in these essays.

4Levene's introduction, unfortunately, does little to clarify the confusion. While recognizing the definitional dilemma and while providing a very useful discussion of the issues involved in delineating an analytically precise definition, his essay fails to provide one, or at least one that his fellow contributors subscribed to.

5The massacre in history and in the present is a topic of urgent importance. We must, therefore, welcome the publication of the case studies in The Massacre in History. Individually, they contribute to a better understanding of specific episodes of awful bloodletting in the past. At the same time, the lack of a coherent definition of what constitutes a massacre and what distinguishes a massacre from other forms of killing continues to impair our ability to understand this crucial phenomenon. The editors begin the book's abstract by stating « the role of massacre in history has not been given much focused attention by either historians or academics in related fields ». They are correct. But until we develop an analytical framework that defines and delineates the different forms of group lethal violence, I suspect this situation will continue. And so, even though this rich collection of case studies adds to our knowledge about specific massacres in the past, collectively they do little to clarify the massacre in history.

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Thomas W. Gallant, « Levene (Mark) and Roberts (Penny), (Eds.), The Massacre in History », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 5, n°1 | 2001, 146-148.

Référence électronique

Thomas W. Gallant, « Levene (Mark) and Roberts (Penny), (Eds.), The Massacre in History », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 5, n°1 | 2001, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2009, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Thomas W. Gallant

University of Florida, USA,

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