By Mya Badhan

Historians agree that the dawn of modernity led to a rise in genocide, but there is disagreement on which causes were the primary galvaniser in mass violence. The debate can be categorised into two sections, that twentieth century genocide was caused by colonialism or genocide was driven by postcolonial nation building. I believe that the primary factor of twentieth century genocide is colonialism because the nature of colonialism allowed the concepts of retribution, postcolonial nation building, mass violence and prejudice against a specific community to develop and these are all instrumental in twentieth century genocide.

It is important to recognise that the process of colonisation was inherently violent. Countries were not willingly colonised and the suppression of countries required ‘unlimited violence’. Therefore, colonisation normalised mass violence against a specific people with the aim to expand territories or, in other words, nation build and thus it can be said that colonial violence was genocidal in nature. 

Germany’s colonial violence in German South West Africa or modern-day Namibia, which was the first genocide of the twentieth century, was a paradigm for genocidal violence which they later replicated on the Jewish population during the Holocaust. In 1904-8, after the leaders of Herero and Nama people rebelled against colonial rule, the Germans reacted by killing 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama. Colonial powers replicated the practices they used to control indigenous populations, to enforce order in their own countries and thus the Namibian Genocide and the Holocaust are linked. 

Illustration of the Herero Genocide

Colonialism spearheaded the differentiation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which has contributed to so many genocides. The element of ‘race branding’ is crucial in drawing the link between the Holocaust and the Namibian genocide. Under the guise of their civilisation mission, colonial forces erected racial hierarchies in the colonies to ensure that European dominance would be upheld, they were influenced by social Darwinism and belief in survival of the fittest, an ideology which was especially influential in Nazi doctrine and later genocides. This created societal divides and boundaries which aggravated racial tensions. ‘Settler’ vs ‘Native’ violence is synonymous with colonialism. Colonialism created the view of a binary world, where there is only ‘us’ and ‘them’, and ‘they’ are the enemy. This differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ dehumanised groups, created the illusion of otherness, and allowed the other party to destroy them with perceived morality.  Using this method of racial differentiation, colonialisation pioneered the racial component of twentieth century genocide.

Eugenics were a crucial element in ‘differentiating’ races

In addition, the nature of colonialism and the banalisation of mass violence set in motion the cycle of retribution, where the natives enact revenge for the horrors of colonisation upon the settler. As the colonised countries became desensitised to mass violence, they found freedom in and through violence as their way to a better nation and this culminated in genocide in postcolonial nations. In Rwanda, Belgium colonial reform divided the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in law as different races and created a system of Tutsi domination over the Hutus.  The Hutus saw the Tutsi as being complicit with the colonial forces and began to perceive the Tutsi as alien, which was cemented by the Rwandan Revolution of 1959. This contributed to the ideology of Hutu as the natives and the Tutsi as the settlers. In 1994 after Hutu Rwandan president Habyarimana was assassinated, the Hutu immediately slaughtered the Tutsi as a form of retribution as they were seen as ‘settlers’ and vessels of colonial ideology. This reflects Nazi Germany where the Germans perceived the Jews to be settlers, and themselves the pure natives and justified their extermination as revenge for the hardships after WWI for which they blamed the Jews.  Therefore, I would argue that the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust were paradigms of retributive genocide which holds its origins in colonialism.

Aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide

Postcolonial nation building could only occur with colonialism. Colonisation consisted of: the transfer resources of the colonised nations to the occupier and the subjugation of a country under the authority of another, usually Western, power. The process of colonisation is detrimental for the stability of the country itself and left countries weaker and more susceptible to postcolonial genocide because colonised countries lacked their own trade, income and administration. Therefore, when the colonial empires collapsed after the Second World War, formerly colonised countries were left with the remains of their country and had to compete in the new globalised world. Because colonial powers were mostly European, as the new international system emerged, it was Western dominated because although without their empires, they still had industry, trade and administration. The postcolonial nations were playing ‘catch up’ and wanted to rectify the gap through modernisation, trade and the building of a homogenous population. It was the building of these uniform populations where genocide comes into play, as countries seek to eliminate anyone who doesn’t conform to the new centralised state in order to create a unified population which could modernise and compete in the global pecking order. 

The most notable example of genocide in the twentieth century was the Holocaust which claimed the lives of 6 million Jews and other marginalised groups.  Although many hoped that the horrors of the Holocaust would act as a deterrent, it laid the foundations for twentieth century genocide, which exponentially increased. For the Nazis, genocide was a tool to construct their perfect Aryan nation by rapidly building a nationally homogenous population via the elimination those who didn’t correspond to the imagined nation. 

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

In conclusion, it is the precedent that colonialism set which normalises mass violence, cultivates racial ideology and retributive violence for the sake of nation building, which are prerequisites for genocide. The remnants of colonial ideas are internalised globally due to the Western dominated nature of the world. It is these colonial ideas are the perpetrators of genocide as they guide the hand that slaughters others. Therefore, colonial violence such as the Namibian genocide acted as the foundations in which the Holocaust and later genocides such as Rwanda were based on.

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