The history of Europe in the twentieth century ended badly. In the southeastern quadrant of the continent, the former Yugoslavia has been overwhelmed by war, ethnic cleansing, and civil strife. The worst fighting in Europe since World War II has displaced millions of people and produced hundreds of thousands of casualties. Where Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians once lived in relative peace and prosperity, there is now hatred, devastation, and fearsome poverty. The tenuous multinational culture of Yugoslavia has been obliterated. Anger and resentment divide ethnic communities and imperil attempts by NATO and the European Union to rebuild multinational institutions and societies. Civil and ethnic strife threatens Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. As a result, the stability of the European continent remains a source of great concern to the world community.

How Did It All Go So Wrong?

In Eastern Europe as a whole, the great hopes of 1989 have not materialized, in part because the optimism was unwarranted in the first place and in part because the transition from communism to democracy and from centrally run economies to market-style capitalism has been fraught with structural impediments, some anticipated, some not. For 45 years, Germans longed for an end to the division of their country, but unification proved much more problematic than expected. A few success stories can be found in formerly communist Europe—Poland most notably—but the much longer line of failures, not the least of which is Russia itself, causes serious uneasiness about the new century. Yet nowhere has the descent into a dark cloud of pessimism been as steep as in the former Yugoslavia. No country in formerly communist Eastern Europe has fallen apart with such violence and wanton destruction.

In some sense, almost all violence against human beings is gratuitous, but in cases of ethnic cleansing all the explanations in the world cannot account for the sheer horror inflicted on the victims by their persecutors.

How could it happen that the hopes and dreams associated with the fall of communism in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were shattered by nearly a decade of war, brutality, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? Once again, war on the European continent has disgorged tens of thousands of haggard refugees, telling horrific stories of rape, torture, and death. Once again, innocent civilians have been executed by firing squads and buried in mass graves. Once again, villages have been set aflame, animals killed, and houses of worship blown up. Once again, whole ethnic populations have been crowded into railway cars and deported from their homelands. And once again, the “world community” has looked on in horror, seemingly incapable of preventing or ending these acts of forced deportation and mass murder. Was the twentieth century’s sordid history of genocide simply repeating itself in this last decade? Or was there something new in these wars of “ethnic cleansing” about which the media spoke and wrote so often?

To try to answer these and related questions, and to help illuminate the process of ethnic cleansing, its causes and effects, I have examined the following cases from twentieth-century European history:

  • The Armenian genocide by the Young Turk regime in 1915
  • The Nazi attack on the Jews
  • The Soviet Union’s forced deportation of the Chechens-Ingush from the Caucasus and of the Tatars from the Crimea in 1944
  • The war in the former Yugoslavia (including Kosovo)

Comparative history provides the potential for better understanding the causes of ethnic cleansing in our era. Before comparisons can begin, however, we must examine what ethnic cleansing means.

What Is “Ethnic Cleansing”?

The term exploded into our consciousness in May 1992 during the first stage of the war in Bosnia. At that time it referred to Serb attacks on Bosnian Muslims aimed at driving the Muslims from their home territories. But the term had been initially devised by Serbs themselves to describe what was happening to their own people in neighboring Kosovo, at the hands of Kosovar Albanians in the early 1980s. Ethnic cleansing quickly became part of the international lexicon of crimes associated with Serb aggression in the former Yugoslavia, though it was later used to describe similar attacks by Croats on Muslims, Serbs on Croats, and Serbs on Kosovar Albanians. What all these cases had in common was the intent of driving victims from territory claimed by the perpetrators. Journalists, NATO spokespersons, European jurists, and American politicians invoked the concept with amazing consistency. Yet, almost from the beginning, some commentators criticized the term as being at best imprecise and at worst a euphemism for genocide.

I believe, however, that ethnic cleansing is a useful and viable term for understanding not just the war in the former Yugoslavia but other similar cataclysmic events in the course of the twentieth century. A new term was needed because ethnic cleansing and genocide are two different activities, and the differences between them are important. As in the case of determining first-degree murder, intentionality is the critical distinction. Genocide is the intentional killing off of part or all of an ethnic, religious, or national group; the murder of a people or peoples is the objective. The intention of ethnic cleansing is to remove a people and often all traces of them from a concrete territory. The goal, in other words, is to get rid of the "alien" nationality, ethnic, or religious group and to seize control of the territory it had formerly inhabited. At one extreme of its spectrum, ethnic cleansing is closer to forced deportation or what has been called “population transfer”: the idea is to get people to move, and the means are meant to be legal and semilegal. At the other extreme, however, ethnic cleansing and genocide are distinguishable only by the ultimate intent. Here, both literally and figuratively, ethnic cleansing bleeds into genocide, as mass murder is committed in order to rid the land of a people.

Ethnic cleansing will probably happen again, and the community of nations should be prepared for the next round. Only by understanding ethnic cleansing can we hope to find ways to prevent future episodes or at least stop them earlier in their fearsome trajectories toward genocide. Perhaps the most useful way to understand ethnic cleansing is to summarize its general characteristics and examine the way it works in concrete cases.


Ethnic cleansing always involves violence. People do not leave their homes willingly. They must be forced out, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. But whereas war generally matches armed men against armed men—in a contest of will, machines, and numbers—ethnic cleansing usually involves an armed perpetrator and an unarmed victim (usually an unarmed woman, child, or elderly person). The violence occurs up close, and it is vicious. Very little about ethnic cleansing is impersonal.

From the Armenian genocide through Kosovo, men, women, and children have been massacred and then tossed into mass graves and haphazardly buried. Some have been buried alive, and a few of those have survived to tell about it. The level of torture, physical abuse, fearsome beatings, and maiming suggests that the victims are being forced to pay for their crime of being different. In some sense, almost all violence against human beings is gratuitous, but in cases of ethnic cleansing all the explanations in the world cannot account for the sheer horror inflicted on the victims by their persecutors—the chopped-off ears and fingers, the brandings, the mutilated genitals, the brains of babies splattered against walls, the gauntlets that victims are forced to run, the sexual assaults. The litany of abuses is unending, and it repeats itself from case to case throughout the century.

Ethnic cleansing almost always takes a substantial toll in human life. Sometimes the killing is intentional, as when the Nazis killed nearly six million Jews. The Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire appeared ready to see the Armenian nation die in large numbers, and, as a result, some 800,000 Armenians did not survive the expulsion from Anatolia. But even when there is no intent to kill, disease, hunger, and the perils of displacement take a staggering toll. The nominal killers in ethnic cleansing are typhus, dysentery, dehydration, exhaustion, and starvation, but the real murderers are the political leaders, guards, and soldiers who drive these populations from their homes.


Ethnic cleansing is often closely related to war and typically takes place during war or during the chaotic transition from war to peace. War provides cover for rulers to carry out projects of ethnic cleansing that would be more closely scrutinized and even condemned by their own public or by the international community during peacetime. War provides the opportunity to deal with a troublesome minority by suspending civil law in the name of military exigency. Journalism is highly restricted, and military censorship prevents the investigation of reported atrocities. The minds of nations and of the international community are on other issues in time of war. The Young Turks decided to deal with the Armenian “problem” during the First World War, just as the Nazis dealt with the Jewish “question” after the attack on Russia. Both the Young Turks and the Nazis sought to conceal the extent of their actions. It is unclear what would have happened in peacetime in both cases. The case of Kosovo is particularly instructive in this regard. Milosevic began the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo in conjunction with the struggle against the Kosovo Liberation Army in the winter of 1998–99. But when NATO bombing started on March 24, 1999, much to the surprise of the West, Milosevic intensified the ethnic cleansing campaign. It was clear that he hoped that he could accomplish the long-held aim of ridding Kosovo of the Albanians under the cover of war. Just as the Young Turks, the Nazis, and Stalin had to divert important resources and manpower needed to fight the war to the tasks of ethnic cleansing, Milosevic seemed willing to expend important resources and suffer severe bombing damage to the Serbian infrastructure in order to expel the Albanians from Kosovo.

War habituates its participants to killing and to obeying orders. No one ever totally acclimates to bloodshed and rotting corpses, but the soldier adapts more readily than others. Regular armies are almost always involved in ethnic cleansing, but war also breeds paramilitary groups that more often than not do most of the damage in ethnic cleansing.

War also provides governments and politicians with strategic arguments for ethnic cleansing. The Young Turks, for example, accused the Armenians of collaboration with the Russian enemy at the onset of the First World War. Located in their ancient homeland in eastern Anatolia, not far from the Russian front, the Armenians, or so the Turks asserted, had to be moved to the south and southwest of the Ottoman Empire so they could not aid the enemy. The Nazi argument about the role of Jews in supporting the enemies of the Third Reich—bolshevism and world capitalism—derived not from any geographical concentration of Jews in a specific territory but rather from Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. Nevertheless, the Nazis took seriously the accusation that world Jewry conspired in their overthrow; thus Hitler’s vow in his infamous Reichstag speech of January 1939 that if the Jews started a new world war, they would pay with their obliteration.

Strategic arguments, both overt and secret, influenced the campaign of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war. The Bosnian Serbs (and Bosnian Croats) sought to carve out ethnically pure territories inside the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, both as a way to create a fait accompli in case of international negotiation but also to secure military supply lines and communications between their Bosnian government in Pale (and Mostar) and their home supporters in Belgrade (and Zagreb). Ethnic cleansing was often justified on these bases.


One aspect of ethnic cleansing that links it to the ambitions of the modern state and its leaders is its totalistic quality. In the European cases examined here, the goal was to remove every member of the targeted nation; very few exceptions to ethnic cleansing are allowed. In premodern cases of assaults of one people on another, those attacked could give up, change sides, convert, pay tribute, or join the attackers. Ethnic cleansing, driven by the ideology of integral nationalism and the military and technological power of the modern state, rarely forgives, makes exceptions, or allows people to slip through the cracks. There is also an internal logic that asserts that any members of the nationality who were allowed to remain would become even more resolutely opposed to the dominant power and hence a more potent threat; for this reason, no one must be allowed to remain.

The Soviet cases are the most notable in this regard, where every single member of the Chechen-Ingush and Crimean Tatar nations, as registered in their internal passports, were forced into internal exile, whether they were high party officials, heroes of the Soviet Union, or champion athletes. Those few who managed to find their way back to their homeland in the late 1940s were removed again. Similarly, during the course of the war, the Nazis attempted to deport and later to kill every single Jew, as defined by the Nuremberg Laws, whom they could get their hands on—converted or not, married to a Christian or not, necessary to military industry or not.

Monuments and Memory

Ethnic cleansing involves not only the forced deportation of entire nations but the eradication of the memory of their presence. The physical remnants of the nation are the first to be destroyed. The Nazis’ destruction of Jewish synagogues in Germany began on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, and during their occupation of Eastern Europe the Germans systematically burned wooden synagogues and holy books. The impulse to destroy any trace of Jewish life in Germany or Eastern Europe was overwhelming. The Soviets bulldozed Chechen-Ingush graveyards, the central architectural heritage of the people, and used the gravestones to line streets or pave roadways, just as the Nazis did with Jewish gravestones. Everywhere, traces of the “other” have been torched, blown up, or taken apart. Especially in Yugoslavia, the homes of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims have been destroyed by one or the other of their persecutors.

Ethnic cleansing, driven by the ideology of nationalism combined with the military and technological power of the modern state, rarely forgives, makes exceptions, or allows people to slip through the cracks. The goal is to remove every member of the targeted nation.

In addition to leveling churches, houses, and graveyards, ethnic cleansers burn books, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. No remnant of the language and culture of the ethnically cleansed people should be left behind. Local archives are sometimes set aflame, just to be sure no one could make any claims about coming back.

Perhaps nowhere was the memory of peoples attacked as completely as in the former Soviet Union. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was abolished, and all Chechen names and markings were erased. The same occurred in the Crimea, where all Tatar city, school, and street names were changed. In neither case was anyone allowed to talk about the fact that the respective peoples had been deported. It was as if they had vanished into thin air, never really having existed in the first place. History books were changed to diminish the role of the Tatars in the Crimea, and the Chechens-Ingush disappeared from books altogether.


There is nothing “clean” about ethnic cleansing. It is shot through with violence and brutality in the most extreme form. But ethnic cleansing is also associated with crimes against property as well as people—that is, stealing and theft, both on the part of the state and on the part of individuals. Although the motivations for the expulsions were primarily political and ideological, not economic, the idea was prevalent in every case that the victims were rich and indeed had become rich by exploiting their dominant neighbors. Therefore they deserved to be expropriated and robbed.

Armenian property was seized by local Ottoman officials and placed in warehouses, ostensibly to be returned to the Armenians after their exile ended. But this property, often quite substantial, was quickly divided among the state, local officials, and rapacious individuals. The robbery did not stop with confiscation of property. Armenians were bilked by local cart and carriage drivers to provide transportation to the south. In a pattern repeated over and over again, the drivers would take the money, provide transportation out of town, and then dump the hapless Armenians on the road. Guards along the treks took money for everything from a crust of bread to a drink of water from a river. By the end, the Armenians were robbed of everything.

A similar process affected the Jews, who had to pay and keep paying, first to avoid deportation, then to avoid the ghettos, and then to survive in the ghettos. German Jews paid endless sums just to stay in Germany under increasingly restrictive conditions. Jewish property had long since been seized by the state, Aryanized, or destroyed when guards and SS overseers continued to rob the Jews and violently collect their valuables on the way to concentration camps.


Ethnic cleansing is inherently misogynistic. Whereas war sets men against men, ethnic cleansing more often than not entails men attacking women. The ideology of integral nationalism identifies women as the carriers, quite literally, of the next generation of the nation. Not only do women constitute the biological core of nationality, but they are often charged with the task of passing on the cultural and spiritual values of nationhood to their children. The result is that ethnic cleansing often targets women.

But part of the reason that so many women are victims is also circumstance. When trouble is imminent, men usually emigrate first, hoping to send for their families afterward. Thus many Armenian and Jewish men left their families behind. Men are also the first to take up arms, go to the hills, seek to resist, or join a foreign brigade, if that is a possibility. Once again, the women and children are left behind and in harm’s way.

Sometimes men of military age are shot right off. Once any remaining men are dealt with, ethnic cleansing turns on the women, who are its main victims. Women and girls are harassed, humiliated, and raped individually, serially, and by gangs. Women are stripped and forced to submit sexually to the sexual-sadistic fantasies of their persecutors, warders, and guards.

The abuse of women in the war in the former Yugoslavia follows the patterns of earlier cases of ethnic cleansing. The Bosnian Muslim men had joined Muslim units or had emigrated to Western Europe to find work. Serb army and paramilitary units sometimes interned Muslim men of military age; sometimes—Srebrenica was the worst example—they simply took them out and shot them. This left the women, children, and old people to fend for themselves against the Serb soldiers. The women were easy prey for Serb soldiers, who claimed, sometimes, that they were following orders to rape Muslim women. In Bosnia and Kosovo, rape was one of the tools of ethnic cleansing, a way to terrorize the Muslim population and make sure that they did not come back. Rape was also a form of punishment for the Muslims. By raping their women, the Serbs sought to wound the pride of their opponents and insult their nation.

Many more women die during expulsion and transportation than men. It was mostly Armenian women and children who trudged across the deserts to Mesopotamia, dropping by the roadside and dying by the tens of thousands.

The Future

The history of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century gives no reason to hope that it will not recur in the twenty-first. Modern and modernizing states that seek to homogenize their populations and eliminate the “other” come into being with regularity. Political elites continue to use the ideology of integral nationalism as a way to achieve power and maintain it against potential rivals. In the process, they exploit the popular media to create historical images of national humiliation and suffering on the one hand and pride and revenge on the other. Nationalism remains an incredibly powerful force for the mobilization of populations. This is true in the West, as we have seen in France and Austria, but it is even more prevalent in the former communist regions of Europe and Eurasia, which have been succeeded by countries with weak civil societies, fragile constitutional arrangements, struggling economies, and ideological confusion. These countries cannot be drawn into NATO and the European Union fast enough to avoid the perils of ethnic cleansing.

What is more, the international community remains impotent when faced with trying to prevent, inhibit, or stop ethnic cleansing. The Armenian horrors were plastered on the front pages of newspapers all over the Western world, yet nothing was done to stop them. The West was satisfied with providing relief and shelter for the survivors after the fact. World War II was not fought because of the persecution and murder of the Jews. That appallingly little was done to publicize and condemn the Nazi actions against the Jews, much less to take in refugees or bomb railway lines to the camps, remains a blight on the conscience of the entire world, the United States included. Even if people had known about the deportations of the Chechens-Ingush and Crimean Tatars, it is unlikely they would have done anything about it. Even today, the Russian pummeling of Grozny and the Chechens has not exactly roused the moral conscience of the world community.

Part of the problem is the strong commitment of the international community to the ideals of Westphalian sovereignty, which makes it hard to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, this reluctance was overcome by the claim that Bosnia was an independent and sovereign state attacked from the outside by the Serbs and Croats. Even at that, it took three and a half years of fearsome ethnic cleansing for the United States and NATO to act decisively against Milosevic and the Serb aggressors. The case of Kosovo was fundamentally different. Kosovo was clearly within the borders of Yugoslavia as internationally defined. The Serb attack on the Kosovar Albanians, like the present Russian attack on the Chechens, was an internal affair. Yet the international community acted much more quickly and decisively, demonstrating, perhaps, that international norms about intervening in cases of ethnic cleansing are changing. At least, NATO and the Americans made it clear that they were not willing to face repeated campaigns of ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.

But what will happen in the next case? Does the international community have the will to act promptly and decisively? If not, the horrors of the last century will surely happen again.

Ultimately, ethnic cleansing is not the product of the cultural peculiarities of Turks, Germans, Serbs, or other peoples. Unfortunately, its traces can be seen in every society, and its potentiality is part of us all. Only by looking at ethnic cleansing in this fashion can we understand how it happens elsewhere and how to prevent it happening again, there or here.

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