What happens to a man when he visits a country and finds just a couple of years later that all the people he spoke to previously have died? For Yale historian Ben Kiernan it was the spark that set him on the path to becoming the international authority on genocide.
‘I visited Cambodia in 1975’, says Kiernan, who was in Groningen last Friday to speak at a congress on historical traumas organized by study association Ubbo Emmius. ‘It was just months before all foreigners were barred from entering the country. None of the people I met, who were all very kind to me, survived the next four years. All of them were killed during the communist Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.’
Initially, Kiernan didn’t have a clue about what was happening on the other side of the closed borders. In his publications during the first few years of the Pol Pot regime he wrote – among other things – that ‘there is ample evidence in Cambodian and other sources that the Khmer Rouge movement is not the monster that the press have recently made it out to be’. It was a mistake for which he was heavily criticized.
No information leaked out
Kiernan has a simple explanation for his oversight. ‘I thought the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime was more nationalistic.’ He didn’t learn about what was actually going on in the country because it was so isolated. ‘No one was allowed into Cambodia and no information leaked out’, he says.
It wasn’t until he started interviewing refugees on the Thai border that he realised the severity of the situation. About a year later he travelled on to Cambodia and found out that all the people he had known there had been killed.
From that moment on, Kiernan fought to bring the regime to justice. He joined a group of politicians and academics who believed the regime should be punished for its atrocious crimes. That was necessary too, because even though Pol Pot wasn’t in power anymore, he still had an army and many people feared he might return. ‘It was the Khmer Rouge who had a seat in the United Nations and it wasn’t until 1999 that the UN prosecuted them. By then Pol Pot was already dead.’
However, it was also inspiring to see people rebuilding their lives. ‘There were weddings everywhere. It was striking evidence of recovery since social life had been repressed for so long.’
Kiernan kept on writing about the subject and even established the Cambodian Genocide Programme at Yale. ‘I had spent a lot of time in Cambodia and I knew the language. During my research I had gathered so much information that I didn’t want it to go to waste.’
Pol Pot himself never admitted his crimes. Before he died, he even said in an interview that he had a ‘clear conscience’. Kiernan doubts this. ‘I don’t think he had a conscience to begin with.’
However, Cambodia isn’t the only country that has suffered from genocide. In more recent times the world has seen mass murders in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur. In 2007 Kiernan published his award-winning book Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. ‘The United Nations defines genocide as causing damage to a group of people with the idea of destroying the whole group. There’s more to it, though. Genocide is also the result of territorial expansionism, agrarianism and an obsession with antiquity. As an example, the Nazi ideology was about finding pure ancestors and the purest German people were farmers. I never knew about these commonalities until I started to researching the history of genocide as a whole.’
The title implies that genocide has existed for many centuries. However, Kiernan stresses, the nature of genocide has changed over time. ‘The relationship between perpetrators and victims has always been the same. One group has superior technology. This was the case with the Romans. However, in the 20th century the technology became much more advanced, leading to mass destruction. Auschwitz would have been impossible prior to the 20th century.’
In 1998 Kiernan established the comparative Genocide Studies Programme at Yale. By analyzing common denominators in genocide, he hopes to be able to predict and even prevent genocide in the future. Can you really ever prevent genocide from happening, though? ‘I believe you can, if you notice some of the common elements that I just named in a person’s thinking. We’re already moving in the right direction because there has been a reduction in the number of genocides worldwide. Deterrence is now possible because of international tribunals who can issue sanctions in a non-violent manner. A good example of this is the arrest of the President of Sudan.’
Kiernan has carried out ground-breaking research. However, not every shady government is happy with him. In 1995 the Khmer Rouge even tried to bring him to “justice”. ‘I had organized a conference in Cambodia on the genocide with many notable speakers. Of course the Khmer Rouge said that I was a criminal. I wasn’t even heard on the matter, but after a two-day trial they sentenced me in absentia. It was completely ridiculous.’
Kiernan is currently on a year-long leave of absence from Yale to work on his next book, about Vietnam. His research on detecting and preventing genocide will continue. ‘I now know that when you see a leader who shows signs of territorial expansionism and an obsession with agrarianism and antiquity, alarm bells should sound.’