Genocide as the Reorganisation of Collective Identities

20160512_Professor Daniel Feierstein
It was a fantastic although rather chilling talk by Daniel Feierstein that I attended on Thursday last week at SOAS University. The Argentinian Professor, estimed holder of a Ph.D in Social Sciences and Director of Genocide Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, attempted to demonstrate in which ways genocide, much beyond an instrument of death and a crime against humanity, was in fact a sophisticated technology of power in modern times.

How does terror operates? Like an irradiation. Common rule is for one person falling victim of terror, 1000 others become paralized by fear. Such a phenomenon creates a psychological disruption which can annihilate any form of creativity necessary for the cultural and intellectual fulfilment of any society. Therefore one has to wonder if the desired transformation of the European society by nazism was successful. Have we become a more uniformed identity following the shameful regime? Have the Jews become a normalised category of individuals after WWII compared to prior to the war?

According to Pr Feierstein and many historians, the 1930s were decisive in the scientific architecture of the Shoah genocide. The German people were intentionally subjected to a sequence of interrogation, confession and betrayal. This generated within the society a cycle of persecution with the use of informers, denunciation and witch hunting of the Jews and their sympathizers. Betrayal was particularly effective in distilling anxiety and distress since anyone was becoming a potential enemy. Moral depravity had a free ride.

Feierstein went along to outline to the 5 main techniques that are used in times of genocide to uniform collective identities:
1) destruction of self-esteem, the change of names to numbers for example
2) annulment of perception and mobility – prisoners look without seeing, unable to think sensibly or ethically any longer. The social and physical disorientation, as well as the loss of track of time and space are the aimed goals.
3) torture, as a means of suppression of physical and mental dignity
4) infantilisation and animalisation – the prisoner would be asked to sound like an animal for the perverse pleasure of his captor.He would also need to ask to do anything, even the most basic functions such as urinating or defecating. This would inevitably lead to the loss of control of these biological functions.
5) unpredictability – it would be impossible for the captive to predict the consequence of one’s action, no pattern could be identified, resulting of a breakdown of personality

Having gone through such a thoughtfully meditated process of death, some survivors would find no satisfying answer to the question: “Why have I survived?”. This brings about the controversy over whether those who have survived can and should testify about what the genocidal experience was like.
–  Can testify, because it seems that there is an obscure trend of thoughts going on suggesting that survivors cannot testify truthfully about a genocide since they have not perished, and that only the testimony of those who died would be encompassing enough. However they are not there anymore to do so. To my mind, this view should be combatted firmly as it constitutes a shameful neglect over the dignity of those who suffered the tortures outlined above.
Should testify, since one could argue that testifying about the genocide would be participating in spreading the terror among society, which is what the perpetrators want in the first place. Instead, in place of speaking about the fear and suffering, knowing that their identity has been targeted, the victimes should speak about who they are, what about their identity triggered xenophobia and exclusion, how they were before the genocide and why after the genocide they should remain as they were.

Professor Beierstein’s speech was riveting in every way since the audience truly learnt a lot about the lengths at which a political organisation can go when they are determined to eliminate a specific cultural identity. It seems to me that understanding the scientific sophistication of the genocidal process is of utmost importance if peacekeepers, forces and other actors want to prevent or quickly contain any form of identity-motivated unrest in a given country.



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