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Comparing Genocides

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve previously written on the problems with overusing the term “genocide” as a catch-all for mass war crimes. Aside from this tendency to apply the term where it doesn’t definitionally fit, another issue with popular discourse’s discussions of genocide is comparisons to the Holocaust. These comparisons come naturally: as arguably the best understood and most popularly known instances of genocide, it is tempting to contrast other genocides with the Holocaust in order to convey their magnitude. But these comparisons can be unhelpful, because beyond their gravity, episodes of mass killing are distinct instances that often share little motivation, effect, or historical context. That’s why I find a passage of John Ross’ history of Mexico City, El Monstruoproblematic. “No matter how you count it, the obliteration of the native peoples of Mexico at the hands of the Spanish invaders is the most devastating act of genocide on the books,” Ross writes. “Hitler’s holocaust… is dwarfed by comparison.”

It isn’t that this comparison is factually incorrect — while estimates of the pre-Columbian population in the area that later became Mexico are uncertain, the destruction of Mexico’s cosmopolitan civilizations killed enormous numbers of people. Expanding this view to the entire extent of Iberian conquests throughout the Americas makes it even more costly. But comparing the Iberian conquest to the Holocaust is uninformative, because the two are so different that they have little in common beyond catastrophe.

That’s not to say the near-eradication of the indigenous Americans wasn’t terrible; “terrible” is clearly and understatement. The integration of the Americas into the Afro-Eurasian world system is one of the most catastrophic event in human history. The Iberians conquered, systematically exploited, and, when they decided the Americans possessed souls, forcibly converted vast numbers of indigenous peoples. But the colonization of the Americans and the Holocaust are so distinct I feel that it is not constructive to compare them, even in vague terms. The vast majority of native American deaths in the aftermath of the Iberians’ arrival were caused by communicable diseases that the Europeans were unaware they transmitted. While this transmission was undeniably catastrophic, it is difficult to incorporate it into the concept of genocide. Also distinct were the Iberians’ deliberate oppression. Seeking to conquer and exploit the Americas’ native peoples, the Europeans acted with a brutality driven by their religiously-binary worldviews and their nearly-uniform racism. But without diminishing  the human costs of the conquest, I find this difficult to compare to the deliberatively-eradicative nature of the Holocaust in any informative way.

One of the problems with discussing genocide is its sheer brutality is beyond most people’s ability to comprehend. This makes it tempting to utilize the Holocaust — the instance of genocide Americans are most familiar with — as a yardstick for comparing other historical genocides. But this comparison often yields little insight, while threatening to trivialize. The colonization of the Americans resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust, but arguing that it was somehow worse, or otherwise comparable, is misguided. Genocide in all instances is catastrophic, but that is often all that they have in common. Authors should not give into the temptation to simplify mass killings spurred by very different motives into a single concept.

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