Discourses of Mass Violence in Comparative Perspective

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Discourses of Mass Violence in Comparative Perspective

is a collaborative project combining the fields of Contemporary History, Comparative Literature, and Hebrew Bible/ancient Near Eastern studies to understand the transmission of discourses which justify mass violence across, generations, epochs, languages, and cultures.

Mass violence is by scope, intensity, and complexity the most extreme form of conflict. Despite frequent "never again" pledges, it is reoccurring at an alarming scale, currently, for instance, in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine. Exerted by groups of people in and outside of war, mass violence comprises killings and other forms of violence that aim at exterminating large groups of non-combatants, such as expulsion, enforced hunger, forced labor, collective rape, and strategic bombing. Such acts seem hard to justify and, still, often happen.

Divergent approaches in the social sciences, law, and humanities have analyzed political, economic, and psycho-social dynamics that cause or promote acts of mass violence, explored sanctioning and restorative justice, and highlighted the possibilities of memorialization. However, these important efforts have proven insufficient for preventing further acts. To contribute towards prevention, we think it is necessary to understand the transmission of discourses which justify mass violence and, therefore, on language as medium of the spacial and temporal transmission. Mass violence creates socio-economic and political realities inhabited by surviving victims, perpetrators, accomplices, and descendants. Justifications of acts of mass violence set the linguistic and heuristic frame for their subsequent juridical, moral, and scholarly evaluation to the effect that they are not strictly past but last.

Hypothesis of the project is that while justifications of acts of mass violence—the meaning given to them by perpetrators, accomplices, and/or their descendants—may be perceived as mere pretexts to material or strategic interests, they, nevertheless, establish the terminology, narratives, and heuristics in which these acts are subsequently discussed by inscribing them into the cultural canon.

We take a comparative longue durée perspective because justifications of acts of mass violence are negotiated in intersecting key areas of cultural memory and discourse: historiography, law, political propaganda, religious texts, literary fiction, and popular media, where they are given a culturally specific, often identificatory meaning. In critical perspective, these acts are either deemed senseless, or comprehended in socio-economic and political terms.
Yet, it is due to the transmission of justifications that acts of mass violence do not remain single, exorbitant events, but have a persistent historical impact by cementing societal fault lines and setting the frame for further conflict. Understanding these dynamics is a fundamental precondition for breaking vicious circles.

We focus on transmissions of justificatory discourses in and between the following regions: Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America.

Juliane Prade-Weiss, Vladimir Petrovic & Dominik Markl

Responsible for content: Juliane Prade-Weiss