Jan Claas Behrends: Violence and the State in the 20th Century. Some Tendencies in Contemporary History


The essay introduces recent attempts of writing a comparative history and the anthropology of physical violence in the 20th century. It is divided into two sections. First, the merits and problems of the comparative approach, especially in European dictatorships during the first half of the 20th century, are discussed. It is shown that the scope of comparison has been widened to encompass cases throughout Europe and further afield. The main focus, however, is still on the time between 1914 and 1945 with an emphasis on National Socialism and Stalinism. In addition to the comparative approach, the entanglement between different cases has been analyzed. The second part of the essay examines research focused on specific violent spaces (Gewalträume) or communities of violent actors (Gewaltgemeinschaften). Both concepts are crucial to the anthropology of violence. Methodologically, it traces the origins of this approach to the sociological works of Wolfgang Sofsky, Trutz von Trotha and Randall Collins, as well as to historians such as Alf Lüdtke and Jörg Baberowski. The anthropology of violence is less concerned with the ideological motivation of the perpetrators. Rather, it seeks to analyze the violent situations themselves, their cultural contexts and their actors. Thus, the approach seeks to broaden our understanding of physical violence as a human behaviour.
Both sections discuss the role that the absence or disintegration of the modern state has played in the escalation of violence during the last century. Weak states have certainly been a decisive factor in the outbreak of mass-violence; they allowed social movements to use violence against their enemies. The absence of statehood has encouraged those normally deterred by the rule of
law to commit atrocities. However, certain forms of mass-killing and repression did rely on state institutions. These were cases where violent perpetrators assumed positions of state power. Arguing that historical research on physical violence had long been neglected, this essay underlines its importance for a history of the 20th century.

The following titels were discussed i.a.:
Lüdtke, A./Wildt, M. (Hrsg.)
: Staats-Gewalt (39); Baberowski, J./Metzler, G. (Hrsg.): Gewalträume (41); Collins, R.: Violence (41); Bloxham, D./Gerwarth, R. (Hrsg.): Political Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe (42); Jensen, U./Knoch, H./Morat, D./Rürup, M. (Hrsg.).: Gewalt und Gesellschaft (42); Jones, H.: Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War (43); Gerlach, C.: Extrem gewalttätige Gesellschaften (44); Geyer, M./Fitzpatrick, S.: Beyond Totalitarianism (44); Snyder, T.: Bloodlands (44); Plaggenborg, S.: Ordnung und Gewalt (45); Schnell, F.: Räume des Schreckens (49); Christ, M.: Die Dynamik des Tötens (52); Baberowski, J.: Verbrannte Erde (53); Hagenloh, P.: Stalin’s Police (53); Neitzel, S./Welzer, H.: Soldaten (54)

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