The Dark Side of Democracy

Michael Mann is a British-born sociology professor of at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He was a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics and Sociology from 1977 to 1987 and received his PhD in Sociology from Oxford University. He is the author of The Sources of Social Power (Cambridge, 1986, 1993), Fascists (Cambridge, 2004), and The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge, 2005).

The latter has been widely reviewed and praised as a “groundbreaking” work in genocide studies. It attempts to explain the worst manifestations of evil in human civilization through the study of a number of cases, including the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide.

We discuss some of the issues highlighted in The Dark Side of Democracy in the following interview conducted by phone, from Beirut.

Khatchig Mouradian: In the preface of your book The Dark Side of Democracy, you write: “Evil does not arrive from outside of our civilization, from a separate realm we are tempted to call ‘primitive.’ Evil is generated by civilization itself.” Can you explain?

Michael Mann: Each civilization creates new problems for human beings. Sometimes, man succeeds in coping with these problems with a fair degree of humanity, and sometimes he doesn’t. There is a tendency to say that ethnic cleansing and genocide are committed by “aliens.” In fact, perpetrators of such atrocities are dealing with the same problems that our own [Western] civilization dealt with earlier, and sometimes with equally disastrous outcomes. So it makes it easier for us to understand the Nazis and the Young Turks, if we understand that the problems they failed to deal with are problems that confront human civilization as a whole.

K.M.: You say, “Now, the epicenter of ethnic cleansing has moved to the south of the world. Unless Humanity takes evasive action, it will continue to spread until democracies—hopefully not ethnically cleansed ones—rule the world.” Is the situation in Darfur and in Africa, in general, a reflection of this shift?

M.M.: The notion of a people ruling themselves becomes potentially problematic when more than one ethnic group generates a claims over shared territory. Africa is very multi-ethnic, and it has to cope with that. The problem areas there tend to be where there are two great factions. In Sudan, for example, there are two visions, by Arabs and Africans, and claims over land have pitted them against one another. In Rwanda, there were only two significant ethnic groups—the Hutus and the Tutsis—and the ethnic rivalry underlay the genocide.

K.M.: You have titled the book “The Dark Side of Democracy.” Murderous ethnic cleansing, however, is rarely committed by established democracies, as you and others have pointed out. Rather, the “danger zone” seems to be during the transition phase from a non-democratic regime to a democratic one. It is during the transition stage that different ethnic groups haven’t yet resolved their issues, and that allows for situations where ethnic cleansing could occur. Do you think Iraq is facing the perils of this “transition phase” today?

M.M.: You are quite right. The problem is more during the transition period. Once democracy is established, there is a decline in ethnic cleansing. I think Iraq is a very good example of what I write about. Just to have elections in a bi- or tri-ethnic context like Iraq almost guarantees that the Shiites will vote for certain parties, and the Sunnis and Kurds for other parties. The U.S. has introduced elections and the outcome is disastrous. It has increased the polarization of the country and it might end up with ethnic cleansing.

Genocide and democracies are logically incompatible. What I am pointing to is the process of democratization, during which ideas can be perverted. You can see this in the careers of the perpetrators themselves. When they began the process of constitutional transformation, the Young Turks were in alliance with the Armenian nationalists of the time. But then, in the course of events, ideas become perverted. I don’t think democracies are perfect, but the problem is the process of democratization. In multi-ethnic situations, where there is an aspiration for democracy after the fall of an empire, we have the kind of circumstance that can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Democracy gives the perpetrators a notion of ideals. They characteristically think they are doing it for a purpose.

K.M.: Many genocide scholars argue that war is one of the major contributing factors to the manifestation of genocidal intent. What’s your take on that?

M.M.: War brings forth radicals. These extreme cases normally require turbulent geopolitical situations and also war. I don’t really think there would have been the Genocide of the Armenians in the absence of the cover of WWI. Of course, this does not mean that no atrocities were committed against the Armenians before WWI. The pressures of war created the context, which is also the case in Rwanda and in Sudan. I do not think ethnic cleansing is a common feature, but it is a persistent feature.

K.M.: You write: “I’m not attempting to morally blur good and evil. In the real world, they are connected.” How do you explain this connection?

M.M.: The main point of that quote is, first, to cast doubt on the notion of collective responsibility—that is, on the notion that all Turks were responsible for the Armenian Genocide or that all Germans were responsible for the Holocaust.

Secondly, I try to cast doubt on the issue of intentionality from the very beginning. In my account, perpetrators escalate their plans for the repression or elimination of the ethnic enemy in response to frustrations over earlier plans. They don’t have the intention of murdering everyone from the very beginning.

I also explain that all ethnic groups are capable of committing atrocities. Jews were the victims of the Holocaust, but Israel treats Palestinians in ways that somewhat resembles the Nazis. I’m not accusing Israel of committing genocide, of course. I ask myself, if I had been a professor of sociology in Germany in the 1920s or early 1930s, could I have been a Nazi?

K.M.: This is where the issue of bystanders comes in. It is never easy to say which side of human nature dominates in situations where genocide is taking place, and how Turks in the Ottoman Empire, for example, reacted to orders to deport and kill the Armenians.

M.M.: That’s right. This is the most difficult part of explaining, because our evidence is never wonderful. I cite a variety of motives among the perpetrators. Some of them are rather mundane: greed and obedience to authority are obvious motives. In these situations, comradeship becomes an important factor, as well. Also, we all have prejudices, which can be intensified in conflict situations. Of course, during genocide, the number of people in the dominant group that engage in the killing is nowhere near a majority. So, the guilt of most Turks was that of being bystanders, of just watching the Armenians march past them to their death.

K.M.: You are reluctant to use the term “genocide” when referring to some cases of ethnic cleansing. One such case is Cambodia. How do you view the problem of defining genocide?

M.M.: I do use quite a restrictive definition of genocide, and I wouldn’t apply it to most of the Communist cases. People have accused me of minimizing the Communist atrocities because I don’t use the word “genocide.” But I am not in any way minimizing the number of people that were killed. I am just saying that it wasn’t ethnically targeted. I think the term “genocide” has been used too broadly in recent years. I don’t think Yugoslavia was genocide. For me, genocide is the attempt to annihilate an entire ethnic group. The UN definition allows for a “partial” destruction of an ethnic group. I think one needs another term when the main point is to expel a group from a certain territory. That isn’t quite as abominable as trying to wipe out an entire ethnic group.
K.M.: Genocide deniers, when referring to the Armenian, Jewish or other cases, argue that the victims provoked the killings. Genocide scholars, however, have pointed out that in most major cases of genocide, the “provocation” is insignificant, and that there comes a point where genocide is inevitable, even without provocation. How do you view this so-called “provocation thesis?”

M.M.: I think the latter comes closest to being true with the Holocaust: The Jews did virtually nothing to provoke the Germans. I agree with the argument by and large, but the concept of provocation also has to be viewed in the full context of the situation. It’s not just a question of whether the Armenians did anything directly against Turks to provoke them; one has to take account Russia, the war, the activities of a few Armenian nationalist groups. As I say this, I am in no way approving the perspective of the perpetrator. But I am trying to understand it. The Armenians did not directly provoke the Turks, and even if very few Armenians were involved in some sort of “provocation,” the [Turkish] attack was not on the provokers, but on the whole ethnic group.

K.M.: In a footnote in one of your chapters dealing with the Armenian Genocide, you say: “We lack frank accounts from Turks. We know more about the victims, which must bias us toward Armenian views of events. As long as Turkish governments continue to deny genocide, as long as Turkish archives remain largely closed, and as long as most Turkish accounts remain implausible, this bias will continue. Only Turkey is harmed by this.” Can you elaborate?

M.M.: We know very few mitigating circumstances. The picture is unreservedly bleak. In the case of the Holocaust, we do know that there were Nazis who opposed it. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, we only have a few memoirs indicating that there were some differences among the Young Turks. The opening of the archives and the end of the denial campaign in Turkey would enable us to know more about the different attitudes among Turks during the Genocide. There are obviously many Turks who helped Armenians. The execution of the Genocide was decentralized and there must have been different outcomes in different parts of the country. And apart from everything else, it is unhealthy to regard Turks in general as being equally responsible for the Genocide of the Armenians. However, until the archives are opened and there is an honest acknowledgement of history, many people won’t be able to fully get beyond such stereotypes.

K.M.: In recent years, more and more Turkish scholars are coming forth and trying to question the Turkish state’s denialist policy.

M.M.: That is one of the healthiest things in the last few years. These scholars are pushing hard for every inch. But still, there is a long way to go.

K.M.: You conclude your chapters on the Armenian Genocide with the following extremely powerful words depicting the “organic” connection between the past and the present: “[The Young Turks] erred, not only morally, but also factually. Armenians did not constitute such a threat, and their elimination weakened the Ottoman war effort. Genocide contributed to defeat. The leaders then fled into exile, where they fell to the bullets of Armenian assassins. They might claim that the genocide was a long-term success, since the disappearance of the Armenians made it easier after the war to unite and centralize Turkey. Yet the country remains bedeviled by two Young Turk legacies: military authoritarianism and an organized nationalism that now represses Kurds rather than Armenians. The Young Turks fatally weakened their country by pursuing organic nationalism; their successors struggle in their shadow.” Let us conclude this interview by your thoughts on these words.

M.M.: First, let me explain what I mean when I say that “genocide contributed to defeat.” Of course, the Genocide was not the direct reason for their defeat. But if there were a few thousand Armenians fighting with the Russians, there were also hundreds of thousands of them in the Turkish army, and there was no indication they would have changed sides. Killing these Armenians is something that weakened the war effort. Also, the deportations and the massacres demanded a lot of resources. What I mean when I say that “their successors struggle in their shadow,” is that the Genocide intensified the authoritarian nature and the “closedness” of the Turkish Republic; generated a feeling of common guilt or shame; and created and continues to create a lot of problems within Turkish society. Had the Armenians survived, there would have been a better way of dealing with ethnic minorities, especially Kurds. I think that Kurds suffered enormously from the Armenian Genocide.

Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer, translator, and journalist. He is an editor of the daily newspaper Aztag, published in Beirut. He can be contacted at


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