People study atrocities and mass violence for a variety of reasons. When asked, many offer thoughtful intellectual or political explanations for their choice. But in truth, the field is a practical response to a cry of the heart. How, people ask, how can people do this to one another? How can men and women do such terrible things? How can they do them to people they know?
asks these questions systematically in his terrific new book Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism and Memory in a Balkan Community
(Cornell University Press
, 2016). The book is a careful, detailed description of the violence that exploded in a rural community in Croatia in 1941. Bergholz researched the book for a decade, poring through records from local archives and libraries all across the region. This allows Bergholz, Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal
, to answer questions about the history of ethnicity in the region, about the intersection of local agency and national leadership, and about the political impact of the memory of this violence.
But all of this is subsidiary to the burning question at the heart of the book: why did people who had known each other for years suddenly fall upon each other with such violence? The book thus enters into a discussion with Scott Straus, Christopher Browning, James Waller and others. But Bergholz brings a distinctively historical perspective to the discussion. He doesn't dismiss psychological analysis. Rather, he reminds us that context and situation matters enormously.
The book is an enormously important contribution to the study of mass violence. Anyone interested in why neighbors kill neighbors will have to wrestle with his conclusions.