"Ethnic Cleansing": Biopolitics and the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination

(Last modified February 2007)

In recent years, a growing body of research has focused on "ethnic cleansing" in the twentieth century. Most of these studies, however, have been guided by two implicit premises; first, that a "people"—however the concept is defined—is a historical actor, and, second, that creation of an ethnically homogenous nation-state was the central motive for "ethnic cleansing". Academic work based on these assumptions all too often fails to address two relevant developments: first, the ethnification of politics that became apparent in the late nineteenth century and, second, the impacts and political history of demands for national self-determination.

This study aims to address these two issues. First, it draws on the work of Michel Foucault, who retraced the emergence of a new power regime in Europe in the late eighteenth century. This regime, labeled "biopolitics" by the French philosopher, was no longer oriented around the concept of sovereignty but instead utilized technologies of power that target biological phenomena and processes—mechanisms to control birth, fertility, or disease. "One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death." (Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, Penguin: London, p.138). In biopolitics, the otherness of the other becomes a fact of nature. Difference is marked as inescapably genetic rather than merely genealogical and the assimilation of difference becomes, per definition, impossible. Thus, a new political option takes shape: murderous policies of segregation and elimination can (although by no means must) supersede projects of national assimilation.

Second, with the increasing naturalization of politics, demands for the right of peoples to self-determination—formulated in 1917/18 by both Woodrow Wilson and the Bolshevists as the fundamental principle of a post-imperial order for Europe after World War I—exacerbated emerging biopolitical tendencies. Although the US president’s diplomatically balanced proposals formed the basis for the 1919 Versailles peace negotiations, they met with a European continent in which a process of reordering based on concepts of "blood" had already begun. Moreover, "völkisch" ambitions in Europe were further fueled by the call for self-determination.

To date, neither the Versailles Peace Accord as a model for a post–World War I political order, nor the right to self-determination of peoples have been scrutinized from the perspective of biopolitics. Violent conflicts in Europe from about 1850 to the 1920s and, in particular, national struggles for independence form the empirical basis for this study; analysis centers here on whether, to what extent, and under what circumstances ethnic murder and expulsions occurred. Perceptions of these conflicts, especially as expressed by participants at the Versailles Peace Conference, are the focus of a second section of the project. Analysis of these standpoints aims to ascertain whether and how demands for self-determination were formulated as problem-solving concepts. The third part of the study examines how demands for self-determination exacerbated the ethnification of politics and the spread of mass murder and expulsion. It also seeks to elucidate how a biologicalized, "biopolitical" concept of the "people" became a dominant political idea in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

The time frame for work on this project is three years; results of the study will be published within the context of a broader project in the Research Unit: Theory and History of Violence