Oppression and Genocide

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: War and Peace
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Oppression and Genocide


British historian Lord Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Though this could be considered a universal truth, it becomes especially brutal when applied to the topics of oppression and genocide. "Absolute power" describes the extreme control of governments and dictators who do not allow their people freedom or a voice. However, the phrase "corrupts absolutely" hardly seems adequate to describe the excessive waste of human lives and the refusal of basic human rights that many must endure under an oppressive governmental regime. Examining the literature produced under these inhumane conditions reveals humanity's incredible capacity for suffering and cruelty. But these works also reveal man's capacity to survive.

Although the time period of eighteenth-century England in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" provides modern readers with a comfortable distance from England's oppression of Ireland, the uncomfortable closeness of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, as told by Philip Gourevitch, proves that "civil" is a root word that has been forgotten in many civilizations. Analysis of literary works created as a result of unthinkable oppressive and genocidal acts reveals a common denominator of cause: governmental abuse of power that results in the manipulation or attempted extermination of a political or racial minority. These unofficial Page 588  |  Top of Articlewars are waged on a government's own citizens, with casualties as high as those on any battlefield.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century: The Economics of Oppression

After gaining control of Ireland in the twelfth century, the English began imposing their rule in the areas of Dublin and Waterford. By the seventeenth century, as English power grew, many Irish leaders fled the country, and England's presence in Ireland frustrated and angered the Irish to the point of violent acts of resistance. England's governmental policies concerning Protestant land ownership and a Catholic workforce provided little motivation for land improvement or quality and, therefore, many food shortages occurred. Irishman Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" (1729) as a satire (a work that exposes folly to ridicule) criticizing England's economic oppression of his native Dublin. Witnessing the starvation and poverty of his own people, particularly children, at the hands of English policy, Swift makes a "modest" proposal to alleviate the suffering of starving Irish citizens: eat the children. He is, of course, not really advocating cannibalism when he writes,

that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.

Instead, he counters England's cruel and indifferent treatment of the Irish by making a suggestion as impractical and immoral as England's policies were. Swift's remedy for Ireland's starving population is meant to shock, but it also exposes the lengths that the British government took to ensure control. His proposal illustrates the preposterous treatment of the Irish under the British by suggesting an equally preposterous (though satirical) solution. If the British refuse to see the Irish as anything but an economic commodity, Swift is determined to take that view to an absurd level in the hopes of exposing Britain's oppressive rule.

Viewed in a historical context, the United States also used oppression as a means of economic gain, as did many nations. The literature produced during this time period concerning the African slave trade in America by author Fredrick Douglas and the equally oppressive displacement of the American Indian population, as told in Voices from the Trail of Tears by Vicki Rozema, should not be overlooked.

Early Twentieth-Century Genocide and Oppression

The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of two of the most notoriously savage leaders and time periods in world history: Joseph Stalin in Russia in 1918, and Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933.

Stalin's communist regime did not tolerate opposition and prohibited citizens from speaking against or questioning government edicts. Vocal or physical opposition in the form of illegal public assemblies or meetings received swift punishment. Stalin's Secret Police often arrived in the dark of night to remove violators and dissidents. Friends and family quickly learned not to question the whereabouts or the safety of their missing loved ones, lest they meet the same fate: death, prison, or hard work at a Soviet labor camp. As R. J. Rummel estimates in Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocides and Mass Murders 1917–1987, almost sixty-two million Soviet citizens were murdered under Stalin's Page 589  |  Top of Articlecommunist rule. "They were not combatants in civil war or rebellions, they were not criminals. Indeed, nearly all were guilty of … nothing."

For decades, the world was ignorant of the oppressive and genocidal atrocities of Stalin because of the iron-curtain communistic control of news and information released by the U.S.S.R. One of the first accounts of Russian prison life under Stalin came from a Soviet soldier turned political activist and author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. While serving in the Soviet army, Solzhenitsyn criticized Stalin and subsequently received an eight-year prison sentence in a gulag, or labor camp. The Russian government exiled Solzhenitsyn for writing The Gulag Archipelago (1973), which records the supposed crimes, trials, and prison experiences of dozens of prisoners, and the author eventually settled in Vermont. Critic Stephen F. Cohen of the New York Times noted Solzhenitsyn's role of bearing witness: "Solzhenitsyn's first purpose has been to document for the Soviet people, whose Government has acknowledged only part of the truth and almost none of the responsibility, the full dimensions of what happened."

Communism hid Stalin's reign of terror for many years, and some critics and historians continue to argue about the exact number of his victims. The world knows a great deal more about Adolf Hitler and the six million Jews that perished in concentration "death" camps that have become synonyms for unimaginable crimes against humanity: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald, Dachau, and others. The Jewish Holocaust even changed language: the word "holocaust" is capitalized when in reference to the plight of European Jews in World War II. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel's memoir Night (1960) represents the foundation of Holocaust survivors bearing witness to the genocide of their families, friends, and communities. In the following quote, which highlights the major themes within the novel—night, faith, hatred, loss, silence, and father/son relationships—Wiesel provides a glimpse into the horrors of a single night in a concentration camp:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night …. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky …. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my soul to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

The author/survivor repeats "never" in what many critics consider the definitive quote of the Jewish Holocaust. Two additional works from different points of view about the Holocaust are found in survivor Abba Kovner's poem "My Little Sister" and Polish ghetto survivor Ida Fink's A Scrap of Time.

Kovner's poem "My Little Sister" is included in My Little Sister and Selected Poems (1986), a collection of poems by the acclaimed poet who not only survived Auschwitz, but later led attacks against the Germans. Kovner, whose writing career lasted over forty years, offers a poetic, yet no less horrific, view of the Holocaust from yet another deeply personal perspective. A brief glimpse into Kovner's dramatic verse reveals a theme familiar from Wiesel's work, that of loss:

    How mourn a city
    whose people are dead,
    whose people are alive
    in the heart?

In Fink's collection of short stories A Scrap of Time (1987) the reader learns of the tortures that Jews faced outside of the concentration camps, as the author shares the stories of Jews in hiding from deportation and certain death. In the Library Journal, Molly Abramowitz notes that, "The death camps are a looming presence [in A Scrap of Time], though they are never depicted and rarely mentioned; a tenuous balance between power and restraint is sustained." The stories in A Scrap of Time remind readers that genocide is not exclusive to death camps, and that there was no safe place for Jews in Nazi Germany.

While acts of oppression by a government often do not receive the attention that the countless deaths of genocide warrant, the human-rights violations are no less widespread. While Europe recovered from World War I and unknowingly braced for World War II, Australia began its own act of oppression through assimilation. Assimilation is typically a forced process, which requires the culture of the assimilated—seen as backwards or ignorant—to be abandoned and replaced by the culture of the oppressors. In the Page 590  |  Top of Article1930s, the Australian government established settlements for black Aboriginal children and children of mixed marriages to assimilate into white culture. In Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), author Doris Pilkington relates the true story of her mother, Molly, and two young Aboriginal girls who escape an Australian assimilation camp and attempt to walk the fifteen hundred miles back to their home. The story of these young girls highlights the courage required to face the inhumanity of oppression in the form of the assimilation camps.

Oppression through civil rights violations provides the inspiration for many of the works by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. In Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), set in 1950s Peru, two characters from different social classes, Santiago and Ambrosia, talk about their country and the oppression and torment that it has experienced under the rule of dictator Manuel A. Odría. Although the poor and lower classes experience better economic periods under Odría, their freedoms and human rights are severely limited, often with violent penalties for breaking government mandates. Llosa's characters imply that the presence of adequate food and clothing, when before there was none, hid the oppressive human rights violations from the victims. Only upon reflection years later does the actual terrible cost of the oppression come to light. A similar oppression involving African Americans took place in the United States during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s.

The Last Half of the Twentieth Century

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1972), written by Malcolm X with the help of Roots author Alex Haley, depicts the harsh and troubling truth behind the government-led discrimination and the acts of oppression experienced by black Americans in the twentieth century. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, witnessed and was himself a victim of the "Separate but Equal" segregation policies. Initially he was proud of his light complexion, but later, as the civil rights movement gained speed, he grew to resent it:

I was among the millions of negroes who were insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned—that one was actually fortunate to be born thus. But, still later, I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist's blood that is in me.

Robert Boone in the New York Times Book Review stated that Malcolm X "articulated the anger, the struggle, and the beliefs of African Americans in the 1960s," and that his autobiography "expresses like none other the crucial truth about our times."

The issues of racial prejudice and oppression that Malcolm X spoke out against continued through the 1960s and many claim that although there has been progress, African Americans still experience discrimination in the early twenty-first century. Walter Dean Myers's novel Fallen Angels (1988) is a first-person tale of the horrors of the Vietnam War undercut by the discrimination that protagonist Richie Perry experiences at home and in the army. Perry is an obedient soldier and trusted colleague, but he privately questions why the black troops are sent into the most dangerous combat situations, and why the United States is involved in Vietnam. The same racial oppression that so powerfully affected Malcolm X's life also shapes Richie Perry, as U.S. racial discriminatory practices continue to oppress him, even while fighting for his country. While the novel is the coming-of-age story of a young African American man, the subtheme tells of how the oppressive actions of a government led to the discrimination and manipulation of a racial minority.

The country of Cambodia resides in the same region of the world as Vietnam and the two countries share war-torn pasts. In 1975, dictator Pol Pot took the capital city of Phnom Phen and ushered in his Khmer Rouge troops. A genocide of over two million Cambodians followed over the next four years, in a country with a total population of only seven million people. Pol Pot's bloody regime, which killed, maimed, and put into labor camps nearly a third of Cambodia's population, is often compared to the genocides carried out under Stalin and Hilter.

In the book The Death and Life of Dith Pran (1980), author Sydney Schanberg reveals the savage brutality of Cambodians killing Cambodians. Schanberg was a reporter in Cambodia, and Pran was assigned as his photographer. The Death and Life of Dith Pran depicts the savagery of Khmer Rouge soldiers cutting out and eating the livers of their victims and tossing bodies into the air to watch them fall on bayonets. The ongoing war in Vietnam during the time of the Cambodian genocide perhaps explains why the world ignored the reports of mass killings, and why there was no outside help Page 591  |  Top of Articleuntil 1979. Similarly, the world's silence continued nineteen years later when yet another genocide occurred in Rwanda, a small African country.

In 1994, the Rwandan government encouraged the majority Hutu population to exterminate the minority Tutsis. In a three-month period, the Hutus killed more than eight-hundred-thousand Tutsis. The title of Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families (1998) originates from a Tutsi pastor's letter to his Hutu church president. Journalist Gourevitch interviewed witnesses and victims of this genocide to create this text, a type of informal history about a largely ignored atrocity where "the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust." In his review in the New York Times Book Review, Wole Soyinka calls the book "a burden on world conscience." The very fact that a book like We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families has to be written begs the question: why was there no one to stop the killing? But no one did stop it, and as Gourevitch's book illustrates, oppression can quickly lead to genocide, and millions can die before the world takes notice.


The examination of texts about the great human tragedies of genocide and oppression spurs a common question among readers: how did this happen? The answer is contained in the pages of these books, many of them firsthand accounts of brutal oppression and systematic genocide. Though oppression and genocide often result from war or economic difficulty, the ideology behind these acts almost always meets with frustration and failure. Progress and peace cannot ultimately be achieved through the destruction of a group of people differing in ethnicity or religion. Centuries of repression and loss of human life due to oppression and genocide are history's lessons for future governments that, unimaginably, consider atrocities against their own or other citizens as a solution to anything.


Abramowitz, Molly, Review of "A Scrap of Time," by Ida Fink, Library Journal, August 1987, pp. 12-14.

Acton, Lord, "Power tends to corrupt," Bartleby.com, www.bartleby.com (August 16, 2005); published in The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Boone, Robert, Review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in the New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, p. BR32.

Cohen, Stephen F., Review of The Gulag Archipelago, in the New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1974, pp. BR15-17.

Gourevitch, Philip, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, Picador, 1998, p. 3.

Kovner, Abba, "My Little Sister," Rural Education Administration English Department, w3.kfar-olami.org.il/reed/resources/landmark/holocaust/holocaust.htm (August 29, 2005); originally published in My Little Sister and Selected Poems, Oberlin College Press, 1986.

Soyinka, Wole, "Hearts of Darkness," in the New York Times Book Review, www.nytimes.com/pages/books/ (October 4, 1998); originally published in the New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1998, section 7, p. 11.

Swift, Jonathan, "A Modest Proposal," The Gutenberg Project, www.gutenberg.org (August 16, 2005), p. 6.

Rummel, R. J., Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocides and Mass Murders 1917–1987, Transaction Publishers, 1990, p. 56.

X, Malcolm and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books, 1992, pp. 5-6.

Wiesel, Elie, Night, Bantam Books, 1960, p. 32

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3451000061