Purify and Destroy

The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide

Part of the CERI/Sciences Po. series
January 2014 9781849043939 400pp
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How can we comprehend the socio-political processes that give rise to extreme violence, ethnic cleansing or genocide? A major breakthrough in comparative analysis, Purify and Destroy demonstrates that it is indeed possible to compare the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia Herzegovina while respecting the specificities of each of these appalling phenomena. Jacques Semelin leads the reader through the three examples simultaneously, the unravelling of which sometimes converges, but most often diverges. His method is multidisciplinary, relying not only on contemporary history, but also on social psychology and political science.

Based on the seminal distinction between massacre and genocide, Purify and Destroy identifies the main steps of a general process of destruction, both rational and irrational, born of what Semelin terms ‘delusional rationality’. He describes a dynamic structural model with, at its core, the matrix of a social imaginaire which, responding to fears, resentments and utopias, carves and recarves the social body by eliminating ‘the enemy’. The author identifies the main stages that can lead to a genocidal process, and explains how ordinary people can become perpetrators.

Finally, Semelin develops an intellectual framework to analyse the entire spectrum of mass violence in the twentieth century and before, including terrorism. He is strongly critical of today’s political instrumentalisation of the ‘genocide’ notion and urges genocide research to stand back from legal and normative definitions to allow it to come of age as a discipline in its own right in the social sciences.


‘In this wise, engaging, and erudite book, Jacques Semelin systematically investigates the sources of mass killing in the modern world. Although he uses the cases of Rwanda, the Holocaust, and Bosnia as the primary sources for his explorations, Semelin subjects the entire history of massacre, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in the twentieth century to a unique amalgam of psychological and social scientific tests. This is an analytical tour de force and a must-read for anyone interested in the question: why genocide?’ — Norman M. Naimark, Professor of Eastern European Studies, Stanford University

‘This book is a major accomplishment in the study of genocide. Using the examples of the Holocaust, massacres in the former Yugoslavia, and genocide in Rwanda, Semelin explores the deep causes, specific triggers, political and international context, dynamics of implementation, nature of killing, and political uses of genocide as a modern phenomenon.’ — Omer Bartov, Brown University, author of Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity

‘An outstanding contribution to the field of genocide studies.’ — International Affairs

‘A must-read for those who want to seriously engage the problem of genocide and massacre in rigorous and systematic fashion.’ — Political Science Quarterly

‘This important study is well worth the effort.’ — Holocaust and Genocide Studies


Jacques Semelin is Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Sciences Po, CERI, CNRS, Paris, focusing on the Holocaust and mass violence, as well as civil resistance and rescue. He is the author of the classic Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe, 1939–1945, and Purify and Destroy:The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide.

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