Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Can There Be a Political Science of the Holocaust?

Charles Kinga1

a1 Georgetown University. E-mail:


The substantial literature on mass violence, from ethnic cleansing to civil wars, has paid surprisingly little attention to the largest instance of mass violence in human history: the Holocaust. When political scientists have approached the subject, the trend has been to treat the Holocaust as a single case, comparing it—sometimes controversially—with other instances of genocide such as Rwanda or Cambodia. But historically grounded work on the destruction of European Jewry can help illuminate the microfoundations of violent politics, unpack the relationship between a ubiquitous violence-inducing ideology (antisemitism) and highly variable murder, and recast old questions about the origins and evolution of the Holocaust itself. After reviewing new trends in history-writing, I highlight opportunities for social-scientifically oriented research centered on the interaction of state power, local communities, and violent mobilization in five areas: military occupation, repertoires of violence, alliance politics, genocidal policymaking, and resistance. My conclusion addresses thorny issues of comparison, morality, and memory.

Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University ( He is the author of five books, most recently Extreme Politics: Nationalism, Violence, and the End of Eastern Europe (Oxford, 2010) and Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (W. W. Norton, 2011), which received the National Jewish Book Award.


For comments and insights, thanks go to Ariel Ahram, Jessica Allina-Pisano, Daniel Byman, Evgeny Finkel, Lee Ann Fujii, Jeffrey Kopstein, Eric Langenbacher, Robert Lieber, Harris Mylonas, Margaret Paxson, Zak Taylor, participants in the Postcommunist Politics Seminar at George Washington University and the joint GUITARS/CRITICS seminar at Georgetown University (organized by Henry Hale, James Vreeland, and Desha Girod), three anonymous reviewers for this journal, and Jeffrey Isaac.