Ethnic Cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing refers to various policies of forcibly removing people of another ethnic group. At the more general level it can be understood as the expulsion of any ‘‘undesirable’’ population from a given territory not only due to its ethnicity but also as a result of its religion, or for political, ideological, or strategic considerations, or a combination of these characteristics.

The term entered the international vocabulary in connection with the Yugoslav wars. It comes  from  the Serbian/Croatian  phrase etnicko ciscenje, whose literal translation is ethnic cleaning. In the Yugoslav media it started to be used in the early 1980s in relation to the alleged Kosovar Albanian policy of creating ethnically homogeneous territory in Kosovo by the expulsion of the Serbian population.

The term itself was probably taken from the vocabulary of the former JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), which spoke of cleansing the territory (ciscenje terena) of enemies to take control of a conquered area. In the wars of Yugoslav succession, ethnic cleansing was a strategy used widely by all sides, starting with the expulsion of Croats from the areas in Croatia inhabited by Serbs. The main goal of these actions was to alter the demographic structure of the territory by getting rid of the unwanted ethnic groups.

The origin and the extended usage of the term ethnic cleansing in the public discourse of the 1990s could create the impression that it describes a historically new phenomenon. In reality it was only an invention of a new term to describe an age old practice. It was carried out widely with or without significant coercion or as part of murderous genocidal campaigns. Ethnic cleansing could be used as a component of state policies, sometimes even based on international treaties, or as a consequence of spontaneous outbursts motivated by prejudice, hatred, and/or revenge. It was employed by empires, small communities, dictatorial and democratic regimes, and in all historical periods. Mann (1999) puts ethnic cleansing on a continuum together with assimilation and genocide. The targeted population for cleansing could be a religious minority, an ethnic group, or simply political ideological opponents. The political and historical context of cleansing can also be strategic, with the goal of removing the population that presents a potential threat.

Historical evidence reveals numerous examples of the practice. Some historical accounts indicate, for example, that Assyrian rulers made a state policy of forced resettlement of their conquered lands and the replacement of the population by settlers from another region (Bell Fialkoff 1999). In the Middle Ages cleansing was mainly applied against religious minorities. Anthony Marx (2003) argues that religious intolerance – specifically, the exclusion of religious minorities from the nascent state – provided the glue that bonded the remaining population together.

The rise of modern nationalism and the nation state created a new framework for such cleansing activities. It is inherent in the modern project of nationalism that ‘‘We the people’’ generates a sense of the alien ‘‘other.’’ And because the sovereignty of the modern nation state is territorial, the ‘‘other’’ may be physically excluded from the territory of the people.

There are endless examples of cleansing, exchanges, or exoduses of populations accompanying the creation of modern nation states. Exchanges of populations between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey were sanctioned by international treaties (the 1913 Convention of Adrianople and the peace treaty between Bulgaria and Turkey). The partition of India, the creation of the state of Israel, the division of Cyprus, and the successor states of the former Yugoslavia are just a few examples.

One of the biggest ethnic cleansings, culminating in extermination, was the Nazi campaign against the Jews. The Holocaust combined elements of deportation, expulsion, population transfer, massacre, and genocide. Some other examples of very similar practices in modern times are the holocaust of Armenians and the massacres of Tutsis by Hutus known as the Rwandan genocide.

Stalin’s  regime  cleansed  ethnic  groups because of strategic considerations and also perceived internal political enemies on a grandiose scale. The expulsion of Poles from Belorussia and Ukraine (1932–6) to Kazakhstan, the deportations of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians from areas occupied by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the mass deportations and exile of the Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans,  Balkars, Kalmyks, and  Crimean Tatars in 1943–4, all fall into the first category. The second type of cleansing was directed toward different types of class enemies – kulaks, alleged enemy spies, and collaborators. In Asia, the Chinese and Cambodian communists accepted bloodlines as a way of identifying class enemies. The Khmer Rouge took this approach a step further into something that Mann (1999) calls ‘‘classicide’’ as an analogy to genocide. It killed about half the number of Cambodians with a bourgeois background.

In analyzing the transformation of empires into nation states, Brubaker (1995) states that the occurrence of migrations and different forms of ethnic cleansing depended on the extent to which disintegration was accompanied by war or other types of violence, on the established nature of the potential target for cleansing, on the anticipated and actual policies of the successor states toward the minorities, on the availability and quality of resettlement opportunities, and on ‘‘voice’’ as an alternative to ‘‘exit.’’ There is nothing preordained about its occurrence. It happens under conditions that can be understood, explained, and predicted.


  1. Ahmed, A. (1995) ‘‘Ethnic Cleansing’’: A Metaphor For Our Time? Ethnic and Racial Studies 18 (1): 1-25.
  2. Bell-Fialkoff, (1999) Ethnic Cleansing. Palgrave, Macmillan and St. Martin’s Griffin, New York.
  3. Brubaker, (1995) Aftermaths of Empire and the Unmixing of Peoples: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Ethnic and Racial Studies 18(2): 189-218.
  4. Carmichael, (2002) Ethnic Cleansing in the Bal kans: Nationalism and the Destruction of Tradition. Routledge, New York.
  5. Mann, M. (1999) The Dark Side of Democracy: The Modern Tradition of Ethnic and Political Cleansing. New Left Review 235 (May/June): 18
  6. Marx, A. (2003) Faith in the Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism. Oxford University Press, New York.
  7. Naimark, N. M. (2001) Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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