Ethnic Cleansing

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace. (from the Agricola of Tacitus, referring to the Romans)

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Ethnic Cleansing


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Ethnic cleansing trigger warning banner 1 StudySmarter

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace. (from the Agricola of Tacitus, referring to the Romans)

The conquest of territory and subjugation of its inhabitants is an age-old human pursuit. Every empire in history took over lands that did not originally belong to them; as for the people who inhabited those lands, they were all too often subjected to atrocities beyond imagination if they resisted conquest—and sometimes even if they did not resist. One of the most visceral terms for these punishments is "ethnic cleansing."

Ethnic Cleansing Definition

Ethnic cleansing revolves around exercising political power in the service of perceived cultural superiority. Those who carry out acts of ethnic cleansing regard themselves as superior to their victims, whom they often see as subhuman or not even truly human.

Ethnic Cleansing: the planned and organized elimination of a cultural group from a geographic area. According to the perpetrators, a territory is "cleansed" if it no longer has any visible evidence of the former presence of the eliminated group.

Ethnic Cleansing vs. Genocide

Genocide, which has a strict definition under the UN Genocide Convention, is often used interchangeably with the term "ethnic cleansing," which the UN does not officially define. "Ethnic cleansing" came into vogue in the 1990s as a translation of the Serbo-Croatian term "etničko čišćenje." However, references to "cleaning out" an area of its population have appeared since World War II.

Not all ethnic cleansing involves genocide, though most genocides, such as the Holocaust, include ethnic cleansing. If people are forcibly removed from an area or populations are exchanged between sites, this does not necessarily involve genocide because the intent is not to erase cultures.

Ethnic cleansing Birkenau StudySmarterFig. 1 - Remains of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Poland, where a million people were exterminated during the Holocaust

For example, more than 10 million ethnic Germans were ethnically cleansed after World War II from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and relocated to Germany and Austria. Though the death toll from this process was considerable, it was not the intent of the war's winners to exterminate the German ethnicity.

Ethnic Cleansing Impacts

Below, we describe a few of the major impacts of ethnic cleansing.

Cultural Landscape Erased

The erasure of the presence of a cultural group extends far beyond the disappearance of the people, extending to the cultural landscape as well. Centers of worship are bombed, and museums and libraries are burned. Traces of the eradicated group's language, such as place names, are changed.

Elimination of Official Presence

The ultimate impact of ethnic cleansing may be the successful erasure of the cleansed group's former presence in the landscape and in official history. How convenient for the victors of a conflict, if they are "re-claiming" lands they say once belonged to them, who can "prove" in their history books that the vanished culture never actually had a local presence (out of sight, out of mind).


Though, sadly, too many instances of ethnic cleansing succeed, many fail, though not before the killing or displacement of thousands or even millions. The Rwanda genocide of the 1990s was perpetrated at lightning speed, the Hutu planners having intended to exterminate all evidence of Tutsi existence before the world could respond. However, they were stopped short by a rebel invasion.


In the Rwanda case and many others, the pre-meditated nature of the heinous crimes revealed in international courts may lead to the opposite of the perpetrators' intended impact. The perpetrator group in power is removed. In many instances, innocent civilians who belong to the same group as the perpetrators are violently targeted by members of the former victim group.

Cycles of Ethnic Cleansing

A hazardous impact of ethnic cleansing is the historical memory that can resurface decades or even centuries later, as seen repeatedly in the Balkans (see below). Cycles of Serb-Croat-Muslim ethnic cleansing are often based on ancient hatreds that are remembered in times of political instability.

Ending the Cycle?

Developed democracies protect the rights of minorities and allow cultural groups considerable leeway to air their grievances and seek redress for past wrongs. Though injustices still occur, democracies with strict rules of law that enshrine the rights of all inhabitants in their constitutions seem to have been able to end the cycle of ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic Cleansing Example

The experience of native peoples in the Americas after 1492 included many instances of ethnic cleansing. Those who remained after Old World pandemics ravaged the hemisphere were pushed out of lands claimed by Europeans; this process continues even today, over 500 years later, in remote areas of the Amazon Basin.

One well-known episode was the removal of Indians from east of the Mississippi River after US independence, which politicians such as Thomas Jefferson advocated. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. During the decade that followed, most members of Indian nations in the southern US followed the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory.

Ethnic cleansing Trail of Tears map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Trail of Tears, the ethnic cleansing of the US South

The ethnic cleansing of the US South occurred so that white settlers could occupy the ancient homelands of groups such as the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw, even though these groups lived in quasi-nation-states based on a plantation economy, owned property, and, as the "Five Civilized Tribes," were in many ways more "civilized" (by the measure of the time) than the people who replaced them. As in many ethnic cleansing episodes, the perpetrators cast removal as a good thing for the people being cleansed, who they said would be "happier" in the lands to which they were being removed.

It is worth noting that despite the ethnic cleansing, all five nations preserved their cultures, with four (Chickasaws excepted) maintaining reservations in the Southeastern US and Oklahoma. An unluckier fate awaited many other Indigenous groups across the US and the Americas, however, who were in some cases exterminated en masse in targeted genocides.

List of Ethnic Cleansings

Horrifyingly, ethnic cleansing has been a standard feature of human existence for untold millennia; there are too many episodes to mention. Below is a list of some of those that are ongoing. It is important to note that perpetrators and their allies, in most cases, deny that ethnic cleansing is happening.

Central African Republic civil war2012-presentChristian anti-Balaka farmers and Muslim Seleka nomadsSeleka and anti-Balaka militias700,000+ displaced, thousands killed, cultural landscapes destroyed
Uyghur genocide2014-presentUyghurs and othersGovernment of China1 million in camps, culture and cultural landscape obliterated
Tigray War2020-presentTigrayansEthiopian and Eritrean militaries and armed groupsOver 10,000 killed and cultural landscape destroyed
Rohingya genocide2016-presentRohingya MuslimsMyanmar government/Buddhist extremistsOver 1 million removed/fled, 25,000+ killed
Ukrainian conflicts incl. Russo-Ukrainian War2014-presentEthnic Ukrainians and ethnic RussiansUkrainian and Russian military and armed groupsMass flight/expulsion of people out of territories controlled by the other ethnicity
Northern Syria2016-presentKurds, Yazidis, ChristiansTurkish militaryExpulsion

Yugoslavia Ethnic Cleansing

The collapse of Communism in Yugoslavia in the 1990s allowed old ethnic and religious animosities to flare. Because the region is part of a shatterbelt between Christian Europe, the Muslim World, and the Orthodox Christian sphere, local communities have suffered from ethnic cleansing that has claimed millions of lives over the centuries and resulted in repeated uprooting of populations and destruction of cultures and cultural landscapes.

Ethnic cleansing has been a feature of the Balkans to such an extent that the word "balkanization" refers to the splintering of geographic areas along ethnic and religious lines. Famously, tensions in the Balkans sparked World War I, but the uneasy relationship between Muslims, Orthodox Christians (e.g., Serbs), and Catholics (e.g., Croats) goes back centuries. Exacerbating the problems of peaceful co-existence in local areas is interference by outside powers seeking to protect groups that are culturally or strategically aligned with them: the Serbs with Russia, Kosovars (Albanian Muslims) with the US, the Vatican with Catholics, and so forth.

With the advent of Communism in the 1940s, however, it was supposed that ancient hatreds would be erased as people would take on new identities as "Yugoslavs" free of the discrimination brought by religion.

But the opposite happened. Small states led by ethnic separatists emerged from the ruins of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of peoples eager to escape Serbia's cultural, political, and economic dominance. This period was called the Breakup of Yugoslavia. The devolutionary tactics that politicians in Belgrade had pursued had failed to create unity among the formerly federated states.

Croatia, majority Roman Catholic, declared independence in 1991 and fought a bitter war against the Serbs until 1995; both Serbs and Croats engaged in ethnic cleansing across the region, as these two groups had been on opposite sides several times throughout history. In the 1990s, thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Slovenia (majority Catholic) and Macedonia (now North Macedonia, majority Macedonian Orthodox) were able to become independent without significant conflict, and Montenegro, which is Serbian Orthodox, continued to be part of a union with Serbia until independence in 2006.

Major episodes of ethnic cleansing occurred in 1990s Kosovo between Kosovars, who are Muslim, and Serbs. This resulted in the US-led NATO bombing campaign of Serbia and the eventual creation of the state of Kosovo, which is not a member of the UN and is only recognized diplomatically by around 100 countries.

Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia

The former state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was subject to the worst ethnic cleansing that had occurred in Europe since World War II; indeed, the term "ethnic cleansing" itself was popularized by journalists' accounts of the conflict, which took place between 1992 and 1995. In essence, it was a three-way conflict for territory between Bosniaks, who are Muslim, Croats, and Serbs. Ethnic cleansing involved not just expulsions and indiscriminate killing by militaries and militias but intentional destruction of cultural monuments in an attempt to erase any future claims to territory.

Ethnic cleansing Bosnia map StudySmarterFig. 3 - The principal divisions of Bosnia divided by the IEBL (Inter-Entity Boundary Line) defined by the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war

The most terrifyingly iconic episode in this distressing story was the Srebrenica Massacre, wherein over 8,000 Bosniak males were executed by Serbs over ten days in July 1995 and buried in mass graves. This episode marked a point of no return for the conflict, meaning that even after the war was over, hatred and resentment continued. The different groups were allotted distinct geographic areas with buffer zones patrolled by UN forces, a common feature of post-conflict areas since World War II. Two main divisions exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina today: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, divided by the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL). Tensions have eased across the country, which is a democracy, and the IEBL is no longer a patrolled border, but only time will tell if the cycle of ethnic cleansing is finally at an end.

Ethnic Cleansing - Key takeaways

  • Ethnic cleansing is the intentional removal of a cultural group from a geographic area
  • Ethnic cleansing is a widespread tactic of war and genocide and has been quite common historically in all parts of the world
  • An example of ethnic cleansing from the US is the Removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southern US to Oklahoma in an 1800s episode known as the Trail of Tears.
  • The most well-known episode of ethnic cleansing in modern times was in 1990 Bosnia and involved atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosniaks, particularly the Srebrenica Massacre.

Ethnic cleansing trigger warning banner 2 StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the planned, forced removal of people from a geographic region.

Ethnic cleansing does not necessarily involve the extermination of people, and is a part of genocide.

Wars always involve killing, but some wars are said to involve only combatants and avoid the purposeful killing or exile of civilians.

The ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust claimed 11 million lives and also involved the Nazi removal of millions of people and wholesale destruction of cultural landscapes across conquered areas; the ethnic cleansing of Germans after World War II involved more than 10 million Germans.

Ethnic cleansing is happening in China, Syria, Ukraine, Central African Republic, Tigray (Ethiopia), Myanmar, and other places.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

The following ethnic cleansing episode did NOT involve genocide:

The name for the line dividing the two main parts of Bosnia is:

Ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic is between


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