Reflections on Mass Violence: War, Excess and Responsibility


International law seems to be perpetually in crisis. Profound questions abound regarding its functions, utility, relevance, and ability to provide solutions in a complex and changing world. The past few years have presented us with multiple challenges––from trade wars to a global pandemic to the invasion of Ukraine––which have led many to question the role and value of international law as a tool for solving contemporary crises.

This talk examined the role of judgment and philosophical engagement in the determination of the scope of international [criminal] law in such crises. Specifically, it examined what Kurt Flasch aptly called "the spiritual mobilization" of philosophy. It revisited Jan Patočka's interpretation of the First World War in the sixth of his Heretical Essays. As Patočka declared, the "excessive" character of the 20th century was best exemplified in the dangerously romantic conception of "force."

The talk also invited the audience to commit themselves to a deep reading of Patočka’s seminal essay, “Wars of the 20th Century and the 20th Century as War.” Taking its cues from the various attempts to interpret WWI from within the framework of nineteenth-century ideas, he questions the merits of examining war from the perspective of peace, of day, and of life, thus excluding the dark side of the night. At the core of Patočka’s formulation lies his concept of the "solidarity of the shaken" as found in the Heretical Essays, which provides a tool to interpret the trauma, shock, and extremity of the frontline experiences of war. However, as paradigmatic of the spiritual reality of the twentieth century, Patočka also claims that war itself had become a fundamental phenomenon bringing to light the metaphysical essence of our age. To understand what is at stake in these "reflections on mass violence," we must come to terms with the questions and problems they raise for us, including collective responsibility.

Nergis Canefe is Professor of Politics, Public Policy and Law at York University, Canada. She is currently Visiting Fellow at IWM.

Ludger Hagedorn, IWM Permanent Fellow, moderated the evening. 

A recording of the livestream of the Monthly Lecture is available here: