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The twentieth century has sometimes been labeled as the "century of genocide." In view of historical events, this description hardly amounts to an exaggeration: never before has violence, systematically aimed at exterminating ethnic, national, or religious groups, claimed more victims than over the course of the twentieth century. The extent of collective violence as the century came to a close—such as the massacres in disintegrating Yugoslavia or Rwanda during the 1990s—dampened the hopes cherished after World War II that crimes such as the mass murder of European Jews could be prevented in the future and thus fundamentally challenged the idea of a progressive historical process.

The term genocide was coined by the Polish-Jewish specialist in international law Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959). He had recognized that cases like the persecution of the Armenians by the Young Turks during World War I and, above all, the extermination policy of the Nazis throughout occupied eastern Europe differed qualitatively from other forms of violence such as war crimes and thus required a specific term of their own. Lemkin's concept of genocide formed a basis for the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of the United Nations adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. However, not only specialists in international law grappled with the phenomenon of genocide. Since the 1980s, interdisciplinary research on genocide has also begun to establish itself, initially in the United States and Canada and more recently in Europe as well.

Genocide as first defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944:

By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.…Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor's own nationals.

Source: Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C., 1944, p. 79.


The basic notion that minorities must be protected from persecution by international law dates back to the seventeenth century: the Peace of Westphalia concluded in 1648 already contained terms stipulating guarantees for religious minorities. Protection of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire was the express purpose of the treaties European Great Powers forced on the Ottoman government in the nineteenth century. However, this commitment to protecting minorities was not altogether selfless, because these provisions generally served the imperialistic powers as a welcome pretext for military intervention in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Finally, at the turn of the century codification of the law of war contributed to the international protection of human rights, albeit to a limited extent. Among other things, the Hague Convention on land war of 1907 laid down the rules of conduct by a foreign occupying army toward the civilian population. However, massacres or atrocities committed by a government against a minority living within the national borders were not subject to these provisions and therefore did not constitute a statutory offense under international law.

The notion of an international law binding to all states, one that bans the persecution and murder of ethnic, national, or religious groups, only really began to take shape in the period between the world wars. The horrors of World War I and particularly the fate of the Ottoman Armenians quite drastically revealed to politicians and experts on international law the significance of such an international agreement. By issuing a joint declaration in March 1915 denouncing the massacre of the Armenians as a "crime against humanity," the governments of France, Great Britain, and Russia had already made it clear during the war that the murder of minorities by their own governments should not go unpunished. Following their victory over the Central Powers and their allies, at first the Entente Powers indeed made efforts to open international criminal proceedings for war crimes and "crimes against humanity." Yet these endeavors came to nothing. Contributing to this failure at first was the fact that politicians and legal experts could not agree on which acts to subsume precisely under the category of "crimes against humanity" and on which existing legal grounds to base this offense. Moreover, the Young Turk politicians responsible for the massacre of the Armenians evaded prosecution before an international court of law, because the Treaty of Sèvres, whose provisions actually stipulated such legal action, was never ratified. The victory of the Turkish nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) and the founding of the Turkish nation-state resulted instead in an "amnesty declaration," internationally approved in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which concerned any acts committed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I that may have been punishable.

Despite the lack of decisive and lasting success in these efforts to prosecute perpetrators of violations of human rights during the world war, in the interwar period experts on international law continued to work toward establishing a system protecting national and religious minorities. The so-called minority treaties under the League of Nations were one result of these endeavors. The parties to these treaties committed to guaranteeing the protection of minorities within their national borders. Raphael Lemkin began to make his mark in these debates on international law revolving around the protection of minorities.

Genocide as defined in Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Source: United Nations Treaty Series, no. 1021, vol. 78 (1951), p. 277.

Even as a youth, Lemkin, a native of Bezwodene in Poland, had already developed an interest in the prevention of state-organized persecution of minorities, especially since he also belonged to a minority that faced discrimination and persecution in eastern Europe. Moreover, the fate of the Anatolian Armenians had made a lasting impression on him. In particular, the sensational trial of Salomon Teilirian in June 1921 in Berlin had been a matter of concern to Lemkin. In March 1921 the Armenian Teilirian had shot and killed in broad daylight the former Turkish interior minister Talât Paşa (1872–1921), one of the men responsible for the Armenian genocide. As his unpublished autobiography reveals, this act of vigilantism led Lemkin to conclude that an international law had to be created in order to make the deliberate annihilation of national and religious groups a punishable offense.

After obtaining his doctorate of philology from the University of Lvov in 1926, Lemkin rose to become a renowned expert in international law and a leading advocate of the protection of minorities. To him the protective provisions drawn up in the context of the minority treaties did not go far enough. For that reason he proposed, at the Fifth International Conference for the Unification of Penal Law in Madrid (1933), the establishment of two additional statutory offenses in international law: "vandalism" and "barbarism" were to be included in the domestic criminal law of the thirty-seven participant states. By "vandalism" Lemkin meant the deliberate destruction of the cultural heritage of a specific group; by "barbarism" the suppression and extermination of members of a racial, religious, or social group. However, the congress rejected Lemkin's proposals.

In 1939 Lemkin became a victim of persecution himself. He had to leave Poland and escaped to the United States via Sweden, initially teaching at Duke University and finally at Yale. The indifference the U.S. public displayed toward the extermination policy of the Nazis in eastern Europe was deeply troubling to Lemkin. He hoped that a treaty aimed at guaranteeing the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, signed by the Allies and the neutral countries, could deter the National Socialists from the annihilation of the European Jews. Yet his plans did not meet with any considerable echo among U.S. politicians.

In his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which analyzed the brutal German occupation policy across conquered Europe, Lemkin made a powerful plea in 1944 for passing an international law outlawing and thus preventing the persecution and destruction of peoples and minorities. Since, according to the Hague Conventions on land war, the murder of a people by an occupying force during wartime was a punishable offense, now, Lemkin argued, a new international law would have to be in force during peacetime as well.

In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin introduced into international law the neologism he had coined: genocide. Lemkin compounded the word genocide from the Old Greek genos (race, people, or tribe) and the Latin verb caedere (to kill). The meaning of his definition of genocide was broad and narrow at the same time. Lemkin regarded as genocide solely the destruction of national groups. Yet he did not interpret "genocide" exclusively as the physical murder of all members of a nation but included all acts aimed at destroying their basis of life and culture. Moreover, in his work Lemkin explained the various "techniques of genocide" using the example of Nazi rule and exterminatory policy in Europe in political, social, cultural, economic, biological, physical, religious, and moral terms. The chapter on the concept of genocide in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe concludes with the demand that the crime of genocide must elicit universal jurisdiction and ought to belong to the delicta juris gentium (offenses of international law) just like slavery, child trafficking, and piracy.

Genocide as defined by Helen Fein:

Genocide is a series of purposeful actions by a perpetrator(s) to destroy a collectivity through mass or selective murders of group members and suppressing the biological and social reproduction of the collectivity. This can be accomplished through the imposed proscription or restriction of group members, increasing infant mortality, and breaking the linkage between reproduction and socialization of children in the family or group of origin. The perpetrator may represent the state of a victim, another state or another collectivity.

Source: Quoted in Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, eds., The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn., 1990, p. 16.

Lemkin hoped that after the end of the war the statutory offense of genocide would be included in the charges brought by the International Military Tribunal (IMT) against the National Socialist war criminals, but this was not the case. In the so-called Nuremberg Trials lasting from 18 October 1945 until 1 October 1946 the twenty-two major German war criminals had to answer for, among other things, "crimes against humanity." The allegations included murder, extermination, enslavement or deportation, and persecution of the civilian population for racist as well as religious reasons. Consequently the indictment of the military tribunal charged the accused specifically with having systematically committed mass murders against racial and religious groups—above all, Jews, Poles, and Sinti and Roma—and to have annihilated them. The judges presiding over the court, however, linked the "crimes against humanity" to the war itself and thus differentiated between the persecution of the German Jews before the war and the German extermination policy during the war in the occupied territories. In order to include the persecution of the German Jews before the outbreak of war in 1939 in the charge nonetheless, the prosecutors and judges argued that these persecutions had served to prepare the German war of aggression, something even a representative of the French delegation deemed a threadbare line of argument. This linking of "crimes against humanity" with war soon posed an obstacle. Specialists in international law recognized that this new statutory offense was problematic for the future punishment of systematic persecution and massacres committed by a government during peacetime against an ethnic or religious group among its own national population. Therefore it would hardly be suitable as protection for minorities. New paradigms were called for in international law.

In April 1947, therefore, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Trygve Lie (1896–1968), commissioned Raphael Lemkin, the Romanian Vespasian V. Pella (1897–1952) who was president of the International Association of Penal Law, and Henri Donnedieu de Vabres (1880–1952), a French law professor and former judge at the IMT, to prepare a draft of an international criminal code against genocide.

Lemkin's concept of genocide constituted the basis of a possible draft, but the three experts on international law took differing views with respect to some crucial points. Lemkin deemed the deliberate destruction of a group's culture—for instance, by banning use of a language or destruction of religious and historical monuments—to be a form of genocide, something his two colleagues regarded as an inadmissible extension of the term. With the exception of the forced transfer of children into a different group, Pella and de Vabres did not consider forms of forced assimilation as being genocidal.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly meeting at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris eventually passed the final version of the Genocide Convention, which Lemkin, Pella, and de Vabres had agreed on, by a vote of 55–0–0. The convention came into effect on 12 January 1951, after being ratified by twenty countries as well. In arriving at the definition on which the convention was based the authors deliberately choose the formulation "in whole or in part," especially since the convention would otherwise only have taken effect if members of a certain group had already been murdered. By definition, political groups cannot be victims of genocide. The Soviet Union had opposed the inclusion of this group, fearing to come under suspicion of genocide itself because of the Stalinist terror.

Issues of the practical applicability and scope of the convention are detailed in the nineteen articles: Article 1 states expressly that genocide constitutes a crime according to international law, regardless of being committed during war or in peacetime. Furthermore, accordingtoArticle3, even the attempt to commit genocide is punishable by law. Article 6 provides that persons accused of genocide will be brought before a court of competent jurisdiction in the country on whose territory the acts were carried out or before the International Criminal Court.

The actual innovation of the Genocide Convention consisted of the juridical abolition of the principle of sovereignty. Until the end of World War II, governments had been able, in principle, to destroy parts of their population unpunished. The Genocide Convention issued by the United Nations put an end to this deplorable state of affairs.

Nevertheless, the Genocide Convention had no effect for a long time following its adoption. The absence of international jurisdiction—the Rome Statute on the establishment of an International Criminal Court only came into force on 1 July 2002—and of an effective monitoring and control system made the convention appear as a mere statement of intent and thus actually as a superfluous provision. Contributing to this above all were the political constellations determined by the Cold War. The superpowers, which would have had the means at their disposal to punish the crime of genocide, did not wish to meddle in the domestic affairs of their respective allies. They merely denounced the offenses perpetrated by the opposing side. Although the Genocide Convention was not applied at first, it nevertheless represented a frame of reference to document the severity of state-organized crimes against minorities.

The end of the bipolar world order of the Cold War helped the convention achieve greater significance. In connection with the war in Bosnia (1992–1995) and the murder of 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda in 1994 its provisions were actually applied at last. In February 1993 the UN Security Council decided to set up an ad hoc tribunal for the punishment of the "serious violation of humanitarian international law" that had been committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In November 1994 followed the resolution to entrust the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) with the legal prosecution of crimes committed in Central Africa. The statutes, very similar in both cases, included an assessment based on the Genocide Convention. On 2 September 1998, finally, the first verdict ever on the count of genocide was handed down, as the ICTR found Jean Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, guilty as charged.

These developments gave cause for optimism that in future the UN Genocide Convention would be able to contribute more substantially to the prevention and punishment of genocides. Chief among them was the breakthrough achieved at the 1998 international conference in Rome toward establishment of an International Criminal Court, intended to serve as an effective instrument to punish genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. However, the helpless and largely indifferent reaction by the international community of states to the massacres of the minorities of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit initiated by the Sudanese government in 2003 in the province of West Darfur dampened this confidence. The example illustrates that the mere existence of provisions and instruments of international law alone does not suffice to prevent or punish genocides effectively.

Lemkin's role was second to none in the realization of an international law that makes systematic persecution of minorities a punishable offense. He not only provided the basis of the Genocide Convention in international law but also, as a lobbyist, fought untiringly for its realization. Lemkin, though, deserves credit not just because of his achievements in international law. He had also dealt in detail with the historical background to past genocides and was planning to publish a comprehensive work on forms of collective violence in human history. However, he was unable to find a publisher, as a result of which his manuscripts, for instance, on the murder of the Herero in German South-West Africa (1904–1908) and on the genocide of the Armenians remain filed among his unpublished papers. Only since the beginning of the twenty-first century have historians recognized the significance of Lemkin's historical works. Lemkin is now regarded as a pioneer of a new branch of research: genocide studies.


The interdisciplinary study of genocide started in earnest only in the 1980s, but by the early twenty-first century had managed to gain a firm foothold in the academic work at universities. Genocide studies comprise a broad field and are concerned, apart from questions of international law, with the social and individual psychological motivation of genocide perpetrators; they also deal with survival strategies as well as post-traumatic stress management for victims of persecution. Further, this research explores forms of remembrance and representation of genocide in literature and art and deals with the question of how this complex and straining topic ought to be conveyed in schools.

Transferring the concept of genocide as derived from international law into the social sciences has been rather difficult, posing a number of methodological problems. According to the definition of genocide by the United Nations, the express intention of perpetrators is to destroy a people partially or entirely, a constitutive feature of genocides. In international law, only proof of this subjective element of the offense can result in a conviction on the count of genocide. Such an intentionalist argument is difficult to reconcile with the insights of empirically oriented historical research, which contends that governmental extermination policies generally constitute complex processes that undergo various phases of radicalization and depend on a range of situational factors such as the course of a war. Studies on National Socialist population and extermination policy and on other mass murders have revealed that these cases were not murders exclusively organized by central authorities and carefully planned long before the actual crime. For instance, the mass deaths of Soviet prisoners of war during World War II, caused by hunger, disease, and exhaustion, or of the Herero and Nama in concentration camps during the colonial war from 1904 to 1908 in German South-West Africa were not brought about premeditatedly. If, therefore, one were to keep strictly to the definition of genocide by the United Nations, one could not call either of these two cases genocides. Yet causing the deaths of members of an ethnic or religious group by imposing unreasonable living and prison conditions nevertheless has to be characterized as being genocidal, because the prisoners' deaths were willingly accepted.

The UN definition of genocide excludes political groups and social classes as potential victims of genocide. The reasons for this restriction are political, certainly not scientific, and have their origins in the intervention of the Soviet Union. With respect to the murder of more than 1.5 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge, the strict interpretation of the United Nations' definition of genocide is highly unsatisfactory. To be sure, the murderous violence committed by Pol Pot (1928?–1998) and his followers was directed against ethnic and religious groups as well, thus constituting the offense of genocide. However, the majority of victims belonged to the ethnic group of the Khmer themselves. The Khmer Rouge strove to wipe out the bourgeois class comprising, in their view, city dwellers and merchants. According to the criteria and provisions of the UN Convention on Genocide, this crime strictly speaking does not constitute genocide, even though it involved the attempt by the ruling authorities to exterminate a defenseless group.

Due to these methodological problems and inadequacies inherent in the concept of genocide, a small number of scholars fundamentally reject its application outside the area of international law. The great majority of social scientists, though, who do not wish to do without the term, feel compelled to remedy shortcomings of definition and to redefine the term in part. As a result, by now a great variety of definitions of genocide exist. The lack of a generally accepted definition as well as the use of numerous competing terms such as ethnocide and politicide, often used synonymously for genocide, is contributing to the vagueness attached to the concept in the social sciences. The large numbers of different definitions make broad agreement impossible with regard to which historical cases of mass murder should be classified unequivocally as genocide.

Nevertheless, a few definitions of genocide, useful for analyzing and categorizing mass murders, have gained acceptance among researchers. The definition provided by the sociologist Helen Fein (b. 1934) has provided a solid working basis. The great value of Fein's definition derives from the inclusion of political and social groups as possible victims. Moreover, she emphasizes that genocides are not only committed by states. Hence Fein also interprets the destruction of indigenous societies by settlers acting independent of state control as a form of genocide. The question of whether the expulsion or decimation of indigenous peoples by settlers in the age of European colonialism was actually genocidal is subject to controversial discussions among historians. As the following argument will show, the hypothesis often advocated in the scholarly literature—that genocides are only committed by modern state machineries—takes too narrow a view.


Raphael Lemkin felt that genocide was "an old practice in its modern development." In fact, the annihilation of peoples by others is as old as history itself. Several examples have come down from ancient times, such as the devastating campaign by Athens against Melos (416 b.c.e.) and the destruction of Carthage by the Romans (146 b.c.e.). Most researchers on genocide, however, assume that the genocides of the twentieth century differ substantially from those of premodern times.

To begin with, the connection between genocide and the modern age was a matter of scholarly investigation for the two philosophers and co-founders of the Frankfurt school of social research, Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), in their work Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment). Adorno and Horkheimer located the root causes of fascism in the European Enlightenment. They ascertained that the rationalist disenchantment of the world, its turn away from magic, had changed into its opposite, creating a "modern mythology of science and technology." Ethics, they argued, had been sacrificed to the thirst for understanding inherent in the Enlightenment. In the end such fanaticism of knowledge had produced a favorable effect on the rise of fascism, considering after all that it had furnished the state with superior technology; at the same time, it had undermined moral scruples about the uninhibited exercise of an all-pervasive state power. This Enlightenment critique was taken up by the Polish-born British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (b. 1925). He established that Enlightenment thought underlying the modern age favored forms of terror that strove to subjugate human societies to an ideological scheme by means of violence. To Bauman, rationality, bureaucracy, a cult of science, the idea of nation-states, and the ambitions and industriousness of political technocrats intending to create the perfect society (societas perfecta) were typical attributes of the modern age. Bauman compares the implementation of such utopian societal models to the work of a gardener, as human societies were, like ornamental gardens, slated to be redesigned according to clear organizing criteria. In Bauman's view, attempts to found nation-states or to establish "racially homogenous" societies were therefore bound to result in expulsion and genocide.

For historians working empirically, however, the distinction between modern and premodern genocides is rather difficult to prove. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 saw the slaying of close to eight hundred thousand Tutsi within a matter of mere months by means of very simple weapons such as machetes. This seems to contradict the thesis that the genocides of the twentieth century were more devastating than premodern genocides only because of advanced technology and the greater destructive potential resulting from it. Advocates of the thesis about the different quality of modern genocides recognize modern, predominantly racist ideologies as the essential distinguishing feature. The French genocide scholar Yves Ternon (b. 1932) thinks that prior to the twentieth century the destruction of peoples had taken place because of vindictiveness, profit mongering, or thirst for conquest. The Armenians and the European Jews were murdered, however, because the Young Turk and National Socialist perpetrators, respectively, intended to put into effect their racist worldview. This conclusion is problematic. Neither the annihilation of the Armenians nor the murder of the Jews can be regarded simply as ideological genocides. Such a perspective involves the risk of monocausality. After all, empirically sound studies of both these genocides in the twentieth century have revealed that seemingly ordinary motives such as rapaciousness combined with racist and nationalist attitudes to contribute to the Turks' and Germans' readiness to use violence. As a rule, genocides are carried out for a variety of reasons. European settlers in Australia and America committed atrocities against the indigenous populations not solely because of their greed for land. At the same time, a religious sense of being chosen and of racial superiority was firmly embedded in the minds of the European conquerors, fostering their propensity for violence against the natives and simultaneously providing an ideological basis of justification.


Since the beginning of European overseas expansion in the fifteenth century, the indigenous population in the Americas had been decreasing drastically. In the period from 1500 to 1600 alone, the numbers of indigenous people diminished from approximately seventy million to about ten million. Even though the European conquerors treated the Native American inhabitants ruthlessly and contributed substantially to their weakening by subjecting them to forced labor, this decline in population cannot be viewed as the consequence of genocide. The occurrence of previously unknown infectious diseases, for instance smallpox and measles, proved decisive for the deaths of most people.

Nonetheless, the history of European colonialism is tied closely to the destruction of foreign peoples and civilizations. Victims of genocides were the indigenous populations in the Australian, North American, and African settlement colonies. Commonly extermination processes got under way when the natives were dispensable to the colonial economy and their lands earmarked for the settlement of European immigrants. The British colonialists in New England and later in Australia in any case believed the extinction of Native Americans and Aborigines to be part of a divine plan of salvation. The mass deaths of the natives due to newly introduced epidemics was interpreted by the Puritans as a result of divine providence. The demonization of the indigenous population and the firm belief in their own chosen status underpinned the settlers' ideological claim to land in the "New World." Armed confrontations with the natives such as the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip's War (1675) saw the line to genocide sometimes being overstepped. Thus the New England settlers declared the Pequot nation to be dissolved after they had massacred the majority of this people and sold the survivors into slavery. In 1763 Lord Jeffrey Amherst (1717–1797), the commander in chief of the British army in North America, ordered his subordinates to exterminate natives by distributing blankets contaminated with smallpox. In following the order, the British handed over blankets to chiefs of the Delaware Indian nation, who had arrived at Fort Pitt for negotiations. Indeed, shortly afterward a smallpox epidemic was raging among the Delaware natives. The European colonizers believed that by their murderous deeds they were doing God's bidding, feeling that the gradual extermination of pagan native inhabitants matched the divine will.

By the nineteenth century a social Darwinist justification was beginning to replace the religious one. European settlers in America and Australia now viewed confrontations with the indigenous population as "racial struggles." Consequently the fight for land and the right to exist in the New World became a zero-sum game, since the settlers believed that only the strongest would be able to triumph in the end. Now Europeans considered the destruction of the natives as an important step toward the conquest and cultivation of new living space. As a result, in Australia the racially justified violence against the Aborigines assumed devastating proportions. Settlers took the initiative and organized lethal campaigns against natives. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the degree to which extermination was organized also underwent change and assumed more modern features. Instead of settlers' associations acting independently, the period saw the establishment of special army and police units by the state that were entrusted with fighting the indigenous population. For instance, in November 1864 the Third Colorado Cavalry commanded by Colonel John Chivington committed a massacre against the Cheyenne on Sand Creek. And in Australia, the government's Native Police of Queensland, cynically made up of nonlocal Aborigines and European officers, was responsible for the expulsion and murder of natives on the "frontier" in Queensland, where land was required for settlers breeding livestock.

Cultural contact between European colonizers and the indigenous population was not solely characterized by massacres and displacement. Nevertheless, a genocidal quality seems to be fundamentally inherent in colonialism. Even colonialists' attempts to integrate native populations into their modern development projects were quite frequently carried out in a violent way. For instance, in order to force natives into the African settlement and plantation colonies as paid laborers, colonizers often felt they first had to destroy traditional socioeconomic and political structures, the essential elements of indigenous culture. The elimination of the economic basis for life of indigenous hunter-gatherer societies, for instance, by forced settlement of nomadic groups, runs throughout the history of European colonialism. According to the UN definition of genocide and consequently in the legal sense, this and other forms of forced assimilation, which could certainly also serve a supposedly humanitarian purpose in the Europeans' self-image as proponents of a "civilizing mission," do not, strictly speaking, constitute genocide. An exception is the forced transfer of children from one ethnic or religious group to another. Yet many forms of forced assimilation clearly correspond to Lemkin's concept of "cultural genocide," which he could not incorporate in the UN Genocide Convention.

In the final analysis, the distinction frequently encountered in the scholarly literature between modern and colonial genocide makes little sense. After all, in the context of European colonialism, racism and social Darwinism, which are fundamental ingredients of the exterminatory ideologies of the twentieth century such as National Socialism, have also served as an ideological basis contributing to the destruction of indigenous peoples overseas. One example underscoring this view is the genocide committed in South-West Africa in 1904–1908.


"I believe that the nation as such must be destroyed." Those were the words the German general Lothar von Trotha (1848–1920) used to express his opinion about how the war on the Herero ought to be ended after they had been defeated militarily in the Battle of Waterberg on 11August1904.Whathadstartedon12January 1904 as a colonial war—not unusual in those days—developed into a real genocide against the South-West African native nations of the Herero and Nama, causing close to eighty thousand deaths and altering permanently the socioeconomic and political structures of the indigenous societies.

The German Empire became a colonial power in 1884, after Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) had declared present-day Namibia a German sphere of influence and imperial protectorate. The start of colonization proved to be extremely difficult because Bismarck and his successors were not prepared to provide significant funds for the prestigious colonial project. In terms of implementing the German claim to power, therefore, the German governor Theodor Leutwein (1849–1921) had to rely on support from the chiefs of the local Herero and Nama, who primarily lived off raising livestock. Leutwein pursued a perfidious policy of "divide and conquer," thus gradually extending German influence.

The revolt of the Herero against German colonial rule broke out on 12 January 1904 in Okahandja. During the first months of the war the military initiative was with the Herero. Theodor Leutwein's inability to crush the rebellion quickly prompted Kaiser William II (1859–1941) and the German chief of general staff, Alfred, count von Schlieffen (1833–1913), to entrust General von Trotha with the military command in South-West Africa. This transfer of command led to a radicalization of the German conduct of war. Von Trotha was an experienced colonial warrior, who had already participated in suppressing the so-called Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and, prior to that, had waged an extremely ruthless war on the Wahehe nation in German East Africa. The German general made no secret of his aversion to Africans. He simply shrugged off the arguments put forth by members of the colonial administration in South-West Africa that the Herero were indispensable to the economic development of the colony as workers. Instead, he waged a war of extermination aimed above all at Herero women and children.

After the military defeat at the Battle of Waterberg, the Herero and their families fled into the Omaheke desert, the frontier to British Botswana. Von Trotha ordered pursuit of the fleeing survivors and had access to the watering places closed off. He deliberately accepted that thousands died an agonizing death of thirst. On 2 October 1904 the general issued his notorious genocide order, instructing his troops to shoot any Herero inside the German borders. He was absolutely determined to put an end to the Herero's existence in German South-West Africa. This intention was derived from the understanding, inspired by social Darwinism, that the war on the Herero was an inevitable "racial war."

The government in Berlin, however, feared that von Trotha's extermination policy might jeopardize Germany's reputation in the world and the very economic basis of the colony. Eventually he received orders to revoke his "shooting order" and to take the surviving Herero into concentration camps. Forced labor, inadequate nutrition, and poor hygienic conditions in these camps meant that half of the prisoners perished during this second phase of the genocide.

Following the bloody suppression of the Herero rebellion in 1904, the Nama rose up against the colonial rule. What ensued was a guerrilla war lasting several years, in the course of which German troops practiced a scorched earth policy in an attempt to destroy the basis for life of the Nama living in the south of Namibia. Captured Nama were also penned up in concentration camps.

Until 1908 the Herero were officially prisoners of war and hired out in exchange for a fee to private companies for work on the railways or on farms. According to the plans of the German colonial administration, any type of "tribal organization" in the colony was to cease to exist. Enactment of the so-called Native Peoples Act in 1907 aimed at permanently guaranteeing the power relationships in the colony, with the indigenous population to be transformed into a manipulable working class subjected to total control. Among these decrees was the obligation to carry a passport. All Herero were forced to wear a tin tag with a number around their necks. Nevertheless, the Herero found ways to circumvent the rigid German monitoring system and to reorganize over time. In historiography, the process of social reconstruction among the Herero has raised adequate interest only since the late twentieth century.

Forty years passed between the genocidal colonial war in Namibia and the murder of the Jews by the Nazis. Without any doubt, there are continuities between these two events that are rooted in intellectual history. Both the war on the Herero and the National Socialist genocide of the Jews in eastern Europe during World War II were viewed by the perpetrators in a characteristically social Darwinist manner as a struggle for living space. Moreover, even the type of violence used suggests continuities: just as the German colonial authorities approved of the mass deaths of their prisoners in the concentration camps, the Nazis readily accepted the deaths of Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish forced laborers due to exhaustion and hunger. Yet this constituted, of course, only a preliminary stage on the path toward systematic murder committed by using gas. To be sure, research into this and additional connecting links thus cannot aim at a monocausal argument tracing back the Holocaust to the first genocide committed by Germans in Africa. Nonetheless, the murder of the Herero and Nama has a significant place in the global history of genocide. As a colonial war waged by one state it represents, as it were, a connection between the destruction of indigenous populations in North America and Australia, which was largely carried out by settlers' associations, and the bureaucratically organized genocide by the Nazis. Certainly the genocide directed against the Armenians during World War I, eleven years after the murder of the Herero, did not reveal the same degree of bureaucratic organization as the National Socialist mass murder. Yet in terms of the historical evolution of genocidal violence, it nonetheless constitutes a further negative quantum leap, because in this case a government intended to exterminate a bothersome ethno-religious minority by using the state machinery at its disposal.


The Armenians had been living in the region between the Caucasus and Taurus since about 1000 b.c.e. After their King Tiridates III (286–344) had been baptized in the year 301, the Armenians adopted Christianity. In the Ottoman Empire, they had been tolerated for centuries. As non-Muslims they did not suffer systematic persecution but faced permanent discrimination nevertheless. For instance, they were not allowed to bear arms, and before a court of law their word did not carry the same weight as a Muslim's testimony. Furthermore, they had to pay a special tax. Relations between Armenians and Muslims gradually deteriorated when the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Above all, it was the Armenians' "cultural renaissance" observed at this time by contact with Protestant missionaries from Europe and the United States that made their coexistence with Kurds and Turks more difficult. The Armenians now stressed their national identity and sometimes organized in small armed groups to defend themselves against attacks by Kurds. The fact that the Armenians had, in cooperation with U.S. missionaries, managed at the 1878 Congress of Berlin to make the "Armenian question"—the question concerning the Armenians' legal status and their safety in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire—a subject of international diplomacy worsened mutual relations between Armenians and Muslims even further.

In the end, pressure exerted by the European Great Powers on the Ottoman Empire to improve the Armenians' status proved counterproductive. In the period from 1894 to 1896 serious anti-Armenian pogroms shook the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, with about 100,000 people falling victim to the violence. There is evidence that these violent clashes did not take place spontaneously but were encouraged by Sultan Abdul-Hamid II. These actions by no means aimed at the expulsion or murder of all Armenians. Rather, they represented an attempt to restore and cement the traditional order, in which Christians had been dominated by Muslims.

In 1908 the opposition Young Turks toppled the sultan and launched ambitious reform programs that were supposed to improve the status of ethno-religious minorities such as the Armenians. However, severe military defeats during the Balkan Wars in 1912–1913 and the annexation of Libya by Italy in 1914 caused the Young Turks to abandon this course. Additionally, when in spring 1914 Russia planned to destabilize the Ottoman Empire even further, pushing for an international plan for reform that would have granted the Armenians greater autonomy, the Young Turks fully came to view their Armenian citizens as a "fifth column" threatening the survival of the empire. Immediately after the Ottoman Empire's entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers, paramilitary units began carrying out systematic attacks on Armenian villages on the border with Russia. Yet it was not before February 1915 that the Young Turk policy toward the Armenians underwent a radicalization leading to genocide. Just prior to this, the Russians had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Ottoman army under the command of Enver Pasha (1881–1922) at Sarikamis. While the Russian army now advanced from the Caucasus, Allied forces were preparing a landing at Gallipoli. Increasingly, fears of complete collapse dominated the thoughts and actions of the Young Turk leadership. After substantial Turkish provocation, an Armenian uprising in the Anatolian city of Van in April 1915 confirmed the Young Turks in their view that the Armenians posed a significant military threat. But that was not all. An additional motive for the genocide of the Armenians had a material background: the Young Turks required the wealth of the murdered Armenians to ensure they could sustain the continued war effort financially. The Young Turk war administration intended to leave the lands expropriated from the Armenians to Muslims who had been expelled from lost territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The detention and murder of Armenian intellectuals, artists, and politicians in Istanbul in April 1915 is considered the actual start of the genocide. In the eastern provinces, where most of the Armenians lived, the local authorities ordered Armenian men and older boys to be executed outside the villages and towns. Women and children were driven on foot to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. These were death marches and by no means militarily necessary resettlements, as the Turkish government maintains. Those in power in Ankara continue to deny the genocide. But overwhelming evidence shows that the deportees were poorly supplied and that the authorities deliberately took them on detours on their way to Syria. Repeatedly, Kurds and members of special military units attacked the deportees. Armenian women suffered not only from hunger, exhaustion, and from the heat but also became victims of sexual violence. Whenever the deportation marches passed through larger towns, local Turks and Kurds bought young women and children from the gendarmes and forced them into their households.

The authorities had made hardly any preparations for the arrival of the expellees in the Syrian desert. The Armenians were imprisoned in concentration camps, where hygienic conditions were atrocious. About 870,000 Armenians reached the final destination of the deportation in 1915. By early 1916 only around 500,000 of them were still alive, and from April to September 1916 another 200,000 became victims of systematic massacres. Overall, anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million Armenians were killed. For the time being, a more accurate count of the victims is impossible, as contemporary statistics are not reliable.

The murder of the Armenians during the world war was, like the expulsion of the Anatolian Greeks in the postwar period, an important prerequisite for the transformation of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire into a Turkish nation-state, which was initiated by the Young Turks and completed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. By accepting this fact at the Middle East conference at Lausanne in 1923 and refraining from punishment of the Young Turk perpetrators of the genocide, western diplomacy set a fatal precedent—for in Europe, revisionist and right-wing nationalist circles, including leading figures of the forming National Socialist Party in Germany, regarded the genocide of the Armenians as an admittedly unpleasant but all the more successful model for "solving" minority questions.


The terms Holocaust and Shoah have become generally established as generic names for the National Socialist murder of the Jews during World War II. Both terms are problematic, however. The word Holocaust is derived from Greek, with the original meaning being "burnt offering or burnt sacrifice." The Hebrew expression Shoah too originally has a religious connotation. In the Hebrew Bible, Shoah is used to denote a divine cloud, encompassing catastrophes and disasters threatening Israel, which have as a source God's anger. Such religious references are evidently out of place in this context. Another argument against the use of these terms is the fact that they leave out the overarching context of the National Socialist extermination policy, which also took the lives of Sinti and Roma, Russians, Poles, and patients of psychiatric hospitals. The Nazis were aiming not only at exterminating the Jews; they were rather pursuing visions of a gigantic pan-European displacement of peoples according to racial criteria. This scheme intended eastern Europe to be acquired as "lebensraum" and to be "Germanized." With respect to Poles and Russians, the German settlement plans such as the notorious General Plan East provided for partial extermination, deportation to Siberia, or transformation into a people of working slaves without any access to education.

The Jews had an essential position within the Nazi ideology. They were regarded as the dark force threatening to prevent the rise of the "Aryan race." Hitler very early on had expressed his intention to exterminate Jewry. Nevertheless, the genocide committed during World War II was not the outcome of years of careful planning. In the early twenty-first century historians generally view the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis as a process, in which several bursts of radicalization led to genocide.

At the outset, Nazi policy toward the German Jews was aimless and marked by sporadic violent clashes. It attained a more systematic nature through the enactment of the so-called Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Henceforth the objective was to exclude the Jews socially and to classify them racially as well as to "Aryanize" their property. As well, the Nazis increasingly relied on radical terrorist measures, such as during the November Pogrom in 1938, in order to force Jews to emigrate. For a while the Nazis' calculation proved right. Between 1933 and 1937 more than 130,000 Jews left Germany. However, when the United States and neighboring European countries began regulating the admission of Jews, emigration was no longer an effective means to "solve the Jewish question."

Following the German military victory over Poland in 1939, the Germans had within their sphere of influence a population of 3.5 million Jews, whom they forced into ghettos. German population policy experts contemplated resettling the Jews to either Madagascar or Siberia. However, these utopian and rather crude plans proved impracticable not least for logistical reasons. Apparently the German authorities intended to make a final decision on a "solution of the Jewish question" only after the German military victory that was expected to materialize soon farther east.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 the line toward genocide was crossed. The planned murder of millions of Jews and Russians by mass shootings or due to hunger was part of the military strategy and matched a perfidious economic rationality, which ultimately corresponded with the racist worldview of the Nazis. The goal was to deprive the Jews and Slavs—racially inferior and "unworthy of life" according to the Nazis—of material goods and food in order to utilize these resources in the military effort that would bring "Aryan" victory in the "racial war." Above all, it was the so-called Einsatzgruppen (special task groups) that carried out massacres of the Jewish population, and they frequently operated behind the front, sometimes in tandem with the German Wehrmacht.

The definitive decision for the "Final Solution" came at some point after the initial invasion of the Soviet Union. On 20 January 1942 high-ranking officials meeting at the Berlin suburb of Wannsee discussed and coordinated the murder of all European Jews. The crucial element in this decision, which could hardly have been more radical, was not merely the Nazis' seemingly irrational racial hatred. In fact, expropriating European Jews made it possible to generate resources and funds essential for the conduct of war and to pass on the war-related social burdens faced by the populations in Germany and in the occupied territories.

About 6 million Jews became victims of the National Socialist extermination policy. Not only was the extent of the Nazi genocide inconceivable: in addition, the industrialized killing of 2.5 to 3 million people (90 percent of them Jews), carried out in a heinous division of labor at the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Treblinka, and elsewhere, stands out in the global history of collective violence and genocide, representing a staggering assembly line of death. Here genocide reached its culmination.

See alsoArmenian Genocide; Concentration Camps; Convention on Genocide; Hague Convention; Holocaust; Wannsee Conference.


Aly, Götz. "Final Solution": Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews. Translated by Belinda Cooper and Allison Brown. London, 1999.

Bartov, Omer, ed. Studies on War and Genocide. Vol. 8: Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History, edited by A. Dirk Moses. New York, 2004.

Bloxham, Donald. The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. Oxford, U.K., 2005.

Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Calif., 2002.

Kieser, Hans-Lukas, and Dominik J. Schaller, eds. The Armenian Genocide and the Shoah. Zurich, Switzerland, 2002.

Levene, Mark. Genocide in the Age of the Nation State. Vol. 1: The Meaning of Genocide. London, 2005.

——. Genocide in the Age of the Nation State. Vol. 2: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide. London, 2005.

Mann, Michael. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Stone, Dan, ed. The Historiography of the Holocaust. Basingstoke, U.K., 2004.

Weitz, Eric D. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton, N.J., 2003.

Zimmerer, Jürgen. "The Birth of the Ostland out of the Spirit of Colonialism: A Postcolonial Perspective on the Nazi Policy of Conquest and Extermination." Patterns of Prejudice 39, no. 2 (2005): 197–219.

Dominik J. Schaller


views updated May 18 2018


Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal scholar who escaped Nazi Germany to safe haven in the United States, coined the word genocide in 1944. The word originally referred to the killing of people on a racial basis. In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) Lemkin wrote, "New conceptions require new terms. By 'genocide' we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, devised by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homicide, infanticide" (Lemkin 1944, p. 80). He also wrote about other elements that constitute the identity of a people that could be destroyed and hence the destruction of these, in addition to human lives, were aspects of genocide: political and social institutions, culture, language, "national feelings," religion, and the economic structure of groups or countries themselves.

Genocide is a criminological concept. Studying genocide involves an understanding of perpetrators/oppressors, their motives and methods, the fate of the victims and the role of bystanders. Lemkin went on to explain, "Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor" (1944, p. 80). So, while the general framework of genocide is to describe killing, the nuances of the definition, time considerations, and other aspects relating to politics and culture have made the term genocide highly charged with many possible applications based on interpretation. Lemkin's categories of genocide were political, social, cultural, religious, moral, economic, biological, and physical. Lemkin was interested in describing contemporary crimes that might be prevented, rather than working as a historian and making judgments about whether past events qualified as genocide.

Genocide was both narrowed and expanded beyond its original racially based definition in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This international agreement was approved and proposed for signature and accession by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and entered into force on January 12, 1951. Article 2, the heart of the Convention, outlines the qualifications for deeming an act a "genocide":

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The most difficult and controversial part of the UN Convention is that the above acts are defined as genocide "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" (Kuper 1981, p. 210). The controversies about the word genocide have come from the absence of the category "political," which was eliminated because of the power politics of the General Assembly, especially the objections from the Soviet Union. The phrase "in whole or in part" is also problematic. Certainly, one can understand the meaning of "whole," but an ongoing question being interpreted through international agreements and tribunals is the meaning of "in part." There is the question of proving "intent," which in the minds of some legal scholars demands a precise order of events as well as official pronouncements that indicate intentionality, while for others a general tendency of a state, party, or bureaucracy is sufficient.

The scholars Helen Fein and Ervin Staub have independently developed typologies for understanding victimization. According to Fein, there are five categories that help define victimization by stages of isolated experiences: definition of the group; stripping of rights, often by law; segregation from the bulk of the population; isolation, which has physical as well as psychological dimensions; and concentration, the purpose of which is extermination. Staub, who has written extensively about genocide, has created a structure of motivational sources of mistreatment that may end in genocide. This includes difficult life conditions of a group, the fear of attack on fundamental goals of the society that leads a group to become perpetrators, cultural and personal preconditions that create threats that result in responses to protect identity, and societal-political organizations that necessitate obedience to authority and submission to authoritarian tendencies. Staub places extreme importance on the role played by bystanders, who can create resistance to genocidal conditions, support genocide, or be neutral, which in itself becomes a form of support for the perpetrator.

Most genocides occur in an international war or civil war environment, as was the case with various people groups such as Jews, Roma/Sinti, Armenians, and Tutsis in Rwanda. The genocide of native peoples in North America and Australia, by contrast, occurred in the process of colonization of native lands. A related area to genocide, although less focused and involved with total killing, is the category of "crimes against humanity." The phrase was first used in a 1915 when Allied declaration that exposed what was later called the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The more contemporary international meaning of "crimes against humanity" is derived from Control Council Law No. 10 (1945) (the basis for the prosecution of crimes committed by Nazis who were not tried for the major offenses in the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg), dealing with Nazi crimes in the context of World War II: "Atrocities and offenses, including but not limited to murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, or other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds whether or not in violation of the domestic laws of the country where perpetrated" (Taylor, Control Council Law No. 10, Document).

In a retroactive sense, the United Nations Convention can apply to events that focus back on the destruction of Native American peoples in the western hemisphere; the mass killing of Herreros in Namibia in 19041905; the Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1922; the genocide in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979; Rwanda in 1994; and Bosnia in 1992.

Use of the "stable" categories of victim groups, who are victimized for things that cannot be changed, is critical to understanding genocide. "Crimes against humanity," on the other hand, which can be equally devastating, can apply to both "stable" and "unstable" categories. Thus "race" is a stable and unchangeable category. "Political affiliation" or "religion" are "unstable" and can be changed. The crime of Jews during the Nazi era (from 1933 to 1945) was not that the Jewish people practiced an "illegal" religion, but rather that they had the misfortune of having "three or four Jewish Grandparents" (Nuremberg Law, 1935). The Nuremberg Law of 1935, therefore, allowed the perpetrators to define characteristics of the victim group.

Another term related to genocide and apparently first used to describe population transfers by the Yugoslav government during the early 1980s and more particularly in 1992 is ethnic cleansing. The term generally refers to removal of an ethnic group from its historic territory, purifying the land of "impure" elements perceived as a danger to the majority group. As the term was not in existence in 1948 when the United Nations Convention was approved, it was not considered a form of genocide. Ethnic cleansing can be lethal and give an appearance of genocide, or it may involve involuntary transfer of populations. Forms of transfer, however, existed in the early twentieth century, such as the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations after the Greco-Turk War of 1920 and the transfer of millions of Germans out of Poland and other East European territories after World War II.

Three Examples of Twentieth-Century Genocides

The twentieth century was one of mass slaughter that occurred because of world wars, revolutions, purges, internal strife, and other forms of mass violence. Genocide, however, appeared as something new with greater ferocity, perhaps because of the availability of the technologies of industrialization to be used for mass murder and the willingness of regimes to use these methods. Above all, however, the willingness to embrace genocide as a formula for removing the "other," a perceived enemy, represents the absolute opposite of the seeking of accommodation through diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise.

The Holocaust and Roma/Sinti Porrajmos. The Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew) refers to the destruction of approximately 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, from 1939 to 1945. The word existed before World War II and means "a burnt offering," or something consumed by fire. The word Holocaust is considered by most authorities as specific to the Jewish destruction by Germany because of the cremation of the dead in ovens and because of the religious implications of the word for issues involving the presence and absence of God. Porrajmos ("The Devouring") is the Roma word for the destruction of approximately half a million "gypsies" by the same German government. Jews and the Roma/Sinti were victims on a racial basis, a "stable" category invented by the perpetrators. Other groups were persecuted by the same regime but did not face inevitable destruction. Such groups included male homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, political opponents, priests, habitual criminals, and other national groups, such as Poles. Groups also persecuted and subjected to murder in many cases were those Germans who were handicapped or had genetic diseases. The Nazi T-4 killing program began on September 1, 1939, and continued for several years, leading to the deaths of approximately 300,000 individuals in hospitals, wards, and gas chambers. The Holocaust produced the word genocide.

The mass destruction of both Jews and Roma/Sinti necessitated several steps. Gypsies were already regarded as social outcasts. Jews had to be removed from German society as an assimilated group. The first step was identifying and blaming the victim. Jews had received equal rights as citizens in the German empire and were full citizens when National Socialism came to power on January 30, 1933. The Roma and Sinti never received full rights and were the victims of varying restrictive laws and exceptional police surveillance. The rise of anti-Semitism associated with social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century helped define the Jew as the "non-Aryan," which was part of a general campaign against the ideas of human equality being developed since the eighteenth century. Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (19251927) focused on the Jew as the scapegoat for all of Germany's and civilization's ills.

The second stage of the Holocaust was identification of the victim group, which took place through use of bureaucratic, baptismal, church, and synagogue records. This permitted the removal of Jews from the German civil service in April 1933, and a gradual removal from German society over the next six years. Identification of the group permitted use of special internal documents marked with a "J" ("Jude") by 1938 and the insertion of the middle names "Israel" for Jewish men and "Sara" for Jewish women. The immediate German plan for the Jews before 1939 was not extermination, but emigration. The solution for "the gypsy menace" was less dependent upon emigration, as the Roma/Sinti were equally despised in other countries, being identified as a "criminally inclined" group. Identification permitted the withdrawal of rights, "Aryanization" of property, and exclusion of Jews from the cultural and professional life of the country.

The issue of physical extermination started with the beginning of the German military offensive into Poland, which began on September 1, 1939, with the occupation of Poland and its 10 percent Jewish minority (approximately 3.5 million Jews). Military units ("Wehrmacht") and SS ("Shutzstaffeln") began to carry out mass shootings of Jews, concentration in ghettos, and imposition of conditions of slave labor and starvation that accelerated the death rate. Mass killings in death camps began in 1941 using carbon monoxide gas and hydrogen cyanide. The first such killings marking "Endlosung," or "The Final Solution," began in the summer of 1941. The Wannsee Conference, held outside Berlin on January 20, 1942, was a bureaucratic meeting of the SS presided over by Reinhold Heydrich and designed to summarize and systematize the genocide. Mass extermination took place in six large death camps (vernichtungslager ) in the borders of the partitioned Polish state: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek. Auschwitz became an identifier of genocide against the Jews because it claimed approximately 1.25 million victims.

The Holocaust and Porrajmos possess some unique aspects compared to other genocides. The genocidal killing was not conducted in one country but across Europe, from the North Sea to Mediterranean, from the French Atlantic coast to the occupied territories in the Soviet Union. Neither Jews nor Gypsies had their own state or historic territory within the boundaries of Europe. In both cases children were killed as a means to prevent reproduction of the group. The extermination of the Jews and Roma/Sinti ended only with the defeat of Nazi Germany.

In the aftermath of World War II, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg helped refine the legal concept of crimes against humanity and genocide. The trial of the surviving Nazi leaders, corporate leaders, doctors, General Staff and Wehrmacht officials, and Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads used on the Eastern front for genocidal actions) established the precedent for trials in the aftermath of genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda during the 1990s. The total military collapse of Germany allowed the full extent of the genocide to be known. In other genocides where there has not been a total military defeat of the perpetrator country, a consequence is denial of genocide.

The Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide either sought immigration to democratic countries outside of Europe, such as Palestine (now Israel) or the United States, while a smaller number remained in Europe. The Roma/Sinti had no option to emigrate, as no country was interested in taking them in. They returned to their countries of origin. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be regarded as a consequence of the anti-Semitism in Europe and the Holocaust, as the Zionist response to the Holocaust was to lobby and create a Jewish state.

The Armenian Genocide. The Armenians emerged as a people in the sixth century B.C.E. in Eastern Anatolia and lived there continuously until the twentieth century. They were the first national group to convert to Christianity in the year 301. The last Armenian kingdom collapsed in 1375. Thereafter, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians were considered a loyal minority in the empire until the late nineteenth century. At the end of that century, Christian minorities living in the western part of the Ottoman Empire used the support of the Great Powers to achieve autonomy and later independence. The first attacks on Armenians occurred in 1881, in the aftermath of the Congress of Berlin that helped create Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania. In 1894 Kurdish attacks on Armenians occurred in the town of Sassun, leading to protests and reports by Christian missionaries and international interest. In 1895, as a response to a British, French, and Russian plan to create a single Armenian administrative district in the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdul Hamid II permitted more widespread attacks on Armenians in an effort to stifle Armenian nationalism and perceived separatist tendencies. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Armenians were killed in 1895 and many were forcibly converted to Islam.

The events that overtook the Armenians in 1895 are usually called "massacres." However, in light of the subsequent massacres in Cilicia in 1909 and the beginning of the genocide in 1915, most historians have seen the entire period from 1895 through 1922 as possessing genocidal intent. The "stable" element of the genocide was Armenian nationality and language. Christianity represented both a stable and unstable element, as some Armenians were allowed to live if they accepted Islam. The genocide of 1915 started on April 24 and was connected with fears of Armenian separatism and disloyalty toward the Ottomans. Another theory relating to the genocide is that the Ittihadist Party, the ultranationalist faction of Young Turksled by Enver Pasha, minister of war; Talaat Pasha, minister of internal affairs; Grand Vizir, military governor of Istanbul; and Jemal Pasha, minister of marine sought to create a great "Pan Turkish" empire with ties to the Turkish-Muslim peoples in the East. The Christian Armenians stood in the physical path of such a plan. The attack on the Armenians did not have the technological sophistication of the German genocide against the Jews, nor the extreme racial overtones. The Armenians were living on their historic homeland, as opposed to the Jews, who were a Diaspora people living in Europe.

The beginning of Armenian genocide witnessed the deportation and murder of the Armenian intelligentsia and leadership. Armenians in the army were murdered. Military units attacked communities in the Armenian heartland, men were killed, women raped and killed, and children sometimes kidnapped into Turkish families. Groups known as "Responsible Secretaries and Inspectors," sometimes described as "delegates" (murahhas ), organized and supervised the deportation and massacre of the Armenian convoys. The other was the "Special Organization" (Teskilatl Mahsusa ), which comprised the bands in charge of the killings, the majority of whose members were criminals released from the prisons.

Those Armenians who survived the initial onslaught were subjected to forced marches into the Syrian Desert. A major destruction site was Deir Zor. The genocide witnessed the murder of 1.5 million Armenians, the destruction and obliteration of cultural institutions, art and manuscripts, churches, and cemeteries. The genocide also resulted in the creation through the survivors of the Armenian Diaspora, with large centers in Aleppo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, France, and the United States.

Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide was well covered in the American and European press. The United States was neutral in World War I until March 1917 and also had extensive missions, hence extensive reportage from eastern Turkey. First news of the genocide reached the Allies on May 24, 1915. Their response was a strong statement promising to hold the Turkish leaders accountable for the destruction of the Armenians. In May 1918, as a result of the destruction, Armenians in the Northeast section of Anatolia declared an Armenian Republic. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Allies agreed to sever Armenia and Arab lands from the Ottoman Empire. The United States was offered a mandate over Armenia but it was rejected when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Paris Treaties. The independent Armenian Republic collapsed in May 1921 and became part of the Soviet Union.

In June 1919, the chief Turkish representative in Paris, Grand Vizir Damad Ferit, admitted misdeeds had occurred "that drew the revulsion of the entire humankind" (Dadrian 1995, p. 328). An American report by Major James G. Harbord concluded that 1.1 million Armenians had been deported.

Talaat Pasha, the main architect of the genocide, was assassinated on March 15, 1921, in Berlin by an Armenian student, Soghomon Tehlirian. Talaat had been condemned to death in absentia by the Turkish court martial on July 11, 1919. On July 24, 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne signed by Turkey and the Allies excluded all mention of Armenia or the Armenians. The new Turkish Republic was extended international recognition and the Ottoman Empire officially ended. In July 1926 the Swiss journalist Emile Hildebrand interviewed Turkish president Mustafa Kemal who blamed the Young Turks for the "massacre of millions of our Christian subjects" (1926, p. 1). Nevertheless, the Turkish government through the remainder of the twentieth century continued to deny that genocide had occurred. Armenians and academics have continued to press for recognition of the 1915 to 1922 events as "genocide."

Rwanda. Rwanda was proclaimed a German colony in 1910. In 1923 the League of Nations awarded Rwanda to the Belgians. Before Rwanda achieved independence from Belgium, on July 1, 1962, the Tutsi, who made up 15 percent of the populace, had enjoyed a privileged status over 84 percent who were Hutu and 1 percent of a small minority called the Twa. The Belgians had favored the Tutsi because they came from the north, the "Great Lakes" region of Rwanda, and appeared lighter skinned and were taller, hence "more European." Racial concepts based on eugenics were introduced by the Belgians, as well as an identity card system. After independence, the Hutu came to dominate the country and reversed the earlier discrimination imposed by the Belgians. The Tutsi were systematically discriminated against and periodically subjected to waves of killing and ethnic cleansing. Many Tutsi fled Rwanda into Uganda.

In 1963 an army of Tutsi exiles invaded Rwanda. The unsuccessful invasion led to a large-scale massacre of Tutsis. Rivalries among the Hutu led to a bloodless coup in 1973 in which Juvenal Habyaramana took power. In 1990 another Tutsi invasion took place, this time by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1993 the Hutudominated Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels agreed to establish a multiparty democracy and to share power. After much resistance President Habyaramana agreed to peace talks in Tanzania. The Arusha Accords stipulated that the Rwandan government agreed to share power with Hutu opposition parties and the Tutsi minority. United Nations (UN) peacekeepers would be deployed to maintain peace in the country.

However, despite the presence of UN forces, a Hutu plot and arming of the Hutu civilian population took place during early 1994. In what is now referred to as the "Dallaire fax," the Canadian lieutenant general and UN peacekeeper Romeo Dallaire relayed to New York the informant's claim that Hutu extremists "had been ordered to register all the Tutsi in Kigali" (Des Forges 1999, p. 150). He suspected a plot of extermination of the Tutsi. Dellaire asked for more troops to stop any possible violence. Instead, his force was reduced from 3,000 to 500 men. This turned out to be the preplanning for genocide, which involved Hutus from all backgrounds, including the Catholic Church.

The genocide began on April 6, 1994, when an airplane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down, killing both men. From April 7 onward the Hutu-controlled army, the gendarmerie, and the militias worked together to wipe out Rwanda's Tutsi. Radio transmissions were very important to the success of the genocide. Radio Mille Collines, the Hutu station, broadcast inflammatory propaganda urging the Hutus to "kill the cockroaches." Killers often used primitive weapons, such as knives, axes, and machetes. Tutsi fled their homes in panic and were snared and butchered at checkpoints. The Hutus' secret squads, the interahamwe, used guns and clubs. Women and younger men were especially targeted as they represented the future of the Tutsi minority. Women were raped in large numbers, and then killed. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled to Tanzania and Congo to newly formed refugee camps.

With international organizations helpless and both the European powers and the United States fearful of declaring events "genocidal," the Tutsi RPF took the capital, Kigali, in early July 1994 and announced a new government comprised of RPF leaders and ministers previously selected for the transition government called for in the Arusha Accord. When the genocide finally ended, close to 1 million people had been killed. Further, 800,000 lives were taken in what is estimated to be a 100-day period, a faster rate of killing than during the Holocaust.

Early in December 1994 a panel of three African jurists presented a study of the murder of Tutsi to the UN. It concluded, "Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that the extermination of Tutsi by the Hutu was planned months in advance. The massacres were carried out mainly by Hutus in a determined, planned, systematic and methodical manner, and were inspired by ethnic hatred." Amnesty International concluded that "the pattern of genocide became especially clear in April, when frightened Tutsi were herded systematically into churches, stadiums and hospitals" (Amnesty 1998, p. 23).

Genocide trials began in Rwanda in December 1996. All experts have testified that a relatively small armed force could have stopped the massive killing. The Rwandan genocide lacked the larger context of a world war, which was a factor in both Armenia and the Holocaust. The Holocaust represented more of a technologically based killing after initial shootings suggested negative side effects on the perpetrators. Nazi Germany also sought a solution through emigration before embarking on the "final solution." The Armenian genocide seems similar to events in Rwanda, with hands-on killing and little lead time before the genocide actually began.

Genocide of the Plains Indians: North America

The issue of genocide in the New World is a contentious one for many reasons. First, there are vast variations from demographers regarding the population estimates of the New World in 1491, and North America in particular (the high being 18 million, the low 1.8 million). Second, there is no argument that perhaps 90 percent of the Native American population died between 1492 and 1525. However, while some populations were hunted down and subjected to cruel tortures, most seemed to have died because of immunological deficiencies that prevented resistance to European diseases. Third, while there was never a declaration of intent to kill all native peoples, removal policies by the United States and Canadian congresses, nineteenth-century federal bureaucratic agencies, and public statements created a popular perception that elimination of the Indian tribes was a necessary event for the success of European colonization. One of the consequences of the huge Native American population loss through disease was African slavery to replace necessary labor pools. Bacteriological warfare was used for the first time by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who ordered smallpox-infected blankets be given to the Ottaws and Lenni Lenape tribes in Massachusetts, with catastrophic results (Churchill 2000). The aftermath of tribal reductions in the nineteenth century has been calamitous for remaining tribes and has been called genocide.

More to the heart of the definition of genocide are American and Canadian policies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Native Americans qualify for categorization of a "stable" population under the guidelines for application of the United Nations Convention. Actually, the Native Indian tribes were identified as the barbaric "other" in the American Declaration of Independence. In the last section of this historic document, Thomas Jefferson made the following accusation against the government of King George III: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." It is no surprise, therefore, that the eighteenth and subsequent centuries witnessed a reduction of native populations through use of military forces, massacres, creation of reservation systems, removal of children from families through mission schools, and loss of native languages and significant aspects of culture. Jefferson's description of the Indian tribes, largely propagandistic, might be likened to a charge that native peoples had declared war on the United States. However, it should be taken as the first step in a policy that ultimately saw ethnic cleansing of Indians and perhaps genocide.

The "Indian removal," begun in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson's policy, was implemented to clear land for white settlers. This period, known as the "Trail of Tears," witnessed the removal of the "Five Civilized Tribes": the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole. The Cherokee resisted removal, as they had established awritten constitution modeled after the United States model. In 1838 the federal troops evicted the Cherokee under terms of the New Echota Treaty of 1835. Indian historians sometimes describe the result as a "death march." Approximately 4,000 Cherokee died during the removal process. The Seminole were removed from Florida in ships and at the end of the process on railway boxcars, similar to deportations of Jews during the Holocaust. The Indian Removal Acts pushed more than 100,000 native peoples across the Mississippi River.

Forced assimilation for native peoples was first defined through Christianity as the answer to the paganism of the native peoples. A Christian worldview, linked with the sense of predominance of European (Spanish and Portuguese at first) civilization, necessitated an inferior view of the native "other" that could be modestly corrected through religion. Christian-based schooling provided a tool for the process of eradicating native languages. Boarding schools in particular, which lasted through the 1980s, were instrumental in this process. Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, observed in 1892 that his school's philosophy was, "Kill the Indian to save the man" (Styron 1997). Boarding and mission schools forbade native children to speak their tribal languages and forced other assimilationist elements upon them: mandatory school uniforms, cutting of hair, and prohibitions on any native traditions. The result was that children who survived such treatment were aliens in two societies, their own as well as the world of the white man. Ward Churchill's writings have demonstrated the social impact, which was illiteracy, inability to work, high rates of alcoholism, chronic diseases, and low life expectancy. Accusations of forced sterilizations of Native American women have been advanced and many have been proven. Natives call this cultural genocide covered by the United Nations Convention.

An associated aspect of genocide of native peoples involves issues related to pollution of the natural environment. As native peoples lived in a tribal manner without large cities (except for the Aztec and Inca cultures that were extinguished earlier), their concern for nature was continual and they saw their own lives in a balance with nature. The earth was also seen as possessing a cosmic significance. The Native American ecological view of the earth sees it as threatened by industrialization and modernization generally, and explains environmental pollution in these terms as well as in the pursuit of personal profit.

Mass Murder in Ukraine: Crime against Humanity or Genocide?

There is no doubt that between 6 million and 7 million people died in Ukraine during the period of Joseph Stalin's plan to create a new and massive plan of social engineering by collectivizing agriculture (19281933). The results of collectivization may be called a crime against humanity, although the intentionality necessary to prove genocide is missing. Most of the killing and starvation involved a group defined by economic class rather than race. There was also a concerted attack on Ukrainian nationalism and culture that witnessed the killing of priests, and attacks on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, intellectuals, and political opponents. During the nineteenth century there were various failed Tsarist plans to eradicate Ukrainian culture, all of which had failed.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's first application of Marxism in agriculture attempted a centralized policy of War Communism from 1918 to 1921. This policy, which focused on collectivization, failed miserably. Lenin followed with a compromise, the New Economic Policy (19211927), which, while successful, raised some fundamental questions about the future of Soviet agriculture. A debate erupted in 1924 within the Communist Party and became known as the "Industrialization Debates." Leon Trotsky argued for collectivization, while his opponent, Nikolai Bukharin, argued for maintaining private plots in the rural economy. Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party, aligned himself and his supporters first behind Bukharin to defeat Trotsky, and then adopted Trotsky's position to defeat Bukharin. The result was the first five-year plan and the decision to collectivize agriculture. This decision assumed a vast transformation of the peasantry from a private to a collective society, and was undertaken based on the Marxist principle that human behavior could be changed.

Part of Stalin's logic for the agricultural sector was that, because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was cut off from most foreign trade because of international blockade, a super-tax of sorts would have to be levied on the peasantry to help pay for industrial equipment that might be imported. Thus, private holdings were forced into collectives (kolkhoz ) and the tax was imposed through forced deliveries of grain to the state. The kulak class of private peasants opposed the policy and fought back. Stalin's response for Ukraine, the most productive agricultural region of the USSR, was to seal it off, especially in 1931, and maintain grain exports even if it meant starvation of the peasantry. That the forced grain deliveries were coming extensively from the Ukraine was significant, as Ukrainian nationalism had a long history and an independent Ukraine had existed for a short time after the 1917 Revolution.

The forced grain deliveries of the first two years of the five-year plan produced a famine in 1932 and 1933 that claimed between 6 and 7 million lives. The famine happened in relative silence, as most reporters from foreign press agencies were kept out of the famine areas. The famine spread beyond the Ukraine into the North Caucasus and Volga River basin. Forced collectivization in Central Asia carried away as much as 10 percent of the population in some areas. The famine affected not only crops, but also animals. The absence of fodder led to the massive death or slaughter of animals, and caused a massive reduction in farm animal population by 1933. Peasants who tried to flee or steal grain to survive were either shot or deported by the Soviet police, the NKVD.

The relationship between the question of genocide in Ukraine versus crimes against humanity is a complex one. Those who argue that it was a genocide see Stalin's actions as not only motivated by economics but as a pretext for the attack on Ukrainian nationalism, which paved the way for physical elimination by the police and military authorities of the Ukrainian elites. Leo Kuper, one of the founders of modern genocide thought that Stalin's actions against national and religious groups qualified as genocide under the UN definition. Other scholars have seen the events of the famine and collateral deaths through police action related to economics, class issues, and political forms of killing, which are excluded by the Genocide Convention. Using the information available since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it appears that the intent of the Soviet government was to alter the economic basis of both agriculture and industry. The potential for resistance was greater in agriculture than industry because of its traditions of private holdings. Stalin's response to resistance was ruthless, and direct mass murder or permitting murder through famine was his response. While the debate about the Ukrainian famine may continue, there is no debate that it was a crime against humanity.

Genocide involves death and dying, not of individuals but of entire groups. The issue is never a comparison of numbers, but rather the intent of perpetrators and consequences for the victim group. The United Nations Convention aspires to both prevent and punish genocide. Thus far, it has been unsuccessful in preventing genocide. Trials begun in the period after 1992 in the Hague and Arusha related to events in Bosnia and Rwanda bear witness to the success or failure of war crime tribunals. Genocide remains a threat wherever national and ethnic tensions run high, when preconditions such as Helen Fein and Ervin Staub have suggested appear and trigger the use of violence. Genocide can be prevented by the willingness of outsiders, particularly powerful nations, to act through intervention. However, such intervention seems easier to speak about in theory than in practice. The psychologist Israel Charny has called genocide "The Human Cancer." This disease of genocide, so prominent in the twentieth century, has the potential to reappear in the twenty-first century because of new technologies and smaller but more powerful weapons, often in the hands of both nation-states and substate groups.

See also: Capital Punishment; Famine; Ghost Dance; Holocaust; Mass Killers; Terrorism


Alvarez, Alex. Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Amnesty International. Forsaken Cries: The Story of Rwanda. Ben Lomond, CA: The Video Project, 1998.

Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Charny, Israel W., ed. Toward the Understanding and Prevention of Genocide. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.

Charny, Israel W. Genocide: The Human Cancer. New York: Hearst Books, 1982.

Churchill, Ward. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Light Books, 2000.

Churchill, Ward. Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Expropriation in Contemporary North America. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1993.

Conquest, Robert. Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994.

Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Dadrian, Vahakn. Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of the Turko-Armenian Conflict. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1999.

Dadrian, Vahakn. German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: Blue Crane Books, 1996.

Dadrian, Vahakn. The History of the Armenian Genocide. Providence, RI: Berghan Books, 1995.

Des Forge, Alison. "Leave None to Tell the Story": Genocide in Rwanda. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

Fein, Helen. Accounting for Genocide. New York: The Free Press, 1979.

Heidenrich, John G. How to Prevent Genocide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Hildebrand, Emile. "Kemal Promises More Hangings of Political Antagonists in Turkey." Los Angeles Examiner 1 August 1926, 1.

Ignatieff, Michael. Human Rights As Politics and Idolatry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Ignatieff, Michael. The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. Toronto: Penguin, 1999.

Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Lemkin, Räphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944.

Mandani, Mahmood. When Victims become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Mazian, Florence. Why Genocide? The Armenian and Jewish Experiences in Perspective. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.

Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Riemer, Neal, ed. Protection against Genocide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Rosenbaum, Alan S. Is the Holocaust Unique? Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Schabas, William A. Genocide in International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Smith, Roger, ed. Genocide: Essays toward Understanding, Early Warning, and Prevention. Williamsburg, VA: Association of Genocide Scholars, 1999.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Staub, Ervin. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, eds. Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views. New York: Garland, 1997.

Internet Resources

Styron, Elizabeth Hope. "Native American Education: Documents from the 19th Century." In the Duke University [web site]. Available from

Taylor, Telford. "Final Report to the Secretary of the Army on the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials under Control Council Law No. 10." In the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library [web site]. Available from



views updated May 21 2018


When, in 1881, the German anti-Semite Dühring urged a "final settling of accounts" with the Jews, he spoke, rather obliquely, of the need for a "Carthaginian" solution (p. 113f.). This was not merely a euphemism, however, as it might now seem. On the contrary, it was well known that Rome had utterly destroyed Carthage in the last Punic War. Hence Dühring's meaning was clear. But his phrasing remained cryptic because the vocabulary of mass death had not yet attained technical precision. Not until World War II, in fact, were the terms "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" introduced. Thus, in December 1948, when the United Nations declared the willful destruction of an entire people to be a breach of international law—a principle enshrined in the U.N. Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—the very word for mass murder was still novel.


The word "genocide" was coined by the jurist Raphaël Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. "New conceptions require new terms," Lemkin wrote. "By 'genocide,' we mean the destruction of a nation or. . . ethnic group"—that is, "murder, though on a vastly greater scale" (1944, pp. 79, 91).

Mass murder, of course, is hardly new. But only since the French Revolution has there been widespread concern with what the philosopher Hegel called "the fanaticism of destruction," which aims, Hegel said, to eliminate all enemies, real or imagined ([1821] 1991, p. 38). An early expression of this concern came from Gracchus Babeuf, the leading socialist in the French Revolution, who decried the "exterminating wheel" of Robespierre's Terror. Robespierre's "general system of government," Babeuf contended, is also a "general system of extermination" ([1794] 1987, pp. 96–98). In a similar spirit, the liberal poet August von Platen deplored the Russian repression of the Polish revolution of 1831 as an instance of "Volksmurder" (Jonassohn 1998, p. 140). Others later made similar charges. But it was not until the Nazi Holocaust that the international community felt the need to adopt a special term for the attempted murder of a people.

In 1945, soon after Lemkin's book appeared, the defeated Nazi rulers were charged with "deliberate and systematic genocide." A year later the United Nations ratified a working definition of genocide as the "denial of the right of existence of entire human groups" (Kuper 1981, pp. 22–23). Lemkin's new coinage had won swift acceptance. Since then, it has become universally popular—and equally controversial.


The popularity of the idea of genocide reflects its continuing relevance in today's world. Globally, there were at least forty-four state-organized mass slaughters in the period from 1945 to 1989, many of which were quasi-genocidal by almost any definition. These massacres resulted in an average of 1.6 million to 3.9 million deaths per annum—significantly more, that is, than the total number of fatalities caused by all wars and natural disasters in this period. And in every decade since 1945 another 1.85 million people have died in wars and civil wars (Gurr and Harff 1989). Nor has the picture improved since 1989. In 1993, for example, there were twenty-three wars, 25 million refugees, and a record number of armed U.N. interventions in conflicts around the world (Gurr and Harff 1994). In 1994, a genocidal massacre in Rwanda caused roughly 850,000 deaths (Smith 1998). Elsewhere—in Burundi, east Timor, and myriad other places—similar if smaller tragedies have unfolded.

Many groups, in other words, have been victims of systematic violence in the recent past, and allegations of genocide abound. Yet the concept itself remains elusive—partly, indeed, thanks to its own success. So many people now equate genocide with evil that nearly every conflict is marked by charges and countercharges of genocide. Abortion, birth control, forced sterilization, intermarriage, and desegregation are just a few of the countless practices that have been labeled genocidal. Almost anything controversial, it seems, can be called genocide.

For social scientists, plainly, the matter is more complex. This was clear from the outset in Lemkin's work, which remains paradigmatic in many ways.


Sociologically, Lemkin believed that the Holocaust was not a contingent feature of German Nazism but rather an expression of intrinsic Nazi tendencies. As an absolutist form of nationalism, Nazism claimed absolute sovereignty over non-Germans on the ground of purported German racial-national superiority. This, in turn, led to a Nazi conception of war as Total War—the conviction, that is, that wars are not merely struggles between states but rather inevitable racial contests between peoples, with total victory or defeat as the ultimate outcomes. And the Nazi repudiation of universalist ethics inspired the belief that, in Total War, enemy peoples may be totally destroyed without ethical qualms.

Genocide was not, however, the entire Nazi agenda. On the contrary, in Lemkin's view, genocide was a single part of a many-sided strategy. The ultimate Nazi goal was to build a German empire, and in pursuing this goal only certain types of enemies were slated for annihilation: Jews, who were seen as the poisonous racial antithesis of everything German; so-called Gypsies, who were regarded as racially inferior pests; and a variety of others (including democratic intellectuals, Marxists, and resistance fighters) whom the Nazis saw as irreconcilable political foes. Enemies of other kinds, however, were to be ruled rather than massacred. Some, indeed, were to be incorporated into the Nazi empire as lesser "Germanic" peoples (including the Dutch, Flemings, and Scandinavians). Others, including Russians, Serbs, and Poles, were to be enslaved and reduced in numbers (by limits on birthrates, food rationing, etc.) but were not to be liquidated per se.


For Lemkin, that is, genocide was a strand in the fabric of Nazi war aims. And though the genocidal aspect of Nazi policy had historical precedents, it was also uniquely modern in many ways. Neither of the two pillars of the Holocaust ("master-race mythology and aggressive technology") could be grasped apart from specifically modern forces, including science and industry, nationalism, racism, and statism. Nor could modern German militarism be equated with the warrior ethics of times past. Other peoples had periodically committed mass murder, but German militarism had risen to new heights of virulence, driven, Lemkin concluded, by an acute "national and racial emotionalism" that was given a uniquely destructive force by modern technology (1944, p. xiv).

The consequence, as the sociologist Jessie Bernard noted shortly after the war ended (1949, p. 652), is that "ethnic conflict in our day has taken an unexpectedly brutal turn," even reaching the level of "exterminating whole peoples—genocide." Previous conflicts, however brutal, now seemed relatively small and unsystematic by comparison.


This is not to say, however, that genocide is entirely unique to modernity. In recent decades, sociologists have tended to agree that the willful destruction of entire peoples is, in fact, an ancient practice, common to many cultures. But it is also widely accepted that mass murder has assumed new forms in the twentieth century (as Lemkin said). This change is not merely quantitative but qualitative, and it is often framed in terms of a contrast between two ideal-types: (1) instrumental genocide, or mass murder to achieve pragmatic goals; and (2) ideological genocide, or mass murder as an end in itself.

Save for a relatively small proportion of cases that prefigure contemporary trends (e.g., wars of religion like the Crusades), most premodern genocides were essentially instrumental in nature. Modern genocides, in contrast, are often said to be largely if not primarily ideological—though instrumental motives remain powerful as well.


Many scholars, like Kurt Jonassohn, believe that genocides have occurred "throughout history in all parts of the world" (Jonassohn 1988, in Chalk and Jonassohn 1990, p. 415). Leo Kuper, in a classic study, called genocide "an odious scourge which has inflicted great losses on humanity in all periods of history" (1981, p. 11). Sociobiologists, meanwhile, have been even bolder, claiming that genocide is not only universal for humanity but for our closest evolutionary relatives as well (including chimpanzees and our evolutionary ancestors; cf. Diamond 1991, p. 264). E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, has speculated that genocide may be a "primitive cultural capacity," rooted in "the possession of certain genes," that confers a selective advantage on predatory groups that wish to spread their genes at the expense of their neighbors (1980, p. 298).

In reality, however, there is very little evidence of anything like genocidal violence in the evolutionary or historical record until comparatively recently. Sociobiologists who defend the idea that people and chimps share "a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression" have offered, as their best evidence, the testimony of witnesses who report that, in more than 100 years of observation at four sites, seven chimps were assaulted by groups from neighboring chimp communities; and though none of the victims were killed on the spot, several later died or disappeared (Wrangham and Peterson 1996, pp. 16–21, 63).

This, it seems plain, is slight evidence for the large claim that people and their relatives and ancestors are genocidal by nature. Little else in the ethological or evolutionary record seems to lend credibility to this claim. Nor does history before the discovery of agriculture show significant evidence of mass murder.

To date, the earliest known evidence of collective violence is a gravesite in the Nile Valley containing fifty-nine men, women, and children, most of whom were killed by weapons with projectile points. This massacre, dating back 12,000–14,000 years, was "almost certainly" a consequence of disruptions produced by a crisis in the proto-agricultural system that was evolving in the region (Reader 1998, p. 146). The only other authenticated evidence of mass violence in remote antiquity is a similar but smaller burial ground in Bavaria dating back 7,700 years (Frayer 1997).


In general, archaeological evidence makes it clear that wars, massacres, and even murders were comparatively rare in pre-agricultural days (Ferguson 1997). And the ethnographic evidence shows that, while hunter-gatherers are seldom entirely nonviolent, they have significantly fewer wars, internal conflicts, and interpersonal violence than agrarian peoples (Ember and Ember 1997;Ross 1993). Even the famously "fierce" Yamomami of northern Brazil and Venezuela seem to have been driven to violence as much by the influence of outside forces as by internal pressures (Ferguson 1992). "It seems unlikely," as the genocide scholars Chalk and Jonassohn conclude, "that early man engaged in genocide during the hunting and gathering stage" (1990, p. 32).

For some peoples, this stage lasted until the recent past. For humanity as a whole, hunting and foraging remained universal until roughly 11,000 years ago. Shortly afterwards, agriculture arose in the Middle East; and then, in succession, in China 11,000 years ago in Papua, Mexico, and the Andes 10,000 years ago in West Africa 6,000 years ago and elsewhere.

Once agriculture had appeared, mass violence assumed new dimensions.


The first weapons of war, and the earliest signs of mass warfare, appeared at the dawn of the agrarian era. In the ensuing millenia the first true wars were fought (Ferrill 1997, pp. 18–19). The intent of these wars was usually instrumental—to win land and labor, to keep enemies at bay, to build states and empires. This was the context in which mass violence became familiar. Genocide in particular was almost always linked to empire building in this period.

Historically, empire builders generally seek tribute or servile labor from the peoples they conquer, which leads them to spare the lives of noncombatants, especially peasants. This was the spirit in which Sumerian, Hittite, and Babylonian epics of remote antiquity warned of the folly of genocide (Cohn 1996). But as fortified cities emerged as obstacles in the path of empire, conquest sometimes took more brutal forms. And peasant resistance often provoked vengeful repression. Hence, by the third millenium b.c.e., genocidal conquests had become comparatively common in the early Egyptian empire (Jonassohn 1998). Elsewhere, genocidal massacres seem to have become common by the first milennium b.c.e.

The Assyrians in particular became legendary for their merciless assaults on fortified cities, including Babylon, which Sennacherib decimated in 689 b.c.e. The goal of such assaults was usually to destroy an imperial or commercial rival. The preferred method was to lay siege to a city and starve its citizens into submission by burning crops and destroying livestock. Once a campaign of this kind triumphed, the conquerors would often raze the defeated city, salt the earth, and slaughter the citizens. The legalistic Romans dubbed this practice "devastation."

Early "devastations" included the destruction of Melos by Athens in 416 b.c.e. (for refusing to take sides in the Peloponnesian Wars); the destruction of two Sicilian cities by Carthage in 409 b.c.e.; and the annihilation of Carthage by Rome in 146 b.c.e. In the latter case, as many as 150,000 people are said to have died.


Sociologists have identified a range of motives for instrumental genocide. Chalk and Jonassohn, for example, say that most genocides of this type (which they call "utilitarian") have been prompted by the wish to acquire wealth, to terrorize real or potential enemies, or to avert threats (1990, pp. 34–36). Until comparatively recently, motives of this kind have been the main effective spurs to genocide both in the circum-Mediterranean world and elsewhere. In brief, it seems that whenever empires fight, great opportunities and equally great dangers are at stake. In such cases, genocidal massacres can become the extraordinary means of attaining goals that, in other contexts, would be pursued by ordinary statecraft.

Examples abound. Canton was gutted in 879 c.e. and its population was decimated. In the twelfth century c.e., Afghan conquerors from Ghur destroyed the city of Ghazni and all its men. In the next century the Mongols laid waste to Transoxania and Khurasan, evidently killing hundreds of thousands of people. Not long afterwards, all 12,000 of the Meos people (south of Delhi) were killed in the wake of a failed uprising. Many events in the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Americas were plainly genocidal. And many other examples of this kind can be cited as well (Chalk and Jonassohn 1990; Jonassohn, 1998).

A related form of genocide accompanied the rise of modern colonialism. In the Americas, for example, the English Puritans liquidated the Pequot in 1637, the French destroyed the Natchez in 1731, and Argentine settlers virtually eliminated the Araucanians in 1878–1885. In Africa, many peoples have been devastated by colonial conquests; some (including the Herero of Namibia and the Matumbi of Tanzania) have suffered mass destruction. Many indigenous peoples in Australia have been destroyed, and in Tasmania the entire aboriginal population was extinguished by 1876.

These are just a few of the many cases in which genocide has accompanied instrumental conquest.


In some cases, however, genocide is not an instrumental means to an end, but rather an end in itself. Genocides of this type, in which the destruction of entire peoples is sought for intrinsic reasons, are generally classified as "ideological" (Fein 1993; Smith 1987). These massacres, which are typically fueled by religious or ethnoracial fanaticism, are often among the deadliest of genocides, since they seek to destroy targeted peoples for reasons of "principle," not simply expediency. And they are often instrumentally irrational in an almost chemically pure sense. In 1994, for example, the rulers of Rwanda were so preoccupied by the wish to annihilate an unarmed ethnic minority that they left themselves virtually defenseless against an army of invading rebels from Uganda (Des Forges 1999). Between 1975 and 1979, the Pol Pot regime wrought havoc across the length and breadth of Cambodia in a vain effort to purge Cambodia of every trace of foreign, urban, and intellectual influence (Kiernan 1996). In the Nazi Holocaust, the German leaders diverted vital resources from the Russian front to fuel the militarily useless operations of the death camps (Postone 1980). Earlier, during World War I, Turkey failed to finish the strategically crucial Berlin–Bagdad railway largely because the Turkish rulers were so intent on destroying the Armenians that they liquidated large numbers of Armenian construction workers (Jonassohn 1998).

Genocides of this type are thus doubly destructive—first, because they are prosecuted with systematic ruthlessness; and second, because they often hurt the perpetrators as well as the victims.


Only a few instances of premodern mass violence are clearly ideological in inspiration—including, for example, the Crusades and the persecution of Cathar heretics in thirteenth-century Languedoc. But many other early cases also reveal a noninstrumental side.

Beginning in 1634, for example, the Iroquois fought a series of "mourning wars" against the Hurons, which resulted in large-scale massacres of Huron men and women. The main object, in this case, was to "requicken," in the bodies of Huron children, the spirits of Iroquois who had died in epidemics. This was perhaps not an "ideological" motive in the modern sense, but it was clearly inspired by religious belief (Richter 1992). Similarly, the genocidal massacres that accompanied the Mongol conquests were fueled, in part, by apocalyptic faith in Mongol destiny (Jagchid and Hyer 1979). And several Indian cases recorded by Jonassohn (1998) were largely religious in character—for example, the massacre of Jains by the Hindu king of Pandya in the eleventh century c.e., the destruction of the Buddhist majority of Bihar by Muslim conquerors in the twelfth century c.e., and the persistent efforts of Bahmani sultans to exterminate or convert Hindus in the Deccan region in the period 1347–1482 c.e.

Broadly defined, in other words, ideological genocide may have been more common in the past than scholars have tended to say. But it is nonetheless plain that the twentieth century marked a new departure. Only in this century did mass murder routinely followed paths defined by doctrine.


Raphaël Lemkin had been well aware that genocidal practices predated the twentieth century (Fein 1993). But he believed that the absolutist racism and nationalism of the modern era gave contemporary mass murder decisive new features. Above all, genocide was now pursued with heightened self-consciousness. In the characteristic genocides of the twentieth century—most notably the liquidation of Armenians by Turkey in World War I, the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, and the postwar massacres of minority groups by governments in Indonesia, Pakistan, Cambodia, Burundi, and Rwanda—the intent was genocidal from the start. Entire groups were sentenced to death for ideological as well as geopolitical reasons. And these sentences were pronounced with full awareness of their antihumanistic implications, since they defied the humanitarian trend, rooted in Puritanism and bourgeois constitutionalism (Tergel 1998; Troeltsch [1912] 1958), which had swept the Euro-Atlantic world in the nineteenth century.

What explains this genocidal intent? What gives "ideological" genocide its compelling force? For Lemkin the answer lies, in part, in social psychology. He sees evidence, in particular, of such psychological tendencies as cynicism, denial, "contempt for the victim," and "exaggerated pride," among others (1992, pp. 189–235). This line of reasoning is richly developed in the research literature on the personality traits most relevant to genocide: aggressiveness, submissiveness, and punitiveness. It was first shown, in a flawed but classic study (Adorno et al. 1950), that these three traits systematically covary in structured and intelligible ways. Later research has significantly refined this original discovery.

It is now well understood that certain kinds of harsh personal experience tend to make people (1) submissive to leaders and (2) aggressive toward—outsiders. And people imbued with this dually obedient and violent tendency are often exceptionally willing to persecute or fight those who are authoritatively defined as their "enemies" (Altemeyer 1996; Hopf 1993; Lederer and Schmidt 1995). The significance of this fact for the study of genocide was revealed by Ross, who showed that conflict intensity is strongly related to personality variables of just this type. While objective social divisions tend to determine who fights whom—class versus class, nation versus nation, and so forth—personality-forming experiences play an exceptionally large role in determining the destructiveness of any given conflict. Ross found, after systematically studying the interplay of forty-one variables in ninety nonindustrial societies, that "the more affectionate and warm and the less harsh the socialization in a society, the lower the level of political conflict and violence" (1993, p. 99); and indeed, no other single factor has a greater impact.


Patterns of socialization are thus highly relevant to the study of genocide. No less relevant are structural determinants—few of which, however, have yet received systematic attention. This is largely due to the fact that the sociology of genocide is still just a few decades old. While studies of anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and the Holocaust have been common throughout the postwar era, the study of genocide as a phenomenon sui generis was first pursued in the 1970s by a small cohort of sociologists—Dadrian, Kuper, Fein—who have remained central to the enterprise ever since.

Leo Kuper, the "doyen of genocide scholars" (Charny 1994, p. 64), set the stage for much of the research that was to follow. Focusing entirely on the twentieth century, Kuper noted that genocide in this century has been distinctive in several ways. In addition to the rising influence of ideological motives, Kuper observed that contemporary genocides are also exceptionally likely to occur within divided societies, as autocratic states seek to defend their monopoly of power against the challenges of domestic rivals. Genocidal massacres are still common in the conflicts between societies as well—especially, Kuper says, when imperialist motives are at work—but internal conflicts are now especially acute. This is particularly true in postcolonial societies, many of which were profoundly destabilized by the experience of colonial rule. Such societies are often pure artifacts of the colonial imagination, rigidly stratified and ethnically divided in new and untenable ways. When dissent arises in these "new nations," the rulers—sans consent—resort to coercion, often on a grand scale. Hence the state-sponsored massacres in such postcolonial realms as Indonesia, the former "East Pakistan" (now Bangladesh), Rwanda, and Burundi. And communal divisions in these nations run so deep that genocidal massacres often unfold entirely within civil society, unbidden by the state (Kuper 1981).

Many of Kuper's themes were adapted from classical texts by Sartre (1968) and Cohn (1967), and many later scholars have pursued variations on these themes (see Andreopolous 1994; Totten et al. 1995). Except for Jonassohn, who delves into remoter history, most social scientists continue to focus mainly on twentieth-century cases (Dadrian 1995; Mazian 1990; Melson 1992; Wallimann and Dobkowski 1987). Much has been learned about these cases. Yet in many ways genocide remains as elusive as ever. Part of the problem is definitional.


As the study of genocide proves, definitions are deeply political. This was apparent from the beginning of the United Nations debate over genocide in 1948. For the Russian delegates, "genocide" was a logical effect and extension of fascist doctrine, revolving around the victimization of racial and ethnic groups. Others argued that social classes and political groups can also be the victims of genocide. When the final vote was taken, religious as well as national and ethnic groups were identified as possible targets of genocide, but political groups were excluded. And the United Nations further limited the applicability of its definition by specifying that genocide entails an "intent to destroy" some group, "in whole or in part." Since proving intent is notoriously difficult, some delegates questioned whether the Genocide Convention, so restricted, could ever be enforced. Similar doubts were voiced about the idea of "destroying" a group. Lemkin, in his original formulation, had said that genocide can take cultural as well as physical forms. But does this mean that efforts to sabotage the culture, language, or religion of a group are just as much "acts of genocide" as attempts to physically destroy the group?

Questions of this kind quickly proved to have direct political relevance. In 1951, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and others addressed a book-length petition to the United Nations accusing the U.S. government of systematically genocidal actions against African Americans (Patterson et al. 1951). Reluctance to entertain charges of this kind led many U. S. senators to oppose the Genocide Convention; and, indeed, the United States did not endorse the Convention until 1986 (LeBlanc 1991). Nor did the United Nations prove eager to enforce the Convention. Not until the Rwandan massacres of 1994, in fact, did the United Nations classify a postwar event as "genocide"—and even this came after the fact. It has remained extremely difficult, in short, for policy makers to operationally define or apply the notion of genocide.

Scholars, meanwhile, have spent considerable time on definitional issues. Kuper offered an influential distinction between genocide and "genocidal massacre" as a means of distinguishing the attempted murder of entire peoples from large-scale massacres that are not prompted by the wish to destroy groups in toto. He did not, however, establish clear criteria for this distinction, which limits its utility. Nor has any other approach won consensus. Thus, debate rages over the classification of many events: "the rape of Nanking," Stalin's purges, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, "human-made" famine in Mao's China, and similar events. Other debates pivot on questions of principle. Are there unintended genocides? Is genocide distinct from the destruction of a culture? Does genocide belong on a continuum with other forms of destructiveness, or is it qualitatively unique?


Many answers have been given to these questions, but it remains far from clear that "genocide" is, indeed, a unitary phenomenon or amenable to general explanation. Most scholars have tended to focus on relatively clear cases of mass murder inspired by modern racial-national ideologies, but even these vary in significant respects. Another approach, proposed by the psychologist Charny (1994), is to subsume the full range of mass-destructive practices into a wider matrix; but it seems unlikely that the criterion of mass destructiveness alone is sufficient to justify treating ecological catastrophe, ethnic slaughter, and cultural repression as elements in a unified field of events.

For fuller, more nuanced understanding, comparative research is needed on a widening scale. Whether the general notion of "genocide" will continue to prove compelling remains to be seen.


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David Norman Smith


views updated May 17 2018


Mass slaughter of human beings by other human beings has been a recurrent phenomenon over the centuries, but until recently neither governments nor international legal specialists had sought to devise formal rules and institutions that could help prevent, or if necessary punish, the perpetrators of large-scale atrocities. Massacres that took place during and immediately after World War I, when Turks killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians, and the systematic annihilation of millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of Gypsies (Roma) by Nazi Germany during World War II, gave rise to the concept of genocide, which is defined by Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group." Scholars have differed in their analyses of the concept, but the most widely accepted understanding of genocide pertains to the deliberate slaughter of vast numbers of human beings.

Origins and Evolution of the Concept

The term genocide was coined in the mid-1940s by Raphael Lemkin (19001959), a lawyer of Polish Jewish origin who escaped from Poland after the Nazis occupied it in September 1939. Lemkin fled to Lithuania and then to Sweden before eventually reaching the United States in April 1941. In November 1944 he published a lengthy book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which exhaustively documented the legal basis of the Nazis' policies of mass extermination, deportations, and slave labor. The book is best remembered nowadays for Lemkin's use of the new word genocide. He settled on that term after much deliberation and defined it as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." Because the word became indelibly associated with the Nazi Holocaust, it promptly gained wide currency as the standard by which to judge human destructiveness. Lemkin himself, however, never believed that the term should refer only to carnage and atrocities of the magnitude perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews. He wanted it to encompass all attempts to destroy cultural or ethnic identities, regardless of whether the perpetrators were seeking to exterminate every member of the targeted group.

From the time Lemkin's book appeared, the term genocide has stirred controversy both in the public arena and among scholars. Lawyers, scholars, and political leaders have differed over the scope and nature of the crimes involved. Some, like Lemkin, have sought as broad a definition as possible, not limiting it to large-scale killing. Others, including many prominent historians and political scientists, have advocated a more restrictive definition, focusing on clear-cut cases of mass slaughter and attempts at systematic extermination. Still others have questioned whether genocide necessarily requires the targeting of a specific cultural, ethnic, racial, or linguistic group. Scholars who express reservations about this last point have argued that if genocide depends on the targeting of a particular cultural or ethnic group, slaughters such as those perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 19771978with a death toll as high as 1.5 millionwould not be covered. By the same token, many of the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin or in China under Mao Zedong would not be classed as genocide if the target had to be a specific ethnic or cultural group. Although Stalin did carry out mass deportations of nationalities in the 1930s and 1940s, most of his other violent abuses, affecting tens of millions of people, were not directed against ethnic groups per se. The same is true of most of the slaughters and systematic atrocities perpetrated in China under Mao. By excluding many of the worst abuses and crimes of the twentieth century, the requirement of a targeted cultural or ethnic group has arguably been the most controversial aspect of the concept of genocide.

To help fill these crucial gaps, Barbara Harff and Ted R. Gurr have argued that the concept of politicide should supplement genocide. Politicide, as Harff and Gurr define it, refers to the killing of groups of people who are targeted not because of shared ethnic or communal traits, but because of "their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups" (p. 360). Similarly, Rudolph Rummel has suggested that the term democide could cover all intentional killing of unarmed civilians by governments. According to Rummel, democide includes the slaughter of cultural and ethnic groups, the massacring of politically marginal groups, and all other government-sponsored killing of unarmed civilians. The concept has come under criticism for being too amorphous, but Rummel has sought to refine it in a number of books. Although neither "politicide" nor "democide" has been widely adopted by other scholars, the coinage of these terms highlights the continuing dissatisfaction with the term genocide.

One other issue that has sparked occasional disagreement is whether genocide must be deliberate from the start. This question has been most often raised in analyses of devastating famines such as the one that occurred in southern regions of the Soviet Union in 19321933 or in Ireland in the 1840s. The Soviet famine, which killed as many as four million Ukrainians, a million Russians, and a million Kazakhs, resulted from policies adopted by Stalin to crush the Soviet peasantry and to force the collectivization of agriculture. Some scholars, such as Nicolas Werth and Andrea Gnaziosi, have argued that even if Stalin did not set out to kill so many people, the famines were the inevitable result of his policies. They also have pointed out that when Stalin learned that vast numbers of people were dying of starvation, he took steps to keep peasants from escaping the affected regions, thereby consigning them to certain death.

The Soviet famine has come up particularly often in discussions of genocide because of what some writers, such as Robert Conquest, perceive as the deliberate targeting of Ukrainians (though it should be noted that, proportionally, more Kazakhs than Ukrainians died in the famine). Other specialists such as Jean-Louis Margolin have argued that even when famines do not affect concentrated ethnic or cultural groups, the deaths may still amount to genocide. Among the examples cited by those who subscribe to this view are the terrible famines in China in the late 1950s that resulted from Mao's Great Leap Forward policies. Although Mao undoubtedly did not foresee that the Great Leap Forward would cause tens of millions of people to die of starvation, he failed to take any remedial action even when he became aware of the scale of the suffering. Hence, scholars such as Margolin have argued that the death toll during the Great Leap Forward should be added to the millions of other victims whom Mao deliberately set out to kill.

The Genocide Convention

Revelations at the end of World War II about the scale of the Nazi Holocaust spurred an effort within the newly created United Nations (UN) to set up an international legal convention that would prohibit genocide and require signatory governments to take all necessary steps to prevent or halt it. Although political leaders were initially slow in moving on the issue, Lemkin did his best to keep the issue on the UN's agenda. He repeatedly called on the world's governments to establish a legal framework that would apply to all acts of genocide, not just to those committed during interstate wars. In December 1946 the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution denouncing genocide as "the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups" and describing it as "contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations." The resolution also set up a committee to draft an international treaty that would formally outlaw genocide. The result, after protracted and often arduous negotiations, was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the UN General Assembly on a 55-to-0 vote in December 1948. The Genocide Convention was slated to enter into force after twenty of the fifty-five UN member-states that voted in favor of it submitted their formal instruments of ratification. Although some signatories of the convention, notably the United States, took many years before they ratified it, ratification by the twentieth country was completed in October 1950, allowing the convention to take effect in January 1951.

The Genocide Convention defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." In giving examples of the type of "acts" encompassed by this phrasing, the convention makes clear that genocide can occur even if no one has carried out (or intends to carry out) "mass killings." The definition in the convention is largely in keeping with Lemkin's own preference for the broadest possible scope. It also is in keeping with Lemkin's belief that genocide is targeted against an ethnic, religious, or racial group, and that the motives of the perpetrators are irrelevant. Although the convention stipulates that genocide is deliberate and purposeful (reflected in the phrase "intent to destroy") and includes "conspiracy to commit genocide" and "incitement to commit genocide" as well as the destruction itself, it does not require the signatories to determine why the perpetrators are seeking to wipe out the targeted group. Under the convention, genocide can occur irrespective of motive, in peacetime or in war.

The long delay in U.S. ratification of the Genocide Convention stemmed in part from domestic political maneuvering, but it also reflected continued disagreements among lawyers and politicians about the concept of genocide. Some U.S. senators were concerned, especially during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, that U.S. officials might come under frivolous accusations of genocide. Others worried that if the United States formally adhered to the convention, the government would be obligated to send military forces to distant countries to enforce it. Not until February 1986nearly four decades after the convention was signeddid the U.S. Senate vote 83 to 11 in favor of ratification, albeit with a list of "reservations" in the resolution of ratification. It took another two years before Congress passed legislation that actually implemented the convention by making genocide a crime under U.S. law. Moreover, even after the ratification was approved (with reservations), U.S. officials and legislators continued to debate such matters as the scope of the convention and the means of enforcement. One of the ironies of the convention, as demonstrated during the mass killing in Rwanda in 1994, is that U.S. and other Western leaders have been reluctant to enforce it. As a result, they have refrained from using the term genocide to describe even flagrant instances of systematic killing and large-scale atrocities.

Some observers, notably Samantha Power in her prizewinning book on U.S. policy toward genocide in the twentieth century, have argued that U.S. leaders would be more inclined to enforce the convention if they knew they would be held accountable for failing to uphold it. Short of some action by Congress, however, there are few if any ways to ensure that presidents will faithfully implement the convention. Thus far, Congress has not tried to hold the president or other senior foreign policy officials accountable for preventing or punishing genocide. On the contrary, many in Congress have shared the executive branch's reluctance to send troops to enforce the Genocide Convention. (Although the convention was not invoked by the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton when it decided to bomb Serbia in 1999 to curb human rights abuses in Kosovo, some specialists argued that the convention was in fact relevant. Yet, congressional support for even that limited use of force was meager.) Power maintains that the calculus of U.S. officials on this matter will not be altered unless they are held "publicly or professionally accountable for inaction" (p. 510).

Persistent Controversies and Ambiguities

The concept of genocide has remained a source of disagreement not only in the political arena, but also among legal scholars, historians, and political scientists. Although most scholars accept the view that genocide is targeted against a particular group, many have sought to expand the criteria for identifying particular groups. Rather than limiting the potential victims to ethnic and cultural groups, scholars such as Helen Fein and Leo Kuper have argued that genocide can also be directed against political or socioeconomic groups. This broadening of the concept is in line with Harff's and Gurr's concept of politicide, but it departs from the criteria laid out in the Genocide Convention. Some specialists, however, find even the broader conception of targeted groups to be still insufficient. In particular, Rummel has argued that the requirement for victims to be members of a group is a fatal drawback for those who want to take account of the full range of government-sponsored killing of unarmed civilians. Most scholars readily agree that genocide, if conceived of as directed against groups, leaves out many instances of slaughter and atrocities, but they still find the concept a useful one for describing a particular form of extreme abuse.

Even as scholars have generally expanded the range of potential victims of genocide, they have tended to move in the opposite direction when discussing the nature and scale of acts that fit under the rubric of genocide. In recent years, relatively few historians and political scientists have used the expansive definition of acts of genocide laid out in the Genocide Convention (in accord with Lemkin's preferences). The trend in the 1990s and early twenty-first century has generally been toward a more restrictive definitiona definition that limits acts of genocide to intentional killing of particular groups. Steven T. Katz, for example, has argued that "the concept of genocide applies only when there is an actualized intent, however successfully carried out, to physically destroy an entire group (as such a group is defined by the perpetrators)" (p. viii), and Mark Kramer has defined genocide as "deliberate mass slaughter aimed at complete extermination." (p. 2). Although some scholars continue to espouse a much broader definition of acts of genocide (a definition that would include such things as mass slavery, restrictions on cultural practices, discriminatory education policies, and limits on travel), the narrower conceptions have tended to win favor in the scholarly community.

Outside the scholarly community, however, genocide has remained an expansive concept. Many advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Genocide Watch, have sought to broaden, not restrict, the definition of acts prohibited by the Genocide Convention. They also have tried to strengthen the means of enforcing the convention. These groups vigorously supported efforts in the 1990s to establish international criminal tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. They also strongly backed the ultimately successful campaign to set up an International Criminal Court (ICC), which was created under a statute signed in Rome in July 1998. Although the United States and China declined to take part in the ICC, enough other governments ratified the Rome Statute to enable the ICC to begin functioning in mid-2002.

The human rights NGOs have been less successful, however, in their attempts to persuade Western governments to enforce the Genocide Convention more rigorously. No governments adhering to the convention were willing to brand as genocide the mass atrocities committed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, against Kurds, marsh Arabs, and Iraqi Shiites. Nor were any Western governments willing to regard the mass killing in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the first half of the 1990s as genocide. Even during the slaughter of some 800,000 people (predominantly Tutsis) by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, Western governments carefully refrained from using the term genocide to describe what was going on. Officials worried that the mere use of the term would obligate them to send troops to put an end to the killing.

The unwillingness of governments to invoke the Genocide Convention in response to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 or to the systematic atrocities perpetrated by government-backed Arab militias in the Darfur region of western Sudan in 2004 underscored the limits of both the convention and the ICC. In the absence of a concerted effort by parties to the convention to enforce it, debates about the precise scope and nature of acts of genocide are largely irrelevant. The special international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the ICC have no means of enforcing their own rulings; instead, like all international organizations, they depend entirely on individual states for enforcement. The Genocide Convention, as Lemkin recognized from the outset, is little more than a paper document unless the signatories are willing to take concrete steps to prevent mass killing and to punish the perpetrators. In a few instances, states have sent military forces to put an end to egregious human rights abuses, as Vietnam did in Cambodia in 1978 and Tanzania did in Uganda in 1979. In both of these cases, the interventions were only partly motivated by humanitarian concerns, but there is no doubt that the actions, whatever their motive, did put an end to systematic atrocities. Nonetheless, these incidents were rare exceptions. The most powerful countries, including the United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, have been averse to intervening abroad solely to uphold the Genocide Convention.

Despite the problems in enforcing the Genocide Convention, the document has had a notable influence on international politics. In large part through Lemkin's efforts and the widespread revulsion at the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany, the convention not only attached a permanent stigma to the crime of genocide, but also helped ensure that governments could not simply brush it aside as an "internal affair" of a sovereign state. The convention made clear that unless a government lived up to certain minimum standards of conduct vis-à-vis its own citizens, that government could potentially be removed and punished by other states. No longer would sovereignty be an insuperable barrier against international action. Moving from this principle to concrete enforcement has not yet been practical, but the establishment of the principle itself has been a crucial step on the road toward more effective international responses to genocide.

See also Human Rights ; International Order ; Race and Racism ; State, The ; War .


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Fein, Helen. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London and Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993.

Gellately, Robert, and Ben Kiernan, eds. The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Harff, Barbara, and Ted R. Gurr. "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945." International Studies Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (September 1988): 359371.

Katz, Steven T. The Holocaust in Historical Context. Vol. 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kramer, Mark. "Introduction." In Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 19441948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak, 142. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001.

Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1994.

Mark Kramer


views updated May 29 2018



Genocide is one of the foundational moral, legal, and political concepts of modern society. While the terrible suffering named by the term is not new, the meaning of genocide is intimately bound to the creation of the modern human rights movement in the wake of World War II (19391945) and the subsequent evolution and expansion of new mechanisms of global governance.

Genocide is a term of profound moral, legal, and political significance. On moral terms, genocide references extreme inhumanity, naming a boundary where the central tenets of civilized behavior are called into question by the most reprehensible acts of political violence. Legally, genocide is understood as a crime whose severity demands immediate and total condemnation. As the special rapporteur to the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights stated, Genocide is the ultimate crime and the gravest violation of human rights it is possible to commit (1985, part I, para. A14).

Politically, the term helped establish the foundations of modern human rights discourse and practice. The United Nations began discussing genocide in its first year of operation (1946), and the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), entered into force in 1951, was the first legally binding international human rights convention. In these interconnected ways, genocide represents a major element of an evolving human rights consciousness as well as a growing global commitment to protecting people from harm and preventing the worst excesses of the exercise of power.

Throughout human history, there are records of massacres and violence directed toward the destruction of entire peoples. References of mass violence that might be termed genocide can be found in the Bible, the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the religious-military campaigns of the Middle Ages, and the mass killing of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere associated with discovery and colonization. The modern discussion of the concept is often associated with Turkish atrocities against the Armenians (1915-1923), when as many as 1.5 million may have been killed. However, it was the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust that led to the evocation of genocide as a distinct crime, in which over 6 million Jews were exterminated in a systematic and calculated manner, along with Roma, Slavs, and other groups viewed to be dangerous or undesirable.

The word genocide was invented in 1943 by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959). Lemkin also wrote Military Government in Europe, which was a preliminary version of his more fully developed publication Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). In 1943 Lemkin was appointed consultant to the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department, largely because of his expertise in international law.

The term is based on the Greek word genos, referring to race or tribe, and the Latin term cide, meaning murder. Lemkin created the term to refer to a new crime committed against group victims and involving, a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves (1944).

Lemkin invented the term because he believed that the Nazis planned eradication of various groups represented an irreparable harm to global society, as well as a special challenge to existing conceptions of criminal law, which tended to focus on crimes committed against individuals.

The text of the UN Genocide Convention was completed in 1948, and in 1951 the Convention became a legally binding document. By mid-2006, 138 nations had accepted the Convention as legally binding. The Genocide Convention declares genocide a crime under international law whether committed during war or peacetime. It requires all the nations that accept the document to take measures to prevent and punish acts of genocide committed within their jurisdiction and to enact appropriate domestic legislation to criminalize genocide. The treaty also criminalizes attempts to commit genocide, conspiracy or incitement to commit genocide, as well as complicity in the commission of the crime. Nations that sign the Genocide Convention agree to try individuals suspected of having committed genocide in domestic courts or in an appropriate international tribunal (which did not exist at the time the Convention was written, but is now present in the form of the International Criminal Court). The prohibition on genocide is now so widely accepted that it has become a part of international customary law so that it is understood to be binding on all states, regardless of whether or not they have ratified the Genocide Convention.

The legal definition of genocide is found in Article II of the Convention. This definition is widely accepted and has been reinforced by its repetition in relevant domestic legislation and in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Article II defines the crime as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (OHCHR [1948] 1951)

In this way, genocide is composed of three key elements: acts, intent, and victim group. The five enumerated acts are distinct in nature, yet unified as strategies that can either destroy an existing group (killing, causing serious harm, creating destructive conditions) or ruin the possibility of the groups continued existence (preventing reproduction and forcibly removing children). The issue of intent is complex, but is generally understood to limit claims of genocide to those cases where political violence is purposefully directed, either as an officially stated policy to destroy a group or as expressed through an analysis of repressive strategies. The idea of a victim group defines genocide as a unique crime in which individuals are targeted for repression because of their membership in either a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

Each element of the legal definition of genocide raises complex questions, many of which run counter to dominant moral and social understandings of the term. That is, genocide is widely understood to be a crime involving mass murder and the idea of destroying in whole or in part suggests some numerical threshold. So, while it would trivialize the moral power of the concept to include cases of hate crimes or small-scale racial killing, the Genocide Convention allows a case of genocide to involve few casualties, as with the forced transfer of children. Similarly, the popular understanding of the crime assumes that the mass killing of hundreds of thousands would constitute genocide, yet the Conventions definition only covers acts committed against one or more of the four protected groups and may not, for example, cover the brutal destruction of political opponents (as in the Khmer Rouges killing of 1.7 million in Cambodia in the 1970s). Equally complex is the question of whether group status is a function of perpetrators understandings of targeted victims (so that the Nazis vision of Jewish identity would define the group) or whether the concept seeks to protect a group defined by some inherent, objective, or actual identity, a problem heightened where different groups appear highly similar (as with Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, who speak the same language, practice the same religions, and commonly intermarried).

In order to address these issues, scholars have expanded the interpretation of the crime to cover many instances of mass violence, or created new terms such as autogenocide to deal with mass murder where perpetrators and victims are of the same group, or democide to refer to mass killing based on any justification. While these efforts play an important role in evolving understandings of the crime, the Genocide Conventions definition remains the central understanding of the concept.

Despite the widespread acceptance of genocide as a crime, there were few twentieth-century attempts to prosecute individuals. In fact, it was not until 1998 that the first international prosecution and conviction for genocide took place in the Jean-Paul Akayesu case at the ICTR. This historic decision was followed by a number of additional cases in the same court (Jean Kambanda, etc.), as well as other important cases at the ICTY (Milan Kovasevic, Radislav Krstic, Dusko Tadic, etc.), allowing for the evolution of a new jurisprudence of genocide. The decisions of these ad hoc tribunals represented an important expansion of the international legal commitment to prosecuting genocide. This commitment was further supported by the creation of the ICC in 2002, which provides a permanent body for prosecuting cases of genocide and other severe atrocities. Also in 1998, a Spanish judge brought genocide charges against former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in a domestic court for crimes committed in South America. This ushered in a new era of using the concept of universal jurisdiction as a means of prosecuting individuals accused of genocide in national courts in countries distinct from where the violations occurred.

The Genocide Convention was also created to prevent genocide, ideally by stopping potential genocides before they occur, or by taking action against severe violations before they reach a genocidal intensity. Yet, since the mid-twentieth century, the world has witnessed many atrocities often described as genocide. These include Cambodia (19751979), Rwanda (1994), and mass political violence in the former Yugoslavia (19921995) that brought the world a new, nonlegal term, ethnic cleansing. In addition, there have been formal claims of genocide associated with atrocities throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the Guatemalan military regimes attacks on indigenous people. And, there have been claims of genocide against the former Soviet Union for military actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as state policies such as the use of famine to kill seven to fifteen million Ukrainians. In Africa, there have been numerous genocide claims, most recently in the Sudan.

The case of Rwanda is especially chilling in that an estimated 800,000 people, generally Tutsis, were killed with machetes and small arms by a Hutu-dominated regime in 1994. Before the killing began, UN peacekeepers warned of an upcoming genocide and estimated that an international force of around five thousand could have prevented the violence. During the hundred-day killing, the international community refused to acknowledge that genocide was taking place, in part to avoid the legal responsibility to act. Later, most nations recognized these killings as an example of genocide, but by then the murderous regime had been removed from power by a Rwandan rebel army.

In many respects, genocide defines the twentieth century, representing a harsh warning of the destructive capacity of modernity as well as the open promise of the benefits of international cooperation. Genocide is one of the central, foundational ideas within human rights discourse, which represents the first universal structuring discourse of an emerging global order. Genocide was defined formally through global commitment toward its punishment and prevention. In this sense, the term is almost iconic in its representation of the complexity of modernity, defining both the worst and best of human society, a word that names acts of unforgivable brutality while offering the promise of a world where such acts cannot be tolerated and can only exist within the imaginary, banished from the real through concerted, coordinated, international action.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnocentrism; Racism; Tribalism


Andreopoulos, George, ed. 1994. Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn. 1900. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Charny, Israel W. 1982. How Can We Commit the Unthinkable? Genocide, the Human Cancer. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Fein, Helen. [1990] 1993. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective London: Sage.

Horowitz, Irving Louis. 2002. Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power. 5th ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Kuper, Leo. 1981. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lemkin, Raphael. 1944. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

Rummel, R. J. 1994. Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Schabas, William A. 2000. Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Staub, Ervin. 1989. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. 1985. Revised and Updated Report on the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, prepared by Benjamin Whitaker. Thirty-eighth Session, Item 4 of the Provisional Agenda, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6. 2 July.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 1948/1951. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Daniel Rothenberg


views updated May 21 2018






The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that “genocide is a crime under international law,” and “that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.” This contradiction between a specific legal concept defined by an international convention and an eternal political and social phenomena characterizes both the global approach to genocide and the dilemmas it encounters.


The concept of genocide was first voiced by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, who worked tirelessly during World War II and in its immediate aftermath to achieve public recognition of this hideous crime. The impetus came from the wide recognition of the heinous crimes of the Nazi regime. Indeed, Lemkin quoted the British prime minister Winston Churchill, who described the killing of millions as “a crime without a name.” Lemkin responded by formulating the term genocide. His activism facilitated not only the recognition of the new concept but also the adoption of the Genocide Convention. Since then, writing about genocide has been divided between those who view it as a new phenomenon, largely an innovation of the Nazis in their extermination of the Jews, and those who view it as permanent phenomena that describes wars of extermination and ethnic cleansing throughout history.

The Genocide Convention (approved on December 9, 1948; came into force on January 12, 1951) states that:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This is the only legal definition available, but it is inadequate. It diverges significantly from the daily use of the term, which views it as the ultimate crime and alludes to the Holocaust as the paradigmatic case and as a yardstick. The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals marked the first time the crime of genocide was introduced into an international proceeding. There was a belief that a new type of crime had been committed by the Germans, and a new term was therefore needed. This obviously contradicts Lemkin’s own view that only the term was new, not the crime. This tension remains: Does genocide refer to an exceptional crime, or to a crime that occurs all too frequently, most often during war time? The cry of “Never Again,” made in reference to the Holocaust, points in the direction of exceptionalism, but the public discourse points in the other direction.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to the Genocide Convention, genocide can take place without any killing. Indeed, it states that genocide can occur through the removal of children from a particular group, if this is done as a way of destroying the future existence of the group. In Australia, the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families issued a report in 1995 titled Bringing Them Home (also known as the “Stolen Children” report). This report accused the Australian government of genocide not for killing Aborigines, but for the removal of their children. While this has been a controversial political issue in

Australia, such a definition of genocide diverges from the idea of mass killing that is generally conveyed by the term.

On the other hand, the definition in the Genocide Convention can be viewed as too narrow, for it excludes political motivations as grounds for genocide. In other words, the killing of members of a political group or economic class is not defined as genocide. Both the Soviet and the Chinese regimes killed tens of millions of people as part of political campaigns. Under the Convention, however, mass murder for political reasons is not considered genocide.

This dissonance between the popular and political use of the term and the legal definition of it is important because it obfuscates the demarcation of the concept itself. As a category, genocide describes the ultimate victimization of the group “as such.” The expansion of the concepts of “holocaust” and “genocide,” together with “ethnic cleansing,” to characterize all mass violence has led certain groups of victims to feel that their suffering—both historical and contemporary—has not receive adequate attention if they are not viewed as victims of genocide. Extensive atrocities have also been characterized as “gross violations of human rights” or “war crimes,” but these descriptions have not been embraced by the affected groups to describe their own suffering.

The list of those who argue that they are victims of genocide, and prosecutors’ efforts to indict offenders with the charge of genocide, make it all the more complicated. When a prosecutor in Mexico indicted a former president for ordering an attack on student demonstrators with charges of genocide, the inclusion in the UN definition of the phrase “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” argued against such a charge (the ex-President was cleared of the charges in 2006). There have been attempts within the United Nations (UN) (in conjunction with the claimed genocide in Darfur, Sudan) to rein in the definition by requiring that it include “the intention to destroy ‘a considerable number of individuals’ or ‘a substantial part,’” but the exact demarcation is further obscured by the introduction of the term ethnic cleansing, which was popularized during the 1990s, to describe the war in the former Yugoslavia,

The difficulty with such expansive usage is that it hinders the significance of the concept—intellectually, politically, morally, and in every other way. The force of naming particular crimes and violence as genocide, and its attractiveness to victims as a designation of their own case, is that genocide is perceived as the “crime of crimes.” But if the concept comes to designate every case of group violence, is it then cheapened or minimized? And should it therefore carry less severe consequences? In 2004 the UN Secretary General created the office of Special Advisor on Genocide Prevention. There is little doubt that the international community shares a consensus that genocide is a horrific crime that deserves special attention. The world is not as unified, however, on what should be included under the designation of “genocide.” In the spirit of Lemkin’s definition, which he illustrated by referring to occurrences throughout history, modern writers have listed numerous cases as genocide. Mindful of these extensive claims, and without attempting to arbitrate an agreed definition, several controversial aspects of the use of the term will be discussed here.


The Holocaust was the momentous event during World War II when the Nazis almost succeeded in exterminating European Jewry and gypsies. The shock of the extermination and the concentration camps, and the view that the Nazis constituted the ultimate evil, enabled the postwar international community to agree on the Genocide Convention. As such, the Holocaust became the ultimate unique example of this crime. Uniqueness does not work as a comparative tool, and it is difficult to designate an event as both unique and a yardstick. And while there was an agreement that, in principle, there were other genocides, the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust and of evilness of the Nazis coincided with the cold war, which meant that no mass murders, whether in a war or otherwise, were designated as genocides over the next four decades. Under the banner of “Never Again,” the international community was steadfast in refusing to label the killings in Bangladesh, Biafra, Cambodia, and other places as genocide, and they did little to stop the mass murder itself. Only in the aftermath of the cold war, when the bipolar international community became both plural and unipolar, and in the face of the killings in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, did the debate over the designation of genocide become integral to the international discourse.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust stemmed from the German goal of annihilating all Jewish persons because of their race. Because Jewishness was deemed to be a racial category, a Jew could not convert to be saved, and even those with only Jewish grandparents (and whose parents converted) were subject to annihilation. Furthermore, Germany directed significant resources to the destruction, which involved a vast system of government agencies and personnel, all conducted by a modern state. This was done in spite of the fact that the Jews did not present any concrete danger to Germany, even from a German perspective. The struggle was cosmic and mythological, aimed at ruling the world. It was fought between the Nazis and their imagined enemies constructed from antiSemitic propaganda. But real Jews were killed. The Holocaust shocked the world in part because of these bureaucratic and modern characteristics, but more so because it was directed at those who were, essentially, “people like us.” Europeans and Americans were used to stories of mass killings of “inferior” races and to mass murder during war, but the gassing of millions in cold blood was a novelty. The combination of ferocious racism and atrocities perpetrated by the common German created an incomprehensible aura.

In the early twenty-first century, the Holocaust is both unique and more integrated in world history. It is unique as the epitome of evil, and all other catastrophes and mass murders are measured against it. The Holocaust is comparable to other cases, because perpetrators of other genocides also tried to kill all the members of a specific group. That such a mass killing is irrational (e.g., in taking away resources from other goals) is the nature of genocide, not the exception. But more importantly, the growing number of studies comparing genocides teaches that each is different in its own way, and the question of uniqueness creates the appearance of ranking, which is bound to ruffle other groups. So the dilemma remains: While ranking is impossible, the politics of classifying genocide is crucial for the identity of victims.


The vast destruction of lives of indigenous peoples around the world as a result of the encounter with modernity is one of the most vexing in the dilemmas of designating a mass killing as genocide. On one side is the incontrovertible fact of the extensive destruction and death that befell the indigenous peoples. Furthermore, there is no doubt that racism motivated many of the policies that led to the devastation, and that the colonists in many places expected and hoped for the disappearance of the indigenous peoples. The “vanishing” indigenous group was a constant trope in descriptions of the frontier on every continent. However, the question remains whether the colonists acted “with intent to destroy,” or whether the violence and racism were separate from the expectations that the indigenous peoples would die, as a people, in the future, but not as a result of particular acts. The question becomes more complicated because of the tendency to discuss the destruction of indigenous peoples as a single event, rather than as widely spread phenomena that might have involved numerous genocides. In addition, perhaps the worst demographic destruction of indigenous peoples resulted from epidemics that nobody controlled. Here the tension between activist-historians and the legal definition of genocide is wide. This is an active field of scholarship, and much is changing in evaluating its history.

Armenia. Hitler famously said “Who remembers the Armenians?” when he contemplated the extermination of the Jews. The statement is repeatedly quoted to signal the crucial role of deterrence in avoiding future genocides, but it is also quoted as proof that the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 was widely seen as the precedent for (and the first instance of) genocide in the twentieth century. In order to forget, one has to have knowledge that can be forgotten. But if the Armenian massacres were largely forgotten by the 1930s, an even earlier twentieth-century genocide also went unnoticed by the world, and it remained so until recently. This was the genocide perpetrated by German colonialists against the Herero, of South-West Africa (later known as Namibia). In an effort to capture the Herero’s land, the German army tried to annihilate the Herero, killing tens of thousands and expelling many others to the desert between 1904 and 1907.

The massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire go back to the second half of the nineteenth century. But it was during World War I, against the background of a disintegrating empire with many Muslim refugees fleeing to Anatolia (the Asian portion of Turkey), primarily from the Balkans, that the massacre of a million Armenians throughout Asia Minor occurred (as well as that of other Christian minorities, such as the Assyrians and Chaldeans, who are rarely mentioned at all). In the days before the word genocide was invented, the world press wrote about the massacres, the expulsion, the long marches through the desert, and even the carnage of the war, all of which were singled out as constituting horrific crimes. The survivors attempted to rebuild their lives, many in the United States and France, but after the war, with the new Turkish republic flexing its political muscles, attempted trials of the leaders responsible for the crime were aborted. Mass ethnic cleansing (or “population exchange” between Greece and Turkey) overshadowed any active involvement with the Armenian suffering; the Armenian suffering was set aside and ceased to be a burning issue. Only in the last generation has the memory of the Armenian genocide resurfaced and become a defining political issue for Turkey. Amid the nation’s efforts to legitimize itself in Europe as an European Union (EU) member, the killing of the Armenians has become a symbol of the difficulties of domestic democratization. In the early twenty-first century, many around the world accept the designation of the events as genocide, while official Turkey sees this as a manifestation of anti-Turkish policies. The civil society in Turkey, meanwhile, views reconciliation with Armenia and the recognition of historical responsibility for the destruction of the Armenian community as an essential step in the democratization of Turkey.

Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia. During the 1990s, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia gripped public attention. The failure of the international community to intervene in a timely fashion enabled the Serbs to perpetrate the first genocide in postwar Europe when seven thousand Muslim males were murdered in July 1995 in Srebrenica. In this case, the International Tribunal designated the murder as genocide, though the war in its totality was not so designated. In Rwanda, the mass killing of the Tutsis by the Hutus was stopped only when the Tutsis defeated the Hutus. The response of the UN was to authorize a tribunal post facto. Both of these cases were fresh on politicians’ minds when the Serb expulsion of Kosovars in 1999 was met with a NATO military response that may well have stopped genocidal acts. These precedents had little effect in Africa, and particularly in Sudan’s Darfur region, where in 2004 the United States determined that genocide was taking place. The United States did not intervene, however, and a UN investigation avoided the use of the term genocide because no “intent” on the part of the perpetrators could be established. The report was very specific in clarifying international law with regard to genocide, and it expanded the groups subject to the Genocide Convention beyond named groups to those with “the self-perception of the members of each group.” The report attempted to skirt the primacy of genocide as the “crime of crimes” because, as the Rwanda

tribunal determined, “there is no such hierarchical gradation of crimes.” The report argued that “some categories of crimes against humanity may be similarly heinous [to genocide] and carry a similarly grave stigma.” This form of normalization of genocide, making it comparable to other grave crimes, may be the wave of the future. This would be a shift from the special status accorded to genocide by the UN in the Genocide Convention.

The tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the new International Criminal Court are all addressing the crime of genocide, and their determinations will define the nature of genocide in international law in the future. The political nature of responding to genocides, and the failure of the international community to address the crisis in Darfur, or even to agree upon whether it is genocide or not, has placed the Genocide Convention under great stress. While the punishment of genocide through the tribunals has been extremely expensive and inefficient—few were brought to justice and a sense of impunity is widespread—the capacity to prevent genocide is even weaker. Not only is the Convention vague about prevention (Article VIII enables any party to bring a case before the UN), the lack of prevention is viewed as indirectly encouraging more atrocities.

Genocide has become a fixture of modernity, both as the ultimate crime against a group and as the identity marker of a group’s victimization. One would like to imagine that “Never Again” will someday be transformed from a slogan to a policy. But skepticism is justified. Can memory of genocide lead to reconciliation? The recounting of history has been exploited to provoke conflict, incite war, and inflame genocides, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Can it also be drawn upon to facilitate reconciliation? The narration of genocide may be as important as the policies that governments pursue in determining whether this will be the case.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Cleansing; Genocide and Ethnocide; Genocide in Rwanda; Genocide in Sudan; Holocaust; Mayan Genocide in Guatemala.


Akçam, Taner. 2004. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. London and New York: Zed Books.

Andreopoulos, George J., ed. 1994. Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bartov, Omer, ed. 2000. The Holocaust: Origins, Implementation and Aftermath. London and New York: Routledge.

Courtois, Stéphane, and Mark Kramer. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press.

Fein, Helen. 1990. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Gellately, Robert, and Ben Kiernan, eds. 2003. The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marrus, Michael Robert. 1987. The Holocaust in History. Hanover, NH: Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1987.

Power, Samantha. 2002. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.

Schabas, William A. 2000. Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

United Nations. 2005. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-Genera, Geneva, 25 January 2005. Geneva: United Nations.

Weitz, Eric D. 2003. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Elazar Barkan


views updated May 14 2018


Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people defined by their nationality, or by their ethnic, cultural, or religious background. While public health has long been concerned with the promotion, provision, and protection of a population's health during war and conflict, genocide became of interest to the field of public health only in the late twentieth century. The public health impact of genocide is enormous; in the last half of the twentieth century alone, dozens of genocidesaccounting for over 23 million deathsoccurred, including in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Recognizing the relationship between public health and genocide is important because of the contributions public health professionals can make to preventing and mitigating genocide and its impact.

Genocide may include a direct assault on public health as it did in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, public health came face to face with genocide when acts were committed to destroy the public health of the population, thereby threatening to destroy people through inflicting serious harm to their health. Food, fuel, electricity, running water, and medical supplies were cut off from Sarajevo and its environs during the siege of that city. Since many things are essential to public health, including housing, nutrition, sanitation, and access to public health, any acts committed to destroy or seriously undermine the conditions needed for health are potentially acts of genocide if they are committed against a specific population. For instance, during the siege of Sarajevo, waterborne diseases such as hepatitis A increased because the sanitation systems no longer worked properly, 10 percent of the city's population was moderately malnourished, and the combined effects of malnutrition, cold, and lack of adequate medical care led to increased illness and deaths. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide disproportionately affected the most vulnerable Bosniansthe very young, the elderly, women, the chronically ill, and the disabled.

Genocide may also include indirect assaults on public health, as it did in Rwanda in 1994. There, massive displacement of persons from their homes created large-scale health risks to the internally displaced and refugees. While the high morbidity and mortality in the Rwandan refugee population was recognized as a public health crisis, it was also the product of genocide. Refugees from the genocide who were living in camps did not contract cholera solely because of the infectious agent, but also because they were forced to flee their homes and encounter grossly unsanitary conditions due to their status as members of an ethnic group (the Tutsi) and resultant attacks by the Hutu government.


Genocide is a particular type of mass violence perpetrated against a large population. Other threats to the survival of a population, such as arbitrary imprisonment, discrimination, mass and systematic rape, torture, cutting off essential civilian supplies, and forced migration, can perpetrate large-scale harm against that population and have many of the same implications for public health as overt genocide. However, since 1946, when the United Nations General Assembly declared that genocide is "a crime under international law," genocide is recognized as distinct from other forms of mass violence. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, enacted in 1951, defines genocide as:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily harm to members of the group;(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within their group; or (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This distinction between genocide and other forms of mass violence is as significant to public health as it is to international law. First, when public health professionals name mass violence "genocide," they can invoke the Genocide Convention in their calls for action of intervention from the international community. Second, genocide is a punishable crime under the Genocide Convention. Since many health professionals believe that justice and legal accountability facilitate both the healing of victims and primary prevention of future genocides, determining that mass violence constitutes genocide invokes legal mechanisms for punishing the perpetrators under the Genocide Convention.


The precursors, processes, and consequences of genocide are increasingly being understood, and public health contributes to this understanding in a distinct manner from other disciplines, such as the law profession and the human rights field. Specifically, public health brings to the study of genocide the unique tools of epidemiology, which is the study of the distribution of disease and the factors associated with a disease within a population. Since public health views a specific population or group of human beings in an ecological model that includes the institutions (e.g., paramilitary organizations) and the objects (e.g., weapons of genocide) they have created, it is only natural that public health views genocide in this manner, too. Thus, public health professionals can examine genocide as a disease, along with social and behavioral factors that correlate with the disease, and may even cause it.

The work that public health professionals do to examine, prevent, and mitigate genocide can be understood in terms of the three traditional core functions of public health: assessment, policy development, and assurance of services. Assessments can be performed through data collection and analysis intended to identify, document, and notify the public about potential or ongoing genocide. Here the public health principles of disease and injury surveillance can be applied to violence against a population, and the traditional tools of public healthsuch as case reports and surveillance studiesare well suited to this function. A genocide may have early warning signs that public health professionals can detect, such as escalating violence, increased refugee flows out of a country, and increasing systematic discrimination. In those cases where a war strategy targets the health of an entire group of people, public health professionals are best able to recognize the nature of the genocide.

Assessment is equally important after a genocide occurs. The methods, effects, and outcomes of all public health interventions must be assessed objectively. Epidemiologic studies to determine and quantify the public health impact of genocide can be performed, as has been done in numerous studies of international and civil wars. The public health impact of genocide goes beyond the number of people killed. It must also be understood for its long-term effect on public health, including the destruction of medical facilities; the killing and flight of physicians, nurses and other health care professionals; the psychological impact on the survivors; and the interruption of programs for immunizations, infectious disease prevention, and prenatal care. Public health can also inform other types of assessments, such as retrospective studies to determine and identify the conditions, risk factors, and precursors that led to genocide.

Policy development may include recommending courses of action to prevent or mitigate a genocide. Again, policy development is an established function of public health in response to situations that threaten the health and safety of an exposed population. For instance, public health programs such as vaccination campaigns are proposed when large numbers of people living in a defined geographic area are at risk for illness or death from a contagious disease that vaccination would protect against. Similarly, public health policy proposals can advocate to protect groups at risk of genocide. Whenever there is a threat or occurrence of genocide, public health officials can advocate strongly for immediate international action. The principles of public health, coupled with the protests of public health professionals, can influence governments regarding the need, timing, and level of intervention required to protect a group from genocide.

Assurance of services may include designing and implementing programs that address the efforts at genocide. In the event of genocide, health care professionals can provide emergency services and physical and psychological treatment and rehabilitation of survivors. Interventions for complex humanitarian emergencies must be implemented as quickly as possible and made available to refugees and internally displaced persons.

Public health can play an important role in determining the truth about events of mass violence. Much of the work regarding genocide in the fields of human rights, law, and history revolves around determining the truth of claims for and against an occurrence of genocide. Public health contributes to these efforts through the powerful tool of epidemiology. With its methods for systematic compilation, consolidation, and assessment of data, epidemiology can be used by war crime tribunals to argue that specific war violations occurred on a scale consistent with crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide. For instance, epidemiologic investigations are useful in determining whether the cluster of methods that make up a policy of "ethnic cleansing" are consistent either with a series of unorganized and isolated acts or with a systematic policy of genocidewhich would be a punishable act under the Genocide Convention.

S. Swiss and J. Giller have demonstrated how public health methods are critical to defining the nature of a particular mass violence, such as the systematic use of rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They estimated that "based on the assumption that 1 percent of acts of unprotected intercourse result in pregnancy, the identification of 119 pregnancies, therefore, represents some 11,900 rapes." They stress that the goal is not to arrive at a final number of events but rather to determine its magnitude and extent, since evidence of a systematic pattern is critical to determining whether rape constituted part of a policy of genocide. This is because the Genocide Convention prohibits even intent or attempts to commit genocide. Though proof of thousands of rapes is useful evidence when prosecuting a case under the Genocide Convention, the Genocide Convention focuses on the perpetrator's intent to destroy a social group in whole or in part. The degree to which a genocidal plan is successfully carried out is not part of the law of the Genocide Convention. Thus, behind the inevitable complexities that surround questions of the responsibility of the different nationality or ethnic group involved in the violence, public health can analyze a genocide from a public health perspective and can contribute to the prevention of genocide and the healing of its survivors.

David P. Eisenman

(see also: Famine; International Health; Politics of Public Health; Refugee Communities; Violence; War )


Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Available at

Geller, G. A. (1995). "Humanitarian Responses to Mass Violence Perpetrated against Vulnerable Populations." British Medical Journal 311:9951001.

Human Rights Watch (1993). War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovna, Vol. 2: Helsinki Watch. New York: Author.

Levy, B. S., and Sidel, V. W., eds. (1997). War and Public Health. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mann, J. M.; Gruskin, M. A.; and Annas, G. J., eds. (1999). Health and Human Rights: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Staub, E. (1984). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Swiss, S., and Giller, J. (1993). "Rape as a Crime of War: A Medical Perspective." Journal of the American Medical Association 270:612613.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Throughout history there have been attempts to destroy groups of human beings because of their race, religion, or nationality. However, until the twentieth century, no international body or document had adopted a formal legal definition of such concerted action. Attempts to develop humanitarian laws, including various treaties and the Geneva Conventions, focused on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during times of war. Genocide as a legal concept has its origins in the Nazi barbarism of World War II (1939–1945). The Nazis' extermination of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, recognized by Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), prime Minister of Great Britain, as the "crime that has no name," caused the international community to recognize genocide as an international crime.

the holocaust

The ascension of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) to power in 1933 as the head of the National Socialist Party in Germany laid the foundation for the Holocaust and the death of over 11 million people. Nazi ideology , based on a belief in racial purity, declared the Aryan race to be the supreme race in the world. Skillfully using propaganda to demonize Jews as the cause of Germany's post-World War I (1914–1918) social and economic ills, the Nazis imposed laws and policies discriminating against Jews and, with adoption of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Jews were denied all rights of citizenship.

Initially the Nazis attempted to drive the Jewish population from Germany through pogroms , the destruction of Jewish communities, forced relocation to ghettos and labor camps, and forced emigration . Subsequently, Nazi leadership devised a "Final Solution" for the Jewish question, the use of liquidation squads and concentration camps as centers for mass murder. By World War II's end the Nazi regime had murdered over 6 million Jews.

In addition, the Nazis targeted other ethnic groups, nationalities, and persons considered social deviants: homosexuals, the mentally ill, and the physically disabled. Some sources have estimated that overall 3 million non-Jewish Poles, 500,000 Romani (gypsies), and thousands of those regarded as socially undesirable were killed in concentration camps. Poles not killed in the camps became forced laborers; many were sent to work in factories in Germany under conditions of extreme starvation and deprivation.

defining genocide

The term "genocide" was first used by Raphael Lemkin, an international law scholar, who had fled the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939. Searching for a word to describe the organized destruction of racial, religious, or social groups, Lemkin coined the word genocide by combining the Greek genos (race or tribe) with the Latin-cide (killer or act of killing). Writing in 1944 during the height of the Holocaust, Lemkin in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe identified genocide as any synchronized plan intended to eliminate a group of people by destroying the "essential foundations" of the life of that group.

Genocide was first officially recognized as a legal concept in the indictment of Nazi war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg in 1945. Count III of the war crimes indictment specifically addressed "deliberate and systematic genocide; viz., the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian population of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people, and national, racial, or religious groups, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies" (Article 6).

The legal concept of genocide was affirmed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1946 when it adopted Resolution 96(I) that described genocide as follows: "a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence … is contrary to moral law and to the spirits and aims of the United Nations." In 1948 the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which came into force in 1951 and has been ratified by 133 countries.

Article I of the Genocide Convention recognizes genocide, whether committed during times of war or peace, as a crime under international law. In Article II the Convention defines genocide as:

[A]ny of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group…..

As such, the Convention created a category of international crime requiring three elements: (1) the commission of one of the four enumerated acts, (2) its direction against one of the specified groups; and (3) its specific intent to destroy that group in whole or in part.

Scholars, particularly social scientists, finding the legal definition too narrow, have also attempted to define genocide to assist in understanding how governments become involved in mass murder. Some well-known and frequently utilized examples of these definitions include the following:

Genocide is the successful attempt by a dominant group, vested with formal authority and/or with preponderant access to the overall resources of power, to reduce by coercion or lethal violence the number of a minority group whose ultimate extermination is held desirable … and whose respective vulnerability is a major factor. (Dadrian 1975, p. 201–202)

Genocide is a sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim. (Fein 1993, p.24)

Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator. (Jonassohn 1992, p. 19)

Unfortunately, even with an internationally recognized prohibition against genocide and increased attention by scholars to understanding the causes and dynamics of genocide as a prelude to preventing, or at a minimum reducing, its incidence, genocidal events still arose in the later part of the twentieth century and continue in the twenty-first.

other twentieth-century examples of genocide

In 1990 simmering political tensions in Rwanda erupted into civil war. A former Belgian colony, Rwandan society was divided into two primary social groups: the Hutu making up approximately 85 percent of the population and the Tutsi representing the other 15 percent. Historically the Tutsi had been politically privileged through a Tutsi monarchy and system of highly personal patron-client relationships known as ubuhake. The resulting social divisions were based more on the Tutsis' societal roles and occupational characteristics rather than their ethnic classification. However, Belgian colonial rule, in asserting a belief in the racial superiority of the Tutsi and instituting administrative policies that legitimized Tutsi rule, created an environment whereby social divisions began to be viewed along ethnic lines.

Hutu uprisings between 1959 and 1961 resulted in large-scale ethnic violence leading to the murder of 10,000 Tutsi and the flight of another 336,000 into exile. By 1990 it was estimated that between 600,000 and 700,000 Tutsi were in exile. Within Rwanda, a new Hutu elite institutionalized discrimination against the remaining Tutsi. In neighboring countries, Tutsi exile groups increased in militancy, became more organized, and in 1990 launched an invasion of Rwanda under the banner of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). During the next three years of civil war, the Rwandan government sponsored a series of massacres of Tutsi within the country. In 1993 the government and RPF signed a peace accord; almost immediately, however, the government began to train and arm radical Hutu militia . Simultaneously ethnic tensions between Tutsi and Hutu in neighboring Burundi erupted into fighting that led to ethnic massacres responsible for some 50,000 deaths. When a plane carrying the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi was shot down in 1994, Rwandan military forces and radical Hutu militias began a murderous campaign, executing Tutsi and moderate Hutu throughout the country. Between 500,000 and a million people were killed during a four-month period (April through July of 1994).

cambodian genocide

Cambodia was the site of a tragic genocide between 1975 and 1979. Led by the despot Pol Pot (1925–1998), the Khmer Rouge (or Red Cambodians) came to power by overthrowing the weak and upopular government of Gen. Lon Nol (1913–1985), which had with the help of the United States overthrown the neutralist government of Prince Sihanouk (b. 1922). The Khmer Rouge tried to turn Cambodia into a self-contained Communist agrarian society. The country, which was renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, is thought to have lost between one and two million people—perhaps as much as a quarter of its total population—during the purges, mass executions, and starvation that marked the four years of Pol Pot's rule.

Imitating Mao Tse-tung's policies of population relocation, Pol Pot forcibly emptied the major cities of Cambodia. The inhabitants were moved into rural areas at gunpoint and put to work in slave labor camps that came to be known as "killing fields." Many died there of disease, overwork, and malnutrition.

The country was also "purified" of Western influences. All foreigners were expelled; the use of foreign languages was forbidden; and newspapers, radio, and television stations were closed. Banks were closed, and money was abolished. Social groups that represented the "old" Cambodia, including anyone with higher education as well as Buddhist clergy and former government officials, were relentlessly purged. In addition, ethnic minorities, such as the Vietnamese and Chinese, were scheduled for elimination. It is estimated that half the ethnic Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 died under the Khmer Rouge regime.

The genocide ended after the Vietnamese, in response to several years of Khmer Rouge provocation, as well as thousands of refugees coming over the border, invaded Cambodia in late 1978 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot fled Cambodia in January 1979. He died in exile in Thailand in April 1998.

During this same time period, the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, formerly part of Yugoslavia, became the site of another genocide. Yugoslavia, created in World War I's aftermath, had within its borders numerous religious and ethnic groups driven by historical rivalries: In particular, enmity had long existed between Serbs (Orthodox Christians), Croats (Catholics), and ethnic Albanians (Muslims). Following the death of its communist leader, Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980), the country quickly became mired in political and economic chaos. By 1991 Yugoslavia had fragmented, with a number of republics announcing their independence. In response, the Yugoslav military dominated by Serbs under the control of Slodoban Milosevic (b. 1941), a nationalist who had gained power by inflaming religious hatred, invaded Croatia. During this invasion Serbs massacred hundreds of Croat men and buried them in mass graves. Although a cease-fire had been brokered by the end of 1991, a new crisis emerged when the United States and the European community formally recognized the independence of Bosnia. The capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, soon came under attack by Serb forces. Moving through the country, in what came to be known as a campaign of "ethnic cleansing ," Serb forces rounded up local Muslims and perpetrated mass executions, rape, the forced depopulation of towns and villages, and imprisonment of men and boys in concentration camps. It is estimated that by the time a peace accord was reached in 1995, 200,000 Muslim Bosnians had been killed, more than 20,000 were missing, and over 2,000,000 persons had become refugees.

See also: Armenia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Crimes Against Humanity; Ethnic Cleansing; Hitler, Adolf; International Criminal Court; Rwanda; War Crimes.


Charny, Israel W. The Widening Circle of Genocide. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. "A Typology of Genocide." International Review of Modern Sociology 5 (Fall 1975):201–212.

Fein, Helen. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.

Horowitz, Irving L. Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power, 4th ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

Indictment: Count Three. The Avalon Project. <>.

Jonassohn, Kurt. "What is Genocide?" In Genocide Watch, ed. Helen Fein. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2005.

Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 1, Article 6,

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Rummel, R. J. Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Richard Janikowski


views updated May 18 2018


One of the few things undisputed about the term genocide is its origin. It was introduced and discussed at some length in a 1944 book, Axis Occupation of Europe, by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist writing in the United States. Lemkin defined genocide broadly in terms of

the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group…. Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings…. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of a national group, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves…. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

The attacks on nationhood could be political, social, cultural, economic, biological, religious, moral, or physical. Physical attacks were further subdivided into racial discrimination in feeding, endangering of health, and mass killings. Although he never used the term "cultural genocide," Lemkin seems to have included the cultural destruction of a people within the scope of genocide.

The term was referred to several times during the 1945–1946 Trial of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg. The indictment, for example, alleged that the defendants "conducted deliberate and systematic genocide, viz., the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies and others." Since genocide was not at that point recognized as separate crime under international law, at Nuremberg these allegations were included among the "war crimes." Shortly thereafter, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring genocide to be a crime under international law. This resolution both broadened Lemkin's concept of genocide, by adding "political and other groups" to the list of potential victims, and narrowed it, by giving only passing attention to the cultural aspect of Lemkin's concept.

By 1948, when the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted, both the cultural and the political components of the term were ignored, and genocide was defined as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

An important distinguishing feature of the new crime of genocide was that it was not necessarily linked to an overt war, unlike the related concepts of "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes" used at Nuremberg. The same definition of genocide was used, unchanged, in the statutes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and in those for the International Criminal Court created in 1998.

Subsequent scholars have varied the definition, particularly to overcome perceived short-comings in the concept of genocide under international criminal law. For example, Irving Lewis Horowitz defined genocide as "a structural and systematic destruction of innocent people by a state bureaucratic apparatus" (1997). Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn defined the term as "a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator" (1990). And Helen Fein defined it as the "sustained purposeful action by the perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, [the latter] through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim" (1990).

Related terms sometimes associated with or distinguished from genocide include politicide, where the victims are defined primarily in political terms; democide, encompassing genocide, politicide, massacres, extrajudicial executions, and other forms of mass murder; and ethnocide, the destruction of the culture of a population, particularly an indigenous population.

Data and Estimation Issues

Even with agreement on definition, quantifying a genocide is difficult. Limits on geographical scope and time period must be set. But how can the destruction of a people's culture, language, or socioeconomic accomplishments be measured? By default, the focus is usually on the number of deaths, occasionally supplemented with the number of forced migrants or with the monetary value of confiscated property and personal injuries.

Even considering deaths alone, estimates can rarely be made with any degree of precision. For example, there is the question of which deaths to count: (1) only those deaths directly attributable to genocidal killing operations (i.e., mass executions and the like), (2) such direct deaths plus those attributable to malnutrition and ill-health associated with populations confined or dislocated due to other genocidal operations, or (3) any elevated mortality in a target population during a defined period. Genocide mortality, as with mortality generally, may be measured directly as an estimated number of deaths over a period of time or indirectly as the difference in population size before and after, adjusted for fertility, non-genocidal mortality, and net migration. The two approaches are often used together. In countries with reasonably well-developed statistical systems, data from population censuses or population registration systems are often available for the initial population. Indeed, in some of these countries, the perpetrators have used such information to identify and target genocidal victims or as a baseline against which to assess the outcome of a genocide.

Other approaches to estimating genocide mortality do not depend on a preexisting statistical infrastructure. The bureaucratic organization of many large genocides may offer various direct or proxy indicators of scale. Mortality counts can also be derived from mass graves or from retrospective surveys. This last approach, like any survey-based retrospective reporting of deaths, is often subject to substantial response errors. In the 1990s dual and multiple system estimation techniques began to be used to control for these response errors so as to obtain improved estimates of genocide mortality from such retrospective reporting.

The interpretation and analysis of mortality estimates also pose challenges. Estimates presented simply as the number of persons killed, while an excellent indicator of the scale of genocidal operations, often obscure the impact of genocide on the victim population. A better measure of this impact is the proportion of the population killed. For example, in Cambodia from the 1975 to 1979, the Pol Pot regime is estimated to have killed over 1.3 million Khmers (the majority group) and less than 350,000 persons belonging to various ethnic minorities. However, while the Khmer victims made up an estimated 11 percent of the 1975 Khmer population, the minorities taken as a group lost 44 percent of their 1975 population.

An Inventory of Selected Modern Genocides and Genocide-like Events

Table 1, adapted primarily from information in the sources cited in the bibliography, is a tentative and incomplete listing of major genocides in modern times. It indicates the widespread incidence of genocide and its complex and varied character. Many of the assessments and estimates given are disputable: It is the nature of the field that no such inventory would be universally accepted. The table's omissions may be its greatest shortcoming. For example, no mention is made of the African slave trade or the suppression of minorities in the USSR and China. Information about these and many other genocides and similar human rights tragedies can be found in the works cited in the bibliography.

Population Issues

From the perspective of population studies, three aspects of modern genocides are particularly relevant. First, the crime of genocide under international law is defined largely in demographic terms. Three of the five elements of the crime–killings, coercive birth prevention, and the forcible transfer of children–are demographic in nature. On the other hand, forced migration, a frequent precursor to the mass killings of genocide and a major source of "conditions of life calculated to bring about … physical destruction" of a group, is not included in the legal definition. Second, the measurement of genocide mortality and survivorship will continue to present major challenges. As with any human rights tragedy, the emotional and political after-effects make objective assessment difficult for both scholars and advocates. In these circumstances, estimates of losses gain credibility by the qualifications that accompany them rather than by the number of significant digits in which they are expressed. Third, from a strictly long-term demographic viewpoint, genocide and related


state efforts directed toward the destruction of specific populations often fail. For example, those who identify themselves as Armenian, Jewish, or Native American are more numerous or nearly as numerous now than most creditable estimates of their size when genocidal or related activities began. This is not to minimize the terrible short-run impact of genocides in the lives lost, pain to individuals, families, and societies, and the damage to culture. Rather it is a simple testament to the transitory impact of a period of even greatly elevated mortality in the face of the recuperative powers of human populations.

See also: Forced Migration; Holocaust; Indigenous Peoples; War, Demographic Consequences of.


Alvarez, Alex. 2001. Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Andreopoulos, George J., ed. 1994. Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ball, Patrick, Wendy Betts, Fritz Scheuren, Jan Dudukovich, and Jana Asher. 2002. Killings and Refugee Flow in Kosovo, March–June 1999: A Report to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Bar Association Central and Eastern European Law Initiative.

Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn. 1990. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fein, Helen. 1990. "Genocide: A Sociological Perspective." Current Sociology 38 (1): 1–126.

——, ed. 1992. Genocide Watch. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Horowitz, Irving Lewis. 1997. Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power, 4th edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Jonassohn, Kurt, and Karin Solveig Björnson. 1998. Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations in Comparative Perspective. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Kuper, Leo. 1982. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lemkin, Raphael. 1944. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment.

United Nations General Assembly. 1946. Resoultion 96 (I), 11 December 1946. Reprinted in Kuper, 1982.

United Nations. 1948. "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." Paris, 9 December 1948. Reprinted in Andreopoulous, 1994 and in Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990.

United States Office of Chief Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality. 1946. "Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Volume I." Chapter III, International Military Tribunal Indictment No.1, Count 3–War Crimes. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

William Seltzer


views updated Jun 27 2018


Few concepts carry the weight and power of the term genocide. The word's profound significance is bound to its unique role as a moral and legal marker of the very worst type of human behavior. Morally, genocide refers to acts of horrific violence such as mass murder, state terror, and other strategies of brutal repression. The term names an ethical boundary beyond which a government forfeits its legitimacy and society descends into barbarism. Legally, genocide refers to the intentional destruction of a group as such, a crime so severe that it demands immediate and total condemnation. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the subject stated, "Genocide is the ultimate crime and the gravest violation of human rights it is possible to commit."

The term genocide has a highly specific origin, rooted in two related sources: the invention of the word in 1943 by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin; and its definition, several years later, as an international crime through the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The concept of genocide was a direct response to the Holocaust and the extraordinary destruction and brutality of World War II.

Lemkin created the term genocide, out of the Greek word genos, referring to race or tribe, and the Latin term cide, meaning murder. He defined genocide as a coordinated strategy to destroy a group of people, a process that could be accomplished through total annihilation as well as strategies that eliminate key elements of the group's basic existence, including language, culture, and economic infrastructure. Lemkin believed the Nazis' systematic eradication of various peoples represented an irreparable harm to global society and a special challenge to existing conceptions of criminal law. He created the concept as a means of mobilizing the international community to take strong, coordinated action to prevent the recurrence of such vicious, destructive violence.

The text of the Genocide Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948, and entered into force on January 12, 1951. The Convention defines genocide and obligates those states that accept the treaty to take serious actions to prevent its occurrence and punish those responsible. Article II of the Convention defines the crime as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Genocide Convention was the first of a series of international treaties that, taken together, form the modern system of fundamental rights and freedoms. While the brutal acts that define genocide were not new, the Convention's formal evocation of the crime as a foundational concept within the human rights system represented an act of great historic significance. The Convention remains the premier document for defining genocide and, by 2003, 135 nations had accepted its legal obligations. The Convention's definition has been reinforced through its repetition in relevant domestic legislation and in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The crime of genocide is widely accepted as a norm of jus cogens ("compelling" or "higher" law that transcends the limitations of individual national laws and which no country can violate with impunity). For this reason, genocide is prohibited even in those states that have not adopted the Convention, is not bound by statutes of limitations, and is subject to universal jurisdiction. In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued provisional measures in a case in which Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed that Yugoslavia was committing genocide. The ICJ also accepted jurisdiction over the merits of the case and stated clearly that the two countries were obligated to prevent and punish genocide, regardless of the nature of the conflict, the status of the new states, and key issues of territorial integrity.

The crime of genocide is composed of three essential elements: acts, intent, and victim group. There are five enumerated acts that are distinct in nature, yet unified as strategies. Three of these are aimed at destroying an existing group: killing, causing serious harm, and/or creating destructive conditions. The other two specified acts are aimed at ruining the possibility of the group's continued existence: preventing reproduction and the forcible removal of children. The issue of intent is complex, but is generally understood to limit claims of genocide to those cases where political violence is purposefully directed toward the destruction of a group. This political objective may be presented as official policy, or it may be expressed through the coordinated and systematic nature of state-sponsored terror. The issue of intent is one of the more contentious elements of the crime and is often discussed as a key limitation to successful prosecutions. The group victim requirement defines genocide as a unique crime that is directed not against individuals per se, but instead targets victims because of their membership in a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The definition is often criticized for its exclusion of political and social groups, for these, too, are often the targets of severe political violence.

Each element of the legal definition of genocide raises an array of troubling questions, many of which run counter to general moral understandings of the term. For example, one might have a case of genocide involving few casualties (as with the forced transfer of children) or a situation of extraordinary brutality that does not meet the definition (as with the mass murder of political opponents or others who are not targeted for their membership in one of the four protected groups). To address these issues, scholars have interpreted the crime to cover most forms of state-sponsored mass killing. Helen Fein, for instance, has suggested a "sociological definition," whereas Israel W. Charny calls for a "humanistic definition," and Leo Kuper suggests a broader understanding of the crime be developed, in order to address problems arising from the technical nature of the Convention's language. Others have suggested the need to create new terms. For instance, R. J. Rummel has coined the word democide to refer to all forms of mass state murder, and others have offered auto-genocide to deal with mass murder where both the perpetrators and victims are members of the same group.

Despite the existence of a global promise to prevent and punish genocide, the second half of the twentieth century presented many cases of extreme violence that could be termed genocide alongside limited international action. It was not until 1998 that the world witnessed the first international prosecution and conviction for genocide, in the Akayesu case at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This historic decision was followed by a number of additional cases in the same court and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, allowing for the evolution of a new jurisprudence of genocide. These shifts have heightened an international commitment to understanding genocide as a crime of such severity that it can be prosecuted anywhere, regardless of ordinary jurisdictional limitations. Similarly, there is a growing concern for developing strategies and policy interventions that recognize the special status of victims of genocide and seek to address their social, economic, and political needs.

Genocide is iconic in its representation of the complex nature of modernity. The concept of genocide—from its genesis in the aftermath of the Holocaust to the present day—binds acts of unforgivable brutality to a global promise that extreme political violence will no longer be tolerated within an emerging international order premised on the protection of fundamental human rights.

SEE ALSO Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; Explanation; Holocaust; International Court of Justice; International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Lemkin, Raphael; Political Theory; Psychology of Perpetrators; Psychology of Survivors; Psychology of Victims; Sociology of Perpetrators; Sociology of Victims


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Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn (1990). The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Charny, Israel W. (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio.

Fein, Helen (1993). Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London: Sage Publications.

Kuper, Leo (1981). Genocide: Its Political Uses in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Lemkin, Raphael (1944). Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rummel, R. J. (1994). Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

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Whitaker, Ben (1985). "Revised and updated report on the question of the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide." Commission on Human Rights. United Nations. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6 2 July 1985. Also available from

Daniel Rothenberg

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