Genocide Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Combining the Greek word genos (“race” or “tribe”) with the Latin cide (“killing”), Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), an obscure Jewish lawyer and refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, coined the word “genocide” in 1944.

Overview

Combining the Greek word genos (“race” or “tribe”) with the Latin cide (“killing”), Lemkin, RaphaelLemkin, Raphael Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), an obscure Jewish lawyer and refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, coined the word “genocide” in 1944. Born near Wołkowysk (now Volkovysk) in the Białystok (Belostok) region of what was then Russian Poland, Lemkin–who developed an early fascination with state-sponsored mass atrocities and subsequently became a crusader for an international law to criminalize and punish what he initially characterized as “barbarity” and “vandalism”–defined genocide in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group” via “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.” Though controversial from its birth, Lemkin’s term was incorporated into the indictments prepared for the 1945-1946 Nuremberg war crimes trials (1945-1946) Nuremberg trials of major Nazi war criminals. Moreover, in 1948, thanks in part to Lemkin’s continuing efforts to make genocide a legal crime, the newly established United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which declared genocide a crime under international law; enumerated the acts (including murder, causing serious physical or mental harm to group members, intentionally inflicting conditions on groups designed to produce complete or partial destruction, imposing measures aimed at preventing births within groups, and transferring by coercion children from one group to another) that constituted genocide; and declared such acts to be punishable.GenocideGenocide

Significance

Building on more than a decade of research and writing on the Holocaust;genocide studiesGenocide studiesHolocaust, serious scholarly study of genocide began in the early 1980’s. Since that time, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others have created a distinct field, commonly labeled “genocide studies,” which has done much to broaden the world’s knowledge and understanding of specific genocides throughout history, as well as to identify the contexts, including war, in which genocide has occurred. In fact, much scholarship argues that genocide and war are “Siamese twins” and therefore should not be treated as separate phenomena, as has frequently been the case. Ample evidence for this assertion can be found throughout history, as war, both international and civil, has time and again created circumstances and conditions that allow perpetrators opportunities to annihilate, either in whole or in substantial part, specific victim groups while facilitating their efforts to do so.

History of Genocide

The twentieth century has been characterized as “the century of genocide,” with good reason. Several indisputable cases of genocide, as defined by Lemkin, the 1948 U.N. convention, and other sources–notably Nazi Germany’s persecution and systematic mass murder of an estimated six million European Jews–date to the twentieth century. However, recent scholarship, specifically that which accepts a broader definition of the term and thus takes a more inclusive approach in identifying instances of genocide, argues that genocide was not exclusive to the twentieth century; that, in fact, it has occurred throughout history; and that examples, frequently intertwined with warfare, are to be found in the ancient world, the medieval world, and the pre-twentieth century modern world.

Ancient World

According to an increasing number of scholars, theAssyrians;genocidal actsAssyrians, a highly militaristic people native to northern Mesopotamia, perpetrated genocidal acts during the first millennium b.c.e. Between 1000 and 665, while conquering a vast empire in western Asia, which included their Mesopotamian homeland, much of southern Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the Assyrians deliberately massacred entire populations, irrespective of age, gender, and physical condition, and conducted mass deportations, forcibly resettling conquered populations, either in whole or in part. Designed to warn those who might dare resist in the future and/or to eliminate those who had already resisted, the Ethnic cleansingpractices of mass murder and deportation–“ethnic cleansing,” to use twentieth century terminology–were fundamental to the Assyrian way of war.

Other examples of genocide in the ancient world commonly cited by genocide scholars include atrocities committed by the Greece;genocidal actsAthenians against the population of Melos, GreeceMelos in the fifth century b.c.e. and by the Rome;genocidal actsRomans against the Carthaginians in the second century b.c.e. In the former case, Athenian forces captured Melos, an island located in the Sea of Crete, in 416 b.c.e., after which they killed all men deemed capable of bearing arms, enslaved the women and children, and introduced Athenian colonists. In the latter case, Roman military forces destroyed the North African city of CarthagePunic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Carthage in 216 b.c.e., killed an estimated 150,000 Carthaginians–of a total population of somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000–and poured salt into the land surrounding the city to destroy its arability. What is significant about these cases is that war served as the context for both. The Athenian actions, maybe best characterized as "Gendercide"[Gendercide]“gendercide,” were triggered by Melos’s refusal to ally itself with Athens, at that time involved in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.)Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) against Sparta, while those of Rome came at the end of the Third Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.)Punic War against Carthage (149-146 b.c.e.) and should be seen as the Roman decision that there would be no fourth contest with their chief rival for dominance in the western Mediterranean.

Medieval World

During the medieval era, Christian Crusaders perpetrated mass slaughters that some scholars interpret as genocidal. Major targets and victims included Muslims;genocidal victimsMuslims, who were deemed infidels; Jews;genocidal victimsJews, who were held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus; and those Christians;genocidal victimsChristians who had accepted doctrines and taken positions labeled heretical by the Roman papacy. The Crusades;First (1095-1099)First Crusade (1095-1099), launched by Pope Urban IIUrban II (pope)[Urban 02]Urban II (r. 1088-1099) for the ostensible purpose of reclaiming the Holy Land from the Seljuk TurksSeljuk Turks, witnessed some 100,000 Crusaders from across western Europe descend upon the Byzantine Empire, rout the Seljuks, and liberate the city of Jerusalem. During their trek to the east, the Crusaders massacred entire Jewish communities, especially those located in the German Rhineland, while in the aftermath of their victory at Jerusalem they put to the sword thousands of Muslims, Jews, and Christian heretics. More than a century later, Pope Innocent IIIInnocent III (pope)[Innocent 03]Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) initiated a crusade against the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229)Albigensians (1209-1229), Christian sectarians in southern France who criticized the Catholic Church’s material wealth, advocated clerical poverty, and called for the translation of the Scriptures into vernacular languages. Innocent III’s forces destroyed the Albigensian heresy via the mass killing of the sect’s adherents and the appropriation of their property for the Catholic Church.

Scholars also attribute genocide to the Mongols;genocidal actsMongols, who, after their unification by Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (Mongol king)Genghis Khan (c. 1155 or 1162-1227) at the beginning of the thirteenth century, proceeded to conquer a vast Eurasian empire that stretched from the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the east to the banks of the Danube River in the west and included China, central Asia, portions of the present-day Middle East, the territories of Russia, and parts of eastern Europe. Like the Assyrians of the first millennium b.c.e., the Mongols made mass murder of entire populations–designed to terrorize future targets of attack and conquest into submission–an integral component of their way of war. Contemporary accounts, especially those pertaining to the Mongol conquest of the Russian principalities (1237-1241), paint a gruesome picture of the mass death and absolute devastation that accompanied the “Devil’s horsemen.”

Modern World

In 1492, countless Jews either were burned alive or expelled from Spain after refusing to convert to Christianity.

(Getty Images)

Threats to Armenian survival in Turkey continued long after the genocide of 1915; residents of the neighboring Armenian homeland faced new challenges when the Soviet Union was formed in the early 1920’s, as shown by this 1921 appeal for American help.

(Library of Congress)

While evidence for genocide in both the ancient and the medieval worlds is circumstantial, highly problematic, and subject to differing interpretations, evidence for genocide in the modern world is far more conclusive, and thus scholars who investigate modern genocides stand on much firmer ground when they interpret specific cases of mass atrocity as genocide. However, the modern era has its share of so-called disputed, as opposed to denied, genocides, including the annihilation of indigenous peoples during the American Indians;genocideNative Americans;genocideEuropean conquest of the Americas (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), the SlaveryAtlantic slave trade (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), the Committee of Public Safety’s crushing of the Vendée, Wars of the (1793-1800)Vendée uprising (1793) during the French Revolution, the Rubber terror (1880’s-1890’s)“rubber terror” (1880’s-1890’s) of Belgian king Leopold IILeopold II[Leopold 02]Leopold II (r. 1865-1909) in the Congo Free State, the German suppression of the Herero revolt (1904)Herero revolt (1904) in southwest Africa, the Ukrainian famine (1932-1933)Ukrainian famine (1932-1933), the Allied strategic bombing campaigns (including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in Europe and Asia during World War II (1939-1945), and the Ethnic cleansingethnic cleansings conducted by the Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo (1991-1999) during the so-called Yugoslav Succession, Wars of (1991-1999)Wars of Yugoslav Succession. What cannot be contested is that the twentieth century witnessed the leaders of the Ottoman Empire commit genocide against the Armenian genocide (1915)Armenian population of the empire; the leadership ofHolocaustNazi Germany perpetrate genocide against Europe’s Jews and several other victim groups; Pol PotPol PotPol Pot (1928-1998) and the Khmer RougeKhmer Rouge leadership of Cambodia carry out a genocide that targeted the country’s ethnic minorities, Buddhist monks, and suspected political opponents; and the Rwanda genocideHutusHutu leadership andpopulation of Rwanda engage in genocide against the Tutsi genocideTutsi population of the country. What is especially relevant is that in three of these cases–the Armenian genocide, the Nazi genocides, and the Rwandan genocide–war allowed the perpetrators to commit their premeditated crimes.

World War I (1914-1918), generally considered the first “total war,” provided the background for the Armenian genocide (1915)Armenian genocide of 1915, which produced the deaths of somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million people and which wiped out the Armenian communities of Anatolia and historic western Armenia within the Ottoman Empire;Armenian genocideOttoman Empire. Perpetrated by the Young Turks“Young Turks”–who had seized power in Istanbul in 1908 with the aim of saving the empire, the so-called sick man of Europe, which appeared on the verge of extinction–the assault against the Armenians involved the mass murder of the adult male population and the deportation, primarily by forced marches, of the women and children to the Syrian desert. Those among the Young Turks’ leadership most culpable–minister of the interior Talât Paşa, MehmedTalât Paşa, Mehmed[Talat Pasa]Mehmed Talât Paşa (1874-1921), minister of war Enver PaşaEnver PaşaEnver Paşa (1881-1922), and minister of the navy Cemal Paşa, AhmedCemal Paşa, AhmedAhmed Cemal Paşa (1872-1922)–justified these harsh measures by accusing the Armenians of disloyalty and treason, claiming that they had collaborated with the Russian Empire, against whom the Ottomans were at war. In reality, however, the attempted destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire must be understood both as the culmination of the escalating persecution of the Armenians that had begun during the reign of Abdülhamid IIAbdülhamid II[Abdulhamid 02]Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) and as a component of the Young Turks’ program to transform the empire into an homogenous Turkic state based on one people and one faith. War provided Talât and his associates the opportunity to resolve what he and others described as “the Armenian question.”

These starved prisoners died en route to the Dachau concentration camp, while they were packed like sardines in freight cars.

(National Archives)

Initiated by Nazi Germany and its fanatical leader HolocaustHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler (1889-1945)–who aspired to effect a global demographic revolution that would allow allegedly racially superior pure-blooded Germans, the so-called Aryan raceAryans, to dominate the world–World World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];genocide duringWar II (1939-1945) offered the führer and his associates the opportunity to eliminate those peoples deemed racially inferior, biologically defective, and politically and ideologically oppositional. Consequently, the Nazi regime murdered more than 200,000 mentally and physically disabled people (described as “life unworthy of life” and “unproductive eaters”), somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000Sinti genocideSinti andRoma (Gypsy) genocideRoma (labeled “asocial” and “racially inferior”), and several million Polish genocideRussian genocidePoles and Russians (characterized as “subhuman”). The chief targets and chief victims of German genocidal actions, however, were Europe’sJews;genocideJews, whom Hitler held responsible for Germany’s defeat of 1918 and for the country’s subsequent political and economic problems, and whom he saw as simultaneously the most inferior of races and the single greatest threat to the continued existence of the Aryans. Committing themselves to the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” in 1941, and thus the physical elimination of the entire Jewish race, the Nazis, with help from collaborators from across Europe, proceeded to murder, primarily by mass shootings and mass gassings conducted in specially established death camps, approximately two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population before the Third Reich’s military defeat finally brought this genocide–characterized as “unique” by some, “unprecedented” by others–to a conclusion.

In Rwanda, human skulls on display, many of which show evidence of deep gashes. The killings were the result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the mass murders of several hundred thousand Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by Hutus subscribing to the Hutu Power ideology.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

At the end of the century, Civil wars;Rwandacivil war in the central African country of Rwanda genocideRwanda served as the context for a genocide characterized by one expert as “in some ways without precedent.” Beginning in 1990, the civil war pitted Kagame, PaulKagame, PaulPaul Kagame’s (born 1957) Rwandan Patriotic FrontRwandan Patriotic Front, a guerrilla organization formed by Tutsi genocideTutsi refugees in Uganda that aimed at restoring Tutsi control in Rwanda, against the HutusHutu government of Habyarimana, JuvénalHabyarimana, JuvénalJuvénal Habyarimana (1937-1994). In April, 1994, less than one year after an uneasy peace, the Arusha Accords (1993)Arusha Accords, had been negotiated, Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down as it approached Kigali airport. Although responsibility for Habyarimana’s assassination remains unresolved, Hutu extremists in the late president’s inner circle, the government, and the army–Colonel Bagosora, ThéonesteBagosora, ThéonesteThéoneste Bagosora (born 1941) in particular–used the event to justify a final reckoning with the Tutsi and those Hutu who sympathized with them. Blaming the murder of Habyrimana on Tutsi rebels, the Hutu extremists unleashed the Presidential Guard, the army, and the notorious Interahamwe (Rwanda)Interahamwe (Hutu militia) against the “cockroaches” and their supporters. What followed was a “hurricane of death” during which innocent men, women, and children were killed in the most brutal and barbaric of fashions. Though the Hutu perpetrators ultimately lost power when Kagame’s forces seized Kigali in July and failed in their effort to exterminate the Tutsi population, they managed to murder somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people, roughly 10 percent of Rwanda’s population and 75 percent of the Tutsi population, in only one hundred days. As one scholar notes, “the daily killing rate was at least five times that of the Nazi death camps.”Genocide

Books and Articles
  • Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009. Explains the motives that drove Nazi policy from 1933 to 1945 and demonstrates the link between war and the Third Reich’s persecution and murder of Jews and other target groups.
  • Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006. A good beginning point for those interested in the history of genocide and major components of genocide studies.
  • 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. The work that introduced genocide to the world.
  • Markusen, Eric, and David Kopf. The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Focusing on the Nazi murder of Europe’s Jews and the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan during World War II, the authors argue against treating genocide and war as separate phenomena.
  • Shaw, Martin. War and Genocide: Organized Killing in Modern Society. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2003. Demonstrates the close connection between war and genocide and argues that there exists a fine line between “degenerate war” and genocide in modern history.
  • Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, eds. Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Written by leading experts and accompanied by primary documents and first-person accounts, this compilation of essays examines major twentieth century genocides.

Collaboration in War

Mercenaries

Peace Movements and Conscientious Objection to War

Prisoners and War

War Crimes and Military Justice

Categories: History Content