What Is Genocide?

I’m turning the blog towards my academic interests, even if it does mean its readers can feels the g’s shifting from my last entry.  Popular political discussion rarely dwells on the systematic destruction of minority groups by their own governments.  What do I mean by this?  Somewhere on Earth, at any given time, a government is planning either to cause or to allow the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who are ostensibly its own citizens.  This usually occurs more or less in plain sight, though governments usually need plausible deniability and a lot of political cover in order to make this plan work.  In any event, this state of near-continuous mass killing and genocide has been our lot since the Holocaust, and was actually a lot less-frequent before it.

Mass killing and genocide…And what is “mass killing”?  The term “genocide” is often thrown around to describe contexts it wasn’t originally meant to describe.  The term “genocide” originates in the work of one Raphael Lemkin on the then-ongoing Holocaust and other Nazi repressive repressive violence, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” (1944).  I’ll quote from Chapter IX, where he explains his new concept:

“New conceptions require new terms.  By “genocide” we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.  This new word, coined 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, homocide, infanticide, etc.  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…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.”

This led to the legal definition of genocide adopted by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

“…(G)enocide 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.”

Note that neither of these definitions actually considers the killing of actual people to be central to the killing of a nation comprised of people.  In the common usage “genocide” refers to killing of the members of a national, ethnic or religious group as such, and the most-illuminating theoretical work I have encountered so far defines intent to commit genocide as intent to murder the group as a whole, because they are part of that group.

Lemkin was a Polish Jew who fought the Germans during the 1939 invasion, was wounded, and managed to flee to Sweden via Lithuania.  Most of his family was not able to elude the Holocaust; Lemkin lost 49 relatives to genocide.  Actually, 91% of Poland’s very large Jewish population–3,000,000 or at least half of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust–was killed, making the lethality of the Holocaust in Poland as high as anywhere in Europe.  But while nearly 6,000,000 European Jews were killed in the Holocaust, over 200,000 Gypsies were killed as well.  Michael Mann–the British Sociologist, not the director of Heat–thinks it clear that if the Nazis had the time and the space, they would have perpetrated the wholesale killing of European Gypsies.  The Nazis and the German Wehrmacht also killed slightly more non-Jewish Soviet civilians than they did Jews–almost 4,000,000 Ukrainians, almost 2,000,000 Belorussians, and almost 1,500,000 Russians.  The Nazis also had about 3,300,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war murdered, alternately worked to death, starved, or gassed in experiments that would later be applied to the Jews and Gypsies in concentration camps.  While these numbers are staggering and little reflected-upon in the West, they are technically not genocide even though they are indisputably mass murder–mass murder on a rarely-matched scale at that (Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, p-186).  What is key to genocide is the deliberate killing of all the members of a nation, an ethnic or a religious community.  Soviet Gentiles were murdered when and where the Nazis thought them to be “in the way” as potential resisters to their ultimate plan, which was settlement of the vast fertile regions of Poland, Ukraine and the Russian steppe.  The Red Army carried out a similarly-enormous act of suppressive mass murder in their Afghan War from 1979-1989, killing about 1,800,000 civilians in an attempt to end the Muhahideen insurgency against the Communist government.  So, what do we call these acts of state-orchestrated mass murder, one slightly-larger in its toll than the Jewish portion of the Holocaust, the other larger than the Armenian genocide?  Stathis Kalyvas, a marvelous theorist and researcher of civil war at Yale simply calls it “civil war violence,” or in the Wehrmacht and Nazi case, largely “indiscriminate civil war violence” (The Logic of Violence in Civil War).

Large numbers and overlapping terms; I have digressed.  Suffice it to say that genocide is about more than the mass murder of a lot of people in the context of some political crisis or civil war.  Genocide involves not just callousness but psychosis, the weird belief by the leader of a government and his top agents that even obviously innocent and harmless citizens pose a threat by birthright.  In a follow-up post I will offer one of several reasons why I think we should care.


One thought on “What Is Genocide?

  1. Kukri

    In many sources, the most recent being Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, we learn of planned campaigns to wipe out eastern Slavs in the western Soviet Union. And there’s also the well-known plan by the Nazis to kill 1/3 of the Slavs, deport 1/3 to the other side of the Urals, and enslave 1/3 for economic use.
    That’s pretty close to genocide…


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