Why This Definition of Genocide?

I should have expected this to happen.  I only finished characterizing the killing of Jews and Gypsies during the Holocaust as genocide within a larger campaign of repressive and dispossessive mass killings carried out under the Nazi occupation of Europe, when a regular respondent raised the Nazi plan to murder or expel very large numbers of Poles and Slavic Soviet nationals, averring “That’s pretty close to genocide…”  This would have entailed one of the greatest atrocities in history, if the Nazis had resolved to go through with it.  A “well-known plan” is not an act, and we should not treat a proposal by an ideological movement in the same manner as an historical event.  (The Nazis’ self-evident lack of scruples does not mean this plan itself was inevitable.)  But while the Genocide Convention would define this act as a genocide, I would have to count it more as a combination of indiscriminate repressive violence and what Michael Mann calls murderous ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing is a term that sounds like a euphemism but definitely means something relative to our usual understanding of the term “genocide.”  Ethnic cleansing simply means the forcible removal of an ethnic group from a territory.  This can be a forced population evacuation which occurs under a treaty, as happened in numerous parts of Eastern Europe after World War I and World War II, or it could simply mean genocide.  Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing also addresses cases of what he calls “murderous ethnic cleansing,” a broader concept that includes as extreme cases which usually fit the varying conceptual requirements to be called genocide.  But the wholesale killing of the members of an ethnic group is less common than this, and seems to occur under idiosyncratic circumstances warranting special attention.

Again, the definition of genocide employed in the Genocide Convention is “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.”

From a standpoint of political analysis or assessment of moral culpability for one kind of act, I see several problems with this definition of genocide, worked out in the late 1940s.  First, and understandably but still problematically, this is a legal definition of an unusual but very serious political phenomenon; the act is defined categorically as the destruction of a nation rather than the killing of individuals, and thus the crime with which genocidaires will be charged is not based on a perpetrator’s role in an identifiable political process but on their culpability in this result.  These “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” are very serious acts, but some of them occur in very different circumstances.  Upon careful consideration of the above definition, the reader may realize that according to the Genocide Convention the destruction, “in whole or in part, (of) national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” technically doesn’t require killing members of the group at all.

No definition of genocide excludes “killing members of the group” or “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” but the other acts expand the possible preconditions of genocide to the point where it is almost impossible to generalize about when it happens, or why.  “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” is relative if not subjective, and its relationship to the destruction, “in whole or in part, (of) a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” is unestablished.  To count “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” would make China’s “One Child” policy genocidal.  (I don’t deny that the “One Child” policy is unjust and inhumane, but to charge the current Chinese Communist Party with “auto-genocide” would certainly cheapen the term.)  “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is rarely a significant component of a genocide, though it was common during the Aghet (the Armenian Genocide) in 1915-16.  This would also mean enslavement counted as genocide; while slavery is among the most-serious violations of human reciprocity, it is certainly conceptually distinct from genocide, and the times in which the inhabitants of a conquered city were interchangeably killed en masse or pressed into slavery seem to have long-since passed.

Where does this leave us?  With a shortened definition of genocide, one meant to idenfity a common set of circumstances and processes, and with a common set of constituencies to be served and agents to carry out the policy.  Genocide is the act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such, of killing members of the group, or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.  Can we count Nazi ambitions against Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Russians as genocide?  Again, since the plans were not carried out, the historical atrocities carried out against Slavs on the Eastern Front can only be described as exemplary repression or large-scale war crimes.  There were a large number of Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis, including in genocidal acts; according to Mann (The Dark Side of Democracy, 290), “By war’s end 200,000 Ukrainians were in German uniform,” though he thinks a similar number had probably joined the Red partisans to fight the German occupation.  He also notes that the Israeli War Crimes Investigations Office claims that 11,000 Ukrainians directly participated in genocidal activities with the Nazis.  This level of collaboration doesn’t tell us much about the general population (as wartime atrocities rarely if ever can), but it is a fact that must be set against Nazi plans for ethnic mass murder and mass expulsion that would have been partial, and which never left the drawing board.  The grim fact is that there are too many proposals of genocide for us to draw meaningful political theories that rely upon them.

By contrast the Nazis intended to hunt Europe’s Jews and Gypsies to extinction, sparing no one if possible.  Considering the genocides of Turkish Armenia and Rwanda, but also settler genocide in the United States and the Aborigine in Austrailia, but also military genocide by Russians against Circassians in 1862 and by Germans in Southwest Africa in 1904, this attempt at wholesale elimination of a minority group from at least most territories appears to be a common element in several activities consistently recognized as genocide.

This discussion is not finished, however, because this general definition of genocide fails to identify two very different genocidal circumstances rarely distinguished in the existing theoretical literature–that of genocides of conquest and prophylactic or xenophobic genocides.

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One thought on “Why This Definition of Genocide?

  1. Kukri

    “There were a large number of Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis, including in genocidal acts; according to Mann (The Dark Side of Democracy, 290), “By war’s end 200,000 Ukrainians were in German uniform,” though he thinks a similar number had probably joined the Red partisans to fight the German occupation. He also notes that the Israeli War Crimes Investigations Office claims that 11,000 Ukrainians directly participated in genocidal activities with the Nazis.

    The 200,000 in German uniform is not automatically akin to participation in war crimes. (Though I know the Soviet apologists and Russian nationalists, to this day, are more than happy to classify them as such.) The 11,000, not the 200,000, is the figure one can cite as genocide collaborators, which the Israeli War Crimes Investigations Office defines as participating in executions, deportations or acting as camp guards. (That 11,000, for purposes of perspective, comes out to about .03% out of a prewar population of some 37,000,000 in Soviet Ukraine, a rate of collaboration among the lowest of the east European nations.) Also, one can debate how many collaborators throughout Europe were motivated by anti-semitism and/or a pro-Nazi personal ideology, and how many were trying to simply not starve to death in German POW camps. This perspective remains important today in light of ongoing Nazi war crimes trials.

    I highly recommend you look at Timothy Snyder’s recent works Bloodlands for a closer examination of the Soviet and Nazi killing fields of eastern Europe.

    Reply

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