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How does genocide begin, which genocides have taken place, and what is genocide? Find out more in this long read.

What is genocide?

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NIOD - Office of the U.S. Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality

What are the origins of the term genocide?

The world is witnessing a ‘crime without a name’. Those were the words of Winston Churchill on 24 August 1941, in response to the mass execution of Jews in the Nazi-occupied areas of Poland. The lawyer Raphaël Lemkin introduced the term ‘genocide’ to describe this in 1944, although people were not yet aware of the exact scope and nature of the mass murder of the Jews at that time. This new word combined the Greek term genos (meaning race, people, or tribe) with the Latin suffix cide (from the verb ‘caedere’, meaning ‘to kill’).

Lemkin, who was born in 1900 in eastern Poland and of Jewish descent, fled to Vilnius (Lithuania) after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In 1940, he finally found refuge in the United States of America. Throughout his long journey – via Sweden, the Soviet Union, Japan and Canada – he carried a special load: his suitcases were full of decrees and ordinances that had been proclaimed by the Nazi Party in Germany after 1933. As Lemkin studied the content and meaning of the documents, more and more information about German brutality in occupied Europe trickled over the border via witness accounts. In 1944, Lemkin published his findings in a book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress.  

Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ because he believed there should be better protection for individuals subjected to violence because they formed part of a specific social group. He wrote that the term was born of circumstance: ‘new views require new terms’. He defined ‘genocide’ as ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at destroying the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of destroying those groups’.

What is the difference between genocide and other forms of violence?

There are also other forms of violence, such as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’. The key difference between these forms of mass violence and genocide lies in the aim of the perpetrators: in the case of genocide, the focus is on the group. The perpetrators want to destroy all or part of this group. ‘Crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’ involve widespread or systematic attacks on individual civilians. No distinction is made between these terms with regard to the number of victims.

How does genocide begin?

The gas chambers in Auschwitz have become a symbol of the genocide of the Jews during the Second World War. As a result, we sometimes forget that this mass murder was preceded by years of discrimination, exclusion and persecution. In 1996, Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch (https://www.genocidewatch.com/), developed a model to explain the ‘process’ that can lead to genocide. The aim of the model is to improve our ability to recognise the potential early stages of genocide. This also allows countries to act to prevent further escalation, not only through military intervention, but also by bringing criminal proceedings to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The starting point is classification: by dividing a society into groups, a difference is created between ‘us’ and ‘them’. During the civil war in Rwanda, which preceded the genocide in 1994, attention was drawn to perceived racial differences between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi (and Twa) minority.

Symbolisation is the attaching of symbols to specific groups. One such example is the yellow star that Jews had to wear during the Second World War. During the war, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star so that everyone could see who was Jewish.

Discrimination occurs when a group is (systematically) deprived of its (civil) rights. For example, the government of Myanmar has been denying citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim minority since 1982.

When one group no longer recognises the humanity of another group, this is called dehumanisation. This can be done using language and images, such as by comparing (alleged) members of a group to parasites or insects. In ‘The eternal Jew’, an anti-Semitic ‘documentary’ that premiered in the Netherlands in October 1941, Jews were compared to rats that had to be exterminated.

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Genocide is often preceded by a form of purposeful organisation. The government of a state is usually involved, either directly or indirectly. This can also be done by deploying ‘paramilitary groups’: well-trained units that do not officially form part of the army, but are supported by the state.

Polarisation takes place when different groups are actively set against each other, for example through the use of propaganda or discriminatory measures. Much propaganda was used during the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995), resulting in the population endorsing the violence. The Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević used age-old myths to portray the Serbians as victims who had to fight to survive.

During the preparation phase, measures are taken that make it possible to destroy a group. The hateful rhetoric is intensified, provoking fear of the denigrated victim group, and the army and weapons arsenal are expanded. In doing so, use is often made of terms that conceal the fact that the intention is to destroy a group. One such example is the Nazis’ use of the term Endlösung (‘final solution’).

Persecution begins when (alleged) members of victim groups are imprisoned in ghettos or concentration camps, forcibly evicted, or have their property expropriated. 

The steps above may lead to the deliberate destruction of a group.

The final phase, following destruction, is denial. The perpetrators attempt to erase any traces of their actions in order to avoid trial. For example, the gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp were blown up by the Nazis.

The Jewish Cultural Quarter made a podcast about the ten stages of genocide to accompany the exhibition “The persecution of the Jews in photographs: The Netherlands 1940-1945”. The exhibition was shown at the National Holocaust Museum and Topographie des Terrors. You can also listen to the podcast via your podcast app.

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The 21 defendants at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. 

Genocide: a legal term

In 1945, the International Military Tribunal was held in Nuremberg to try the leaders of the Nazi regime. Lemkin hoped that ‘genocide’ would be used as a legal term during the trial. To his great disappointment, although the concept featured in the oral formulation of the indictment, it was not introduced as an official legal term that could be used to convict the defendants. Nor did the American chief prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, refer to the term ‘genocide’ during his famous opening statement at the great Nuremberg trial.

In the period that followed, Lemkin lobbied for official recognition of the term in international law. This happened for the first time in 1946, when ‘genocide’ was recognised as a crime by the United Nations. Two years later, on 9 December 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. This defined and established genocide as an international crime. The signatory countries to the Convention agreed to work towards preventing genocide and punishing individual perpetrators of this international crime. In January 1951, having been ratified by more than twenty countries across the world, the Convention entered into force. At present, 152 countries have committed to uphold to the Convention.

In the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, genocide is defined as one of the following acts, committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic or religious group, or a group belonging to a certain race:

(a) killing members of the group;
(b) inflicting serious bodily or mental harm on 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.

Thus, according to the UN definition, ‘genocide’ not only covers the killing of members of a particular group, but also acts that are intended to prevent the group’s survival. Furthermore, individual perpetrators can be held responsible for (1) genocide; (2) conspiracy to commit genocide; (3) direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (4) attempt to commit genocide; and (5) complicity in genocide.

From the outset, scholars were critical of the UN definition of genocide. One of the criticisms is that ‘political groups’ do not form part of the definition. The reason for this is political: the negotiating countries were afraid that they themselves might be brought to trial as a result.

One of the negotiating countries was the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders feared that their policies against farmers and political opponents could be viewed as genocide if ‘political groups’ were included in the definition. The Americans and the South Africans also opposed the inclusion of ‘political groups’. As a result, the violent treatment of political opponents by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s could be classified as ‘crimes against humanity’ (murder, persecution, extermination), for example, but not as ‘genocide’.

Another criticism of the UN definition is that it is too broad. That is because the definition states that the ‘partial destruction’ of a group can also count as genocide. However, it is unclear what exactly is meant by ‘in part’, and how large this ‘part’ should be before something counts as genocide. The most important criticism of the legal term is that it is difficult in practice to prove that the perpetrators intended to destroy a group, in part or in whole.

That ‘part’ of a group could consist exclusively of men was shown by the verdict of the Yugoslavia Tribunal in 2001, when the former Serbian general Radislav Krstic was found guilty of genocide. He was held jointly responsible for the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica (Bosnia) in July 1995.

As a result of this criticism, scholars (especially sociologists, political scientists and historians) have devised, proposed and used alternative scholarly definitions to explain and account for genocidal violence: mass violence that resembles the crime of genocide. Uğur Ümit Üngör  argues that genocide can best be described as ‘the persecution and destruction of people on the basis of their assumed or attributed membership of a group, rather than on the basis of their qualities as individuals, or on the basis of their participation in certain actions.’ Definitions such as these cover the forms mass violence that are also present in cases of genocide, but that cannot (always) be viewed as genocide according to the strict legal definition. Despite the existence of these alternative, scholarly concepts, there is a broad international consensus on the use of the legal definition as described in the Convention.

Other terms are also used to describe crimes against specific groups. They include ‘politicide’ (the destruction of a group on political grounds), ‘femicide’ (the killing of women) and ‘infanticide’ (the killing of children). The suppression of traditional customs and languages, which can result in the eradication of a culture, has also acquired a term in the non-legal literature: ‘cultural genocide’. Lemkin proposed the term ‘ethnocide’, the destruction of a culture, as an alternative to the term ‘genocide’, but it was not included in the UN definition. Lemkin’s description of genocide and the UN’s final legal definition of genocide are therefore very different.

Which genocides have taken place?

In the Western world, the Holocaust is often seen as the most notorious genocide of the 20th century. As the term was not officially described in international law until 1948, however, the German perpetrators and local collaborators were never tried for genocide, but for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, the term genocide is used retrospectively, in a historical sense, to describe the mass destruction of the Jews during the Second World War. After all, it was the crimes committed by the Nazis that inspired Lemkin to coin the term.

It is often impossible to prove that the perpetrators intended to destroy a specific group. That is why only a few cases of genocide have been established by international tribunals in recent decades. This happened for the first time in 1998, in the context of the massacre of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. This was followed by the massacres of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica (1995), Kurds in Iraq (1988) and the Cambodian Cham and Vietnamese minorities (1975-1979). National courts have also ruled that genocide took place in Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala and Ethiopia.

Based on the Genocide Convention, the massacres of the Herero and Nama in Namibia (1904-1908), the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (1915-1922), the Hutus in Burundi, the Yezidis in Iraq (2014-2019) and the Uyghurs in China (2014-present day) are now classified as genocides. Although these cases have yet to be labelled as ‘genocide’ by an international tribunal, they are seen as such by political actors (for example, the United Nations and various countries) and scholars. In 2022, the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body of the United Nations, is considering whether genocide is being committed in Myanmar (2017-present day).

Is genocide the ultimate evil?

Genocide evokes many emotions: from sorrow to outrage, from recognition to denial. It is seen as the ultimate evil, the ‘crime of crimes’. This is partly due to the judgements by international tribunals, such as the 1998 verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the case of Jean Kambanda, who was prime minister of Rwanda at the time of the genocide in 1994. However, genocide is not punished more severely than war crimes, for example, or crimes against humanity. Scholars and jurists, including Philippe Sands, think that it is dangerous to see genocide as the ultimate evil; this can give the impression that killing (large numbers of) individuals is less bad than killing individuals because they form part of a group.

It is also difficult for victims if the suffering they endure is not seen as genocide; it can feel as though their victimhood has not been recognised. One such example is Biafra, where more than one million civilians died as a result of violence by the central Nigerian regime between 1966 and 1970. To this day, victim groups continue to lobby for the Nigerian federal government to be held responsible for the alleged genocidal campaign against the Biafrans, the Igbo in particular. UN representatives who visited the region between 1968 and 1970 found no evidence that the Nigerian state had intendedto exterminate the Igbo. Partly as a result of this, genocide has never been unequivocally established.

As a result, the term ‘genocide’ is often used as a public weapon, including by politically engaged or activist scholars. Unlike all of the other concepts that describe mass violence, due to its emotional status as the ‘crime of crimes’ and its association with the Holocaust, ‘genocide’ is used to turn the tables on political opponents. When the United States claimed in early 2021 that genocide was being committed against the Uyghurs in Xinyang, for example, China immediately referred to the American ‘policy of genocide, segregation and assimilation of indigenous peoples’ dating back to the 15th century.

The term ‘genocide’ is increasingly being used to draw attention to current cases of mass violence, or to violence that took place in the past. For example, the term ‘genocide’ is used to refer to the history of slavery in colonial empires, even though slavery, legally speaking, is a crime against humanity. Due to the ‘verbal inflation’ of the term genocide – as it is increasingly used to describe various forms of victimisation – the intended meaning of the concept is gradually being eroded.

Recommended reading

Bloxham, D. and D. Moses, The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (Oxford 2010).

Van Haperen, M. Ten Have, W. Kiernan, B. et al. (eds), The Holocaust and other Genocides: An Introduction (Amsterdam 2012).

Levene, M. Genocide in the Age of the Nation State, 3 volumes (London: 2005).

Meierhenrich, J. Genocide: A Reader (Oxford 2014).

Moses, D. The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression (Cambridge 2021).

Naimark, N. Genocide: A World History (New York/Oxford 2017).

Sémelin, J. Purify and Destroy: the Political uses of Massacre and Genocide (New York, 2007).

Sands, Ph. East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (London 2016).

Swaan, A de. Compartimenten van vernietiging: over genocidale regimes en hun daders (Amsterdam 2014).

Üngör, U. (ed.) Genocide: New Perspectives on its Causes, Courses and Consequences (Amsterdam 2016).

Weitz, E. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton 2003).

Zwaan, T. and M. de Keizer, Politiek geweld: etnisch conflict, oorlog en genocide in de twintigste eeuw (Zutphen 2005).

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