Word With a Past: Genocide

Genocide as an activity is probably as old as the concepts of “us” and “them”.

Genocide as a word is relatively new, coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, several years before the world knew about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps

As a result of studying the history of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, the mass murder of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915-16 (now considered genocide by most scholars), and other examples of violence directed at specific groups, Lemkin made the introduction of international legal safeguards for minority religious and ethnic groups his life’s work. He first proposed such legislation at an international legal conference in 1933.*

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin tried to persuade his family to seek asylum outside of German-occupied territories, with no success. (Forty-nine members of his family, including his parents, were imprisoned by the Nazis and later gassed in Treblinka.) Lemkin himself escaped through unoccupied Lithuania and Latvia to Stockholm.

In Stockholm, Lemkin studied Nazi actions through the lens of jurisprudence, using information regarding Nazi laws, regulations and proclamations provided by Swedish diplomats in Nazi occupied territories. In 1944, now an analyst with the United States’ War Department, he published his monumental study of patterns of destruction in Nazi-held territories, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he introduced the term genocide to describe “the crime without a name”:

“By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote the old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)….It is intended 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.

After the war, Lemkin worked as a prosecutor at the Nurenberg trials. He was able to get the word “genocide” included in the indictments, but genocide was not yet recognized as a legal crime and was not reflected in the final verdicts.

When Lemkin returned from Europe, he took on the task of pushing the Genocide Convention through the newly formed United Nations. The recognition of genocide as an international crime became an all encompassing crusade for Lemkin. He gave up adjunct teaching positions at Yale and New York University in order to give all his time to the task. Impoverished and sometimes homeless, he relentlessly lobbied national delegations and influential leaders for their support. The UN passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide on December 9, 1948–in large part due to Lemkin’s efforts. The United States finally signed the Genocide Convention forty years later,.

Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group

* Several months after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

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