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This article is an overview of the history and the concept of genocide. It reviews several episodes of genocide in modern world history, including the Holocaust as well as genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Armenia, and Darfur. The article then considers several controversies in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. First, it discusses what factors cause genocides to occur, including national character, the development of modernity, and individual compliance. Second, it considers various responses to genocide, including trials, reparations, and truth and reconciliation commissions. Finally, it considers the relationship between the Holocaust and other genocides.

Keywords Ethnic Group; Holocaust; International Criminal Court; Modernity; Nazis; Nuremburg Trials; Roma; Shoah; United Nations Convention on the Prevention & Punishment of Genocide; Xenophobia



In general terms, the word "genocide" is used to refer to instances in which one group or nation sets about systematically exterminating a specific ethnic, racial, national, or religious population. It is undoubtedly true that such killings have happened all throughout history, but genocide as a term did not come into existence until near the end of World War II. The horrors of the Holocaust, the Nazi German campaign of extermination of Jews, Roma, individuals with disabilities, and a wide variety of others, led scholars and commentators to seek a new language to describe what had occurred. Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent, coined the term "genocide" to describe the Nazi atrocities. Genocide combines the prefix geno-, from the Greek term for race or tribe, with the suffix -cide, from the Latin term for killing.

In the years following World War II, genocide was used as a descriptive term by scholars, commentators, and prosecutors. In particular, the prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (an international trial in which Nazi officials were tried for their participation in atrocities) used the term genocide to describe the acts encompassed by the charge "crimes against humanity." In 1948, genocide as a concept took on a more permanent life when the United Nations (UN) established the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This international treaty document defined genocide as an international crime that nations can attempt to prevent and punish.

Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide 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 (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1948, ¶ 3).

While the Convention has made it possible for the International Criminal Court to prosecute individuals who participate in the commission of genocide, not much success has been had in terms of preventing genocide. In part, this is because it remains hard to predict when genocide will occur. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that genocides frequently occur within an individual nation's borders, and the international community is often reluctant to interfere in what it sees as an internal matter.


Episodes of Genocide

Genocide is not as rare as some people think. In fact, over the past century quite a number of episodes of genocide have occurred.

Since the Holocaust is the episode of genocide that sparked the invention of the term itself, it has had a central place in the study of genocide. The Holocaust, sometimes called the Shoah, refers to the period between 1933 and 1945 in Europe, during which the Nazis consolidated their political power in Germany; invaded and subjugated other European nations; and systematically exterminated Jews, Roma, homosexuals, those with mental and physical disabilities, and various political prisoners such as Catholic priests, resistance fighters, Communists, and dissident intellectuals. It is estimated that the Nazis killed six million Jews as well as several million others. Some died due to forced overcrowding in ghettos, where they succumbed to disease and starvation. Others were executed by roving death squads or were imprisoned in concentration camps where they died from starvation, disease, or overwork. A key element of the Nazi extermination campaigns was the development of gas chambers in which large numbers of prisoners could be killed at once through the application of Zyklon-B, a pesticide.

There have probably been over a dozen instances of genocide in the years since the Holocaust ended, occurring in nations all across the globe. Two of the most recent episodes occurred in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In the early 1990s, a conflict developed between Serbs and Croats, two ethnic groups living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a small Eastern European nation making up one portion of the former Yugoslavia. In part due to their connections with the neighboring nation of Serbia, the Serbs were able to develop a military force that attacked the Croats. Thousands were displaced and many women and girls were raped. Despite the intervention of peacekeeping troops, the death toll numbered in the thousands, though the exact number is still uncertain.

The Rwandan genocide also has its roots in the political boundaries of the nation. During the years when Rwanda was a British colony, the colonial government differentiated between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. These differentiations led to resentment and civil war. A ceasefire that was supposed to end the violent conflict was reached in 1993. However, in 1994 the Rwandan president's plane was shot down, and this event triggered genocidal action. Hutus, including civilians, were encouraged to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Up to one million people were killed, despite the presence of a UN force that had little ability to intervene.

While most commentators agree that the Holocaust and the events in Bosnia and Rwanda qualify as genocide, there is more controversy over other episodes. The existence of a clear definition of genocide as laid out by the UN Convention has not made people any more likely to agree. For instance, some activists and scholars have argued that the deaths that occurred among indigenous populations during periods of colonization as well as those that occurred during the Middle Passage, the period during which Africans were transported to the Americans as slaves, represent episodes of genocide. These controversies are often shaped by the maxim that "the victors write the history." In other words, these activists and scholars argue that we see the Holocaust as an episode of genocide because Nazi Germany lost the war and the victorious Allies wrote the history. In contrast, Great Britain, the United States, and other nations that have been accused of genocides during the colonial era have little motivation to assume responsibility for their role in these deaths because, as dominant powers, they have framed discussion about them.

An example that might make this problem of identifying genocide clearer is the actions of the Turkish government in Armenia, a small country wedged in between Turkey and Asia, during and just after World War I. After protracted conflicts between Turkey and Russia over their respective national borders, which lay in territory occupied by Armenians, a new Turkish government arose in 1908. Seven years later, in the midst of World War I, this new government began a campaign of systematically expelling Armenians. Many were killed outright; others were forced to march until they died. By 1923, Western Armenia was emptied of Armenians. Some fled to seek refuge in other nations, but over a million were killed. However, to this day, the Turkish government claims that no genocide occurred. Due to their reluctance to anger Turkey, which is seen as a valuable ally, few other nations have recognized this episode as genocide either. In total, just over twenty nations—including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia, and Uruguay— and forty-three US states recognize the events as genocide as of 2011.

One of the most recent controversial episode has been the events in Darfur, a region in the western part of Sudan, a nation that...

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