Genocide Essay

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The term genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin, in 1944. It was legally defined in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. The Convention states that genocide means . . . acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Such acts as detailed in the Convention include: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to them; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another one. This definition excludes groups defined by class and political affiliation. Contemporary human rights lawyers include these groups and count, e.g. the genocide of its own people by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as genocide.

Rubinstein (2004: 6) identifies five distinct types and periods in the history of genocide: in pre-literate   societies,   in  the  age  of empires and religions (from 500 BC to 1492), colonial genocides from 1492 to 1914, in the age of totalitarianism (1914 to 1979), and contemporary ethnic cleansing and genocide since 1945. Estimates for the victims of genocide and mass killings as distinguished from war deaths range from 60 to 150 million for the twentieth century alone, with most estimates at about 80 million. For the second half of the twentieth century since 1945, estimates range between 9 and 20 million in more than 40 episodes of genocide. The perpetrators in contrast are comparably small in numbers. The figure of Germans who directly participated in the Holocaust is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000. An estimate of immediate involvement in the Rwandan genocide suggests that the military forces that did most of the killing numbered about 10,000.

Genocide involves three distinct elements, which provide the basis for all attempts to explain why and how genocides happen: (1) the identification of a social group as an enemy . . . against which it is justified to use physical violence in a systematic way”; (2) the intention to destroy the real or imputed power” of this group; and (3) the actual deployment of violence . . . through killing . . . and other measures” (Shaw 2003: 37). Genocidal mass killings can be grouped into two general categories: Dispossessive” mass killings result from policies that strip large groups of the population of their possessions, their homes, their way of life and finally their lives. Coercive mass killings” occur in major armed conflicts, when political and military leaders use massive violence to coerce large numbers of civilians and their leaders into submission (Valentino 2004).

Three explanatory approaches have been most influential: (1) Genocide as the product of modernity, with Baumann (1989) as the most prominent proponent. (2) The structural and psychosocial perspective, focusing on broad social, cultural, and political factors, e.g. deep cleavages between social and ethnic groups; social crises which increase competition between groups; moral disengagement such as the erosion of norms of social responsibility and solidarity; and a cultural pattern of authoritarian and obedient attitudes. (3) The strategic perspective, according to which specific goals and strategies of political and military leaders are decisive for the precipitation of genocide. The Milgram Experiments and later Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment were influential in explaining the involvement of ordinary people in mass killings.


  1. Bauman,    (1989)  Modernity  and  the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  2. Rubinstein, W. D. (2004) Genocide. Pearson Longman, London.
  3. Shaw, M. (2003) War and Genocide. Organized Killing in Modern Society. Polity, Cambridge.
  4. Valentino, B. A. (2004) Final Solutions. Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

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