Policy Papers

Genocide: twentieth-century warnings for the twenty-first century

Lisa Pine |

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Executive Summary

  • The twentieth century has been regarded by many scholars as 'the century of genocide', in which state-sponsored mass murder of civilians in the First and Second World Wars set a pattern that was to be repeated many times across the world in the fifty years that followed.
  • The Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government in 1915 had already resulted in the death of an estimated 1 million civilians. Yet, even today, nearly a century later, the Turkish authorities still refuse to acknowledge it as genocide.
  • Much more infamously, the 'Final Solution' was the Nazis' attempt to wipe out European Jewry during the course of the Second World War. After the events of the Holocaust became publicly known and acknowledged, the slogan 'nie wieder' ('never again') became current.
  • However, mass killings have continued to occur across the globe in the post-war era, for example, in Ethiopia by the Dergue, in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and in Indonesia and East Timor by the Suharto regime.
  • During the 1990s, the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda dominated the international news. These atrocities raised the public awareness of genocide and provided an impetus and a focus for scholarly research in the field of genocide studies.
  • Gregory H. Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, describes genocide as a process that moves through eight stages: classification, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, extermination and denial.
  • A variety of measures can be taken to stop genocide occurring if governments and international organisations identify these stages early enough and then act promptly.
  • Humanitarian aid and the provision of refuge for persecuted groups is, of course, extremely important.
  • Economic sanctions, trade embargoes, and divestment are ways of pressurising regimes that show signs and intentions of executing genocidal policies.
  • International isolation, condemnation and travel bans on leaders of such governments are significant but these measures need to be backed up with the threat and, if necessary, the use of military intervention.
  • Enforcement of international law and of the Genocide Convention by means of a thoroughgoing hunting down and prosecution of perpetrators is important to show the intention of the international community not to let these crimes go unpunished.


Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish-Jewish jurist, coined the term genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). He believed that each national, religious and racial group had a mission to fulfil and a cultural contribution to make to mankind. He defined genocide as 'the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group'. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) stated that: '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'. These genocidal acts encompassed not only 'killing members of the group', but also 'causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group', 'deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part', 'imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group' and 'forcibly transferring children of the group to another group'.

Many scholars have concurred that the twentieth century was the century of genocide. The state-sponsored mass murder of civilians in the First World War and the Second World War set a pattern to be repeated many times in different regions of the world in the second half of the century. Will the twenty-first century be any different? If genocides continue to take place, what should the response to them be?

The Armenian genocide

The Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government in 1915 resulted in the death of an estimated 1 million civilians. The ardently nationalist Young Turk movement came to dominate the government between 1908 and 1914. It sought to abandon multinational 'Ottomanism' and to replace it with exclusive 'Turkism'. It targeted the Armenians because of their linguistic, cultural and religious differences, believing that they had no place in Turkish society. Contemporary observers described the violence towards the Armenians as 'a massacre like none other' and 'a massacre that changes the meaning of the word massacre'. Yet, even today, nearly a century later, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge it as genocide.

At the time, the Allied Powers in Europe publicly stated that they would hold personally responsible all members of the Turkish government and others who had planned or participated in the massacres. There were also countless declarations and pledges made by world leaders for the emancipation and restitution of survivors. Yet, these promises were unfulfilled and within a few years the genocide of the Armenians was 'forgotten'. Indeed, when Hitler addressed a meeting of SS units in August 1939, in preparation for the Polish campaign, he told them 'to kill, without pity, men, women and children', suggesting that there would be no repercussions, for 'who remembers now the massacre of the Armenians?'

The Holocaust

The Holocaust or the 'Final Solution' was the Nazis' attempt to wipe out European Jewry during the course of the Second World War. Largely through the use of mobile killing squads and death camps in Poland, some 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. The scale and the process of the mass killings were unprecedented: the death camp at Auschwitz has endured as its most powerful symbol. The Holocaust has been the subject of intensive historical research. Historians have analysed not only perpetrators, but also collaborators, victims and bystanders. Survivors of this dark episode in European history become fewer and fewer as the years pass, and so it becomes all the more important to study and teach this subject, in order to keep it alive in the popular memory, and try to understand and prevent future genocides.

There has been a considerable amount of scholarly debate surrounding the Holocaust. In particular, the issue of the singularity or uniqueness of the Holocaust as an event has been the subject of much controversy. Many historians have suggested that comparison of the Holocaust to other genocides trivialises it or diminishes its significance. However, other scholars have shown that comparisons can be useful, not in order to trivialise the Holocaust or to compete with it, but as a heuristic tool, in order to help us understand the motivations for and features of genocide. Whilst not all genocides are similar in every respect, trying to understand commonalities where they exist can he helpful in trying to comprehend genocide and then by extension, in taking steps to prevent future genocides.

'Never again'

After the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the Second World War became publicly known and acknowledged, the slogan 'nie wieder' ('never again') became current. Indeed, the 1948 UN Convention was the first truly universal, codified statement on genocide, and enshrined within it was the promise of 'never again'. However, 'never again' has been shown to be meaningless, an empty phrase, as mass killings occurred across the globe in the post-war era, for example, in Ethiopia by the Dergue, in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and in Indonesia and East Timor by the Suharto regime. With the occurrence of so many episodes of mass murder, genocide became the subject of academic attention. In particular, the motives for genocide have been the subject of much scholarly research: who ordered the mass killings and why? But as well as a 'top down' approach, the study of genocide has also moved to consider the interaction between leaders and those carrying out their orders. This 'bottom up' approach analyses how orders were interpreted and translated into the reality of mass murder by those on the ground. Research into genocide has analysed not only the motives and actions of the perpetrators, but also the experiences of the victims and the responses of the bystanders. Attempting to understand the history of perpetrators, victims and bystanders may help our quest to prevent genocide in the future. Certainly, the events in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the 1990s have brought the subject of genocide more widely into the popular awareness and more firmly onto the international political agenda.


The former Yugoslavia began to break up as Slovenia and then Croatia declared their independence in 1991. Serbia, the most powerful of the six Yugoslavian republics, had its own ambitions to achieve a 'greater Serbia' and was determined to prevent the secessions. Between 1991 and 1999, during the course of its break-up into separate states, the former Yugoslavian federation saw widespread atrocities and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by all sides in a multi-sided conflict, involving Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians. A 'dance of death' occurred in which a killing frenzy spread and all sides engaged, committing atrocities against each other. The slow and passive responses from the international community acted as a green light for Serbia in particular to continue its ethnic cleansing campaign. However, the escalation of the conflict in Bosnia, in which Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered at the hands of Bosnian Serbs and Croatians, eventually prompted the UN to create 'safe areas' for Bosnian Muslims, for example, at Sarajevo, Gorazde and Srebrenica, but in reality, the UN peacekeepers were powerless to protect them. Srebrenica, where some 7,000 people were killed in the space of two days in July 1995, remains a symbol of a very dark moment in the history of humanity. In November 1995, after international military intervention and active diplomacy, the Dayton Accords were signed by Slobodan Milosevic for Serbia, Franjo Tudjman for Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic for Bosnia. This created an end to the violence in Bosnia, but more bloodshed was still to follow in Kosovo. Here a violent struggle ensued from 1996 between the Serbs, who regarded Kosovo as their historical homeland, and the ethnic Albanians, who made up 90 per cent of the population of the province. After NATO forces eventually waged a war of aerial bombardment against Serbia in 1999, Serbia withdrew its forces from Kosovo and half a million refugees returned to their homeland. If left unchallenged, the situation in Kosovo might have escalated into a similar genocide. The recent memory of the events in Bosnia prompted action on the part of the international community.


Rwanda in April 1994 witnessed the unleashing of the genocide of the Tutsi by the ruling Hutu-led government. The genocide was the culmination of the construction of differences and enmity between the Hutu and the Tutsi, which had begun in the colonial era. The Tutsi were vilified and dehumanised. The Hutu referred to them as 'cockroaches'. This was a planned annihilation, in which the enemy was demonised and no mercy was to be shown to any Tutsi man, woman or child. The wife and closest advisers of President Habyarimana were directly responsible for planning the genocide. The interhamwe militias were in charge of the killings on the ground, mobilising the majority of the Hutu to kill the Tutsi. Indeed, the scale of popular participation in the mass slaughter was one of the most extraordinary features of the Rwandan genocide.

The Rwandan genocide claimed an estimated half a million lives. It was met with international indifference and inaction. The clichés used by the western media about ancient bloodletting, intertribal chaos and anarchy contributed to this apathetic response. In Britain, neither the government nor the public was interested. Indeed, British officials played a significant part in shaping the international response to the situation in Rwanda - to get troops to leave, as well as a speedy evacuation of all westerners. The decision to abandon Rwanda was quick, with just a few volunteers staying behind. All governments and official bodies continued to recognise the government in Rwanda and none called for it to stop the genocide. The UN Security Council also failed to do anything to stop it.

The eight stages of genocide

Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, argues that genocide is a process that develops in eight stages. He asserts that the stages are predictable and that preventive measures can be taken at each stage.

The first stage, classification, entails the distinction of people into different groups. This is a categorisation of 'them and us', based upon race, religion, nationality or ethnicity. The second stage, symbolisation, entails the naming of groups as 'other' and distinguishing them or marking them out from the rest of society. Symbols are often forced upon 'enemy' groups, such as the Yellow Star to be worn by German Jews under Nazi rule. The third stage is dehumanisation, the denial of the humanity of the target group. Its members are vilified as vermin, pests, diseases or even inanimate objects. This process of dehumanisation makes murder somehow more acceptable, legitimate or even necessary in the eyes of the perpetrators. The fourth stage is the organisation. Genocide is always intentional, planned and orchestrated from above, often executed by specially-trained militias. In Nazi-occupied Europe the SS-Einsatzgruppen were specially-trained killing squads who shot to death more than 1.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union. In Rwanda, the interhamwe militias perpetrated the mass killings, and in Darfur since 2004 the Janjaweed militias have done the same.

Polarisation is the fifth stage of the genocide process. Groups in society are separated, for example, by the banning of marriage or social interaction. The enemy group is alienated and isolated. As well as targeting members of the enemy group, extremists also target moderates from their own group, who are most likely to want to avoid genocide. Moderate leaders may be among the first to be arrested and murdered. The sixth stage is preparation. This involves the physical separation of members of the enemy group and/or their forced deportation. This segregation, confinement or removal to, or from, a particular area is a significant moment. The term 'ethnic cleansing' has been applied to this process. The seventh stage of the genocide process is the mass killings themselves. The perpetrators regard this as 'extermination', because the victims have been dehumanised in an earlier stage of the process. The eighth stage in the process of genocide is denial. The perpetrators deny their crimes and try to hide the evidence. They endeavour to prevent investigations of their crimes. Many perpetrators remain in power until forcibly removed. They go into exile unless and until they are caught and tried.


The fundamental problem with intervention at the early stages is that it is difficult for the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of states. The necessary steps of prevention at early stages such as the promotion of universalistic institutions that transcend racial or ethnic divisions within a society or state, the banning or denial of symbolisation, the outlawing of hate propaganda and the banning of militias can only be achieved by the state itself. And the state, of course, may be unwilling to do this. So what can the international community do? Essentially, it must determine effective means of placing significant pressure on such states and escalate such pressure if the situation deteriorates. This requires a willingness to act that is often absent due to political differences between leading nations, vested economic interests in maintaining certain regimes, as well as apathy. In the end, the political will of the UN Security Council or regional forces is necessary as a step to prevention. Victim groups may need large-scale assistance and international force may need to be applied to the perpetrators. Humanitarian aid for victim groups needs to be arranged and furnished. Internationally protected, properly 'safe areas' and escape routes for refugees need to be put in place for victim groups. The UN Security Council needs to authorise military forces to intervene in genocide. The response to denial is punishment by national or international courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The political will to arrest perpetrators of genocide and to bring them to justice is important as a signal to future would-be perpetrators that they will not necessarily get away with their crimes.


Can genocide be predicted or prevented? Unfortunately, lessons from these dark episodes in the history of the twentieth century have not so far been learnt. Yet surely history can teach current policy-makers, organisations and indeed individuals many things, if only they care to heed them. By studying these genocides carefully - the intentions of those in power, the motivations of the perpetrators, the experiences of the victims and the role of the bystanders - future genocides could perhaps be predicted and even prevented or at least curtailed. Nearly 60 years have now passed since the framing of the UN Genocide Convention, and yet the record of the United Nations in predicting and preventing genocide has not been good. The international community as a whole cannot be proud of its response to cases of genocide around the world. In certain instances, the reaction has been to provide no help at all; in many others, it has been a case of too little and too late. Leading nations have been unwilling to commit troops to intervene directly to prevent genocide, but these nations have an example to set and a part to play in its prevention, in terms of both intervention and relief efforts. It is now widely acknowledged that the atrocities perpetrated against the Fur people in Darfur by the Sudanese government constitute genocide. The work of the Janjaweed militias is characterised by burning, rape, pillage, and the mass murder of entire communities. This first genocide of the twenty-first century has been unfolding for four years, and still no significant steps have been taken to stop it.

Further Reading

R. Gellately and B. Kiernan (eds), The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

M. Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

M. Midlarsky, The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

B. Valentino, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 2004)

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


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