“Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?”
– Raphael Lemkin
Before 1943, the word “genocide” didn’t exist. Before 1943, the intentional annihilation of ethnic, national, racial or religious groups of people, whole or in part, was considered a “massacre,” “mass murder” or “crimes against humanity.” Or, according it Winston Churchill, “a crime without a name.”
But, legally, it didn’t exist as a crime in itself.
Take, for example, Mehmed Talaat Pasha, the Interior Minister of Turkey who would become the equivalent of the country’s prime minister. He is recognized as the main architect in the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. When the Allied Powers declared their intention to hold him responsible for the massacre, Talaat fled to Germany and adopted an assumed identity.
The world grew impatient as it seemed the post-war Ottoman government was only going through the motions of bringing justice to Talaat and others who orchestrated the atrocity. A 1919 article appeared in The Baltimore Sun* with the headline “Turk Fiends Still Free” and compared the fugitive war criminals to “modern day Caligulas.”
“...Germany offers its hospitality to this whole gang of murderers and allows them to live quietly upon the proceeds of murder and graft,” the reporter charged.
Eventually, Talaat was tried in absentia by court martial for the “massacre and death of the Armenians” and then found guilty of capital crimes. He was condemned to death.
However, Germany refused to extradite Talaat. For many observers around the world, it seemed he would suffer hardly any consequence for the massive brutality and destruction he inflicted on an entire ethnic population.
In 1921, he was identified and shot in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The group carried out a series of assassinations on the imperial Ottoman leaders behind the massacre. Tehlirian had lost his entire family under Talaat’s orders. His murder trial was an international sensation and brought to light the German government’s complicity in the attempt to extinguish the Armenian people – information which had been kept from the German public.
The jury, hearing the eyewitness testimony of German officers, acquitted Tehlirian after a very short deliberation. He had acted, the court determined, under “psychological compulsion.”
Talaat's remains were returned to Istanbul in 1943 by Nazi Germany and given burial with full honors.
As the murder trial of Tehlirian unfolded, it was followed with great interest and emotion by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish law student training in Berlin. It seemed to him unconscionable that the murder of one man would be treated as a crime on a par with the murder of more than a million people.
"Tehlirian, who upheld the moral order of mankind, was classified as insane," he wrote. "But can a man appoint himself to mete out justice?" With his mind on matters of the law and the extermination of groups of people and their cultures, Lemkin went to work as a public prosecutor in Warsaw and as an active participant in international law. He focused on introducing legal safeguards for ethnic, religious, and social groups at international forums, but without much success. In 1933, he presented an essay on the “Crime of Barbarity” to the League of Nations’ conference in Madrid. The concepts he expressed here would evolve later into his definition of “genocide” and his work to make it an international crime.
His outspokenness came with a price, however. After his presentation in Madrid, the Polish Foreign Minister pressured Lemkin to resign from his position with the government. So Lemkin went to work in the private sector in Warsaw until 1939 when the Nazi tanks moved in.
After fleeing Warsaw, he reached out to an associate at Duke University who secured a teaching position for him in North Carolina. While Lemkin managed to escape the German occupation, his family did not. He lost 49 relatives. They were among the 3 million Polish and Lithuanian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Lemkin joined the faculty at the Duke law school in 1941. He continued writing about the military government in Europe and received an appointment to consult the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration. He also served as special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department.
In 1944, Lemkin's most important work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, was published in the U.S. Along with a legal analysis of German rule in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the World War II, this book coined the term genocide.
Formed from the root words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing), Lemkin defined genocide as “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.”
This definition distinguished genocide from amoral crimes of war and distinctive from homicide. Genocide is crime on another scale, as the intention is not to kill an individual person or people but to wipe out entire populations based on race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.
This concept of genocide as an offense against international law was widely accepted by the international community.
After years of campaigning by Lemkin, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in December 1948. It was among the first U.N. conventions dedicated to humanitarian issues. In commemoration of the occasion, a special insert printed in The New York Times* contained the complete text of the Convention, including the U.N.’s definition of genocide.
Lemkin did not rest with the U.N. agreement. The remainder of his life was dedicated to working with nations to pass legislation in support of Convention. The Convention became international law by 1951, but it would be decades before major powers ratified it. Lemkin died of a heart attack on August 28, 1959, impoverished and suffering from exhaustion. He didn’t live to see Britain ratify the Convention in 1970. The U.S. finally did so in 1988.
However, since the Convention was introduced, it has been signed by 147 countries, bound in agreement that:
[G]enocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the sprit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world;
Recognizing that all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity; and
Being convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international cooperation is required...
Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of 53,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies.
Watch the videos, and learn more.
*Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.