What is Genocide? - Martin Shaw - E-Book

What is Genocide? E-Book

Martin Shaw

18,99 €


This fully revised edition of Martin Shaw's classic,award-winning text proposes a way through the intellectualconfusion surrounding genocide. In a thorough account of theidea's history, Shaw considers its origins and developmentand its relationships to concepts like ethnic cleansing andpoliticide. Offering a radical critique of the existingliterature on genocide, he argues that what distinguishes genocidefrom more legitimate warfare is that the 'enemies'targeted are groups and individuals of a civilian character. He vividly illustrates his argument with a wide range of historicalexamples - from the Holocaust to Rwanda and Palestine to Yugoslavia- and shows how the question 'What is Genocide??'matters politically whenever populations are threatened byviolence. The second edition of this compelling book will continue tospark interest and vigorous debate, appealing to students andscholars across the social sciences and in international law.

Sie lesen das E-Book in den Legimi-Apps auf:

von Legimi
zertifizierten E-Readern

Seitenzahl: 445




Title Page


Preface to the Second Edition

1 Introduction: The Importance of Definition

Lemkin and the necessity of classification

The changing problem of definition

A sociological and historical concept

Structure of the book

The argument



2 Raphael Lemkin and the Idea of Genocide

Lemkin’s sociological framework

Biology and the ‘genos’

Culture and nations

Colonization and forced removal

The laws of minorities and war



3 The Concept after Lemkin

Losing the nexus with war

The Genocide Convention

A legal and a sociological category

Sociologists redefine genocide

Killing as a means, not the meaning, of group destruction



4 The Holocaust Standard


A standard for comparative study?

Holocausts and genocides



5 The ‘Cleansing’ Euphemism

Origins of the terminology

‘Cleansing’ and genocide

Non-genocidal expulsions?

Peaceful ‘transfers’ and ‘exchanges’?

Territory and genocide



6 The Many ‘Cides’ of Genocide











7 From Intentionality to a Structural Concept

‘Special’ and ‘ulterior’ intent

Rethinking intentions

Weber’s template for ‘intention’

Limits of intentionality

Intentions and outcomes

Genocide as social relationship

Structural contexts and unintended consequences



8 The Structure of Genocide: Conflict and War

Genocide is not inter-group conflict

Genocide as a type of war

Linkage to degenerate war

Hybridity of genocide and war

Spatial character of genocide



9 Actors and Process in Genocidal Conflict


Third parties

Target ‘groups’ in the genocide literature

Sociology and ‘groups’

The ‘destruction’ of groups

Civilians, the missing concept




10 Structural Contexts: Explaining Modern Genocide

Types of genocide


Ideology, culture and psychology




International context



11 Conclusion: New Definitions




End User License Agreement


2.1 Lemkin: Definitions

2.2 Lemkin: The Nazi Genocide

2.3 Lemkin: The Two Phases of Genocide

2.4 Lemkin: Genocide and War

3.1 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

3.2 Political Context of the Convention

3.3 Three Academic Definitions

4.1 Stages of the Nazi Genocide, 1933–45

5.1 Expulsions of Ethnic Germans, 1944–9

5.2 Zionism, ‘Transfer’ and the Nakba

7.1 Misusing ‘Intent’: The International Court of Justice on Bosnia-Herzegovina

7.2 Relational Genocide: Effects of Target-Group Strategies on Perpetrators

7.3 ‘Orders of Genocide’

8.1 Genocidal War: The Case of Darfur

9.1 Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect

9.2 Civilians: A Key Category

10.1 Typologies of Genocide

10.2 Michel Foucault: Biopower and Genocide

10.3 Zygmunt Bauman: Modernity and the Holocaust

10.4 Cultural Transmission of the Methods of Genocide

10.5 Michael Mann: The Dark Side of Democracy

10.6 Donald Bloxham: The Great Game of Genocide

11.1 New Definitions


6.1 Terminological Proliferation and Solutions

8.1 War, Degenerate War and Genocide: Types of Relationships between Armed Actors and Civilians

8.2 Hybridity of War and Genocide: Selected Major Episodes




Begin Reading


























































































































































































































What Is Genocide?

Second Edition

Martin Shaw


Copyright © Martin Shaw 2015

The right of Martin Shaw to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8710-0

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shaw, Martin, 1947-

What is genocide? / Martin Shaw. -- Second edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-7456-8706-3 (hardback : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-7456-8707-0 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Genocide. I. Title. HV6322.7.S53 2015304.6’63--dc232014035492

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website: politybooks.com


Many people could probably give an answer to the question, ‘What is genocide?’, and name one or two cases – maybe the Holocaust and Rwanda – to which the term applies. They might assume that if a clear definition is required, a dictionary will answer the question in a few lines. The idea that a whole book could be devoted to this question, rather than to the history and politics of the problem, might seem surprising. Yet if we go beyond a few obvious and well-publicized cases, the scope of genocide is not immediately clear: even scholars do not agree on what should count. The popular idea of genocide, which equates it with mass killing, begs a lot of questions, was not what the originator of the idea meant by it and is not how most academics or the United Nations’ Genocide Convention define it. Yet people who study the question disagree profoundly among themselves about the answer, and people who use the idea in political life often choose the meaning that suits their cause, rather than a coherent idea. Genocide is a highly contested concept, politically as well as intellectually. So when the first edition of What is Genocide? was published a decade ago, it found a ready readership.

I have not changed my answer to the question, so it may well be asked why a new edition was necessary. One answer is that the book left some issues underdeveloped, and the rapid growth of the literature has made these more compelling. In particular, recent work has involved much fuller examination of the ideas of Raphael Lemkin, which stand at the heart of this book. The effect is that the discussion of Lemkin in the first edition is insufficient. While I indicated some problems with his approach, I did not explore these in the depth which now seems necessary and (because of new research) possible. I have therefore expanded the treatment of Lemkin to a full chapter. Two other key contributions which are particularly relevant to my argument, Leo Kuper’s idea of genocidal massacres and Tony Barta’s idea of structural genocide, are also more fully treated.

A second reason for revising the book was to make my idea of structural analysis clearer, and in particular to amplify a key distinction between the structure of genocide itself, on the one hand, and the larger structural contexts in which genocide occurs, on the other. I have rewritten what are now chapters 8, 9 and 10 to reflect this. Chapter 8 also highlights the idea of the hybridity of genocide and war, implicit in the first edition, but which I only made explicit in an article in the Journal of Genocide Research after it was published.

Finally, although the book was complimented on its clarity, I felt that its organization and presentation could be improved so as to make it more accessible, especially for new students of genocide. So I have simplified the introduction and conclusion, highlighted illustrative material and presented my new definitions as the conclusion to the volume. I have also removed some discussions, for example about the role of civilians in war and the Nazification of the social sciences in Germany, which were tangential to the argument.

I have several debts apart from the many which will be obvious from the text. In preparing the original edition, my then Sussex colleagues, John Holmwood and William Outhwaite, gave valuable advice on reading in areas where my sociology was rusty. In preparing the new edition, Dirk Moses provided typically pertinent comments on an early draft of chapter 2 (on Lemkin), and Polity’s two anonymous reviewers made very helpful comments on the book as a whole. The United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council granted me the Research Fellowship in 2004 and 2005, which originally enabled me to write this book, as well as to finish The New Western Way of War, which discusses violence against civilians in a different context, and I remain very grateful to it.

I hope this new edition will explain the issues involved in the idea of genocide more effectively to new readers, while still offering considerable interest to those who were acquainted with the original work. As usual, I alone am responsible for the views expressed.

Martin ShawDevon, 2014


This book addresses the question: how should we understand the idea of genocide? Genocide has been a central issue of world politics several times in recent decades, especially in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Its history has also been a topic of controversy, in countries like Germany, Japan and Turkey over murderous violence in the two world wars, and in North America and Australia over earlier violence against indigenous peoples. The spectres of the Holocaust and the Nakba stalk twenty-first-century conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. Genocide issues continue to arise in all too many current conflicts where populations are targeted with violence. Allegations of genocide are widely made and, invariably, disputed. All too often, ‘genocide’ becomes a tool in political controversy, claimed by one side and denied by the other. Whenever new challenges arise, the same confused debate occurs over whether attacks on civilians constitute ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or just the excesses of a dirty ‘civil war’, often as though similar arguments had not already raged in earlier cases. Few ideas are as important in public debate, but in few cases are the meaning and scope of a key idea less clearly agreed.

It might seem axiomatic that scholarship should assist in the clarification of ‘genocide’, and thus help all those who feel that the idea assists them to understand terrible episodes of human history. Yet to many, ‘definitional’ discussion over horrendous experiences of violence can seem beside the point. On this subject, normal academic assumptions cannot be taken for granted. The Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo speaks of ‘useless knowledge’, when she refers to experiences that were ‘so dark as to be unforgettable but also so overpowering that the more one encounters their stark realities – even in reading about them, let alone in the flesh or in personal memory – the more likely we are to be disoriented and overwhelmed by them.’1 Genocide has often been seen as involving murderous tendencies so horrible and irrational as to be both utterly exceptional and virtually inexplicable. It can seem devaluing to discuss them within the explanatory frameworks that scholars adopt. This crime of crimes demands more than a normal commitment to scholarship and truth. Study presupposes, John Roth argues, ‘values that are not contained in historical study alone. . . . Any debate . . . is worthwhile just to the extent that it never loses sight of the fact that ethical reasons are the most important ones for studying these dark chapters in history.’2 Here scholars must bear witness, show solidarity with victims and stand unequivocally on one side of the historical process.

Hence, even scholars complain about ‘definitionalism’, excessive attention to the details of the concept. The psychologist Israel Charny warns that extended debate on definition can lead to the point ‘where the reality of the subject under discussion is “lost”, that is, no longer experienced emotionally by the scholars conducting the enquiry’.3 The historian Herbert Hirsch concurs: ‘It is unfortunate that Holocaust and genocide studies are being pressured into a phase of social science rationality . . . only to become bogged down in the elusive variable and definition, as everyday life becomes almost entirely eliminated from their concern.’4 But if we are to do justice to the victims, and help understand the enormities of violence, we cannot but engage with these issues abstractly as well as concretely. The point is certainly to ‘prevent and punish’ genocide; but to do this, we must clearly understand the beast. Issues of definition cannot be avoided in this task, and they will take time and care because simple ideas are often too simple. As the social theorist Max Weber put it: ‘The apparently gratuitous tediousness involved in the elaborate definition of . . . concepts is an example of the fact that we often neglect to think out clearly what seems to be “obvious”, because it is intuitively familiar.’5

Lemkin and the necessity of classification

In any case, definition is part of the subject matter of genocide. The Nazi genocide was a crime of social classification, a sociological crime in which pseudoscience defined and classified people according to their ‘race’. The journalist William L. Shirer described the Nazis, whom he observed at first hand, as ‘sociologists’ because of how they were obsessed with these classifications.6 Not all genocide is systematically pseudoscientific, but classifying populations and individuals in racial and other hostile terms is one of its essential components. The danger of classification is always, Nigel Eltringham suggests, that ‘we “misplace concreteness” and set out to “prove” that our abstract concepts . . . really do correspond to reality, rather than being contingent approximations.’7 Genocidists try to enforce their classifications through physical violence, which backs up the conceptual violence of arbitrary representations.

This is, however, an abuse of definition and classification, which are inescapable parts of human cognition and social life. It is important to note that the targets of genocide also classify, and implicitly or explicitly advance, their own definitions. They assert their understandings of groups to which they belong, their versions of identity, rather than simply accepting their attackers’ classifications. They assert their status as civilians, refuting genocidists’ beliefs that unarmed people can be treated as combatants. They define themselves not only as victims, the passive recipients of genocidal violence, but also as resisters, civilian or armed. In the struggles over genocide, people who are targeted with violence also try to impose counter-classifications on those who would classify them, often describing them as tyrannical, cruel and criminal.

The idea of ‘genocide’ fits into this pattern. Its originator, Raphael Lemkin, wanted to impose, through international law and historical inquiry, a new kind of classification on the perpetrators of violence. In his definition – which I discuss fully in the next chapter – all kinds of destructive anti-group acts, committed by any actors, are seen as belonging to the same class, and are thereby criminalized. The strength of the idea is its breadth: for Lemkin acts like killing, deportation, dispossession and cultural destruction were not simply distinct crimes but manifestations of the overarching crime of group destruction. He aimed to entrench this idea both in international law and in historical inquiry so that a general problem of violence against population groups would be widely recognized.

Lemkin’s is a powerful legal and sociological classification, imbued with universal and humanistic values, containing huge moral and political significance. It would not be so powerful if it was vague or imprecisely defined. We do not have to adopt Lemkin’s terminology or definitions; indeed we cannot avoid modifying them. Yet if it was important that he defined ‘genocide’, it is also important that we are aware of how we change its meaning. If we use it in new ways, or introduce new terms to describe some of the phenomena it originally designated, we need to explain why.

The changing problem of definition

Lemkin coined the word in 1944, and initially it meant what he said. However, ‘genocide’ quickly became widely used and – as is normal when a word escapes its inventor – its meaning began to change, in subtle and not so subtle ways. In particular, it was redefined for a crucial international legal document, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) in the drafting of which Lemkin played an important role. After that, it entered popular political discourse in most languages and – somewhat belatedly – became a concept of academic social science and history from the 1980s onwards. After the end of the Cold War, in 1989–91, it gained new leases of life in all these fields. World politics opened up more to human rights concerns, legal institutions actually began to try genocide cases and academic study deepened.

A large part of the problem of this book is that public, legal and scholarly discourse has changed genocide’s meaning in questionable ways, often without bothering to justify it, or has simply used the term loosely. In the expanding field of genocide studies, amidst the array of often impressive case and comparative studies, the debate on what genocide means has hardly advanced since the early 1990s. Many scholars (not just lawyers, who are bound to acknowledge its centrality to genocide law) uncritically use the Convention as their benchmark, despite its generally admitted inadequacies. This situation means that, despite many insights, much scholarship gives inadequate answers to the vexed question of the meaning of genocide.

Partly because of the powerful emotional, moral and political interests at stake in all these discourses, ‘genocide is an essentially contested concept par excellence’, Christopher Powell notes.8 This is not just because of these interests, however: it is also because it is an inherently complex matter that can be described in a variety of ways.9 Lemkin deliberately proposed a concept that covered a wide range of acts and diverse historical events, so complexity was unavoidable from the start. In the current debate, one of the few things that everyone agrees on is that genocides are large-scale, violent episodes. It is in the nature of such events that they are individually complex and collectively varied. Adding complexity and variation to the deep interests that arise in discussing such matters, it is not surprising that ‘genocide’ is contested.

It follows that there is no single correct answer to this book’s question, ‘What is genocide?’ Genocide is not a simple reality, ‘out there’, which I can just get hold of and of which I can give the reader the ‘correct’ definition. So the question ‘What is genocide?’ really boils down to ‘What should genocide mean?’ and to this many answers have been given. Since the word has to bear the pressure of many different moral, legal and political as well as academic demands, it is difficult to devise a definition which will satisfy them all. Still this does not mean – as too many scholars as well as others assume – that we can simply define genocide anew each time in whichever way appears most convenient for the particular moral, political, legal or academic project that we embark on. On the contrary, usage of ‘genocide’ must be respectful to the history of thinking about the word. All serious concepts must be used consistently – with internal coherence of meaning as well as valid reference – and must be capable of extended justification. We need a concept whose parameters are clear and logical, which makes the most sense of a range of cases.

A sociological and historical concept

Although Lemkin first proposed ‘genocide’ in order to establish it as a legal category, it is clear that he always regarded it as a sociological and history category too. Thus, if it was in legal and political contexts that it first gained currency, it was always accepted that it refers to a certain class of historical social phenomena. Lemkin quickly followed his initial legal and political ventures with the beginnings of a comprehensive historical study. He continued to offer his own essentially sociological definitions despite the legal and political primacy of the Convention’s. It follows that the main task of definition belongs to those who professionally study historical social phenomena, namely social scientists and historians.

Of course, legal authorities have grappled with our essentially sociological question, as have scholars in other disciplines. Unusually, this sociological concept was defined in international law before social scientists could offer their own definitions, and this created a situation in which legal authorities continued to address the meaning of genocide autonomously from wider academic debate. Social scientists and historians are well advised to address legal discussions, as I shall in this book, but we should not be unduly deferential to them. The main task is to develop a sociological concept that will be useful in historical inquiry. Here sociology stands for the concept-producing role of the social sciences in general, and history for the empirical study of past, present and future phenomena that is undertaken by social scientists and other humanities scholars as well as by professional historians. The historical and sociological projects of comprehensively understanding and explaining classes and episodes of phenomena are more fundamental than the legal project, which is ultimately directed towards ascertaining the culpability of individual and collective actors for specific acts. Although legal cases (especially against state and military leaders) are sometimes claimed to provide historical truth, they function according to rules designed to assess the culpability of individuals and concepts that result from political compromise. Therefore, they cannot substitute for sociological concept-making or historical research.

This book approaches the question of definition, then, from the standpoint of sociological theory and method. It does so, however, based on a commitment to empirical historical and social scientific research, in the belief that conceptual inquiry is only a preliminary undertaking. This inquiry needs to lead to both the individual study of particular historical episodes and the general study of classes of episodes. More precisely, my approach belongs to historical sociology, a sub-discipline of sociology that links sociological analysis closely to broad trends of historical development, as well as applying social theory to particular historical cases. Historical sociology in general can be considered a kind of theoretical history, or the application of sociology to historical problems. Most historical sociology involves middle-range analysis, and elsewhere I have carried analysis of this kind on genocide, including a discussion of its methodological issues.10 The present book, while based on the same approach, is instead preoccupied with the conceptual and theoretical questions. In this sense, it might be considered a work of historical social theory rather than historical sociology in the most common sense. Yet while the book focuses unapologetically on sociological conceptualization, at all stages I link the argument to particular cases and historical themes.

Structure of the book

The book addresses two general problems in the conceptualization of genocide. First, the discourses surrounding definition are often incoherent, with widely divergent proposals which often take little account of each other’s rationales and are poorly reconciled – as I have suggested, it often seems as though scholars believe they can simply propose their own definition and follow it in their research. Second, the discourses of genocide studies, although informed by sociological as well as legal conceptualizations, are often poorly reconciled with social theory – not only does legal discourse often address sociological problems without recourse to sociological knowledge, but empirical students of genocide often find it convenient to leave conceptual and theoretical issues at the door.

The structure of the book follows from this diagnosis. Part I focuses on key authors and themes in the genocide literature, in order to address their inadequacies and incorporate their achievements in a more rounded conceptual framework. This part starts with the history of the genocide idea: chapter 2 provides an extensive discussion of Lemkin’s founding approach, and chapter 3 shows how this has been modified in the Genocide Convention and the later genocide literature. This part then continues by addressing three issues which, in my view, confuse the conceptualization of genocide: chapter 4 discusses how the Holocaust has been used as a standard of genocide in general; chapter 5 outlines the issues involved in the substitution of ‘ethnic cleansing’ for genocide; and chapter 6 discusses the wider proliferation of ‘-cide’ concepts that has affected the study of genocide. Building on the arguments in these chapters, Part II proposes a new sociological conceptualization of the key issues, focusing on the relationship of agency and structure. Chapter 7 deals with the idea of intentionality and the alternative idea of structure in the analysis of genocide. Chapter 8 moves on to issues in the analysis of the structure of genocide conflict and its relationship to war. Chapter 9 discusses the actors of genocide, including the key idea of ‘groups’, and issues of genocidal process. Chapter 10 moves to issues of explanation, examining the structural contexts of modernity from which the causes of genocide arise: culture, economy, politics, war and international relations. Chapter 11 concludes by summarizing the arguments of the book and presenting my new definitions.

The argument

This book therefore presents a comprehensive outline of the idea of genocide and guides the reader in weighing how it can be best understood. However, it is important to emphasize that it also puts forward a particular point of view. I contend that Lemkin’s original proposal, that we need a general concept to describe all targeted destruction of population groups, is seminal and needs to be restored to its central place in the understanding of genocide. At the same time, I address the inadequacies of the intellectual underpinning that Lemkin provided for this idea. He was not a trained social theoretician, and his framework was an insufficiently developed reflection of some common ideas of his time. This led to difficulties in his conceptualizations of groups, biology and culture, and even in his terminology of ‘genos’ and ‘genocide’.

Lemkin’s was, I argue, appropriately a broad concept. In contrast, many later definitions, from the United Nations (UN) onwards, have followed a remorseless trend of narrowing the scope of genocide. In the end, genocide has become for many writers little more than mass murder, so that cases in which the majority of a population are not killed are excluded from its scope. In the course of this narrowing, while the Convention created an important legal standard and academic writers propose some important advances on Lemkin’s thinking, the literature has undermined the core of Lemkin’s approach. This undermining is complemented on the one hand by a distorted role for the Holocaust in the general understanding of genocide, and on the other by a proliferation of problematic new concepts like ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘politicide’ and other ‘-cides’ that describe aspects of what Lemkin, appropriately, saw as genocide.

At the same time, the literature has had enormous difficulty with key concepts introduced by Lemkin and embodied in the Convention. Misinterpretations of these ideas have been cemented, especially through international law, as obstacles to understanding. Here, I give three examples, but there are more in the body of the text. First, the idea that genocide is ‘intentional’ action has been reified into a sociologically unrealistic concept of a fixed ‘special’ and ‘ulterior’ intention, which is given excessive weight in understanding genocide. This idea of intentionality has blocked the normal social scientific and historical concern with the interplay of what is generally called ‘agency’ – action that determines the course of events – with ‘structure’ – recurring patterns of social relations that shape the practice of genocide. Second, the idea that targeted populations must be stable ‘groups’ has involved the sociologically unviable idea that ethnic, national and similar collectivities are more fixed than they really are, leading to the exclusion of much targeted destruction of populations from the scope of genocide. Third, the idea that genocide can be practised in ‘peacetime’ as well as war has led to a failure to understand the deep connections of genocide with war.

All these failures arise, I argue, from the lack of a coherent sociological understanding of genocide, not only as social action but also as a structure of conflict involving social relationships between different collective actors. These actors cannot be described, moreover, in the conventional trinity of ‘perpetrators’, ‘victims’ and ‘bystanders’ because this terminology ascribes agency only to genocidists, excluding both the resistance of targeted populations and the impact of third parties’ actions. Moreover, understanding the structure of genocide as conflict must be complemented by understanding the larger structural contexts in which this kind of conflict arises. Explanations of genocide, dealing with objective ‘causes’ as well as the subjective orientations of the actors, must necessarily attend to these contexts. Reviewing the main possibilities, I argue that the principal direct causal context concerns the nexus of political and military power, understood in international and global as well as national and local terms.



Quoted by John K. Roth, ‘The Ethics of Uniqueness’, p.29.


Ibid., p.23.


Israel Charny, ‘Toward a Generic Definition’, p.81.


Herbert Hirsch,

Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life

, p.81.


Max Weber,

The Theory of Social and Economic Organization

, p.140.


William L. Shirer,

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934–1941



Nigel Eltringham,

Accounting for Horror

, p.7.


Christopher Powell,

Barbaric Civilization

, p.67.


Ibid., pp.66–9, discusses W. B. Gallie’s classic definition, from his ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’.


Martin Shaw,

Genocide and International Relations

, especially pp.8–11.

PART IThe Genocide Idea


Only a few major ideas can be traced unequivocally to a single person. Yet one man, Raphael Lemkin, developed the terminology and basis for understanding genocide that we use today. Even more remarkably, he succeeded in getting his ‘crime of crimes’ defined by the United Nations in an international convention to which most states have become parties. Until recently, relatively little was known of Lemkin’s life or the full range of his ideas.1 Every account of genocide pays lip-service to his achievements, but there is little appreciation of how distinct his understanding remains, compared to later formulations. He was a lawyer and campaigner, so his ideas reflected his legal orientation and the political contexts in which he worked. In the half century since Lemkin died, new genocides have occurred, the understanding of the past has changed (in his day the name ‘Holocaust’ was not yet applied to the Nazi genocide of the Jews) and political and legal responses have developed. The appreciation of Lemkin’s work has suffered, however, from his success. It is to the Convention, rather than Lemkin himself, that most refer in defining genocide. This tendency is unfortunate because, although Lemkin’s was far from the last word, he offered a more adequate and coherent understanding than that which can be derived from the Convention. Moreover, many authors, trying to improve on the Convention, have moved away from Lemkin’s approach in ways that militate against understanding. We should approach his contribution with more than the ritual piety of the commentators who discard his key ideas. Recovering the meaning of genocide for Lemkin is a necessary beginning to serious study.

Lemkin’s sociological framework

Lemkin first formulated his ideas in 1933 when he proposed a draft international law, to be discussed at a conference in Madrid, banning ‘barbarity’ and ‘vandalism’ (see Box 2.1). Lemkin aimed to define a general crime of barbarity that comprised more than the individual types of violent or repressive action, subsuming these in an overarching category:

Taken as a whole, all the acts of this character constitute an offence against the law of nations which we will call by the name ‘barbarity’. Taken separately all these acts are punishable in the respective codes; considered together, however, they should constitute offences against the law of nations by reason of their common feature which is to endanger both the existence of the collectivity concerned and the entire social order.

He argued that barbarity and vandalism were international crimes: ‘It is not particularly a question of public danger, but of a broader concept, general danger, that we want to call international danger.’2

‘Barbarity’ is usually noted as the forerunner of ‘genocide’. After the failure of his original proposal (he was barred from travelling to the conference and it was not discussed), Lemkin continued to look for a term and a law that brought together the whole class of violent and humiliating actions against members of collectivities. What he was concerned with was not a specific type of violence, but a general charge that highlighted the common elements of many acts that ‘taken separately’ constituted specific crimes. In contrast to later interpreters who focused on the specific crime of mass murder, Lemkin was always concerned with a broad process that included not only organized violence but also economic destruction and persecution. What concerned him was precisely the ‘common feature’ of all these types of action: their threat to the existence of certain human collectivities and thus, he believed, to the world ‘social order’ itself. Lemkin’s concern with such threats became, during the Second World War, a campaign against the atrocities of the Nazi occupations in Europe and for recognition of their singular destructiveness. He was galvanized by Winston Churchill’s statement, ‘We are in the presence of a crime without a name.’ ‘Suddenly’, Samantha Power describes, ‘Lemkin’s crusade took on a specific objective: the search for a new word.’3

His well-known solution, ‘genocide’, was introduced in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) (see Box 2.2). Lemkin specifically warned against a narrow interpretation of his new term: ‘Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’4 The nuances of the key word Lemkin used to define genocide, ‘destruction’, are indicated here by the difference between ‘immediate destruction’ of a nation and ‘destruction of essential foundations’ of its life. Lemkin was clear that genocide refers generally to the latter; ‘immediate’ destruction in the sense of ‘mass killings of all members of a nation’ was a specific variant but did not define genocide as such.

Box 2.1 Lemkin: Definitions



‘The premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious and social collectivities’, including:

first and foremost, acts of extermination directed against ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc.); for example massacres, pogroms, actions undertaken to ruin the economic existence of the members of a collectivity, etc. Also belonging in this category are all sorts of brutalities which attack the dignity of the individual in cases where these acts of humiliation have their source in a campaign of extermination directed against the collectivity in which the victim is a member.

Acts Constituting a General (International) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations


‘Destruction of works of art and culture, being the expression of the particular genius of these collectivities’.

Acts Constituting a General (International) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations



‘By “genocide” we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word . . . is made from the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing).’

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p.79


‘Another term could be used for the same idea [genocide], namely, ethnocide, consisting of the Greek word “ethnos” – nation – and the Latin word “cide.”’

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p.79n

Box 2.2 Lemkin: The Nazi Genocide

The Nazi genocide was effected through a synchronized attack on different aspects of life of the captive peoples: in the political field (by destroying institutions of self-government and imposing a German pattern of administration, and through colonization by Germans); the social field (by disrupting the social cohesion of the nation involved and killing or removing elements such as the intelligentsia . . .); in the cultural field (by prohibiting or destroying cultural institutions and cultural activities; by substituting vocational education for education in the liberal arts, in order to prevent humanistic thinking); in the economic field (by shifting wealth to Germans and by prohibiting the exercise of trades and occupations by people who did not promote Germanism ‘without reservations’); in the biological field (by a policy of depopulation and by promoting procreation by Germans in the occupied countries); and in the field of physical existence (by introducing a starvation rationing system for non-Germans and by mass killings, mainly of Jews, Poles, Slovenes and Russians); in the religious field (by interfering with the activities of the Church, which in many countries provides not only spiritual but also national leadership); in the field of morality (by attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement through promoting pornographic publications and motion pictures, and the excessive consumption of alcohol).

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, pp.xi−xii

Lemkin’s definition was exemplified in the substance of his book, as expressed in his full explanation of how it applied in the Nazi case (see Box 2.2). It shows that genocide, for the term’s inventor, was a comprehensive process in which a power ‘attacked’ and ‘destroyed’ the way of life and institutions of peoples.5 ‘Physical’ genocide, including mass killing, was only one dimension of the comprehensive ‘attack’. By the standards of later debates, William Schabas points out, ‘Lemkin’s definition was narrow, in that it addressed crimes directed against “national groups” rather than against “groups” in general. At the same time, it was broad, to the extent that it contemplated not only physical genocide but also acts aimed at destroying the culture and livelihood of the group.’6 Lemkin’s was clearly different from most later definitions, as some of their proposers acknowledge. Steven Katz, for example, redefines genocide as happening ‘only where there is an actualized intention, however successfully carried out, to physically destroy an entire group (as such group is defined by the perpetrators)’.7 This narrows down Nazi genocide solely to the mass murder of the Jews, yet Katz recognizes that ‘Lemkin’s own use of the term genocide . . . did not, in his own understanding, apply only to Nazi anti-Jewish policy. He appears to have held that Nazi behaviour vis-à-vis a number of other groups approached, if not actually replicated, Nazi anti-Jewish activity and, therefore, should also be identified as genocide.’8 Katz states: ‘The reason I give primacy to physical genocide is directly and unambiguously due to the fact that this is what one means, first and foremost, when one characterizes the Holocaust as an instance of genocide.’9 He adds: ‘I make bold to suggest that Raphael Lemkin may well have formulated a definition closer to (if not exactly like) mine had he been writing after the end of World War II when it became clear what Hitler’s Judeocidal intentions were. Working in 1942–3, Lemkin was still unable to see the entire uncompromising, totalistic assault for what it was.’10

Since Lemkin lived until 1959, constantly writing about and campaigning for the recognition of genocide, it seems that, if he had wished to revise his definition, he would have done so. The reason he did not is clear when we examine his short chapter on the idea of genocide in the context of Axis Rule as a whole. Lemkin was himself Jewish and absolutely concerned about the horrors inflicted on the Jews – he lost his parents and forty-nine members of his family – but for him Nazi genocide was never exclusively or even primarily an anti-Jewish campaign. The destruction of the Jews was not the standard against which other Nazi persecutions should be measured. On the contrary, his book aimed to demonstrate (by placing on record translations of Nazi laws in the occupied countries) how comprehensively, against a range of subject peoples, the Nazis had attempted to destroy the existence of non-German nations, their well-being, institutions and ways of life. The same two phases, ‘one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor’,11 could be seen across the continent. Genocide, like barbarity, was a comprehensive concept of the social destruction of national groups, and Lemkin believed that it had very wide applicability.

All this is clear from how Lemkin presented genocide. The reasoning of the German occupiers, he wrote,

appears to be the following: The enemy nation within the control of Germany must be destroyed, disintegrated, or weakened in different degrees for decades to come. Thus the German people in the post-war period will be in a position to deal with other European peoples from the vantage point of biological superiority. Because the imposition of this policy of genocide is more destructive for a people than injuries suffered in actual fighting, the German people will be stronger than the subjugated peoples after the war even if the German army is defeated. In this respect genocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.12

Lemkin was hardly unaware of the huge differences in the severity of Nazi policies towards different peoples, but he still saw them all under the same rubric:

The plan of genocide . . . varies according to subject, modalities, and degree of intensity in each occupied country. Some groups – such as the Jews – are to be destroyed completely. A distinction is made between peoples considered to be related by blood to the German people (such as Dutchmen, Norwegians, Flemings, Luxemburgers) and peoples not thus related by blood (such as Poles, Slovenes, Serbs). The populations of the first group are deemed worthy of being Germanized.13

Thus, Lemkin recognized that only ‘some groups’, the Jews foremost among them, were ‘to be destroyed completely’. However in all cases, ‘[t]he techniques of genocide, which the German occupant has developed in the various occupied countries, represent a concentrated and coordinated attack upon all the elements of nationhood.’14 It may be, as Power argues, that ‘the link between Hitler’s Final Solution and Lemkin’s hybrid term would cause endless confusion for policymakers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic, national, or religious group.’15 Scholars have not been immune to this confusion. However, Lemkin’s approach was largely coherent, plausible as an overall account of Nazi occupations and took account of variation in the experiences of occupied peoples.

While Lemkin’s campaigning aim was to establish and enforce genocide law, he also defined a sociological concept which could be used in historical research. In Axis Rule, Nazi genocide is treated as a comprehensive attack on the social existence of the occupied peoples, and after the Second World War he planned an ambitious, wide-ranging historical study of genocide.16 Lemkin was surely right that to understand genocide, we should see killing and physical harm as elements of the broader process of social destruction. The Nazis did not aim simply to kill subject peoples, even the Jews: they aimed to destroy their ways of life and social institutions. Lemkin was correct to stress the integrated, multi-dimensional nature of the attack, and not to fall into the trap (as later writers have) of separating physical violence from social destruction. In this sense, his work, rather than the Convention, remains the essential starting point for sociological understanding and hence for political and international responses.

Nevertheless, Lemkin had not presented, in Axis Rule, a fully plausible account of the relations of socially destructive ends and violent or murderous means. His listing of ‘the field of physical existence’ as one method in Nazism’s coordinated attack was too mechanical. It failed to clarify that, while genocide involved much more than killing, violence and its threat lay behind all genocidal practices. If in some cases genocidists did not resort to direct physical violence, this was usually because they had already established – through previous violence or its threat – total control over their targets, or because indirect violence – starvation, for example – would suffice to destroy them. Although genocide could not be defined by a specific violent method like killing, the idea of social destruction necessarily entailed generally violent methods. What could social ‘destruction’ mean, other than a deeply violent process? Lemkin seems to have agreed, when he later limited even ‘cultural genocide’ to acts of violence.17 Yet the deficiency of Lemkin’s listing approach meant that this relationship between violence and social destruction had yet to be fully grasped.

Biology and the ‘genos’

This failure represents a more general problem with Lemkin’s ideas. He was not a trained social theorist or historian, but a lawyer, activist and independent researcher. Lemkin gives us the basis of a powerful sociological concept, but the broader framework of his thinking reflected his relationship with the intellectual currents of his particular time. Thus, he embedded his new concept in a number of arguments that are difficult for contemporary social scientific and historical understanding to accept. It is important for students of genocide today to be clear about the limitations of Lemkin’s underlying assumptions and to frame our understanding of genocide in more adequate terms.

Lemkin’s very choice of the word ‘genocide’ is affected. Its root ‘genos’, the term which Lemkin used to describe the social collectivities that were destroyed, is clearly problematic. The Greek word γένος (genos) refers primarily to race, stock and kin, but it also has a more general meaning of class, kind or sort.18 By giving ‘race’ and ‘tribe’ as instances, Lemkin seems to have implied the first meaning, regarding the target of genocide as a social group constituted biologically, through common descent. Mark Levene interprets his choice of terminology in this sense: according to him, Lemkin ‘attempted to denote the socio-biological connectedness of a group through the use of the term “genos”’.19 It follows that if the members of social collectivities of the kind attacked in genocide are not necessarily biologically connected, and such groups are not biologically constituted, then the idea of a descent-based ‘genos’ is false. There are obvious negative consequences for the very idea of genocide, which can only be avoided if we clearly interpret the idea of ‘genos’ in the alternative, more general sense, free of biological connotations.

From the standpoint of contemporary knowledge, it is indeed unacceptable to define social collectivities biologically. Any necessary connection between ‘common biological inheritance’ or ‘race’, on the one hand, and ‘communal social relationships’, on the other, had been carefully dismissed by Max Weber decades before Lemkin wrote.20 Today, ‘race’ is completely discredited as a social category, while ‘tribes’ are no longer regarded as necessarily biologically linked. It is understood that ethnicity is entirely socially and culturally constructed: as Anthony Smith puts it, ‘the ethnie is anything but primordial’.21 Finally, we know that ‘nations’ are not descent groups at all but, in Benedict Anderson’s widely endorsed phrase, ‘imagined communities’.22 The ‘socio-biological connectedness’ of racial, ethnic and national groups is a myth developed in nationalist, racist, eugenicist and genocidal ideologies. As we understand it today, the kinds of collectivities that are targeted in modern genocide are not and cannot be biologically constituted. Although social groups are indeed ‘constituted through the material practices of concrete human individuals’,23 who are embodied and reproduce biologically, human collectivities are not constituted by biological but by social relations.

Actually, Lemkin seems to have understood this. He seminally wrote:

The Roman “genos”, the Greek “genos” and the Sanskrit “genos” are basically the same social unit, originally conceived as an enlarged family unit having a consciousness of a common ancestor – first real, later imagined. . . . The “genos” is thus a primary and universal institution of mankind . . . and it is clear that mankind spent most of its history within the framework of this social unit.24

Although Thomas Butcher claims that Lemkin’s was ‘the sort of view that books such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities later sought to correct’,25 Douglas Irvin-Erickson is correct to argue that ‘Lemkin broke from the tradition that nations had an objective organic existence defined by language, blood and territory’, defining them instead as ‘families of minds’, so that the idea of a nation exists within the minds of people.26 He recognized that nations’ members did not actually have ‘blood’ linkages, and it seems that he used the term ‘race’ fairly loosely – for example, he described the Jews both as a ‘race’ and a ‘people’27 and he even wrote of ‘the race of refugees’.28

If this is correct, Lemkin’s error was to describe the imagined communities of large-scale societies using a concept based on a hypothetical kin-based past. He implies that modern ‘nations’, ‘races’ and ‘tribes’ developed in an evolutionary manner from small, kin-based groups in which human beings existed before large-scale civilizations developed. However it is not clear that even small groups of hunter-gatherers were simply ‘enlarged family units’, and even if they were, it would be misleading to present complex modern collectivities as basically similar. In human social life, it has always been the social construction of biological relations that has counted, rather than those relations themselves. This construction process is still important to family life, but much less so to larger collectivities. Ideas of biology and race play roles in how collectivities, like nations, are constructed, but these ideas are never more than a part of what they are about. Understandings of national identity do not need to evoke biology or race.

The ambiguity in Lemkin’s presentation arises from the fact that he proposed ‘genocide’ simultaneously as a general concept and as an analysis of the Nazi case, in which ‘biological’ ideas and methods played important parts. Lemkin’s biological emphasis reflected his analysis of the Nazis’ ‘biological’ policies targeting the physical reproduction of the target groups. He argued for ‘genocide’ because a term that was previously used, ‘denationalization’, ‘does not connote the destruction of the biological structure’ and leaves out ‘the biological aspect, such as causing the physical decline and even destruction of the population involved’.29