The Creation of Genocide

Re-interpreting Mass Murder
The Great Rafał Lemkin

Rafał Lemkin (better known as Raphael Lemkin) was born in a country that did not exist. In 1900, the year of Lemkin’s birth, Poland had not yet regained its independence, yet Rafał Lemkin considered himself Polish. The village of Bezwodne (not too far from Grodno, now in Belarus), the birthplace of this great man, lay in what was then Imperial Russia. Being both Polish (with no Poland) and Jewish (with Anti-Semitism particularly strong in Imperial Russia), Lemkin knew exactly what it meant to be  part of an ostracised minority. He knew what it meant to be different. He was therefore also acutely aware of the importance and value of freedom.

NY Times Reports... (1915)
NY Times Reports... (1915)

Rafał Lemkin studied linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów. While at Lwów, he became interested and then began researching the Armenian massacre at the hands of the Turks in 1915-1916. He was later to continue his research into similar massacres of this kind with work on the Simele massacre in which the Iraqi government ordered the murder and forced exile of the Assyrians in 1933. Lemkin, through his research, became interested in crime and justice and, through his grounding in linguistics, was disturbed by the lack of definitions of various crimes, particularly those perpetrated by the Turks and the Iraqis.

Nuremberg Trials
Nuremberg Trials

When Hilter began his rampage through Poland killing Jews, Poles and many others in the Nazi death camps, Lemkin saw that the mistakes and atrocities of the past perpetrated on the Armenians and Assyrians were coming back to haunt humanity and in particular him – he was both Jewish and Polish. He felt the need to define these atrocities from a criminal (and linguistic) point of view. In 1943 Lemkin coined the word genocide from the Greek genos (tribe, race) and the Latin –cide (killing) to describe what Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Lemkin’s definition of genocide became a part of international law and one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals.

Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?
Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?

In his own words, Lemkin said, “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”. The word “genocide” has been in the news in recent weeks. Many Polish politicians declare the Katyń massacre of 1940 by the Soviets on Polish military officers and intellectuals to be genocide. The Russians, of course, do not agree. Several days ago, the Deputy Speaker of the House Stefan Niesiołowski hit the headlines by stating that Katyń was a war crime, not genocide.

Legacy of Katyń
Legacy of Katyń

This comment has not only outraged members of the opposition, particularly Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, but also members of Niesiołowski’s own party Civic Platform (PO). Kaczyński claims that Niesiołowski has gone too far and is being disloyal to his country. The Polish parlimanent wishes to pass a resolution this week regarding the atrocities of WWII. The PiS resolution talks about genocide, rape, murder perpertrated on the Polish nation by two totalitarian governments. PO prefers a milder resolution. However, the question of whether Katyń is “genocide” (as Lemkin defined it) or not still seems unresolved.

15 thoughts on “The Creation of Genocide

  1. Katyn, then, was not genocide. It was the planned decapitation of a nation, removing its bravest and brightest, but it was not the systematic annihilation of an _entire_ nation, as Hitler intended for the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc. So in that sense, Niesiolowski was (eww) right.

    And Stalin did not intend ‘genocide’ towards the Poles; he just wanted to reduce them to obedience and slavery, like everyone else he ever had to deal with, including his own people. Whatever else he was, he was not a racist in the Nazi sense.

    And the ‘choice’ for the non-Russian Slavic populations from 1933 to 1945 ultimately broke down to this: slavery under Stalin, or extermination under Hitler. Then one’s only individual choice would have been ‘to die on one’s feet or live on one’s knees’, perhaps.

  2. Jim,
    Valid point and I like the “die on one’s feet or live on one’s knees” analogy.
    But do you think Stalin’s motives were to enslave the Poles? History shows that he did his fair bit of extermination…

  3. There’s a clear and undeniable thread in Nazi thought concerning genocide, racial purity, eugenics and so on. Has anyone seen anything like that in Stalin-era thought?

    He preached a Great-Russian chauvinism, of course, and his harnessing of Russian nationalism (with the aid of the Orthodox church, whom he and Lenin had previously oppressed mercilessly) was a great motivational engine for the Russian people during WW2. But can anyone draw me a line from a Stalinist policy statement to the actual, undeniable, irrevocable declaration to _eliminate_ (not just displace or punish) a subject nationality on grounds of supposed inferiority?

    He ruined Ukraine by the state-sponsored famine of the 30s. He transplanted the Chechens, Tartars and who knows how many other nationalities to Siberia, Kazakhstan and back again. He decapitated the Baltic nations of their elites (Katyn has its equivalents in Estonia and Lithuania, for sure). But did he ever state he wanted to wipe those nations off the map of history?

    This might be nitpicking, on the basis of a linguistic definition of genocide. We could argue, probably quite successfully, that it doesn’t much matter, since the end-results for the nations concerned were – in their ways – nearly as effective as what the Nazi regime did for the Jews, Gypsies etc. But if we are going to define genocide as a deliberate intent to destroy – not merely punish or decapitate – a whole nation, then can we lay it on Stalin’s charge-sheet or not?

    In any court, whether it’s that of a provincial town or of all History itself, you’ve gotta frame the charges correctly. Otherwise, there’s never any hope of a conviction.

  4. Right on, Jim! Nits most certainly have to be picked in this sort of discussion.

    The whole point behind Lemkin’s formulation of the concept of genocide was the fact that such a term did not exist previously in international law. Granted, the results of Stalinist rule may have, to all intents and purposes, been similar to that of the Nazis but his ‘intentions’ were probably different.

    The fact is, as you quite rightly intimated, the two doctrines, from a legal and terminological point of view, were different from each other.

  5. Katyn was a cold-blooded massacre but if we agree that ‘genocide’ refers to a systematic attempt to wipe out a whole ethnic or national group then we have to say that it wasn’t a genocide.

    Terrible crime that Katyn was, one cannot really compare it to the systematic slaughter of Jews and Gypsies. Stalin’s crimes were politically motivated– there were Polish Communists whereas there were no Jewish Nazis.

    If might be worth remembering that all the ‘successful’ genocides in world history (ie: those which ‘succeeded’ in wiping out, or virtually wiping out, a group) were not carried out in the 20th century by the twin towers of totalitarianism but were perpetrated by the English, Spanish and Americans during Europe’s “Golden Age” of empire and Enlightenment.

  6. Another WW2 incident which was closer to genocide (it would probably be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ these days) was the killing of Polish civilians by Ukrainian nationalists in what is now Western Ukraine.

    While the Soviets/Russians acknowledged and apologised for Katyn back in ’89/90, no apology or expression of regret has ever been made connected to the Ukrainian massacres. Yet for some reason we hear a lot about the former but next to nothing about the latter.

    This might be because the crypto-fascist descendants of the Ukrainian Nationalists are currently in bed with the Polish right in an anti-Russian marriage of convenience. Neither do we hear too much about the Polsih annexation of West Cieszyn after the Munich Conference but that’s a different story……

    1. Yes, I too have been annoyed about this information vacuum although it’s not at all surprising. However, if memory serves, Lech Kaczyński recently apologised to the Czechs for Poland’s aggression.

  7. … about colonization damages and genocides, an interesting view in : Guns, germs and steel. The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton, New York, 1997)… including some nonetheless interesting elements on history predictibility…
    By the way : does anyone here know a library with international books in Warsaw ? Just in case …

  8. No, but I’ve got the Diamond book, perhaps I can lend it to you. 🙂

    And the Russians may be less inclined to apologise for crimes against Ukraine because they may still regard Ukraine as ‘theirs’, the ‘Little-Russians’ or ‘little brothers’ of the Tsarist past. Poland was always a foreign nation, even if the Russians did occupy the territory. Same as why the Soviet Union let the Baltics go with relatively little fuss, while making much greater efforts to hold on to Belarus, Moldova, (northern) Kazakhstan (Solzhenitsyn wanted it to be transferred to Russia proper), etc. They knew these were ‘theirs’.

  9. “In his own words, Lemkin said, “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”.”

    Then Katyń was a genocide, because Stalin’s intention was to destroy the national pattern of the Polish nation and impose his own. I think that people make the mistake of seeing genocide exclusively in racial terms. There can be a political genocide too. One destroys a nation by destroying its language and political culture. Such a nation is no longer able to maintain its political existence. It doesn’t have to mean killing every individual, it’s enough that those individuals can be re-programmed.

    For example, not all Old Prussians were killed, but find just one alive today.

    Poles aren’t an ethnic nation. We’re a cultural and political nation, but there’s nothing so special about our ethnicity that would differ us from other Slavs. In this sense there’s no reason why a Pole shouldn’t become a Russian or a Belarusian. In the same way, Poles aren’t that much different from Eastern Germans. The racial difference was only in Hitler’s head.

    Stalin’s objective was to make the Eastern part of Poland Soviet by getting rid of Poles. He did accomplish that, didn’t he?

    It’s also worth remembering that while Germans didn’t commit the crime they definitely knew where to look for the victims. The attitude towards Poles during the 1939-41 period was a concerted Stalin-Hitler’s effort. In order to enslave a nation one has to kill its culture and history, Hitler said. The plan was that all Poles would die through slave labour by 1975 (if I remember well), but in order to carry it out without internal disturbance one had to cut the head.

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