What is Genocide? Part 1 of ??


Genocide is the intentional systematic destruction of a genos in whole or in part. 

In John Docker’s words, Lemkin ‘took great care to define genocide as composite and manifold.’3 And, as will be discussed, this is an inherent aspect of genocide. This is why the distinction drawn by Mark Levene between genocide, and a ‘genocidal process’ is a false one.4 Genocide is a genocidal process, it is not a discreet act. Genocide is not restricted by a given time-frame, but continues as long as there is a clear succession of definable perpetrators continuing acts of genocide against a genos, even if those acts change entirely in their nature.

What, then, is a genos? This can be gleaned from Lemkin’s work as follows: Any collectivity that can be defined by a degree, however small, of distinct biological interconnectedness. Raphaël Lemkin considered that Nazi conceptions of ‘biological interrelations’ and the quest for ‘biological superiority’ were basic foundations for genocide.7 That is not to say that genocide results from some peculiar Nazi ideology of race. Lemkin himself used the term ‘biological structure’ as an argument for inventing a new term,8 and in the context of stating that biological structures needed protection.9 Indeed the very logic of his work, and its very genesis, shows that he apprehended that there was a strategic logic of genocide which, though very prominent and overt in the Nazi regime, was by no means exclusive to them, and biological interconnectedness is central to that logic.

Raphaël Lemkin did not have access to detailed scholarship about the nature of genocides such as a modern scholar might have. As such it is not surprising that he lacked the sort of vocabulary and apprehension that we might have today. Nor should it be surprising that there are often seeming uncertainties and vague aspects in his writing, but underlying this is a strong apprehensible logic that with a little interpretation in light of current knowledge provides the key to the strategic rationality of genocide – a matter which Lemkin clearly apprehended but could not fully delineate.

How then do ‘biological interrelations’ fit within a strategic framework? Unfortunately Lemkin and later scholars have been somewhat blinded by the dazzle of Nazi racial ideology and the chilling modernity of their extermination techniques. However, it has been found that nearly all genocides are planned and set in motion by small secretive governmental cabals,10 or at other times by equally closed groups which putatively do not command state power.11 Both ‘insiders’ and the public tend to object to genocidal policies to whatever extent they are allowed to understand them. As Noam Chomsky writes of Nazi Germany:

…despite Hitler’s personal appeal, direct support for his genocidal projects was never high. In an important study of this matter, Norman Cohn observes that even among Nazi party members, in 1938 over 60% “expressed downright indignation at the outrages” carried out against Jews, while 5 percent considered that “physical violence against Jews was justified because ‘terror must be met with terror’.” In the Fall of 1942, when the genocide was fully under way, some 5% of Nazi Party members approved the shipment of Jews to “labor camps,” while 70% registered indifference and the rest “showed signs of concern for the Jews.” Among the general population, support for the Holocaust would have surely been still less. The Nazi leaders required no popular enthusiasm in order to carry out what the Nazi press described as the “defensive action against the Jewish world-criminals,” “the liberation of all non-Jewish humanity,” “the mobilization of the German people’s will to destroy the bacillus lodged in its body,” and to purify the society, and the world, by eliminating the “bacteria, vermin and pests [that] cannot be tolerated.” For these tasks, the leadership needed little more than “a mood of passive compliance,” apathy, the willingness to look the other way….12

I will return the functional usage of racism in the Holocaust, which induced apathy in most and the willingness to kill in those selected to carry out mass murder, but it should be understood that in the US context racism, dehumanisation and the constant devaluation of human life are primarily means for maintaining public apathy. The relevance to the Holocaust can be understood when it is revealed that the Nazi inner circle were not, as a whole, animated by heartfelt racial hatred (though many individuals may have been), but rather saw it as a tool. Gunnar Heinsohn makes the following revelations:

There can be no doubt that the annihilation of European Jewry was justified time and again in terms of racism by German perpetrators including Hitler himself. In public Hitler has employed every brand of anti-Semitism to carry out his genocidal agenda. He has sided with Christian Jew-haters, with jealous economic or intellectual competitors of Jews, with supposed victims of “international Jewish finance,” with Slavic nationalists, with Baltic anti-Bolsheviks, etc. All these alliances betray Hitler’s flexibility in carrying through his objective. Yet, what exactly was it? After all, personally he did not believe in racist anti-Semitism. This can, last but not least, be gleaned from a correspondence to Martin Bormann on February 3, 1945: …

Our Nordic racial consciousness is only aggressive toward the Jewish race. We use the term Jewish race merely for reasons of linguistic convenience, for in the real sense of the word, and from a genetic point of view there is no Jewish race. Present circumstances force upon us this characterization of the group of common race and intellect, to which all the Jews of the world profess their loyalty, regardless of the nationality identified in the passport of each individual. This group of persons we designate as the Jewish race. […] The Jewish race is above all a community of the spirit. […] Spiritual race is of a more solid and more durable kind than natural race. Wherever he goes, the Jew remains a Jew […] presenting sad proof of the superiority of the ‘spirit’ over the flesh.”

Hitler did not only understand that there was no Jewish race in a biological sense but he had the same insight regarding the Germans or any people. Again, he expressed this in private – even before 1933 – because he had no intention to forego the bloody help of the racists:

A people in today’s political sense is no longer a racial unity, a pure racial community. The large migrations of world history, wars, periods of enemy occupation, but also natural mixing becoming ever more frequent through international trade, have caused everywhere, within the borders of a state, all existing races as well as mixtures of races to live together.”13

He then strengthens the case by revealing that in Hitler’s early life he displayed a degree of admiration for Jews:

After anti-Semitic Vienna had been identified by many researchers as the seedbed of Hitler’s personal anti-Semitism they now had to learn that he actually sided with the Jewish oppressed. This was summarized by one of those scholars, Gordon A. Craig, in his review of the English translation of [Brigitte] Hamann’s book [Hitlers Wien]:

Hamann tells us of a stormy discussion in 1910 about Empress Elizabeth’s veneration for Heinrich Heine, in which Hitler defended the [German-Jewish] poet and regretted that there were no statues to him in Germany. In other discussions in the men’s hostel, he was reported to have praised Maria Theresia’s great reforming minister Joseph von Sonnenfels and Jewish musicians like Mendelssohn and Offenbach. He had Jewish friends with whom he discussed religious questions and the future of the Zionist movement and upon whom he could rely for loans and other help in his worst times. He always preferred to sell his watercolors to Jewish dealers, because he thought that they were more honest and gave him better prices. No reliable source has reported Hitler making any anti-Semitic remarks in his Vienna period; on the contrary, he was known to have expressed admiration for the courage with which the Jews had withstood a long history of persecution.”14

Not only did Hitler not believe the racial ideology of hatred and superiority that he espoused, but he confided such to some who were close to him. The scapegoating of Jews allowed Hitler to cohere the entire Nazi base of support in the face of the fact that many expected economic and social change, in line with rhetoric, which was contrary to the many conservative aspects of the putatively revolutionary Party:

It was the Jew who helped hold Hitler’s system together…. The Jew allowed Hitler to ignore the long list of economic and social promises he had made to the SA, the lower party apparatus, and the lower middle classes. By steering the attention of these groups away from their more genuine grievances and toward the Jew, Hitler succeeded in blunting the edge of their revolutionary wrath.15

Secondly, the Jewish population of Germany was disproportionately politically active and disproportionately beholden to political ideologies inimical to Nazism, even if it were stripped of its anti-Semitic content. One thing that Hitler consistently avowed was anti-Bolshevism, and one can only conclude that Hitler’s attacks on the putatively Jewish led international communist movement were not as a way of extending the scope of his quintessentially anti-Semitic attacks,16 but rather a way of harnessing the anti-Semitic scapegoating of the German public and his own party to his own fanatical anti-communist beliefs. When he joined, and soon took over leadership of, the then Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP, soon changed by adding Nationalsozialistische to NSDAP or Nazi) it already had a strong anti-Semitic strain which clearly resonated with other right-wing platforms probably closer to Hitler’s heart. After all, if Hitler’s nationalistic version of social Darwinism was highly antithetical to an internationalist egalitarian movement. But it does not end there, because individual Jews were not only prominent as members and leaders of communist, socialist and anarchist organisations, others were also equally prominent as liberal ideologues and democrats. In short, Jews were, by-and-large, anti-fascistic. Even in Italy, though there was again a disproportionate number of Jews who were active at high levels of politics, there was only one within the Fascist party hierarchy.17

This brings us to the third pressing matter – why would a particular collective have identifiable political characteristics, especially the highly assimilated German Jewish population? In writing of a ‘community of spirit’ Hitler, in some respects, paralleled Theodor Herzl’s earlier observation that both anti-Semitism and the very identity of being Jewish resisted assimilation and even atheism, which led him to believe in the existence of an incipient Jewish nation entirely separate from religious identity.18 Of course, our contemporary understanding tends to emphasise view the creation of the ‘Other’ as a functional reification by the hegemonic group – of particular utility in justifying systematic deprivation, but also of equal utility in creating a willingness to kill.19 Nevertheless, it is also true that there is an internal mechanism of identity and value transmission within any genos, it also creates networks which are a source of power or social capital outside of the perpetrators’ control. It is this mechanism, one of biological interconnectedness, which genocide seeks to extinguish.

Indeed, the answer to why a biological structure is the target of genocide stared Lemkin, and many others, right in the face. It was so close to apprehension that it was implicitly enshrined in the UNCG. The answer is, quite simply, that in the vast majority of cases, and certainly when considering any genos as a whole, biological interconnectedness corresponds inextricably with familial interconnectedness. This is why both Lemkin and the UNCG recognised the transfer of children to the perpetrator population as an act of genocide, and why the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission acknowledged that the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents was an act of genocide.20 In terms of racial ideology this would make no sense whatsoever, ‘blood’ is not changed by environment. It is not the biological nature which is destroyed, but the biological/familial connection – a step in eliminating the genos in its nature as a biological structure.

The extended and nuclear family units are the most basic and profound human collectivities. Authoritarian utopianists, and some libertarian utopianists, going back at least as far as Hobbes, have often desired the destruction of the family which was recognised as an insurmountable impediment to exerting the control necessary to create perfect order (or freedom) in society. The family is a barrier to assimilation and uniformity where it replicates the distinct identity of the genos. Once again, Theodor Herzl shows an affinity with this line of thought: ‘Assimilation, by which I understood not only external conformity in dress, habits, customs, and language, but also identity of feeling and manner – assimilation of Jews could be effected only by intermarriage.’21 It is common (though not universal) that those with hegemonic power will be threatened or at least inconvenienced by the competing power structure of a genos. Where this is not true it is often the case that a distinct genos facilitates a divide-and-rule strategy of oligarchs over the lower class of the hegemonic genos. The former instance lends itself to the logic of assimilation and genocide. In the latter instance an imperial power may elevate or debase any given minority genos to promote division, but the ruling class of a majority dominated polity will engage in persecution, reification and in maintenance of the otherness of the target genos. No ruling class, however, is monolithic and hence partakes of both logics in varying degrees, which in effect means that there is no distinct line between chronic persecution and genocide. In a case such as the Third Reich, where nationalism combined with a vision of monolithic authoritarianism (or ‘totalitarianism’), extreme forms of genocide are an inevitable result.

With regard to external relations and imperial aggression, genocide is most relevant in its current form with regard to ‘nation-states’. When a polity is formed, especially in modern times, at varying speed a genos of greater or lesser fragility and significance will inevitably cohere, and much of the ‘state building’ efforts of newly decolonised states, for example, can be seen as endeavours to create a strong nation-state genos. As with Herzl’s observation with regard to assimilation, it is not sufficient that the population adopt a nominal national identity and wave the national flag on the national holiday; but rather it results from the mobility of the population within the borders of the polity. Mobility tends to create personal interconnection which leads to procreation and the formation of familial bonds, where it is not consciously proscribed. The British, for example, took steps to prevent intermarriage in India, not because of concerns for racial purity, which would later come to predominate in the Victorian era,22 but because it increased both the ability and propensity to for British employees to act for themselves against the interests of their employers, referred to as the ‘agency problem’.23 The strategic imperative, therefore, precedes the creation of a racist ideology, and, as will be discussed below, led imperialism to become inherently genocidal. It is also important to note that the origins of anti-miscegenation sentiment in the United States were highly contingent and functional. Before the 19th century, where they were a source of common cause between the poor of both African and European descent, they were disapproved and illegal. Where they were a source of bonded labour, particularly where wealthy Europeans fathered mulattos, they were approved and licit. Tellingly, however, this was provided that the father did not acknowledge paternity, for which he would be subject to penalties. In other words they were encouraged to procreate, but not form family bonds.24 In each case this familial interconnection threatens to create not only a power structure and communication networks, but a mutual empathy and sense of identity which, where it takes root deeply, far exceeds that generated by mere ideologies of nationhood.

Of course, the coherence of politically generated genos varies widely. Most of China, for example, has been politically unified for a very long time, but the Han nation, as such has only recently begun to develop to the depth which we would normally associate with nationhood.25 Over the centuries mobility in the vast polity has been largely confined to an upper echelon and thus there remain, even now, very different regional groups with distinct cultures and physiological tendencies as well as mutually incomprehensible languages, although, due to a shared history, it is easy for Chinese to identify what, or rather whom, is or is not and cannot be Han.26 In seeking to attack such a polity, genocide is most likely to be an ineffectual way of dominating or degrading the whole. Instead it is more efficient to effectuate a ‘decapitation’ of political élites and military forces – something which has occurred many times in Chinese history. It is arguable, however, that a form of ‘top-down’ genocide was effectuated against the Chinese by an unprecedented powerful conglomeration of Western states and Japan who often openly espoused the destruction and partition of the Chinese state. In a variation on decapitation, instead of cutting off the head and replacing it, they repeatedly kicked it, bending China’s vulnerable ruling class to their will, often with extremely small but irresistable military forces such as the 20,000 from Japan, Russia, Britain, the US and France who in 1900 managed to invade from the coast and occupy Peking in a matter of 10 days.27 This degradation and domination of the ‘head’ had a devastating indirect (but in the circumstances inevitable and arguably intentional),28 effect on millions of Chinese, exacerbating, if not causing, civil wars such as the Taiping rebellion and aggravating the lethal effects of drought, particularly by forcing the Qing rulership to abandon maintenance of irrigation and transport canals.29 All told, tens of millions of Chinese deaths were caused directly or indirectly by foreign degradation and exploitation of the Qing power structure.

In another variation, decapitation of Incan and Aztec polities preceded genocides of the disparate peoples of these empires, which Adam Jones describes thus:

A holocaust it indeed proved for the Indians enslaved on the plantations and in the silver-mines of the former Inca empire, where the Spanish instituted another genocidal regime of forced labor. Conditions in the mines – notably those in Mexico and at Potosí and Huancavelica in Upper Peru (Bolivia) – resulted in death rates matching or exceeding those of Hispaniola. According to David Stannard, Indians in the Bolivian mines had a life expectancy of three to four months, “about the same as that of someone working at slave labor in the synthetic rubber manufacturing plant at Auschwitz in the 1940s.”30

1Appendix (a) UNCG Article II.

2Chile Eboe-Osuji, “Rape as genocide: some questions arising,” Journal of Genocide Research (2007), 9(2),June, p 251.

3John Docker, The Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide, London: Pluto Press, 2008, p 15.

4Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State, Volume I: The Meaning of Genocide, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005, p 47.

5Notwithstanding that in most cases a targeted religious group will constitute a genos and that religious persecution is highly likely to involve actions proscribed in Article 2 of the UNCG.

6This is a very arbitrary and rough division, I understand, but is essential to make quantifiable conditions in order to allow for clear analysis. If this were for, say, legal or moral purposes I might be less inclined to draw such sharp divisions.

7Raphaël Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, pp 80-1.

8Ibid. p 80.

9Raphaël Lemkin, “Genocide – A Modern Crime,” Free World, Vol. 4 (April, 1945), p. 39- 43. Retrieved 20090213 from http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/freeworld1945.htm.

10Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State, Volume I: The Meaning of Genocide, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005, p 110.

11Ibid, p 160.

12Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism, London: Pluto Press, 1998, pp 325-6.

13Gunnar Heinsohn, “What makes the Holocaust a uniquely unique genocide?,” Journal of Genocide Research (2000), 2(3), pp 411-2.

14Ibid, p 414.

15Karl Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939. New York: Schocken Books, 1973, p 234, quoted in Eric Markusen, and David Kopf, The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: 1995, p 185.

16This is the impression given to the reader by Philip Morgan, as just one example (Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945, London, Routledge, 2003, p 36).

17John Whittam, Fascist Italy, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, pp 95-6.

18Emma C. Murphy, ‘Zionism and the Palestine Question,’ in Youssef M. Choueiri (ed.), A Companion to the History of the Middle East, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, pp 274-5.

19 Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York, Boston: Back Bay Books, 1995, p161.

20Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan “The Study of Mass Murder and Genocide” in Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan (eds), The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp 15-6.

21Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State (1896), p 6. Retrieved fromhttp://www.mideastweb.org, 26 November 2007.

22Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin, 2003, pp 203-4.

23Ibid, p 25.

24Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Volume Two, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, London: Verso, 1997, pp 130, 134, 243-4.

25Amy Chua, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall, New York: Anchor, 2007, pp 289-90.

26Ibid, pp 294-5. Han is also a racial conception – something which typically can never be reconciled with marginal realities.

27Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (2nd ed.), New York, London: W. W. Norton, 1999, p 232.

28What constitutes intentionality will be explored in the next section and throughout this work.

29Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London, New York: Verso, 2001, p 372.

30Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, London: Routledge: 2006, p71. Quote from David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p 89.

4 thoughts on “What is Genocide? Part 1 of ??

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