The term genocide is derived from the ancient Greek word genos (meaning a tribe or race) and the Latin cide (killing). Raphael Lemkin first used this term in 1944. Lemkin worked for the creation of international standards intending to outlaw the wanton and directed killing of identified peoples. Ultimately, Limkin’s efforts were the driving force in the formation of the United Nations Convention Against Genocide.
Genocide is narrowly defined as a society or nation turning against a subgroup that is seen as an internal enemy. Helen Fein provides a broader and far more accurate understanding. She maintains that “Genocide is the calculated murder of a segment or a group defined outside the universe of obligation of the perpetrator by a government, elite, staff or crowd representing the perpetrator in response to a crisis or opportunity perceived to be caused by or impeded by the victim.” This expanded definition includes the occasion of one nation conducting a war of annihilation against another.
Acts of genocide share a common trait that also serves as a justifying mind-set for acts of extermination: The cultural or economic environment of the aggressive entity or nation must have reached a specific state where genocide is accepted and even embraced as necessary. Staub asserts that changes or shifts in life conditions within certain cultures (bearing distinct characteristics) may generate the necessary social/psychological reaction. He states, “Sometimes a whole society or substantial and potentially influential segments of society face serious problems that have a powerful impact and result in powerful motivations” (Staub, 1989, p. 13). The force exerted by change varies by the magnitude, degree, and intensity of the influencing condition.
Perhaps the most important condition conductive to a genocidal action is the rigidity or the inability of the aggressor culture to adapt. A society with inflexible values and ways of life is likely to be more affected by change. Rigidity makes the difficulties of life more stressful. Consequently, members of a culture are more easily accepting of radical solutions and the placement of blame for their immediate crisis, with the expended slaughter of a targeted population as the necessary solution.
Fein identified four distinct categories of genocide. Developmental genocide serves to remove the indigenous members of an area for the purpose of geographic expansion. Despotic genocide is a means of removing political opposition in the course of power acquisition. Retributive genocide addresses ethnic and similar social stratifications conflicts over power and dominance. Ideological genocide is grounded upon the intolerance of contrasting belief systems and the perceived inability to coexist.
The earliest known history of genocide is chronicled in the Old Testament, where reference is made to complete annihilation of the Amalekites. The most notable example of early genocide is the Roman destruction of Carthage, in 146 BC. One historically acknowledged act of complete genocide took place in 1806, when the British began the annihilation of the Tasmanian aborigines, allegedly over the spearing of livestock. By 1835, the few remaining Tasmanian were resettled on barren Flinders Island. The last full-blooded Tasmanian died in 1876. Acts of genocide have taken place throughout history, with numerous examples taking place during the 20th century. During World War I, the Turkish government planned and ordered the massive murder of Armenians within their borders. In World War II, Hitler ordered the systematic gathering and killing of Jews and other “undesirables” across Europe, in what was to be known as the Holocaust. In 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge exacted victory in the civil war in Cambodia. After assuming control of the country, they began a period of forced slavery, torture, and killing in which over 2 million persons lost their lives. In 1976, over 9,000 persons “disappeared” in Argentina in a wave of military actions following a coup.
- Fein, H. (1984). Scenarios of genocide: Models of genocide and critical responses. London: Westview Press.
- Kuper, L. (1981). Genocide: Its political use in the twentieth century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mills, N., & Brunner, K. (2002). The new killing fields. New York: Basic Books.
- Simpson, C. (1995). The splendid blond beast. Monreo, ME: Common Courage Press.
- Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.