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The concept of genocide came to light at a conference in Madrid in 1933. And it is still relevant today

Its promoter, the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, warned of the ‘contagious nature of any social psychosis’

Relatives of victims of the 1995 Srebenica genocide weep at the Potocari Memorial Cemetery ahead of commemoration to mark the 28th anniversary on July 10, 2023.
Relatives of victims of the 1995 Srebenica genocide weep at the Potocari Memorial Cemetery ahead of commemoration to mark the 28th anniversary on July 10, 2023.Anadolu (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On August 22, 1939, at a meeting at the Berghof in Obersalzberg, in the Bavarian Alps, while encouraging his closest confidantes to invade and massacre Poland, Adolf Hitler proclaimed: “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish jurist, had not forgotten. During World War I, the Armenian population in Turkey was forcibly deported. More than a million people died, but the main perpetrators of the crime escaped justice. Lemkin, then a law student in Lviv (formerly Poland, now part of Ukraine), was shocked. He was young, but he already carried in his blood “a movement of ideas in search of justice,” writes Philippe Sands in East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” (2017).

Lemkin was the father of the concept of genocide: he described it publicly in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, first published in the United States, where he detailed the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews under that name. Until then there was no legal word to describe such crimes, but the world changes and, as Lemkin pointed out, “new concepts require new terms.” In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which applies to acts such as the intentional subjugation of a group leading to its physical destruction, in whole or in part, or serious bodily or mental harm. On January 26, the Hague Tribunal demanded that Israel take measures to prevent genocide against the Palestinian population.

Along with the concept of crimes against humanity, coined by Hersch Lauterpacht, another Lviv-trained jurist, the one used by Lemkin marked the development of international law and human rights. “As a legal concept it is innovative. Before it, the world could think of no crime worse than individual murder,” reflects Hilary Earl, professor of modern European History at Nipissing University (Canada), and a specialist in war crimes trials. “The Holocaust changed all that, and collective destruction is now the worst crime we can imagine.”

Genocide is now a familiar concept, but Lemkin didn’t have it easy in the beginning. For years he studied the most terrible cases alone: the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the violation of law in Soviet Russia and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and Poland. He also soaked up the work of Vespasian V. Pella, a Romanian scholar who promoted the idea of universal justice. Moreover, in Lviv, he saw how German troops began to organize the isolation and marking of the Jewish population. “What Lemkin, his family and his environment experienced was a determining factor in developing the concept of genocide,” explains Manuel Ollé, professor of international criminal law at the Complutense University of Madrid.

In October 1933, Lemkin was invited to the Fifth International Conference for the Unification of Penal Law, held in Madrid. He was unable to attend because the Polish government refused him a visa, but his paper was read at the conference. Titled Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations, the paper spoke of the existence of “a juridical conscience of the civilized international community” that should be attentive to the crime of “barbarism” with the intention of harming not only the individual, “but, in the first place, of harming the collective to which the latter belongs.” Concerned about the rise of Nazism in Germany, the jurist also warned about “the contagious nature of any social psychosis.”

Six years after publishing his paper, Lemkin was forced to flee Poland and sought refuge in several countries before arriving in the United States in 1941. There, in a small office at Duke University (North Carolina), with no news of his family, he continued to document Nazi barbarism, thanks in part to the help of his contacts in Europe, who sent him ordinances and circulars from Hitler’s regime. Among many documents, he studied the minutes of a January 1942 meeting in Berlin at which Adolf Eichmann recorded the agreement to “cleanse German living space of Jews in a legal manner.” He also analyzed the decrees of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor in Poland, who said “I will approach Jewish affairs with the prospect of the Jews disappearing.”

Those directives sketched a meticulous landscape of destruction, and were the basis on which Lemkin coined the term genocide, formed from the Greek genos (family, tribe, or race) and cide (from the Latin occidere, to kill). After the end of the war in 1945, the Nuremberg trials became his main focus. “The truth is that he undertook a titanic task to create and spread the concept. Not a day went by without his determination that genocide should become recognized as a new crime,” Ollé notes.

With the support of some high-ranking Allied officials, and sometimes against their advice, over several months Lemkin relentlessly approached prosecutors, military officers, and lawyers (including the defense lawyers for the Nazi hierarchy) by telephone, letter, or in person. Sometimes he was so exhausted that he said he was suffering from “genociditis.”

In December 1945, Lemkin detailed his concept in Le Monde, stating that “if in the future a state acts in a manner aimed at the destruction of a national or racial minority within its population, any of those responsible can be arrested if they leave the country.”

It was at Nuremberg that documented evidence of the systematization of terror — the so-called “Final Solution” — was witnessed. Victoria Ocampo, who attended the trials, described in a letter that the evidence filled her heart with “a kind of atomic silence.”

At the trials there was some reference in the prosecutors’ oral accusations to Lemkin’s term, but it was neither formally accepted nor used in the sentences. The Nazi leaders were charged with crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

When the trials were over, Lemkin did not let up: he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then U.S. president; to United Nations Secretary-General Trygve Lie; and to many, many others, until his perseverance finally paid off in 1948. “Law is not static, but dynamic, and sometimes utopias become reality. We need many Lemkins to legislate today’s problems,” Ollé reflects.

To date, the Holocaust, the extermination of moderate Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the massacre of Srebrenica in Bosnia, the massacres of Yazidis in Iraq and those of the Rohingya in Myanmar have been considered genocide. Genocide has no statute of limitations: it remains in the attention of the courts and in memory.

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