Genocide Studies, human rights, Origins of genocide, Uncategorized, WWII

The Origins of the Word “Genocide”

It would not be presumptuous to say that the word “genocide” is a word that resonates globally. Anyone with a knowledge of genocide studies knows the endless complications associated with even defining the word, not to mention the politics behind affirming a situation as “genocidal”. These issues will be addressed in later posts, but for now, there is one aspect that deserves some light.

Where did this word even come from?

If you Google the above question, a man named Raphael Lemkin will undoubtedly pop up. A Polish Jewish lawyer who lost countless members of his family to the Holocaust, he worked endlessly to coin a term for a destruction that was so unimaginable it did not yet have a name. Lemkin is widely accredited for coining the term within academic circles and history books. Yet (at least in my experience) his name rarely appears for more than one or two sentences in such cases. What is usually written is something along the following lines:

“The term genocide was originally created by Raphael Lemkin in 1943/44, originating from the Greek “genos” meaning family/tribe/race and the Latin word “cide” meaning killings”

Related image Raphael Lemkin. Available at

I’m paraphrasing here and this is not always the case, but the real-life story behind Mr. Lemkin is one that deserves far more than two sentences to sum up a lifetime of work.

Lemkin’s interest in finding a term to describe the mass destruction of minorities came long before the Holocaust. He could not understand why there were no legal repercussions for the Ottoman Government’s callous killings of Armenian’s under the Empires rule. “It is a crime for [an Armenian] to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?” Lemkin questioned. When he later came to the US in 1941, fleeing persecution and the faith that awaited so many of his family members, he drew comparisons between the Ottoman’s slaughtering and the rise of Hitler. He was warning the world of what was to come, but these warnings fell on deaf ears. The world of the 1940s could not begin to conceive that such heinous acts could take place, and his pleas were considered exaggerated accounts of wartime collateral damage.

Rather than giving up, he turned to the law for answers. Seeing as there was no such word to even describe such acts, there were certainly no laws to directly prohibit them. In the aftermath of 1945, the focus was on the prosecution of Nazi criminals for the crimes they committed during the war. And this is where it gets complicated. Sovereign rights and border protection were paramount during those times. The idea of an international body holding a Nation accountable for actions within its own country was, for the most part, unheard of. Simply put, what a country did on their own turf was their own agenda and did not call for interference from other Nations – regardless of the scale of the crime. So as Samantha Power puts it, if, in theory, the Nazis had exterminated all of the German Jewish population, but never invaded Poland – they would not have been liable at Nuremberg. Once you did not cross borders, you were free under international law to commit genocide.

This is why the work of Lemkin is so paramount in today’s understanding of genocide studies and prevention. Despite being met with venomous opposition everywhere he went, (as the question of Sovereign rights was still of uttermost importance) he worked endlessly to draft and convince diplomats to pass the “UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” in 1948. His wording and laws established genocide as a separate crime against humanity at any time, not just a crime committed during the war. To date, the Treaty has 49 Nation’s signatures and 149 parties participating with the convention.

Not only did he coin the term that we use internationally, but he quite literally worked himself to death to prohibit these crimes in the future. Lemkin died of a heart attack in August 1959, brought on by health difficulties attributed to the endless sleepless nights and constant hounding of officials to pass his life’s work.

It goes without saying that Lemkin’s dedication and noble actions did little to prevent future genocides after his death. Genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and currently in Myanmar were not prevented despite so many Nations signing the UN Convention. This does not, however, mean that his life’s work was a failure. Quite the contrary. Thanks to Lemkin we have the current legislation and framework that govern genocide prevention and action to date. It does not mean that every country will abide by this, but it does mean that anyone, in any country, who utters the word “genocide” knows full well the heavy convictions this term carries. It is not a word said lightly, and is seen as possibly one of the most heinous crimes of mankind. The gravity of this word and the laws surrounding it can be directly attributed to Lemkin and any co-works he pursued to help support him. There are no clear-cut answers when it comes to effective action to prevent genocide. However, we are in an age where Lemkin’s actions can now receive the recognition he deserved in the 1940s. If we were to all take a leaf out of Lemkin’s book, it would certainly bring us one step closer to finding more concrete preventative actions.

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Written by,

Aisling C W


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