Genocide and Historical Debate: William D. Rubinstein Ascribes the Bitterness of Historians' Arguments to the Lack of an Agreed Definition and to Political Agendas

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DURING THE PAST GENERATION, an important sub-discipline, that of 'genocide studies', has arisen among historians around the world. Incorporating also insights by political scientists and anthropologists, it has produced more than its share of fierce and important debates, as well as a large volume of scholarly writings and two academic journals (Holocaust and Genocide Studies and The Journal of Genocide Research) with contributors from around the world. Given the importance of genocides and mass murders in the history of the world during the past century (and before), 'genocide studies' represents an important new area of academic research which would be of interest to many readers of History Today. Yet it is a field which is remarkable for its fierce and hotly-contested controversies, and one where, for many of these debated areas, there is no consensus among historians.

Rather surprisingly, there is no agreed definition of 'genocide', and it is simply not the case that what might be termed the 'common sense' definition of 'genocide' is universally accepted. To the average person, 'genocide' is likely to mean the deliberate and intentional killing of all or most of a specified group of people simply because they are members of that group and for no other reason. Most such targetted groups--at least in the best-known examples of genocide such as the Jewish Holocaust, the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, and the mass murders in Rwanda in 1994--have been ethnic minorities, although some widely accepted examples of what has been termed 'genocide' have been aimed against politically-defined groups, as was the case in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Yet almost everything in this 'common sense' definition of genocide has been questioned, both by scholars and in international law; even--remarkably--whether genocide must necessarily entail the killing of anyone.

The term 'genocide' was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to describe the Nazi extermination of the Jews and others. Lemkin (1900-59) led a rather tragic life: a Polish Jew who was an official of the Polish government prior to the Second World War; he escaped to the United States in 1941 and was important in convincing the Allies to hold the Nuremberg Trials alter the war. In 1948 he persuaded the United Nations to adopt its Convention on Genocide. Nevertheless, he died penniless and almost forgotten in a shabby one-room apartment in New York. He had been unable, in the 1950s, to find a publisher for his magnum opus on the history of genocide, which still exists only in typescript. If anyone ever died just before his time, it was Lemkin: the year after his death the trial of Adolf Eichmann began in Israel, bringing the Holocaust to renewed international attention.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948, already exhibited many of the ambiguities in any attempt to define or delimit 'genocide' which have been a part of debate over its meaning ever since, especially in recent years. According to the UN Convention, 'genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, such as:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life designed to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.'

It will be seen that these elaborate definitions fail to coincide with our commonsensical definition of genocide. Several of the UN categories of genocide do not even involve killing, for instance the 'forcible transfer of children' (which, moreover, takes place legally all the time, for instance the enforced removal of the children of criminal or mentally retarded parents). …