The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence

The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence

The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence

The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence


This year the United Nations celebrated the 'Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide', adopted in December 1948. It is time to recognize the man behind this landmark in international law. At the beginning were a few words: "New conceptions require new terms. By 'genocide' we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group". Rarely in history have paradigmatic changes in scholarship been brought about with such few words. Putting the quintessential crime of modernity in only one sentence, Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), the Polish Jewish specialist in international law, not only summarized the horrors of the National Socialist Crimes, which were still underway, when he coined the term "genocide" in 1944, but also influenced international law. As the founding figure of the UN Genocide Convention Lemkin is finally getting the respect he deserves. Less known is his contribution to historical scholarship on genocide. Until his death, Lemkin was working on a broad study on genocides in the history of humankind. Unfortunately, he did not manage to publish it. The contributions in this book offer for the first time a critical assessment not only of his influence on international law but also on historical analysis of mass murders, showing the close connection between both.

This book was published as a special issue of the Journal of Genocide Research.


“An analysis of the laws and decrees promulgated by the Nazis and their puppet governments
in the conquered areas of Europe has been made by Dr. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer now
in this country, in a book called ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’. the book published
Wednesday, contains 674 pages. Columbia University Press is distributing it.”

This simple abstract, published in the New York Times, shows that Lemkin’s contemporaries did not realize immediately how deeply and significantly Axis Rule in Occupied Europe would influence both international law and the social sciences. the new term and concept of ‘genocide’ was not even mentioned in this laconic text. Only a few years later, international lawyers and observers of the Nuremberg Trials had to conclude that expressions like ‘mass murder’, ‘Germanization’ or ‘crimes against humanity’ were neither adequate nor sufficient to characterize the acts of violence committed by the Nazis during the second World War. Most specialists in international law agreed that a more specific term was needed and soon recognized that Lemkin’s idea of genocide could be a useful framework for the analysis and punishment of the persecution and annihilation of the European Jewry. Waldemar Kaempffert, science editor of the New York Times, for example, proclaimed that ‘genocide is the new name for the crime fastened on the Nazi leaders’. What is more, Kaempffert understood the global and temporal scope of Lemkin’s concept:

Attempts at the wholesale extermination of a population and the transmutation of its culture
had been made before and after Rome reduced Carthage to ruins. the wars waged by the
Crusaders and Mohammedans of old were largely wars of extermination. the Turks in their
time did their best to destroy the Armenians. It was to identify such crimes that Professor
Lemkin coined the word genocide.

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