The 20th century may have coined the term "genocide," but it did
not invent the notion that one group improves its lot by
When 13th-century Mongol horsemen swept across Asia to the gates
of Vienna, they made it a policy to kill every man, woman, and child
in any city that resisted their advance. Contemporary accounts
tallied the dead in the millions.
For a less brutal account, take a close look at the north-wing
pediment of the US Capitol. The sculpted figure in the lower right
corner is a dejected Indian chief, flanked by his family and a
grave. Artist Thomas Crawford described this corner of his work: the
"extinction" of the American Indian; the pediment, which was
completed in 1863, is called: "Progress of Civilization."
Over the last millennium, humanity has grappled with ways to curb
this harshest face of war, especially to make some distinction
between fighters and noncombatants. From the 10th into the 12th
centuries, Christian church councils debated the terms of a "just
war." Soldiers developed their own approach to this issue: Codes of
medieval chivalry extended protection to noncombatants. Professional
militaries in the 18th century turned this distinction into codes of
conduct. And by the end of the 20th century, international
conventions formally defined - and outlawed - the practice of
Nonetheless, the last century began and ended with some of the
most brutal assaults on civilians in human history. These include
the expulsion of Ottoman Armenians from their ancient homeland in
World War I, the systematic annihilation of European Jews and other
groups in World War II and slaughter of hundreds of thousands in
Rwanda in 1994, and the revival of the concept of "ethnic cleansing"
in such places as Cambodia (1975), and more recently, Bosnia,
Kosovo, Sudan, and East Timor.
For those on the receiving end of genocide or "ethnic cleansing,"
recognition of what was done often comes late, if at all. World news
media have been slow to pick up on what was actually happening in a
genocide, especially one that occurs in the context of a war. After
the fact, the victors or those with the best-organized lobby may
weigh in more heavily in sorting out suffering than others caught up
in a tragedy. The battle over who did what to whom, when, and how
often goes on in scholarly and diplomatic circles decades after the
The Holocaust was barely mentioned in the years immediately after
World War II. It was not until the 1960s that accounts of survivors
were widely disseminated. And Armenian survivors of the 1915 death
march are still lobbying strenuously for recognition of their ordeal
as a "genocide."
In response to such concerns, many European nations, along with
Canada and Australia, passed legislation outlawing writing or speech
that denies the Holocaust. This month, British historian David
Irving lost a $3 million libel suit against an American writer who
labeled him as a Holocaust denier. (Irving has written that Jews
were not killed in gas chambers and that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler
did not order the annihilation of European Jewry.)
"It's a very destructive thing when people deny the Holocaust.
Banning that discussion prevents some destructive and hurtful public
discussions," says Steve Hochstadt, professor of history at Bates
College in Lewiston, Maine.
The term used to describe such events is important, because a key
aspect of genocide is denial that it is occurring or has occurred,
experts say. …