Encyclopedia of Genocide

By Kornberg, Jacques | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Encyclopedia of Genocide


Kornberg, Jacques, Shofar


Israel W. Charny, Editor in Chief. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999. 2 vols. 718 pp. $175.00.

When I turn to an encyclopedia, it is because I am seeking basic, but also authoritative knowledge on a subject. But what if the encyclopedia covers a brand-new discipline like Genocide Studies, as this one does, where research is just beginning and little consensus exists on the basic concepts and scope of the field? Professor Israel Charny, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, has taken on the formidable pioneering task of supplying the basic concepts and determining the scope of Genocide Studies.

In keeping with this task, Volume I begins with an extended discussion of definitions of genocide. Charny has opted for an inclusive one: "the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims". This definition avoids the well-known failings of the United Nations Convention on Genocide, which only recognized certain kinds of victim groups and stressed the intent of the perpetrator: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". Charny's definition makes room for socio-economic victim groups like the Kulaks or Cambodian urban dwellers. And he is right to insist that clear-cut intent is not a necessary element in genocide. Promoting conditions that lead to the extinction of a group by destroying the economic and social basis of its existence may not involve clear-cut intent but may amount to genocide nonetheless, as was the case with the native peoples of North America. However, Charny's definition has its shortcomings, particularly his inclusion of "the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings" under genocide. One can understand his wish not to make mass killing of lesser importance, but his definition would leave practically no one innocent of the charge of genocide. All crimes would be equally condemned as the farthest reach of evil, including the saturation bombings of German cities in World War II, even environmental negligence, resulting in mass death. Under such an inclusive definition, leading Nazis after World War II could easily have relativized the destruction of European Jewry by citing Allied actions, and just as easily argued that Allied leaders should be put on trial for genocide. In Charny's defense, he does envisage degrees of genocide, just as we differentiate between first, second, and third degree murder.

Volume One also includes a long article devoted to another pioneering formulation of categories of mass murder, the work of R. J. Rummel. Perhaps the most engrossing part of his work is the statistics he has amassed on every case of twentieth-century "democide," concluding with the conservative estimate of 170,000,000 victims (pp. 25, 36). Astonishing figures such as these make one wonder if genocide is the exception in human affairs, or the rule.

Charny's inclusive approach to genocide means that the widest range of genocides, atrocities, and acts of political repression receive coverage in the encyclopedia. Admittedly, the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide receive the most attention, but there are also articles on Afghanistan under Communist rule, on the Australian aborigines, and on genocides of many other indigenous peoples, Bangladesh, Cambodia, East Timor, the Hereros, the Ibos, the Kurds, the Roma, etc., and even on Ceausescu, Bokassa, and Genghis Khan.

The quality of the articles is uneven, with some admirably comprehensive, detailed and nuanced, written by those with an expert grasp of their subject; other articles are amateurish, sometimes overly general, sometimes simplistic, and seem to have been culled from other reference works. …

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