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Origins And Evolution Of The Concept

The term genocide was coined in the mid-1940s by Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), a lawyer of Polish Jewish origin who escaped from Poland after the Nazis occupied it in September 1939. Lemkin fled to Lithuania and then to Sweden before eventually reaching the United States in April 1941. In November 1944 he published a lengthy book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which exhaustively documented the legal basis of the Nazis' policies of mass extermination, deportations, and slave labor. The book is best remembered nowadays for Lemkin's use of the new word genocide. He settled on that term after much deliberation and defined it as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." Because the word became indelibly associated with the Nazi Holocaust, it promptly gained wide currency as the standard by which to judge human destructiveness. Lemkin himself, however, never believed that the term should refer only to carnage and atrocities of the magnitude perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews. He wanted it to encompass all attempts to destroy cultural or ethnic identities, regardless of whether the perpetrators were seeking to exterminate every member of the targeted group.

From the time Lemkin's book appeared, the term genocide has stirred controversy both in the public arena and among scholars. Lawyers, scholars, and political leaders have differed over the scope and nature of the crimes involved. Some, like Lemkin, have sought as broad a definition as possible, not limiting it to large-scale killing. Others, including many prominent historians and political scientists, have advocated a more restrictive definition, focusing on clear-cut cases of mass slaughter and attempts at systematic extermination. Still others have questioned whether genocide necessarily requires the targeting of a specific cultural, ethnic, racial, or linguistic group. Scholars who express reservations about this last point have argued that if genocide depends on the targeting of a particular cultural or ethnic group, slaughters such as those perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1977–1978—with a death toll as high as 1.5 million—would not be covered. By the same token, many of the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin or in China under Mao Zedong would not be classed as genocide if the target had to be a specific ethnic or cultural group. Although Stalin did carry out mass deportations of nationalities in the 1930s and 1940s, most of his other violent abuses, affecting tens of millions of people, were not directed against ethnic groups per se. The same is true of most of the slaughters and systematic atrocities perpetrated in China under Mao. By excluding many of the worst abuses and crimes of the twentieth century, the requirement of a targeted cultural or ethnic group has arguably been the most controversial aspect of the concept of genocide.

To help fill these crucial gaps, Barbara Harff and Ted R. Gurr have argued that the concept of politicide should supplement genocide. Politicide, as Harff and Gurr define it, refers to the killing of groups of people who are targeted not because of shared ethnic or communal traits, but because of "their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups" (p. 360). Similarly, Rudolph Rummel has suggested that the term democide could cover all intentional killing of unarmed civilians by governments. According to Rummel, democide includes the slaughter of cultural and ethnic groups, the massacring of politically marginal groups, and all other government-sponsored killing of unarmed civilians. The concept has come under criticism for being too amorphous, but Rummel has sought to refine it in a number of books. Although neither "politicide" nor "democide" has been widely adopted by other scholars, the coinage of these terms highlights the continuing dissatisfaction with the term genocide.

One other issue that has sparked occasional disagreement is whether genocide must be deliberate from the start. This question has been most often raised in analyses of devastating famines such as the one that occurred in southern regions of the Soviet Union in 1932–1933 or in Ireland in the 1840s. The Soviet famine, which killed as many as four million Ukrainians, a million Russians, and a million Kazakhs, resulted from policies adopted by Stalin to crush the Soviet peasantry and to force the collectivization of agriculture. Some scholars, such as Nicolas Werth and Andrea Gnaziosi, have argued that even if Stalin did not set out to kill so many people, the famines were the inevitable result of his policies. They also have pointed out that when Stalin learned that vast numbers of people were dying of starvation, he took steps to keep peasants from escaping the affected regions, thereby consigning them to certain death.

The Soviet famine has come up particularly often in discussions of genocide because of what some writers, such as Robert Conquest, perceive as the deliberate targeting of Ukrainians (though it should be noted that, proportionally, more Kazakhs than Ukrainians died in the famine). Other specialists such as Jean-Louis Margolin have argued that even when famines do not affect concentrated ethnic or cultural groups, the deaths may still amount to genocide. Among the examples cited by those who subscribe to this view are the terrible famines in China in the late 1950s that resulted from Mao's Great Leap Forward policies. Although Mao undoubtedly did not foresee that the Great Leap Forward would cause tens of millions of people to die of starvation, he failed to take any remedial action even when he became aware of the scale of the suffering. Hence, scholars such as Margolin have argued that the death toll during the Great Leap Forward should be added to the millions of other victims whom Mao deliberately set out to kill.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGenocide - Origins And Evolution Of The Concept, The Genocide Convention, Persistent Controversies And Ambiguities, Bibliography