The Birth of the Word “Genocide”

Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin

In the fall of 1944, the word “genocide” appeared for the very first time in the book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and who fled to the U.S. in 1941. The book, which was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, introduced the word as “A New Term and New Conception for Destruction of Nations.”[1]

Lemkin was inspired to create the term after listening to a 1941 radio speech by Winston Churchill, who talked about “the barbaric fury of the Nazis” and the world being “in the presence of a crime without a name.” Lemkin considered and then rejected terms like “barbarity,” “vandalism,” and “ethnocide.” Finally he created the word “genocide” by combining the Greek “genos” meaning “people” or “nation” with the Latin-derived suffix “-cide” for “killing.”

Lemkin then embarked on the mission of convincing governments to use the term to define a new crime under international law. In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly agreed with its approval of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As of October 27, 2014, there are 146 states that are parties to this treaty.[2]

The treaty defines the crime of “genocide” as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (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 calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Now genocide is one of the crimes that is within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and within the customary international law principle of universal jurisdiction whereby any state may prosecute an individual for the crime regardless of where the crime occurred.

A new documentary film, “Watchers of the Sky,” brings Lemkin’s creative process to the screen by animating pages of his notebooks and by telling the stories of contemporary crusaders like Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the author of a book about post-World War II commissions of genocide, “A Problem from Hell.”

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[1] This post is based upon the citations embedded above and upon Ben Zimmer, How ‘Genocide’ Was Coined, W.S. J. (Oct. 27, 2014). The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was created by Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century as discussed in a prior post.

[2] Although the Convention was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 and signed two days later for the U.S. by President Harry Truman, it was not ratified by the U.S. until 1988 as discussed in a prior post.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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