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.

Minneapolis and St. Paul Declare the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 “Genocide”

The Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul recently adopted resolutions declaring that the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was “genocide.”[1]

Mpls seal

Minneapolis did so on December 14, 2012. Unanimously introduced and adopted, the City Council’s resolution commenced by stating that the War “led to the mass execution of 38 Dakota, the largest in the history of the United States, and the genocide of the Dakota people.” The resolution also said, “Indigenous women, children and elderly were held in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling, separated from the men, before being exiled to reservations in neighboring states and Canada, and later being stripped of their culture and traditions in boarding schools and subjected to white culture and religions.”

With these factual predicates, the Minneapolis resolution declared that:

  • “every effort must be made to ensure that the Dakota perspective is presented during the year 2012-2013, through discussions at forums, events, symposia, conferences and workshops, to include the complex issues listed above;”
  • “the City of Minneapolis works to promote the well-being and growth of the American Indian community, including Dakota People;”
  • “these efforts during the years 2012 and 2013 will mark the beginning of future dialogues and efforts to rectify the wrongs that were perpetrated during, and since, the year 1862, a tragic and traumatic event for the Dakota People of Minnesota;” and
  • “the year 2012-2013 is hereby designated “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling,” from December 26, 2012 to December 26, 2013.”

StPaullogo

St. Paul joined its sister city on January 9, 2013, with a nearly identical resolution by its city council. It labeled the War as the start of “the genocide of the Dakota people” that included holding them after the war “in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling.” This resolution declared 2013 as “the Year of the Dakota.

In addition, the St. Paul resolution directed “the City of Saint Paul and its Parks and Recreation Department . . . [to] work with the Dakota Bdote Restoration Consortium to identify, name, and interpret sacred Native American sites at and nearby the sacred Bdote from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to Mounds Park; including listing, mapping, identifying Dakota site names in the Great River Passage Plan, and participating in on-going collaborative research to further describe, dually name, publicize, and interpret significant Dakota sites in the Great River Passage Park Implementation;”

Afterwards these resolutions were praised by some. Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor and Dakota advocate from Granite Falls, said, “What I regard as significant and important is that key terms were used … I really am elated and excited I have lived long enough to see something like this happen here.”

Others were critical of calling the War “genocide” of the Dakota people. State Representative Dean Urdahl, a longtime history teacher whose ancestors were involved in the war and who has introduced resolutions urging Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act, said he did not think “the terms genocide and concentration camp accurately portray what it was without further explanation. Horrible things happened, but it wasn’t completely one-sided.”

Comments

Although I am sympathetic to the intent of these resolutions, it has to be noted that in 1862 “genocide” was not a concept or a defined crime in U.S. or international law.

Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin

The word itself was created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It became a legal concept after World War II with the 1948 adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Thus, there never has been, and never could have been, any official adjudication with the attendant due process protections that any individuals or governmental agencies in 1862 were guilty of the crime of genocide.

If that Convention or treaty had been in effect in 1862, then there are several candidates for prosecution for such a crime.

Governor Alexander Ramsey
Governor Alexander Ramsey

First, as already mentioned in an earlier post, then Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey in a public speech to the Minnesota Legislature in September 1862 proclaimed: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.” (Emphasis added.)

Today this statement would be a crime under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention as a “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

General John Pope
General John Pope

Second, as discussed in another prior post, during the War, U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising, said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” (Emphasis added.) The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

This statement and action would be a basis for charges of the crime of “incitement to commit genocide” against General Pope and the U.S. federal government albeit only human beings, not legal entities, are subject to criminal liability under this treaty.

Third, other possible hypothetical charges under Article III of this treaty would be against individuals (conceivably both white and Dakota people) for acts of “genocide,” “conspiracy to commit genocide,” “complicity in genocide” and “attempt[s] to commit genocide.” For this broader purpose, “genocide” is defined, in part, in Article II of that treaty as committing any of the following acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:”

  • (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.”

The key issue in any such hypothetical case would be whether the individuals acted with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” (Emphasis added.)


[1] This account of the two resolutions is based upon the following: Melo, St. Paul City Council commemorates U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Pioneer Press (Jan. 9, 2013); Duchschere, St. Paul follows Minneapolis in labeling U.S.-Dakota War as ‘genocide,’ StarTribune (Jan. 10, 2013); Steinmann, Year of the Dakota Resolution passed in St. Paul, denouncing genocide, Daily Planet (Jan. 10, 2013).