During the twentieth century alone, over a hundred million people were murdered by their own governments. That is more deaths than from all wars combined. Deaths from genocide and political mass murder were only exceeded by deaths from pandemic diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, yellow fever, and influenza.
When one mentions the word genocide first thing that usually comes to our minds is mass killing of Jewish population of Europe that was slaughtered in death camps by the Nazi regime during 1940s of the last century. Indeed, between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime killed approximately 6 million Jews. However in addition to Jewish massacre other ethnic populations suffered a great deal. The recognized figure is approximately 5 million. Among the groups which the Nazis and their collaborators murdered and persecuted were: Gypsies, Polish intelligentsia, resistance fighters from all the nations, German opponents of Nazism, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, habitual criminals, and the “anti-social,” e.g. beggars, vagrants, and hawkers.
The term “genocide” did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.
The term was constructed by a Polish Jew named Raphael Lempkin, a lawyer, who found out that he couldn’t describe the systematic murder that just occurred in Europe. So he coined the term “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, derived from the Latin word for killing.
When the allied forces finally reached Berlin which brought to an end Hitler’s imperialistic delusion of Third Reich, they sought to prosecute the Nazi executives in the International Military Tribunal that was held in Nuremberg the following year. The judges charged them with “crimes against humanity”. The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.
Ottomans and Turks against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks
Before Second World War atrocities against indigenous populations were committed although the word genocide itself didn’t exist in English language.
By the end of 19th century Ottoman Empire was coming to an end. So much so that the term commonly used to describe it was the “sick man of Europe. In response to the crisis in the Ottoman Empire, a new political group called the Young Turks seized power by revolution in 1908. From the Young Turks, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), emerged at the head of the government in a coup staged in 1913. And in April 1915 the Ottoman government embarked upon the systematic decimation of its civilian Armenian population. The persecutions continued with varying intensity until 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey. The Armenian population of the Ottoman state was reported at about two million in 1915. An estimated one million had perished by 1918, while hundreds of thousands had become homeless and stateless refugees. By 1923 virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolian Turkey had disappeared. The total number of killed Armenians vary according to the source but most scholars agree that about 1,5 million Armenians were killed. Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” coined it with the Armenian genocide in mind.
Young Turks didn’t only try to exterminate Armenians. Between 1914 and 1920 the Assyrian population of northern Mesopotamia was forcibly relocated and massacred by Ottoman forces. The total death toll is unknown but it is estimated that about 750,000 Assyrians died.
Like Armenians and Assyrians, the Greeks were subjected to various forms of persecution including massacres, expulsions, and death marches by Young Turks.
George W. Rendel of the British Foreign Office, among other diplomats, noted the massacres and deportations of Greeks during the aftermath of Greco-Turkish War (1919 – 1922) when an estimate of 348,000 Anatolian Greeks were killed.
Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975. The CPK created the state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and ruled the country until January 1979. The party’s existence was kept secret until 1977.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, organized the mass killing of ideologically suspect groups, ethnic minorities such as ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and Thais, Buddhist monks, secular intellectuals and professionals, and former city dwellers, including their own members and even some senior leaders. They turned the country into a huge detention center. Man-made famine and slave labor resulted in nearly two million deaths. Some estimates suggest a death toll between 2,2 and 2,5 million to be more likely.
Hutu against Tutsi in Rwanda
In 1994, Rwanda’s population of seven million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu (approximately 85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population.
Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population, as well as thousands of Hutu who opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.
In the mid-1960s, hundreds of thousands of leftists and those tied to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) were massacred by the Indonesian military and right-wing paramilitary groups after a failed coup attempt which was blamed on the Communists. At least 500,000 people were killed over a period of several months, with thousands more being interred in prisons and concentration camps under extremely inhumane conditions.
In West New Guinea alone more than 100,000 Papuans were killed since Indonesian government took control over the area from the Dutch in 1963.
In East Timor, that was occupied and annexed by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999, according to UN Indonesian military used starvation as a weapon and employed napalm and chemical weapons, which poisoned the food and water supply. As Ben Kierman wrote in his book: “…with a toll of 150,000 in a population of 650,000, clearly meet a range of sociological definitions of genocide… [w ith] both political and ethnic groups as possible victims of genocide.”
Those examples of genocide that I mentioned above were, unfortunately, not all, far from it. No wonder then that the last century has been nicknamed “the age of genocide”. The scariest fact is, besides death toll numbers, that these atrocities are carried out by ordinary people. By any of us, potentially, as much as we would like to deny it.
According to James E. Waller Jr. who is chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College groups can “develop characteristics that create a potential for extraordinary evil.” Waller points out that there is a built in xenophobia and desire for social dominance in many people, and these characteristics can be strengthened by a culture promoting violence. If the victims have suffered a social death in advance, like the Jews in Nazi Germany or the Germans in post-war Europe, and the killings are organized in a system, the outcome may very well be genocide.