Berto Jongman: Genocide’s Definition Revisited – More About Cultural Extinction than Mass Violence

06 Genocide, 11 Society, Cultural Intelligence
Berto Jongman

Genocide’s Definition Revisited

Alexander J. Motyl

World Affairs, 19 October 2012

If you think you know what Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the term genocide, thought about genocide, think again. A dissertation-in-progress on Lemkin and the history of the United Nations Genocide Convention by Douglas Irvin-Erickson, a doctoral student in global affairs at Rutgers University-Newark, is likely to change how we think and talk about genocide.

As Irvin-Erickson writes in an article (“The Romantic Signature of Raphael Lemkin”) scheduled to appear in the Journal of Genocide Research:

Lemkin used the work of an art historian to define nations as “families of minds”…. Lemkin intended the word genocide to signify the cultural destruction of peoples, which could occur without a perpetrator employing violence at all. In his 1944 Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin wrote that genocide was “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.” A colonial practice, genocide had two phases: “One, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.”

Genocide, in other words, is not, in Lemkin’s understanding, about mass killing per se, but about the destruction of nations qua nations. Mass killing is, thus, a means to the end of genocide, and not its goal.

Lemkin adopted his definition of a nation as a family of minds in the context of his writing on the French genocide against Algeria, where he believed that the French colonial power was breaking the “bodily and mental integrity” of the Algerian people.… The goal of the genocide, Lemkin wrote, was to integrate Algerians into the French Republic and prevent Algeria from emerging from colonial rule.

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