Robert S. Leventhal

Copyright (c) 1995 by Robert S. Leventhal, all rights reserved. This text may be shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. Copyright Law. Redistribution or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the written permission of the author.

The term Genocide derives from the latin (genos=race,tribe; cide=killing) and means literally the killing or murder of an entire tribe or people. The Oxford English Dictionary defines genocide as "the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group" and cites the first usage of the term as R. Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, (1944) p. 79: "By 'genocide' we mean the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group." The U.N. General Assembly adopted this term and defined it in 1946 as "...a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups." The U.N. Convention on Genocide (1948) was profoundly influenced by the Holocaust, citing that "[...]the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg has punished certain persons who committed 'similar acts' to those which the Convention aims at punishing."[1]

According to William A. Haviland, Cultural Anthropology (1987), genocide or the deliberate extermination of one ethnic group by another is not new, however new the term might be.[2] Haviland cites the example of the Pequot Indians, who were exterminated in 1637 by the Colonists when they burned their village in Mystic, Connecticut, and then shot all of the poeple -- including women and children -- who tried to escape. There are numerous other instances of genocide, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: in the nineteenth century, we think of the extermination of the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania, or the massacre of American Indians at Wounded Knee. In the twentieth century, one should mention the deliberate and rather systematic murder of over one million Armenians in 1921, and, after the Nazi Genocide of the Jewish People of Europe 1933-45, the genocidal policies and actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s and 80s.

It is the Nazi Genocide of the Jewish people of Europe 1933-45, however, that remains for many the most memorable act of genocide in recent history. On the basis of its systematic, bureaucratic, and technological nature, it is regarded as unique because it was planned, organized and carried out by a modern nation-state in a willful, legal manner, with the knowledge and collaboration of the vast state bureaucratic apparatus, industry, the state operated train system (the Jews were actually given tickets for their journey on the Reichsbahn to Auschwitz), and the technological expertise of scientists. In its modernity and bureaucratic, systematic, and scientific nature, the Nazi Genocide of the Jewish People was certainly unique, although it can and must be seen within the context of systematic mass murder in the twentieth century. There have been many attempts to contextualize the Holocaust, to view it not as some aberation within history, but as an event of the violence and inhumanity of the twentieth century. One of these attempts at contextualization has been to read the Holocaust as the culmination of Christian Anti-Semitism. On this, see Eliezer Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust. For an argument of how the Nazi Genocide must be understood both as unique and as a predictable, comprehensible outcome of the modern bureacratic state, see: Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. The historian Arno Mayer has argued that one should refer to the Nazi Genocide of the Jews as the Judeocide -- not as the Holocaust, which has the connotation of a sacrifice and therefore brings the event into a religious orbit -- and that the Judeocide must be interpreted not as a unique event, but in the context of the mass killings of the twentieth century, and as a result of the failure of Hitler's war against Russia. This view is often called functionalism, because it asserts that there was no original plan to destroy the Jews of Europe (only ideological provocative statements, as in Hitler's Mein Kampf or Nazi Propaganda), and that the actual extermination of the Jews began in 1942 as a response to the 1) the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and 2) signs of the breakdown of the Eastern Front. Such a contextualization is also often mentioned in connection with the "Controversy of the Historians" or the Historikerstreit that raged in Germany in 1986. For more on Arno Mayer, see his Why the Heavens did not Darken. Finally, Richard Rubenstein has offered a succinct and plausible argument that the Nazi Genocide must be linked to the bureacratic state rulership and the the very idea that human rights obtain only in the instance of a citizen of a particular state, and that once the Jews were deprived of their citizenship, they were effectively robbed of their civil and human rights as well. On this, see: Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future.

A more general account of genocide and the social-psychological factors and conditions of modern genocide in particular is provided by Robert Jay Lifton and Erik Markusen. In their book, The Genocidal Mentality, they discuss the fact that the Nazi Genocide of the Jewish People required physicians and biologists, architects and engineers, and that because of its highly technical nature, it deserves special attention by historians, psychologists and sociologists.[3]


  1. United Nations, For Fundamental Human Rights (Lake Success: United Nations, 1948), p. 47. Back

  2. William A Haviland, Cultural Anthropology. 5th edition. (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1987), 421-423.Back

  3. Robert Jay Lifton and Erik Markusen, The Genocidal Mentality (New York: Basic Books, 1990).Back