Apr 22, 2023

When Genocide Was Not a Crime

April 22, 2023

RAPHAËL Lemkin, a Jewish Polish lawyer, was the person who coined the word genocide. It came from the Latin words genus meaning race and cide meaning kill. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large number of people of a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group for the purpose of destroying it. The term aptly describes what the Nazis did to Lemkin's people during the Second World War when they killed approximately 6 million Jews. Before the Second World War, the word genocide did not exist.

However, the practice of genocide is an old one; it is the intentional killing on a mass scale, often confused with other crimes against humanity that belong to a different category of international crime, according to the Rome Statute. (Those could be the subject of another essay.)

The genocidaire's motto is death to others so that another group of the same species may live. Take for example the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia against its own people (1975-79), or the extermination of the Armenians by the Turks (1915-16) and the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Do you want to know why the Ukrainians are fighting the Russians to the last man, woman and child? The reason is embedded in their history. In 1932-1933, when Ukraine was still a part of the then USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), millions of Ukrainians were killed as a result of a carefully executed state policy of famine masterminded by Premier Joseph Stalin. The scholar, Richard Rubenstein, was correct when he said that: "No other state in history has ever initiated policies designed to eliminate so many of its own citizens as has the Soviet Union."

Raphaël Lemkin, in an unfinished manuscript, wrote on how the genocide of the European Jewry was committed: "We find a leader, bewitched by his own twisted convictions, and an enormous power to bewitch others. We find a small clique of followers, imbued by the same fanatical spirit and willing to execute his orders, and we find a large mass of people who follow blindly or remain indifferent, except for a few who either go into exile or underground.... As we now see, it is a crime committed by the state in a regime in which a state and a party are one, and in which popular control is preserved by the absence of freedom of thought, freedom of expression and free election. It is, from the point of view of the criminal, the easiest to commit."

In Lemkin's book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, he defined the Holocaust as an actual attempt to restructure the existing societies of the European continent.

The most astounding thing about Lemkin's study on genocide is that in murdering the Jews, the Nazis did not violate any law. Everything was perfectly legal, from the point of view of the laws passed by the Nazis in the territories that it occupied. The process of genocide was gradual and governed by the laws passed by the Nazis. In the Netherlands, Jews were prohibited from opening bank accounts. In the Soviet territories occupied by the Germans, tax laws were imposed which in essence mandated that all salaries paid to the Jews must be redirected to the coffers of the State.

The Jews were stripped of their citizenship and became stateless. The Nuremberg laws forbade Jews to marry Germans. In the 1930's, regulations were passed requiring Jews to wear yellow stars and homosexuals, pink triangles to mark both as diseased elements of society who should be extirpated and murdered in the Nazi social equation.

The laws in Poland were rewritten to allow the repatriation of Jews from the ghettos to the concentration camps where they were subjected to forced labor until death or extermination. According to Lemkin's biographer, Douglas Erickson: "The Nazis never broke a law if they could help it. They instead changed the law to fit the new situation — or rather the new crime."

To accomplish Nazi objectives, local courts were Germanized, the occupied territories' administrative systems were supplanted by German ones, and the intelligentsia, which in any society is the source of social leadership and the focal point of resistance, were herded to concentration camps.

To carry out the genocide, the vital social structures of a nation must first be destroyed. The key is the usurpation of national sovereignty in the occupied territories and the introduction by force of new legal structures required to carry out the genocide.

After the Second World War, the Poles repudiated the structural changes made by the Nazis to commit their genocidal crimes. To this day, the concentration camp built by the Nazis in occupied Poland is called by Poles by its German name — Auschwitz — never Oswiecim, its Polish name.

Sometimes, I think that history has become a playbook or a blueprint for future autocratic leaders to commit evil deeds, as proven by the actions of the State of Myanmar against its Rohingya population.

Despite the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, genocide continues to rear its mercilessly unlawful head. It will continue to do so; you can bet your life.

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