Unit 2 Genocide

Overview What is Genocide?


Key Questions:

  • What is the definition of genocide?
  • What criteria are used to determine if an action can be called genocide?
  • What factors motivate politicians, people and cultures to engage in genocide?
  • How can genocide be prevented from happening in the future?

Source: “The crime without a name” (Winston Churchill, August 24, 1941)

Action 1  


Genocide placemat

Let us start our investigation of these questions with what you ‘bring to the table’. Working in a group of four people, create a blank placemat that looks like the example below. Use large chart paper and markers. Each person is given one quadrant to write in. Your group needs to follow the instructions outlined in each step of the placemat.

A. Step One: Group Definition about Genocide

  • To be completed in 7 minutes.
  • As a group, write a definition of the term “genocide” using your common adjectives and images. Consider criteria that must exist in order to call an action “genocide”.

B. Step Two: Class Debrief

  • Post each group’s placemat around the room for viewing.
  • Compare similarities and differences in the findings of each group and whether or not the class agrees on a common definition of the term.


Defining the Term

The term “genocide” did not exist until 1944 when a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin used the word to describe the Nazi policies of systematically murdering the Jewish population of Europe. Lemkin combined the Greek word gene (race or tribe) with the Latin word for killing, cide. The term “genocide” was used by the International Military Tribunal in trials at Nuremberg after World War II to describe the actions of the Nazi leaders in committing ‘crimes against humanity’ but the term lacked legal status during the Nuremberg trials.

The term “genocide” did not receive legal status until December of 1948 when the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Genocide became an international crime and nations were to “prevent and punish” acts that met the terms of the legal definition. “Genocide” was defined in Article II of the Convention as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The specific "intent to destroy" particular groups is unique to genocide. A closely related category of international law, crimes against humanity, is defined as widespread or systematic attacks against civilians. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia)

Article III of the Convention states the following acts shall be punishable:

  • Genocide (see criteria above);
  • Conspiracy to commit genocide;
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
  • Attempt to commit genocide;
  • Complicity in genocide.


What are the meanings of the bolded terms above?

Case 1: “Trail of Tears”

The United States government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed the forced removal of about 17,000 Cherokee men, women and children and some of their 2,000 black slaves from Georgia to a new designated territory in Arkansas and Oklahoma. This removal happened after the Cherokee had won a Supreme Court decision ruling that Georgia had no authority over Cherokee land. It has been estimated that 4,000 people died during this 116 day forced winter march due to cold, disease and not being allowed to rest.

Case 2: The Russian Gulags

Josef Stalin, the leader of the USSR (Russia) during the 1930s, was dedicated to creating a classless Communist state. All resisters to his image of what Russia should be, were shot or sent to gulags. Gulags were usually in isolated northern parts of the country. “I’ll send you to Siberia” had a frightening meaning for Russians. Stealing a loaf of bread resulted in up to ten years hard labor in a gulag. One large group of Russians who chose to resist Stalin were the so-called “rich peasants”. They owned their own land. Stalin forced these people into work camps if they did not give their land to the state. It is estimated that 7,000,000 died in these camps from hard labor or from starvation in Russia during this period.


  • Can we call the above two cases examples of genocide even if the term did not exist before 1944? Why or why not?
  • Could Josef Stalin be tried for committing genocide? Why or why not?

Gregory H. Stanton: The Eight Stages of Genocide

While working at the United States Department of State in 1996, Stanton wrote a paper outlining what he believed to be the stages of genocide. Stanton felt that after careful study he could see a pattern develop in countries that had a policy of genocide. Stanton felt by recognizing the stages, countries, cultures and individuals could prevent genocide from happening again. (Based on the work of Gregory H. Stanton. See website Genocide Watch for more detailed explanations and PowerPoint presentations.)

Stage One—Classification: All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality. For example: German and Jew (Holocaust), Hutu and Tutsi (Rwanda). Bi-polar (societies where there are two extremes) are the mostly likely to have genocide because these societies lack or even disallow the mixing of the categories.

Stage Two—Symbolization: People give names or attach other symbols to the classifications one makes. One might use names like “Jews” or “Gypsies” in a negative way, or apply a symbol like the yellow Star of David for Jews to distinguish the group. The second stage of genocide occurs when there is hatred toward an identified group who is also forced to to wear a distinguishing symbol.

Stage Three—Dehumanization: One group denies the humanity of the other group. By calling the victim group animals, vermin, insects or a ‘cancer’, killing is rationalized. Human nature is explained as acting properly to protect the dominant society. Hate propaganda is used in the media to help justify the actions of the dominant group. The victim group is not protected under the laws of the state.

Stage Four—Organization: Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility (i.e. the Janjaweed in Darfur). Sometimes organization is informal (Hindu mobs led by local RSS militants) or decentralized (terrorist groups). Special army units or militias are often trained and armed. Plans are made for genocidal killings (The Final Solution).

Stage Five—Polarization: The extreme elements of the dominant group use force and intimidation to drive moderates out and control the society with intimidation. Groups who might oppose the genocide become victims themselves. Laws are passed to forbid intermarriage and even interaction between the dominant and subordinate, or victim group.

Stage Six—Preparation: Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists are drawn up. Members of victim groups are forced to wear identifying symbols. Their property is expropriated. They are often segregated into ghettoes, deported into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved.

Stage Seven—Extermination: The extremists quickly begin the mass killing legally called “genocide.” This killing might be called “ethnic cleansing” (Bosnia) by the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human. When it is sponsored by the state, the armed forces often work with militias to do the killing. The killers see themselves as making a better society.

Stage Eight—Denial: The perpetrators ‘hide’ the evidence of the mass killings by burning the bodies or create mass graves of the victims. Witnesses are intimidated or killed and investigations are blocked. Leaders of the genocide deny the event and even plead innocence upon capture. The victims are often blamed for the events.

••Each chapter in this unit examines a case study of genocide. See if there is evidence of Stanton’s Eight Stages model in each case. Are the unique features to each case presented?

Action 2  


The Essential Questions

Samuel Totem and William S. Parsons (2012, 4th ed.) in their Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, Fourth Edition (p.5) suggest a series of common questions to guide one’s ability to draw conclusions in comparing various episodes of genocide. The guiding questions are:

  • Who committed the genocide?
  • How was the genocide committed?
  • Why was the genocide committed?
  • Who were the victims?
  • Who was involved (e.g., state, social institutions, various peoples, ethnic groups, bystanders, etc.)?
  • What were the outstanding historical forces and trends at work that led to the genocide? What was the long-term impact of the genocide on the victim group?
  • What have been the responses of individuals, groups, and nations to the particular genocide?

These questions can guide your interpretations of the various chapters in this unit. As you work through each of the Case Studies in this unit, you can explore where the actions of governments might have prevented or diminished the genocide from taking place.

Before his days as British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill poses in this old black and white photograph. enlarge image
Sir Winston Churchill 1940

Credit Photo: Wikimedia.org

On August 24, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a live broadcast from London. Only a year before the German attack had concentrated on the bombardment of British cities. Now the Prime Minister described dramatically the barbarity of the German occupation in Russia:

"The aggressor ... retaliates by the most frightful cruelties. As his Armies advance, whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands—literally scores of thousands—of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German Police-troops upon the Russian patriots who defend their native soil. Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the Sixteenth Century, there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale, or approaching such a scale.

And this is but the beginning. Famine and pestilence have yet to follow in the bloody ruts of Hitler's tanks. We are in the presence of a crime without a name."

Churchill's information about the mass executions that followed the German invasion came directly from a German source. Six weeks before on July 9th, British cryptographers broke the "enigma" code used by Berlin to communicate with the Eastern Front. Regular reports from mobile killing squads (the Einsatzgruppen which Churchill called "Police-troops") gave detailed accounts and specific numbers of 'Jews' and 'Jewish Bolshevists' killed in mass at locations throughout the occupied territory of the Soviet Union.

Therefore when Churchill spoke of whole districts being exterminated and "methodical, merciless butchery," he had specific detailed knowledge of locations and magnitude of the ongoing crime being committed by Germany in Ukraine and Russia.

Churchill was aware of what Germany was doing to the Jews of Europe. Yet the speech above does not mention Jews or the Final Solution.

Source: Crimes without name

Action 3  


The Moral Dilemma of Churchill:

Should Churchill and other western leaders have spoken out about the Holocaust in 1941? Consider the following in judging Churchill:

  • What was the historical context that confronted Churchill? Was Churchill worried that saving Jews might not motivate combat soldiers?
  • Why might we be cautious about imposing contemporary standards of right and wrong based on our knowledge today about decisions in the past?
  • What can we learn from Churchill’s decision that will help us make informed judgments about contemporary genocide events? What are the limitations of using a previous historical experience in making informed decisions when genocide occurs?

Source: Based on the work of Peter Seixas and The Historical Thinking Project

Conclusions: Preventing Genocide from happening—Stanton’s Eight Stages Revisited

Gregory H. Stanton believes that for each of the stages he identifies, an action can be taken to prevent the genocide from progressing. As you work through each of the Case Studies in this unit suggest where the following actions might have prevented or diminished the genocide from taking place.

Action 4  


Place the letter symbol associated for each case study (A for Armenia, R for Rwanda, B for Bosnia) beside the Stanton’s suggestion. There may be more than one case that can be applied to the statement.

___A. A Genocide emergency must be declared by world leaders and U.N. Emergency Forces must be used immediately to stop the genocide.

___B. An International Court must be established to try and punish the leaders of the genocide. Consideration must be given to try leaders in abstentia at the International Court.

___C. Outlaw leaders and militias who promote genocide.

___D. Religious leaders must take a strong stand against genocide nationally and internationally when ethnic, racial or religious polarization is present in a society.

___E. Hate speeches must be made culturally and legally unacceptable.

___F. The international funds of leaders who promote genocide must be frozen by governments and the banking community.

___G. The wearing of specific symbols that separate groups in a society must be condemned by the international community.

Action 5  

You can take action against genocide now! Yazidi Women are being raped and sold into slavery by ISIS.

A genocide of the Yazidi people has been happening in northern Iraq since 2014. This indigenous Kurdish and Arabic-speaking group lives in Iraq and Syria and practices a monotheistic religion tracing back to Adam in the Bible. ISIS has denounced them as infidels, has killed thousands of Yazidi men, and for two years has been raping the women and girls and using them as sex slaves. More than 7,000 women and children have been captured and the genocide continues while the rest of the world does nothing.


  • Discuss as a class how history repeats itself and how you might help save the Yazidi people.


  • Find websites that support your actions and learn more about what people are doing worldwide to save the Yazidis.
  • Record an action plan with dates, to make a difference as a class.