Unit 2

What is Genocide?

Unit 2

What is Genocide?

Educator Tools

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 societies to engage in genocide?
  • How can genocide be prevented from happening in the future?



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 should follow the instructions outlined in each step of the placemat.

A. Step One: Group Definition about Genocide

  1. To be completed in 7 minutes.
  2. 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

  1. Post each group’s placemat around the room for viewing.
  2. 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 gene from the Greek word genos (race, kin, or tribe) with the suffix cide from the Latin word caedere, meaning to kill. 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.

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 exhaustion.

Case 2: The Russian Gulags

Josef Stalin, leader of the USSR (Russia) from 1922 to 1953, was dedicated to creating a classless communist state. All resisters to his image of what Russia should be were shot or sent to gulags. The Soviet Gulag was a system of forced-labour camps, many of them located in isolated northern parts of the country. Being sent 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” who 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 10 million people were sent to the camps between 1934 and 1947 and 1.7 million of them died from hard labour, execution, disease, or starvation 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 Ten Stages of Genocide

While working at the United States Department of State in 1996, Gregory 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 that by recognizing the stages, individuals could prevent genocide from happening again.

Genocide is a process that develops in ten stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The process is not linear. Stages may occur simultaneously. Each stage is itself a process. Logically, later stages are preceded by earlier stages. But all stages continue to operate throughout the process.

  1. Classification – The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division between us and them, which can be carried out using stereotypes or by excluding people who are perceived to be different.
  2. Symbolization – This is a visual manifestation of hatred. For example, Jews in Nazi Europe were forced to wear yellow stars to mark them out as Jewish.
  3. Discrimination – The dominant group denies civil rights or even citizenship to identified groups.
  4. Dehumanization – Those perceived as different are denied human rights and personal dignity. During the genocide in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches.
  5. Organization – Genocides are always planned. Regimes of hatred often train those who go on to carry out the destruction of a people.
  6. Polarization – Propaganda is spread by hate groups to polarize the community.
  7. Preparation – Perpetrators plan the genocide. They often use euphemisms to cloak their intentions. They create fear of the victim group and build up weapons.
  8. Persecution – Victims are identified because they belong to a targeted group and death lists are drawn up. People are sometimes segregated, deported, or starved and property is often expropriated. Genocidal massacres begin.
  9. Extermination – The hate group murders their identified victims in a deliberate and systematic campaign of violence. Millions of lives are destroyed and changed beyond recognition through genocide.
  10. Denial – The perpetrators or later generations deny the existence of any crimes.

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



The Essential Questions

In Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, Fourth Edition (2012, 5), Samuel Totem and William S. Parsons suggest a series of common questions to guide one’s ability to draw conclusions in comparing genocides. 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 were 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.

Sir Winston Churchill, 1940

Sir Winston Churchill, 1940

Credit Photo: Wikimedia.org

On August 24, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a live broadcast from London. Only one year before, the German attack had concentrated on the bombardment of British cities. Now the Prime Minister described 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 that 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 the magnitude of the ongoing crime being committed by Germany in Ukraine and Russia.



The Moral Dilemma of Churchill:

Should Churchill and other Western leaders have spoken out about the Nazi massacre of Jews in 1941? Consider the following:

  • What was the historical context that confronted Churchill?
  • Should we be cautious about imposing contemporary standards of right and wrong based on our knowledge today about decisions in the past?
  • 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 Ten 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 the genocide from taking place or diminished its severity.



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

___1. A Genocide emergency must be declared by world leaders and U.N. Emergency Forces must be used immediately to stop the genocide.

___2. 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.

___3. Outlaw leaders and militias who promote genocide.

___4. Religious leaders must take a strong stand against genocide nationally and internationally when ethnic or religious polarization is present in a society.

___5. Hate speeches must be made culturally and legally unacceptable.

___6. The international funds of leaders who promote genocide must be frozen by governments and the banking community.

___7. The wearing of specific symbols that separate groups in a society must be condemned by the international community.


Genocide Watch. You can take action against genocide!

The organization Genocide Watch currently identifies several countries around the world that are currently experiencing a genocide emergency which is declared when genocide is actually underway in the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have been impacted by the actions of the perpetrators of genocide in these nations. Those targeted in these nations have been killed, displaced, or forced to flee as their villages and communities have been destroyed.


  • Examine the Genocide Watch list of countries at risk and discuss as a class how history repeats itself.
  • Read through the list of genocide emergencies listed on the Genocide Watch website and select one for your case study.
  • Discuss how you might help save the people in the nations selected.


  • Find websites that support your actions and learn more about what people are doing worldwide to save the people in the nation you have selected above.
  • Record an action plan with dates to make a difference as a class.

Yazidi women were raped and sold into slavery by ISIS.

The Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority found primarily in northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, the Caucasus region, and parts of Iran. The Yazidi religion includes elements of ancient Iranian religions as well as elements of Judaism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam. 

A genocide of the Yazidi people occurred at the hands of ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Northern Iraq in 2014. In October 2014, the United Nations reported that more than 5,000 Yazidis had been murdered and 5,000 to 10,000 women and children had been abducted by ISIL and sold into sexual slavery. The imprisoned women were raped, forcibly married, or sold on slave markets–some of them also sold to Syrian Islamist groups of the so-called “Free Syrian Army.” As of 2015, ISIL’s actions against the Yazidi population had resulted in approximately 500,000 refugees.

Human Rights Crisis in Myanmar

The Rohingya Muslims were one of the many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, consisting of about one million people in early 2017. For generations they have lived in the region with their own language and culture as descendants of Arab traders. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a predominantly Buddhist country. The government refuses to recognize them as a people, claiming the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The leader, Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing democracy to Myanmar. She was accused of ordering mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent” according to a UN investigators’ report in August 2018. The army in Myanmar says they were eliminating terrorists in Rakhine state and that the Rohingya militants started the armed conflict. More than 740,000 Rohingya are now trapped in refugee camps in Bangladesh across the border. More than half a million of them are estimated to still be living in Myanmar and at risk for further genocidal actions.


Research and read an article about Aung San Suu Kyi. Discuss if she should be prosecuted for war crimes and how the country should be held accountable.

Educator Tools

Other chapters on Genocide: