International lawyer Rafael Lemkin was born in a small village in Bezwodne, Belarus. He studied philosophy in Heidelberg, Germany and law in Lvov, Ukraine, before becoming a prosecutor in Warsaw, Poland.  Already in 1933, Lemkin argued that especially barbaric crimes, such as those perpetrated against the Armenians in Turkey or the Assyrians in Iraq, could be considered criminal under international law.  Ten years later, at the height of the Holocaust against the Jews, Lemkin would develop his theory and coin the term “genocide.”

Lemkin wrote: “[G]enocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation.... It is intended rather to signify 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. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

Lemkin fought and was injured in the brief fight against the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. He managed to escape to Sweden and then came to the United States in 1941, where he joined the law faculty of Duke University in North Carolina. Although he was able to save his own life, Lemkin lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust.

In 1943, Lemkin became a special advisor to the War Department, dealing with international law. He wrote a highly influential article entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944, that defined the term “genocide” for the first time. Lemkin’s idea of genocide as an offense against international law was widely accepted by the international community and was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, where Lemkin served as an advisor to US Supreme Court Justice and Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson. Lemkin’s concept of genocide was then codified in 1948 in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. 

Never has the intent to eliminate an entire minority group been more clear than the Nazi’s genocidal campaign against the Jews.  But the Holocaust is not the only genocide in human history.  Many people consider the centuries of wars against Native Americans in North and South America to have been genocidal.  Only two decades before the Nazis began their extermination of the Jews, as many as 1.5 million Armenians died in an internal conflict in the Ottoman Empire that many people consider a genocide.  Other minority ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire also suffered great losses during this period, including Assyrians and Greeks.  In the 1930’s millions of people in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia, many of them ethnic minorities, died of starvation due to agricultural policies imposed by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union.  

Unfortunately, there were many precedents for the Nazi’s murderous designs to eliminate the Jews, though none conceived or executed on so massive a scale. Even after the Holocaust, many seem not to have learned the lessons of history. More recent genocidal conflicts have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, Sudan. Millions of people have been brutally murdered or starved to death in these areas while the world looked on and did little or nothing to help. As with the Holocaust, accurate figures for the number of people killed are difficult to determine.