Why’s genocide so political?

by Larissa Schober

On 2 June this year, the German parliament voted for a resolution that declared the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Without hesitation, the Turkish response was to withdraw its ambassador from Germany. While German-Turkish relations are already rather strained at the moment because of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees and the dispute about a German satirical sketch[1], this harsh reaction from the Turkish side points to a more general problem: when do we call mass killings a genocide?

Turkey does not deny that mass killings of Armenians took place in 1915. However, the official government argument is that these killings were not a genocide, as they were not orchestrated to annihilate the Armenian people. Turkey thus argues that around 30,000 Armenians were killed in a war with the Ottoman government, as Armenians supported the enemies of the Empire. The deportations (sometimes also referred to as ‘resettlements’) that led to the death of thousands of Armenians are therefore seen as security measures in times of war. The Armenian side on the other hand argues that a much higher number of people – up to 1.5 million – were killed in 1915 and that the intention behind the killings was to annihilate the Armenian minority.

The debate about whether or not the mass killings of 1915 can be considered a genocide has been a longstanding issue. In Germany, this question created a fierce debate before the latest vote. One of the reasons why the German parliament considered a resolution as necessary in the first place was the role the German Reich played in 1915. As the main ally of the Ottoman Empire, Germany knew about the massacres but did nothing to stop them. This complicity is also pointed out in the German resolution. However, about a year ago at the centenary of the genocide, the German parliament failed to recognise the Reich’s role in the killings. One possible reason for this could have been the desire to keep good relations with Turkey, especially during the so-called refugee crisis.

This points to one problem of the resolution and of the discussion of genocide in general. More often than not, there are political considerations behind the decision of whether or not mass atrocities are labelled as genocide. While it is widely assumed that it is rather obvious what a genocide is, the matter is much more complicated. When discussing genocide, many people think about the Holocaust, which is probably the most distinct case of genocide in history. However, not all cases of mass atrocities are as clear-cut as the Holocaust. If they were, the German parliament’s Armenia resolution wouldn’t be able to cause such a dispute between two countries. To understand how such a dispute can be possible, it is useful to have a look on how the term genocide came into existence and how it is defined by the UN.


Armenian civilians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Ottoman soldiers. Kharpert, Ottoman Empire, April 1915. See page for author [Public domain], <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMarcharmenians.jpg”>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

The term genocide was created by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin in the 1940s. It is a neologism with both Greek and Latin roots. The Greek ‘genos’ means tribe or race, the Latin ‘cide’ means killing[2]. Lemkin created and lobbied for the term basing his understanding on both the Holocaust (in which he lost most of his family) and the Armenian genocide. In 1948 the term that he created was affiliated in international law through the UN convention on genocide. In this convention, which is the only international law regarding genocide, genocide is defined as acts committed with intent to destroy an ethnic, racial, religious or national group either partially or as a whole. These acts include 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 birth within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. These acts, as well as the conspiracy and the attempt to commit genocide are punishable[3].

Though this definition at first sight seems rather straightforward, it has some ambiguities. It does not define what a national, ethnic, racial or religious group is, nor what ‘serious bodily harm’ means. The convention was also criticised for not including political groups[4]. Furthermore, following this definition, genocide does not necessarily include the killing of anyone, as the main focus is on the intention of destroying a whole group. Vice versa, if this intention is not given, a mass killing is not a genocide, no matter how many people are killed.

A good example for the latter is the case of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. While Pol Pot and the other leaders of the Khmer Rouge are held responsible for the death of around 2 million Cambodians, following the UN definition, only a small part of those deaths can be labelled as a genocide. This is because the intention of the regime was not to kill that many of their fellow citizens. They wanted to re-educate them and many of were murdered as part of these re-education efforts. Furthermore, while intellectuals were targeted by the regime because they (supposedly) were intellectuals, the UN convention does not name social or political groups as possible target groups for genocide. However, the killing of ethnic minorities (mostly Vietnamese) in Cambodia qualifies as genocide, as they were targeted because they belonged to a certain ethnic group and with the intent to destroy this group.

The example of the Cambodian case should show that it is not always easy to clearly decide what is a genocide and what is not. Furthermore, the focus on intention should have illustrated why in some cases the use of the term genocide is so controversial. This is because intention is extremely hard to prove. This is one of the reasons why people can deny genocide in the first place, even if the facts seem rather clear.

Coming back to the Armenia case and the resolution of the German parliament, it is interesting to point out that there is also another case of genocide that should be discussed in the context of the Armenia-resolution. While the Armenian case is often referred to as ‘the first genocide in modern history’, there is one case that qualifies as genocide and was committed slightly earlier by the German Kaiserreich. Between 1904 and 1907, German colonial troops murdered around 100 000 members of the Herero and Nama tribes in today’s Namibia. In the discussion about genocide, the link between this case and the Armenian one is a rather weird argument that plays both into the discourse of political use of the term, as well as the denial of genocide.

In both cases, the governments of the successor states of the perpetrators argued, that the events took place before the term ‘genocide’ was created and became part of international law. Therefore, the events can not be classified as genocide. This argument is rather absurd, especially when keeping in mind that the Holocaust happened before the genocide convention became part of international law.

However, this is an excellent example for the political use of the term genocide. Beside the diverging argumentation of the German government regarding the Holocaust and the Herero case, it is also interesting to note that it seems possible for the government to declare the Armenian case as genocide (therefore rejecting the Turkish argument that it cannot be genocide as it happened before the term war created) and at the same time, sticking to the exact same argumentation, refusing to use the word genocide in the Herero case[5].

Looking at the argumentation of the German government in different cases of genocide, it becomes pretty clear that the term is by no means used consistently. Reciprocally, it seems to be used (or avoided) when it fits a political agenda. This does not only apply to the German government, but rather to the use of the term genocide in general.

Another general problem in the discussion of genocide is the sometimes rather inflationary use of the term. This usually also serves a political purpose – to draw attention to specific issue and/or to morally destroy a political opponent. However, an inappropriate use of the term genocide runs the risk of making it arbitrary.

So while the Armenian genocide is (despite the position of the Turkish government) a case in which most scholars agree on the use of the term, there will, due to loopholes in the definition of genocide, always be disputed cases. For the sake of victims, as well as the persecution of perpetrators of this horrifying crime against humanity, it is indispensable to clearly name it what it is: genocide. Nevertheless, it is also indispensable to keep in mind this term is not as easy to define as one might presume.

Top image: By Article published in New York Times in 1915 (http://www.genocide-museum.am/eng/media.php) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[1]     See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/turkey-germany-prosecute-comedian-jan-bohmermann-erdogan-poem

[2]     Adam Jonas, Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006) 10.

[3]     UN Convention on the Prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide: https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/volume-78-I-1021-English.pdf.

[4]     Jones, Genocide, 15.

[5]     While individual members of the German parliament as well as the government use the word genocide in the Herero case, there is not official German document nor a formal apology in which the term is used. However, the Armenia-resolution also started a new debate in Germany about the Herero genocide which aims at finally naming it as such.


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