Axis Rule is not remembered for stirring this once and future debate about the nature of individual and collective guilt. Instead, it is known because it was in this rather arcane, legalistic tome that Lemkin followed through on his pledge to himself and to his imagined co-conspirator, Winston Churchill. Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood — physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birthrate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders.
A lawyer by profession, Raphael Lemkin worked for years to have genocide named and recognized as an international crime. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Lemkin escaped to Sweden. He and his brother were the only surviving members of a family containing over forty. In 1950, after years of tireless work by Lemkin, the U.N. ratified the Genocide Convention as international law.
Lemkin, the former philology student, knew that his word choice mattered a great deal. “Mass murder” was inadequate because it failed to incorporate the singular motive behind the perpetration of the crime he had in mind. “Denationalization,” a word that had been used to describe attempts to destroy a nation and wipe out its cultural personality, failed because it had come to mean depriving citizens of citizenship. And “Germanization,” “Magyarization,” and other specified words connoting forced assimilation of culture came up short because they could not be applied universally and because they did not convey biological destruction.
Lemkin read widely in linguistic and semantic theory, modeling his own process on that of individuals responsible for coinages he admired. Of particular interest to Lemkin were the reflections of George Eastman, who said he had settled upon “Kodak” as the name for his new camera because: “First. It is short. Second. It is not capable of mispronunciation. Third. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything in the art except the Kodak.”
Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as “barbarity” and “vandalism” could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and poignantly as possible.”
But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation. On an otherwise undecipherable page of one of his surviving notebooks, Lemkin scribbled and circled “THE WORD” and drew a line connecting the circle to the phrase, penned firmly, “MORAL JUDGEMENT.” His word would do it all. It would be the rare term that carried in it society’s revulsion and indignation. It would be what he called an “index of civilization.”
The word that Lemkin settled upon was a hybrid that combined the Greek derivative geno, meaning “race” or “tribe,” together with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” “Genocide” was short, it was novel, and it was not likely to be mispronounced. Because of the word’s lasting association with Hitler’s horrors, it would also send shudders down the spines of those who heard it.
Lemkin was unusual in the trust he placed in language. Many of his Jewish contemporaries despaired of it, deeming silence preferable to the necessarily inadequate verbal and written attempts to approximate the Holocaust. Austrian writer and philosopher Jean Améry was one of many Holocaust survivors estranged from words:
Was it “like a red-hot iron in my shoulders” and was this “like a blunt wooden stake driven into the base of my head?” — a simile would only stand for something else, and in the end we would be led around by the nose in a hopeless carousel of comparisons. Pain was what it was. There’s nothing further to say about it. Qualities of feeling are as incomparable as they are indescribable. They mark the limits of language’s ability to communicate.
The suffering inflicted by Hitler fell outside the realm of expression.
But Lemkin was prepared to reinvest in language. New to the United States and wracked by anxiety about his family, he viewed the preparation of Axis Rule and the coinage of a new word as a constructive distraction. At the same time, he did not intend for “genocide” to capture or communicate Hitler’s Final Solution. The word derived from Lemkin’s original interpretations of barbarity and vandalism. In Axis Rule he wrote that “genocide” meant “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 perpetrators of genocide would attempt to destroy the political and social institutions, the culture, language, national feelings, religion, and economic existence of national groups. They would hope to eradicate the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and lives of individual members of the targeted groups. He continued:
Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.
A group did not have to be physically exterminated to suffer genocide. They could be stripped of all cultural traces of their identity. “It takes centuries and sometimes thousands of years to create a natural culture,” Lemkin wrote, “but Genocide can destroy a culture instantly, like fire can destroy a building in an hour.”
From the start, the meaning of “genocide” was controversial. Many people were receptive to the idea of coining a word that would connote a practice so horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of it would be unwise and undesirable to make Hitler’s crimes the future standard for moving outsiders to act. Statesmen and citizens need to learn from the past without letting it paralyze them. They had to respond to mass atrocity long before the carnage had reached the scale of the Holocaust. But the link between Hitler’s Final Solution and Lemkin’s hybrid term would cause endless confusion for policymakers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to posses an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic, national, or religious group.
Others were critical not so much of Lemkin’s definition as his apparent naiveté. His innovation was interesting, they said, but a word is a word is a word. Merely affixing the genocide label would not necessarily cause statesmen to put aside their other interests, fears, or constraints. Even if lawyers in Madrid had adopted Lemkin’s proposal, they noted, neither the existence of the label nor the application of it would have affected Hitler’s decisionmaking, his ideology, or the outside world’s lethargic response to his crimes. Lemkin met those criticisms with defensive bombast. He told a North Carolina audience that the rejection of his Madrid proposal was “one of the thousand reasons why… your boys are fighting and dying in different parts of the world at this very moment.”
Yet for all of the criticisms, the word took hold. Lemkin proudly brandished the letter from the Webster’s New International Dictionary that informed him that “genocide” had been admitted. Other lexicographers followed suit. In the book he began writing immediately after Axis Rule, Lemkin noted that the “individual creator” of a word would see his word absorbed only “if, and in so far as, it meets popular needs and tastes.” He insisted that the rapid acceptance of “genocide” by lexicographers and humanity served as “social testimony” to the world’s readiness to confront the crime.
Certainly, current events seemed to ratify Lemkin’s assumption. The very week the Carnegie Endowment published his book, the Roosevelt administration’s War Refugee Board for the first time officially backed up European charges of mass executions by the Germans. “So revolting and diabolical are the German atrocities that the minds of civilized people find it difficult to believe that they have actually taken place,” the board stated. “But the governments of the United States and other countries have evidence which clearly substantiates the facts.” Many newspapers linked their coverage of the board report with Lemkin’s term. On December 3, 1944, for instance after Lemkin successfully pestered Eugene Meyer, the publisher of the Washington Post, the paper’s editorial board hailed “genocide” as the only word befitting the revelation that between April 1942 and April 1944 some 1,765,000 Jews had been gassed and cremated at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “It is a mistake, perhaps, to call these killings ‘atrocities,'” the editorial entitled “Genocide” read. “An atrocity is a wanton brutality…. But the point about these killings is that they were systematic and purposeful. The gas chambers and furnaces were not improvisations; they were scientifically designed instruments for the extermination of an entire ethnic group.”
Lemkin made little secret of his desire to see “genocide” gain international fame. As he proselytized on behalf of the new concept, he studied the lingual inventions of science and literary greats. But fame for the word was just the beginning. The world had embraced the term “genocide.” Lemkin assumed this meant the major powers were ready both to apply the word and oppose the deed.
Excerpted from the book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (Harperperennial Library, May 2003). Reprinted with permission.
¹ Jean Améry, “Beyond Guilt and Atonement: Attempts to Overcome by One Who Has Been Overcome,” (Munich: Szczesny Verlag, 1966), p. 59, translated and quoted in Lawrence L. Langer, “The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 51.
² Raphael Lemkin, “Axis Rule in Occuped Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress” (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944).