Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, whose family was annihilated in the Holocaust, coined the word “genocide” in 1944. On the 100th anniversary of Lemkin’s birth, Michael Ignatieff discussed Lemkin’s contribution (originally recorded on December 13, 2000).
NARRATOR: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, hosted by Jerry Fowler, director of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience.
JERRY FOWLER: We have a special presentation this week. Fifty-seven years ago in December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention which confirmed genocide as a crime under international law that nations promised to prevent and punish. The very word genocide was new then, having been coined a few years earlier by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer who fled the Nazi invasion of his native Poland. In December 2000, noted scholar and journalist Michael Ignatieff spoke at the Holocaust Museum on Lemkin’s legacy. Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, began his remarks by making the case that moral universalism based on the idea of a common humanity is a very recent addition to mankind’s vocabulary. We pick up his address at that point.
MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Now all of this is prologue to the thought that moral universalism is a modern conviction, established in our souls only after the most tenacious struggle, to convince the powerful that they must practice what they preach. If we turn to the idea of crime against humanity, we discover again how modern this idea is. Of course, there are anticipations of the idea in the Roman conception of the jus gentium, the Law of All Nations, but that’s still a very large conceptual step away from the idea of a common human race with equal rights and equal duties. The phrase, “a crime against humanity,” enters the language of international law very late -- only after the first World War. And the word “genocide” which implies the notion of a crime against humanity, was not coined until 1943.
The man who coined it, and we finally get to our subject tonight, was Raphael Lemkin -- a lawyer born in Bialystok in Poland a hundred years ago. He was cast ashore in America by the Holocaust. Acting as a private citizen, without state support or salary, he singlehandedly drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Genocide Convention, and had the help, in his attempt to get it ratified in the United States Senate, by some distinguished gentlemen who are here tonight.
Now all of these achievements of Raphael Lemkin would be enough for us to celebrate him, but we need to remember the harsher reality that he died alone and forgotten. The word he coined “genocide,” is now so banalized, so misused, so tossed-around, that it has lost all definition.
There’s a serious risk that commemoration of Raphael Lemkin’s work will not become an act of remembering, but an act of forgetting, obliterating what was so singular about his achievement. To appreciate this achievement, we need to see what he did not as the ratification of a common sense that was available to him at the time, but as a supreme act of the moral imagination, in which he leaped well beyond what the common sense of the 1940’s could conceive or imagine.
The single most extraordinary thing about this man is that he coined the word before anybody had the faintest idea of the reality of genocide itself. In August 1941, Winston Churchill had said that in the face of the atrocities that his intelligence services had discerned in Europe, the world was faced “with a crime without a name.”
But when Lemkin coined the word “genocide” in 1943, while writing his great work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, while at Duke University in the United States, he coined the word fully two years before the world knew the words, “Auschwitz,” “Buchenwald,” “Belsen.” “Dachau.”
Now, to be sure, by mid-1942, there were prophetic figures like Jan Karski of Poland, Szmul Zygielbojm, who begged official Washington and London to grasp the reality of extermination in Poland. But those to whom they brought the news -- Felix Frankfurter, the great Justice of the Supreme Court -- could not bring themselves to believe what these messengers were telling them. This is a painful subject for me because the person whose biography I wrote, and whose memory I revere, Isaiah Berlin, was also one of the people who couldn’t believe what the messengers were saying.
Isaiah Berlin worked in the British Embassy in Washington from 1942 to 1945. He was a close intimate friend of Felix Frankfurter. He saw Nahum Goldman of the World Jewish Congress. He saw Chaim Weizmann, future president of Israel on a frequent basis and they shared what they and these Zionist organizations knew about extermination in Europe.
But none of these great men could move their minds beyond the frontier of believing that what they were faced with was simply “Pogrom” -- a continuation of an immemorial pattern of persecution. None of them could see the terrible novelty of industrialized slaughter, sustained in the face even of military defeat, by an ideological desire to wipe a people from the face of the earth, and to grind salt into the earth, so that they would never arise and grow again. All this, Isaiah Berlin, that wise liberal saint, whom I revere, could not see. Neither could Weizmann, that great prophetic Zionist. Neither could Goldman. Neither could Frankfurter.
So, how are we to explain the extraordinary fact that Lemkin could see what these people could not? It can’t be because he was privy to information that they didn’t have. In fact, he didn’t have the information that they did have, which is what makes his achievement so extraordinary.
He was in Washington in 1944, but he remained an isolated outsider. I think he was unaware of the secrets that these insiders refused to believe. What he did was to extrapolate, by an extraordinary leap of the imagination, from his own terrible experience of being in Poland as the war broke out. He was in Warsaw in 1939. He was a lawyer in private practice when the Germans invaded. He joined in the defense of the city and then he fled eastwards.
On the way -- and this is a very poignant story that he tells, and told, again and again -- on his way east he hid with a Jewish baker and his family, in a shtetl town. He begged the family to flee. He said, you don’t know what’s coming at you. The baker, a wise and pious man, refused to move his family. He said in words that Lemkin never forgot, we Jews are an eternal people. We cannot be destroyed. We can only suffer.
The irony which Lemkin wants us to seize in thinking about what that baker said, is that this noble adherence to ancient truth, almost certainly cost the baker and his family their lives. The horrible irony that the very tradition of Jewish endurance in the face of persecution and terror, which in this case doomed that family -- made them incapable of seeing the juggernaut that would sweep away everything.
Lemkin did see that juggernaut coming. He fled to Sweden, leaving behind more than 40 members of his own family, whom he never saw again. He set up in a Stockholm law library and he began a study of the legal decrees of the new order in Europe, using evidence that reached him through the Swedish Embassy, the Red Cross delegations in Germany, and German occupation radio.
Now, again, this is the second extraordinary thing about him. No one had studied the German occupation as a form of jurisprudence. Here’s a lawyer who looks at this horror and tries to understand it as a system of law. His key insight was that occupation, not just in Poland but right across Europe, had inverted the whole tradition of European jurisprudence. So, that you have these incredible insane decrees. Food distribution, for example, in Poland, is entirely racialized. You get food depending on your racial category. Jews get almost no food at all. Other examples: marriage law in occupied Holland was organized on racial grounds. Germans responsible for getting Dutch women pregnant were not punished, as would be the case in any normal code of military justice or honor. They were rewarded because the resulting child would be a Nordic Aryan addition to the master race.
Lemkin was the first scholar to notice the insanity of this kind of jurisprudence, to understand its unremitting racial bias, and to see that the extermination of groups that he begins to pick up evidence of is not an accidental or incidental cruelty of occupation, but the very essence of the whole program.
Lemkin published his findings in 1944 in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and that book, now forgotten, is one of the very rare examples of scholarship as heroism: patient, dogged empirical research by a legal scholar, whose purpose is to discern the infernal logic of despotism. As Lemkin worked out where this logic was headed, it’s very important to notice that he was as concerned with the fate of the Polish people as he was with the fate of the Jews. This is a book, Axis Rule in Europe, that is not focused or fixated on the fate of the Jewish population. It takes the entire population of Europe as a captive subject. But, his particular -- I think his most emotional involvement, in fact -- was with the fate of the Poles, his fellow citizens. In the decrees penalizing the use of the Polish language, the destruction of Polish cultural monuments, the use of Poles as slave labor, the repression of all Polish resistance, the settlement of Germans on Polish land, Lemkin could begin to see the lineaments of genocide. The concept of genocide was invented, in other words, not just to describe the fate of his own people, but, more poignantly, to describe the fate of a people whom he wished he could be a citizen of. He was one of those tragic Polish patriots never allowed membership in the nation he actually claimed as his own.
Now, in understanding why Lemkin has this unique premonitory capacity -- this unique capacity of the moral imagination, to see what others don’t see -- we should remember that he was born in a particular place, Bialystok. He’s raised in a place where it had been for centuries a matter of life and death for a Jew to be able to anticipate the worst. He was born on a farm when Poland still belonged to the Russian Czar. He remembered how his father had to bribe the local constable to turn a blind eye to the fact that the family owned a farm, which was a violation of Pale legislation. He was twelve when Mendel Beilis was put on trial for ritual murder, in a trial that sent premonitory shivers of horror throughout all the Jews of eastern Europe. The farm was destroyed during the first World War as Germans and Russians fought over the ground. It was a battlefield again in 1919, 1920 when Lenin and Trotsky took on Pilsudski. Lemkin did service in Pilsudski’s army.
This is a man who believed passionately both in the Polish nation and in the place of the Jewish people within the Polish nation. He trains as a lawyer. He helps draft the criminal code of a newly independent Poland and he serves as a state prosecutor in Warsaw until anti-Semitic slurs in the 1930’s force him to withdraw into private practice.
It’s a poignant story that I think tells you that he was never secure in the Poland of his birth. Because of that, he sought a very particular kind of belonging, a belonging in the law. He was one of those Jews of the inter-war period for whom the only place you could belong was in the imaginary kingdom of the law. He’s not the only person to do so. Another Polish Jew from Bialystok, Hersh Lauterpacht, escapes from Bialystok, goes to Cambridge and becomes one of the people who drafts -- some of the original drafting -- that went in eventually to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Both men, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, respond to barbarism in the same way, by seeking to draft international legal instruments that would ban it. In some psychological sense, what I’m trying to argue, that these were people who found no home but in the law. The passion for the law was an expression, in a sense, of their homelessness.
This utopia that they had, of a world made civilized by international convention, drove Lemkin to define genocide as a crime in international law and then to secure its inclusion in the Nuremberg indictment in 1945. And finally, to create the Convention itself and make it a crime of universal jurisdiction in 1948, when it was finally passed.
Many of you know the famous story. He was in the General Assembly. He was discovered weeping in a corridor in the United Nations. By then he knew that every member of his family, except his brother had been killed. The Convention, he said, was an epitaph for his mother. But he wanted to be left alone. And they left him alone. In a sense, he was, finally, terribly alone, with only the law as his refuge and home.
But one of the things to say about this poignant belief in international law is that many Polish Jews of his own horrendous historical experience drew a diametrically opposite conclusion at exactly the same moment. The surviving Jews of Poland put no trust whatever in a world made safe by international covenants against genocide. For them, safety and home lay where Herzl, and Weizmann and Ben-Gurion had said it lay -- in a defensible nation-state of their own. Lemkin, interestingly, never put much faith in the promise of Zion.
In an article written in April of 1945 -- and the date is terribly poignant because those are exactly the days when the world first sees the pictures of the concentration camps -- in an article written in that exact month, he identified himself as a Polish citizen, but with an international viewpoint, clinging poignantly to an identity that, in a sense, had been taken away from him, in my view, by the horror of what happened. There is a further pathos in this internationalism, since the internationalism he believed in had always betrayed him. In the 1930’s he believed in the League of Nations. His first ideas about barbarism and vandalism, and how to outlaw them as crimes in international law, had been put to committees of the League of Nations. He found himself being laughed at and jeered by the German delegation in 1933.
So, there’s a poignancy in his belief in international law. The other interesting thing about his character is that he’s one of these very, very rare men who take scorn, derision and hostility as proof that you’re right: an enormously attractive characteristic. He never deviated from the conviction that only a just international legal order could protect his own people. Zionism, a Jewish homeland, all this was a distraction. He never stopped to consider, in fact, the perfectly evident proposition, that the only reliable defense against genocide is a defensible homeland of your own.
A.M. Rosenthal, a great journalist of the New York Times, once challenged Lemkin on this very point and asked Lemkin how he could explain that a legal document, a mere scrap of paper, like the Genocide Convention could stop a Hitler or a Stalin. Lemkin replied with tremendous passion, “Only man has law. Law must be built, do you understand me? You must build the law.” It’s as if he’s talking about building a home, a fortress, in which he could be secure from all attack. He built his home. He built his fortress in the law. But the Genocide Convention that Lemkin labored so hard to draft and secure ratification for, has only secured one conviction in its 50 year existence. He was also a prisoner of the past -- this faith in an international legal order that in some sense was, in my view, quite possibly a delusional home.
He was a prisoner of his past in his strange scorn for human rights. As Samantha Power, my colleague at Harvard, has shown in a forthcoming study, Lemkin was very contemptuous of the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the drafters of the Declaration of Human Rights. Some of this was just competition since both the Declaration and the Convention were coming up to a General Assembly vote at almost the same time in 1948. Lemkin’s view was that mere declarations of the kind like the Universal Declaration, were meaningless. What was needed was a binding convention with universally enforceable powers.
Here the irony of history is that declarations, particularly the Universal Declaration, have turned out to be infinitely more influential in the post-war international legal world than his Convention. Human rights have gone on to become the faith of a faithless age, while the Genocide Convention has been honored in the breech.
Indeed, his own Convention -- and this is in some sense the most tragic consequence, the most disturbing consequence of all -- his own convention has had perverse effects. All of you will probably remember the ignoble period in May and June of 1994 when, not very far from this room, State Department spokesmen, when asked to say whether what was happening in Rwanda was genocide, refused explicitly to use the word. Lest the use of the word would entrain the obligations entailed in the fact that the United States had ratified the Convention.
So, the Convention had effects directly opposite than those that Lemkin imagined. Those who should use the word “genocide” never let it slip their mouths. Those who unfortunately do use it, banalize it into a validation of every kind of victimhood. Slavery for example, is called genocide when -- whatever it was, and it was an infamy -- it was a system to exploit, rather than to exterminate the living. Aboriginal peoples in my own country speak of a microbial genocide -- the tremendous hecatomb of aboriginal victims to European diseases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. You can’t use the word “microbial genocide” and understand what genocide is, since microbes don’t have intentions. Genocide, as a word, turns on a genocidal intention. “Genocide” has no meaning whatever unless the word can be connected to a clear intention to exterminate a human group, in whole or in part.
All these rhetorical issues are of some importance because calling every abuse or crime a genocide makes it steadily more difficult to rouse people to action when a genuine genocide is taking place. Towards the end of his life with his Convention a dead letter, and its ratification by the U.S. stalled in the Senate, Lemkin wrote mournfully that there had been three things he had wanted to avoid in his life: wearing eyeglasses, losing his hair, and ending up as a refugee. He said, sadly, that all three had taken place. He died alone and forgotten in a Manhattan hotel in 1959.
I have been critical of his achievement. But, I am critical because I revere his memory. I don’t believe that the memory of his achievement is improved unless you engage with it, argue with it. He would want me to argue with him, is my profound conviction. The achievement that cannot be taken away from him is the courage to have imagined an abominable new intention when others saw only immemorial cruelty. Having seen this abominable new intention, that is, the intention, as I said at the beginning, to live in a world without enemies, he gave this the name it deserves. Because he gave it the name it deserves, he has played a crucial, unforgettable role in creating in all of our consciousness the idea of a crime against humanity.
It’s here, too, I want to criticize Lemkin. Because the meaning he gave to the idea of a crime against humanity, I don’t think we can use anymore. If you were to ask Lemkin the question posed at the outset by my Polish peasant, Why is a crime against Jews also a crime against Gentiles? Lemkin would have replied, that what human beings share is a common civilization, in which the achievements of one group are shared by all.
In a passage written in April 1945, he wrote “Our whole heritage is a product of the contributions of all people. We can best understand this when we realize how impoverished our culture would be if the so-called inferior peoples doomed by Germany, such as the Jews, had not been permitted to create the Bible, or to give birth to an Einstein, a Spinoza; if the Poles had not had the opportunity to give to the world a Copernicus, a Chopin, a Curie; the Czechs a Huss, a Dvorak; the Greeks a Plato and a Socrates; the Russians a Tolstoy and a Shostakovich.”
There’s something very poignant about this paragraph. And there’s something deeply wrong about it as well. The idea, in other words, that what humanity holds in common -- that what we hold in common, is a civilization, a shared civilization. Because we know it’s a cliché of our understanding of the Holocaust that Kultur did not prevent Germans from massacring fellow citizens equally devoted to the same music, the same art, the same the same writing, the same cultural feeling. Lemkin remained trapped by the hopeful optimism of a civilization in twilight, just as he was trapped, I think, by another illusion, which is that Western Civilization is universal. The second one needs to be squarely faced because when Tutsis start massacring Hutus, when the Khmers start killing fellow Cambodians -- what shared civilization is supposed to mobilize North Americans and Europeans to care about their fate?
If you link civilization and humanity together, you get very unexpected and rather disappointing forms of particularism in my view. We are back, I would argue, to the Polish peasant and the mysterious question of why the fate of one group should concern the fate of another. What we need to do is find a way to speak about our common humanity that’s truthful enough to acknowledge the difference between human beings that saved Polish peasants from extermination and condemned fellow human beings, not a hundred yards away, to infamous death.
What we can say, or what I would say as Lemkin did not, is that it is not civilization we share, but our differences. What it means to be a human being, what defines the identity we share as a species, is the fact that we are differentiated by race, religion, ethnicity, and all the multitude of individual differences that give us our identities as human creatures. It is a characteristic of us, a biological characteristic of us -- no other species differentiates itself in this way. That means a sense of otherness, a sense that human beings are other, that they are distinct from us, lies at the very basis of our own consciousness of our own individuality.
This consciousness, based in difference, is constitutive of what it is to be a human being. So that to attack any of these differences -- to round up the women in this room and put them there and the men on that side, and take the women out -- or, conversely, take the men out. To choose the blacks, to choose the whites, to choose gay persons because they are gay, is to attack the shared element that makes us what we are as a species. Namely, this constant elaboration, this ineluctable elaboration of our differences.
In this way of thinking, we understand our common humanity, our common flesh and blood, paradoxically, in the sense in which it allows us to elaborate the dignity and honor we give to our differences. These differences -- both fated and created -- these are our common inheritance. This is the shared integument we must fight to defend, whenever any of us is attacked for manifesting it.
Words now fail me to take this thought further, although I believe it from the bottom of my being. But where words fail me, they rarely fail a poet. The great American poet George Oppen wrote something I love. With these words I will conclude, he wrote in a poem, “We are brothers. We are brothers? If these things are true, they are perfectly simple, perfectly impenetrable. The primary elements which can only be named.”
JERRY FOWLER: You have been listening to excerpts of a December 2002 lecture by scholar Michael Ignatieff on the legacy of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word genocide. The entire address can be found on our web site.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Visit our website at www.committeeonconscience.org.