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In the 20th century, Europe experienced mass murders and extensive displacement of civilian populations because of their national or ethnic identity (Adelberg, 2005). The term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 to refer to the victimization that nations had experienced, and it was integrated into the international law (Heinsohn, 2000). Specifically, genocide was used to refer to the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews. Even though the annihilation of the Jews is often considered the most typical example of European genocide that occurred in the 20th century, there were other numerous cases of mass murders entailing countless deaths of people of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and races perpetrated by individuals, governments and organizations (Adelberg, 2005). Moreover, despite the fact that genocides have been witnessed in other parts of the world, the frequency and emergency of genocides in Europe in the course of the 20th century is considered the most serious one and it has drawn the attention of researchers and scholars in various fields, most notably history and international relations (Mojzes, 2011). The focus of this paper is to discuss the frequency and emergency of genocide in the 20th century Europe. Genocide has been looked at many ways by different people, but what we need to know is where the term genocide began, how it has evolved over the years through multiple cultures, and finally how genocide came to fruition in many of the cases that it happened.

Overview of Genocide

Before delving in detail on the issue of genocide in Europe during the 20th century, it is important to explore various approaches used in defining genocide. The basic definition of genocide is killing a particular group of people (Niewyk, 2013). Nevertheless, the murder aspect comprises of only one component of the overall origin and the meaning of genocide. Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1944 in his work titled Axis Rule in an attempt to provide a description of the cultural and biological destruction associated with the crimes witnessed in Europe in the 20th century (Adelberg, 2005). From Lemkin’s perspective, genocide extends beyond just the mere killing of people even through it involved killing. The original meaning of genocide as illustrated by Lemkin meant a systematic plan of actions aimed at destroying the critical foundations of life such as economic infrastructure, culture, and language of a particular national group in order to annihilate the group (Adelberg, 2005).

It is also important to recognize that Lemkin came up with the word ‘genocide’ to respond to the actions undertaken by the Nazis during the Second World War (Adelberg, 2005). Lemkin had outlined the international dangers associated with the organized annihilation of a national/ethnic group before the Nazis started their annihilation practices (Adelberg, 2005). The dangers outlined by Lemkin include acts of vandalism and barbarity, which he considered as crimes violating the law of nations. Barbarity, according to Lemkin, was characterized by exterminating people of a particular social, religious, or ethnic group by using methods such as massacres, actions aimed at destroying the economic existence of these groups and persecutions among others (Adelberg, 2005). Vandalism is related to the organized destruction of the cultural heritage of group of people that contributes to their social collectivity. Cumulatively, not only do vandalism and barbarity seek to achieve physical destruction of the people but also the economic, political, cultural, and social foundations of a specific group (Adelberg, 2005). 

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Another definition of genocide is provided by the United Nations (UN) General assembly Resolution 96 (I) passed in 1946 that classified genocide as a crime against international law. In this resolution, genocide is portrayed as something that is condemned by the civilized world (Adelberg, 2005; Mojzes, 2011). The Convention also provided an expanded definition of genocide and characterized it with the intent to destroy a religious, racial, ethnic or a national group by using various methods such as killing people belonging to the group, and using measures aimed at inhibiting births (Adelberg, 2005; Mojzes, 2011; Niewyk, 2013). In addition, genocide is forceful transfer of the children of the group to another group, deliberate actions aimed at the living conditions of the group with the ultimate goal of causing physical destruction, and inflicting serious mental or bodily harm to  the group members (Adelberg, 2005; Mojzes, 2011; Niewyk, 2013). At the surface level, the definition of genocide provided by the UN appears to focus on the instantaneous physical destruction imposed on a targeted group; nevertheless, a scrutiny shows that the UN definition of genocide extends beyond just the instant physical aspects. Based on this definition, genocide is characterized with acts aimed at destroying “some, most or all” aspects of a group, and that genocide targets either entire group of people or a portion of the group (Adelberg, 2005). An inference from this definition is that genocide does not need to be carried out successful on the entire group to be labelled genocide (Adelberg, 2005). The aspect in the UN definition is that genocide results in serious mental or physical harm, which implies that the genocidal acts are not limited to physical acts. For example, a government that embarks on creating laws having the specific aim of inhibiting the reproduction patterns of a particular group, restricting their movement, or oppressing them, can be labelled genocidal (Adelberg, 2005). Actions carried out to destroy the political, social, and economic existence of a targeted group can be considered to inflict serious mental harm to the members of the group. It is evident that the original concept of genocide as presented by Lemkin is consistent with the UN’s definition in the sense that genocide extends beyond mass killings; nevertheless, the feature of mass killings was a common aspect of genocides that occurred in the 20th century Europe (Niewyk, 2013).

The Hague Resolutions provide an individual dimension to genocide, wherein it is not perceived as actions undertaken solely by states. In this respect, genocide is not perceived as a conflict between states and armies; instead, it is a war that targets people (Adelberg, 2005). As a result, the Hague Resolution’s scope of genocidal acts covers the individual acts. Another important distinction is between genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the late 20th century, the conflicts in Europe were described as cases of ethnic cleansing, especially after the onset of the Balkan Crisis witnessed in the 1990s (Mojzes, 2011). Some authors have argued that ethnic cleaning and genocide are the same, whereas others have maintained that they are different. For Adelberg (2005),genocide is characterized by the intentional killing of the entire group or part of a national, religious, or ethnic group, with the main objective being to kill the people belonging to the targeted group. The ultimate goal of genocide is to wipe out all the traces of a particular group from a territory. Simply stated, the goal is to eliminate the alien religious, ethnic, or national group and gain control of the territory that they inhabited (Niewyk, 2013). It is evident that genocide focuses on the annihilation of groups, which might not necessarily take place through murder. The case is the same for ethnic cleansing, which entails the relocation of groups without necessarily having to kill them. In other words, when people are relocated from their homeland, the assailant essentially tries to terminate the crucial foundations of life associated with the targeted group (Heinsohn, 2000). Therefore, in most accounts, it can be argued that the features of ethnic cleansing are the same as the expanded definition of genocide.

Emergence of Genocide in Europe in the Twentieth Century

The word ‘genocide’ was not first introduced in the 20th century because it was not the first time that such actions had occurred; instead, it was because such actions had re-emerged and had disturbingly become sufficiently frequent the need for term to describe the occurrence had arisen (Heinsohn, 2000). In fact, acts of genocide had occurred for some time across the globe before the onset of the frequent genocidal acts in the 20th century Europe. One of the oldest occurrences of genocide took place in 146 BC, targeting Carthaginians by the Romans for apparently no any other reason except for the fact that they came from Carthage (Mojzes, 2011). This is considered a genocide because of the fact that the Romans had destroyed Carthage as characterized by the Romans demanding the Carthaginians to surrender and destroying the city afterwards. Rome had the intent of destroying Carthage, the people, and their culture. Moreover, Roman officials justified the destruction of Carthage in order to ensure the dominance of the Roman culture. Another case of ancient genocide was the Athenian massacre that took place in Melos during 416 BCE. In this case, Athenians sought to destroy the culture and people of Melos. The Athenian Empire intended to use this act of annihilation as a means of sending a message to its allies to remain loyal in the course of the war with Sparta (Heinsohn, 2000).

In history, genocidal acts have occurred throughout the world. For instance, it has been argued that early European settlers in America were guilty of genocidal acts against the native tribes they had found in America. Moreover, it is believed that aboriginal communities in Australia are victims of genocide. In 1994, genocide occurred in Rwanda that resulted in the murder of 800,000 people from the Tutsi ethnic affiliation (Heinsohn, 2000). Other numerous cases of genocide occurred in other parts of the world. The underlying inference from this observation is that the frequent occurrences of genocidal acts in Europe during the 20th century were not isolated cases (Heinsohn, 2000). Genocide is not something that can be taken for granted. In addition, the development and frequent occurrences of genocide in 20th century Europe offer valuable lessons.

A number of perspectives exist in literature that can be used in explaining the emergence and the frequent cases of genocide in the 20th century Europe. In this paper, three perspectives are considered in explaining the numerous instances of genocides that occurred in Europe that include genocide as a form of warfare, genocide perpetuated by nationalism, and genocide in the international-national dynamics. These perspectives are described in the subsection below.

Genocide as a Form of Warfare

Levene (2000)linked the emergence and frequent occurrences of genocide in the 20th century Europe to warfare. Levene (2000)argues that each genocide is unique and that there is no universal theory that can be used in explaining genocidal acts. In the case of the 20th century Europe, Levene (2000) attributes the development and the frequent occurrences of genocide as a form of modern warfare organized by the state. Despite the fact that not all cases of genocides are perpetrated by the state, a unique feature of the genocidal acts that occurred in Europe during the 20th century is that they states have waged war against their domestic populace. In addition, the state leaders were ideologically motivated to pursue actions that they perceived to be in the interests of the state using any means possible (Levene, 2000). This is the typical feature of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. In the case of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Germany, tried to exterminate the Jewish people (Heinsohn, 2000). The ideology that had influenced the genocide was based on the view that Germany sought to restore its beloved country and its national pride; and Hitler, the Nazi Party leader, provided the people with the state resources needed to cleanse Germany of the Jewish people (Heinsohn, 2000). It is evident that the Holocaust was a state-sponsored example of genocide, whereby the state sponsored the killing and the persecution of about 6 million Jews. Essentially, the government of the Nazi Germany initiated the anti-Semitic propaganda that sought to limit the movement of the Jews and initiated oppression against them by sending them to the work camps that were likened to death camps (Heinsohn, 2000).

The Armenian Genocide is another illustration of genocide as a form of warfare sponsored and perpetrated by the state. In this genocide, the Ottoman government conducted an organized extermination, targeting minority Armenians who lived on their territory – the present day Turkey (Niewyk, 2013). The authorities were involved in rounding up, arresting, and execution of these minorities. This genocide occurred during and after World War I, and it was carried in two steps with the first step involving the murder of able-bodied men by using massacre and subjecting them to forced work (Niewyk, 2013). The second step involved deportation of the elderly, children, and women and putting them on a death march towards the Syrian Desert. They were accompanied by the army who dispossessed them of food, raped, and massacred them (Heinsohn, 2000). The Ottoman government also targeted Christian ethnic groups and other native populations. Recently, Pope Francis has stated that the 1915 genocide executed by the Ottoman government is the first genocide to ever occur in Europe during the 20th century (“Pope Calls Armenian Massacre”, 2015).

Levene (2000)identified three types of warfare wherein the state plays a role that leads to genocide. The first is Type One warfare that occurs between influential sovereign states. During the 20th century, totalization of the interstate conflicts, as was the case with the Second World War, resulted in adversaries targeting civilians indiscriminately and murdering them. Type Two warfare is characterized by situations whereby a powerful sovereign state initiates an action against another state that it considers illegitimate. The state being targeted is often less powerful. This was a key characteristic of conflicts witnessed in Europe during the early 20th century that constituted to genocide such as British attacks on the Boer states; Austria attacks on Serbia during 1914; the Nazi Germany attacks on Poland; and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union after 1941 (Levene, 2000). Type Three warfare is similar to Type Two, except for the fact that the enemy is no longer considered an illegitimate state but is viewed as an illegitimate community in the context of territorial definition of the perpetrator state (Levene, 2000). This perception of illegitimacy is extended to include groups in the allied states as well as the subject states whereby sovereign states can opt to assault the aspects of its population without necessarily using total warfare. This was the case in various genocides, including British struggle with the Irish, and although it was atrocious and vicious, it did not result in the mass killing of the people. The case is the same with the struggle between Algeria and France during the 1950s and 1960s (Levene, 2000).

Nationalism and Genocide

The emergence and frequent occurrences of Genocide in the 20th century Europe have also been linked to nationalism. Adelberg (2005) acknowledges that genocide is a form of warfare based on the fact that its ultimate objective is to eliminate a group by using mass killing or any other means. However, the author argues that it is not warfare focused on states, but rather a war perpetrated by one group of people against another group that draws upon the national identity of the people (Adelberg, 2005). The typical example of genocide attributed to nationalism is the genocide perpetrated by the Balkans and the Nazi Germany (Adelberg, 2005). In these genocides, the state created a cultural nation, which is a common phenomenon in Eastern and Central Europe unlike in Western Europe whereby states are focused on the creation of a constitutional nation (Adelberg, 2005). Although the constitutional nationalism observed in Western Europe can be traced to the 17th and 18th centuries, the cultural nationalism observed in Eastern and Central Europe dates back to the mid-19th century, and it developed until the inter-war years between the First and Second World Wars (Levene, 2000). There is agreement among scholars that the Holocaust can be linked to the German national ideology. The notion that the nation existed among the other nation played an important role in creating the nationalism observed in the early 20th century in the Eastern and Central Europe (Niewyk, 2013; Shaw, 2011). Whereas Western Europe was under the notion that the state came first, after which society and institutions created the nation. In the East, national identity and the nation formed the state. The Holocaust is linked to the nationalism ideas in the Nazi Germany that was based on race, whereby a person was either a German or not. Due to this racial identity, the Nazis attempted to restructure the European continent along racial lines characterized by a racial hierarchy that set the roles for every race (Adelberg, 2005). In such an arrangement, the Jews were perceived not to belong to any race in the racial hierarchy; thus, the Nazis sought to ensure that their physical presence in Europe was eliminated. They used numerous techniques to achieve this goal, including passing laws to ensure that the Jews were stripped of their citizen-status, resorting to acts of terror in order to induce deliberate immigration, murder, forced relocation and ghettoization, racial purges through euthanasia and sterilization, and death camps (Adelberg, 2005). Closely related to the notion of nationalism in explaining the start and subsequent development of genocide in the 20th century Europe is the role that international relations played, which is discussed in the subsection below.

International-National Dynamics of Genocide

The development and frequent cases of genocide in 20th century Europe have also been explained using the international-national dynamics (Shaw, 2011). In this respect, international relations in the 20th century Europe played a role in the emergence and evolution of genocide on the continent. According to Shaw (2011), the changing international relations in Europe played a role in stimulating the nationalist politics that increasingly became a key feature of international relations at the turn of the 20th century. Old empires weakened in Eastern and Central Europe, which led to nationalism. This produced conflicts between empires and the new nation states characterized by other national populations being labelled enemies and being targeted for extermination (Shaw, 2011). Through armed conflict, radical nationalists such as Hitler ascended to power and they were driven by the ideology that violent expulsion as a means of solving the problems facing the country was acceptable. The case is the same for the Young Turks, who later carried out the Armenian Genocide, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, because of the international war stated by Germany, countries adopted radical nationalist population policies that were characterized by mass murder and deportation. In Eastern Europe, the period between 1939 and 1945 (the Second World War) was characterized by genocidal population policies (Adelberg, 2005). Shaw (2011) argues that the international war provided perfect conditions for genocidal expulsions whereby genocide was perceived as a response to military campaigns by the adversary. As a result, nation states perceived imagined and real security concerns. For instance, the Ottomans perceived the Armenians as a security threat (Shaw, 2011).


From the discussion above, one can see that the scope of genocide is broad and it comprises of a systematic actions that seek to destroy the critical foundations of life such as the economic infrastructure, language, and culture associated with a particular group of people in order to annihilate the group. Genocidal acts seek to destroy the dignity, health, liberty, lives, and personal security of a human group. Even before the coining of the word ‘genocide’ in the 20th century, numerous cases of such acts had occurred in history that meet the criteria to be labelled genocide. In the 20th century Europe, genocide was more frequent. Diverse views have been suggested in explaining the emergence and frequent occurrences of genocide in 20th century. In this paper, three explanations have been discussed, including genocide as a form of warfare, genocide perpetuated by nationalism, and genocide in the international-national dynamics. Genocide as a form of warfare refers to state-sanctioned genocidal acts such as those carried by the Nazi Germany and the Ottoman government. Genocide attributed to nationalism is characterized by people seeking to annihilate people from other national groups, whereas the international relationships focus on explaining genocide using the changes that occurred in the international relations at the turn of the 20th century. The genocidal acts that occurred in Europe in the 20th century are typified by all these three aspects in the sense that they were fuelled by nationalist sentiments, they were sanctioned by the state, and that they were conditioned by the international war that was occurring at the time.

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