BERLIN — What does "genocide" actually mean?

The United Nations War Crime Tribunal in The Hague has officially declared the massacre of Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 as genocide. The term has a complicated back story, which is worth revisiting after Thursday's historic conclusion in The Hague in the case of Radovan Karadzic.

The judges of the UN War Crime Tribunal have, in the verdict against Karadzic, declared the massacre of Srebrenica as genocide. It had been proven that approximately 8,000 men and boys were killed by Bosnian-Serbian mercenaries within the UN "protection zone." But what was unclear until this verdict was if this massacre fulfilled the criteria of genocide. Thursday's decision now declares this to be the case.

The term "genocide" can be traced back to the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959). He started to become interested in the problem of politically motivated capital crimes and their unsatisfactory international persecution during his university years in the 1920s. The trigger for Lemkin, who came from an educated Jewish family in what is now Lithuania, was the trial of Salomon Teilirian who, in Berlin in 1921, shot the former Home Secretary Talaat Pascha, the man responsible for the deportation and active manslaughter of nearly one million Christian Armenians in 1915-1916.

Pascha could, according to then valid law, not be persecuted in Germany for a crime that had been committed in another country. Teilirian ambushed Pascha and shot him but was cleared of murder by the responsible Berlin court, despite having given a full confession.

Lemkin therefore decided to create an international legal standard that would punish such crimes as the Armenian massacre. He wanted to prevent people taking justice into their own hands as Teilirian had done.

To achieve this, the exceptionally linguistically talented Lemkin gave up his pursuit of a degree in linguistics and switched to studying law instead, subsequently became one of Poland's youngest ever state prosecutors. He attempted to establish an international prosecution of massacres with the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) as early as 1933. The main criteria in this case was to establish as to whether a crime in question was aimed at destroying a whole people or a specific group of people.

This was to not only include massacres and mass murder, however. To Lemkin this included the systematic starvation of a people without physical force or preventing them from procreating, as these had a similar effect.

New test cases

But in 1933, Europe's gaze was turned towards Germany where anti-Semitic excesses followed one another in quick succession. Poland refused Lemkin's application to leave the country for Geneva to discuss his initiative, as it was keen to seek a compromise with Hitler. The League of Nations declined Lemkin's initiative as well.

Jewish children in Poland set to be deported to the Nazi Chelmno death camp — Photo: Wikipedia

This was also due to the fact that the young state prosecutor had not yet found an overall term for the crimes that were to be punished. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin fled Lithuania and travelled to the U.S. via Sweden. In the face of the atrocities committed in his former home country and the Western Soviet Union he made a second attempt at promoting his initiative.

In 1943 he decided to translate the word creation he'd chosen: "ludobójstwo," a melding of the Polish word "lud" ("a people") and "zabójstwo" ("murder"). In English, he used two old languages to create the word "genocide", based on the Greek word "genos," meaning "a people/nation" and the Latin word "caedere," meaning "to kill."

By then it became clear that the massacre of Europe's Jews had outstripped that of the Armenians. In light of this, Lemkin did not have any trouble making his "convention against genocide" initiative a reality, and it was passed as "Resolution 260 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" in 1948.

From then onwards, any crime committed "with the intention… of wholly or partially destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group" was to be punishable by law under this code. This also included the "application of severe bodily or psychological harm by members of their own group," the intentional creation of living conditions that would lead to "a total or partial physical destruction of that group," all forms of prevention of procreation of a group of people or the forced adoption of children of one group by another.

At first, there was no intelligible translation of the word "genocide" into German. But German newspapers made use of a much older term before the ratification of "resolution 260" in 1955, namely the word "Völkermord," meaning the "the killing of a people." The term had been in use at least since 1841 when poet Georg Herwegh used it, but it had also been used by Friederich Nietzsche in 1872 and by Wilhelm Liebknecht, SPD politician and father of Karl Liebknecht.

But the legal term "Genozid" (the Germanized form of "genocide") and the word "Völkermord" have been used synonymously since the mid-1950s. Both terms refer not only to the concrete massacre of members of an ethnic, religious or otherwise defined minority but also to all other measures taken, in the medium or long term, that cause the destruction of that group.

Relatives of Srebrenica victims at a 2007 memorial — Photo: Adam Jones

The massacre of Srebrenica was, according to Lemkin's terms, most certainly genocide. The fact that all male people within the UN "protection zone" were killed indicated a prevention of procreation of Bosnian Muslims.

The judges in The Hague, however, did not want to stretch the term any more than necessary and termed the massacres in a further seven Bosnian districts around Srebrenica "mass murder" and not "genocide."

But this does not change anything about the verdict passed on Karadzic. Forty years in prison is effectively a life sentence for the 70 year old.