The 20th century may have coined the term "genocide," but it did not invent the notion that one group improves its lot by annihilating another.
When 13th-century Mongol horsemen swept across Asia to the gates of Vienna, they made it a policy to kill every man, woman, and child in any city that resisted their advance. Contemporary accounts tallied the dead in the millions.
For a less brutal account, take a close look at the north-wing pediment of the US Capitol. The sculpted figure in the lower right corner is a dejected Indian chief, flanked by his family and a grave. Artist Thomas Crawford described this corner of his work: the "extinction" of the American Indian; the pediment, which was completed in 1863, is called: "Progress of Civilization."
Over the last millennium, humanity has grappled with ways to curb this harshest face of war, especially to make some distinction between fighters and noncombatants. From the 10th into the 12th centuries, Christian church councils debated the terms of a "just war." Soldiers developed their own approach to this issue: Codes of medieval chivalry extended protection to noncombatants. Professional militaries in the 18th century turned this distinction into codes of conduct. And by the end of the 20th century, international conventions formally defined - and outlawed - the practice of genocide altogether.
Nonetheless, the last century began and ended with some of the most brutal assaults on civilians in human history. These include the expulsion of Ottoman Armenians from their ancient homeland in World War I, the systematic annihilation of European Jews and other groups in World War II and slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda in 1994, and the revival of the concept of "ethnic cleansing" in such places as Cambodia (1975), and more recently, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and East Timor.
For those on the receiving end of genocide or "ethnic cleansing," recognition of what was done often comes late, if at all. World news media have been slow to pick up on what was actually happening in a genocide, especially one that occurs in the context of a war. After the fact, the victors or those with the best-organized lobby may weigh in more heavily in sorting out suffering than others caught up in a tragedy. The battle over who did what to whom, when, and how often goes on in scholarly and diplomatic circles decades after the events.
The Holocaust was barely mentioned in the years immediately after World War II. It was not until the 1960s that accounts of survivors were widely disseminated. And Armenian survivors of the 1915 death march are still lobbying strenuously for recognition of their ordeal as a "genocide."
In response to such concerns, many European nations, along with Canada and Australia, passed legislation outlawing writing or speech that denies the Holocaust. This month, British historian David Irving lost a $3 million libel suit against an American writer who labeled him as a Holocaust denier. (Irving has written that Jews were not killed in gas chambers and that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did not order the annihilation of European Jewry.)
"It's a very destructive thing when people deny the Holocaust. Banning that discussion prevents some destructive and hurtful public discussions," says Steve Hochstadt, professor of history at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
The term used to describe such events is important, because a key aspect of genocide is denial that it is occurring or has occurred, experts say. Nazi officials developed language for the Holocaust that disguised its purpose, such as "special handling" for execution or "final solution" for mass extermination. Groups of victims forced into early mobile gas chambers (vans that redirected the exhaust into the cargo area) were referred to in official documents as "the load."
"Early writing about what was going on in Germany referred to anti-Semitism, pogroms, atrocities. But none of these terms really described what was going on," says Raoul Hilberg, retired professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of a landmark book on the Holocaust, "The Destruction of the European Jews" (1961).
At the same time, there are dangers with putting the Holocaust in an "academic ghetto" and "not realizing in the process that what happened in World War II was a broad-scale attack on humanity. Poles and Russians were also victims of the whole anti-human activity of Nazi Germany and its allies," he adds.
Armenians have carried their battle for recognition of "genocide" into national and state legislatures. In the United States, some 20 states have passed resolutions calling for recognition of an Armenian "genocide." (President Clinton and the US State Department use terms such as "tragedy" to describe these events.) In 1987, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that said that Turkey could not be accepted into the European Union until they ended their denial of the genocide - a position recently reaffirmed by the Rome City Council.
"The Turkish government as part of its efforts to deny and cover up the genocide has consistently tried to use evasive and euphemistic terminology to avoid using the term 'genocide.' They are trying to downgrade it to a civil conflict or domestic unrest," says Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Washington-based Armenian National Committee. "It's an extremely dangerous message to send if what is sent is that genocide can be committed and forgotten," he adds.
Turkish activists and officials insist that the Armenian expulsions were a desperate wartime measure - not part of a genocide plan - and that Armenians outside the Russian war front were not attacked.
"Even during the years of the relocation, and the confrontation, you see Armenians living peacefully in Istanbul and in government posts, ambassadors serving in European capitals. You didn't find that in Nazi Germany," says Guler Koknar, executive director of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.
The distinction between a "genocide" and other forms of human suffering and brutality is not always clear. The term genocide refers to "an organized attempt to annihilate a group of people," and it "inherently has a structure," says Dr. Hilberg. "For example, Albanians [in Kosovo] were not wiped out the way Armenians in southeast and eastern Turkey were in the Ottoman Empire," he says.
"In Bosnia, well before the numbers of people killed reach figures even close to comparable to the Holocaust, everyone was aware of it. The news media had published it thoroughly and people were worried about stopping it. Whereas in the 1940s, when a million Jews had already been killed, there was hardly a ripple in the news media," Hilberg says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society