finding meaning in genocide

The legend of Raphael Lemkin is by now well-tread. The Polish Jew witnessed Turkey’s Armenian massacres as a bystanding linguistics student in Lvov, newly-independent Poland, and later experienced the Holocaust from afar, as an American émigré. In the telling of Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Lemkin was taken by Winston Churchill’s description of Nazi violence, a “crime without a name.” Till he coined the term “genocide” in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a dry, heavy legal tome, Lemkin remembered Armenia’s suffering–and described his contemporary Holocaust–as an uncommon horror, forever nameless.

Whatever the eventual goodness of Lemkin’s innovation, both Churchill and his admiring jurist were wrong. The moral language of Lemkin’s era amply accommodated the war’s profound terror, often at the scale Lemkin’s term implies. Destruction, atrocity–in 1945, Hannah Arendt used both terms to describe the recent annihilation of European Jewry. Whatever her later controversial understanding of Nazi power, Arendt’s early postwar essays made clear that killing at the unforeseen scale of Nazi concentration camps and roving Einsatzgruppen could and did have many names.

Given this moral context, the importance of Lemkin’s term cannot have been its mass, nor its systematic procedure. It is a consequence of our imperfect memory of Nazi power that genocide implies an expansive “order, deliberateness,” as Philip Gourevitch suggests. Nazi, Hutu Power, and Khmer Rouge politics were often as disordered as their murderous counterparts in the Central African Republic, with which they are now contrasted. The political process by which Hitler’s regime successfully achieved Mein Kampf‘s totalitarian goals often failed, though not often enough–in Denmark, where fascism’s collaborative reach collapsed, and in eastern Poland, where a popular resistance welcomed Stalin’s alternative violent rule. American soldiers had no certain power as they marched the Cherokee nation towards an unknown frontier, nor did Khartoum’s janjaweed militias as they scorched Darfuri villages on Sudan’s western margins. For Andrew Jackson, as for Omar al-Bashir, genocide was a power-seeking enterprise–authority was taken, not affirmed. Genocide’s systematic order, the alleged smoking gun of mass killing, only exists in the terror’s successful conclusion. In the thick of it, the mass violence is anarchic, meaningless.

Instead, the power of Lemkin’s genocide comes from an idea now so obvious as to approach cliché: that identity matters. Lemkin was a Polish-American Jew, but he was also a committed globalist in an era of dismal chauvinism. He wrote Axis Rule as the last paltry legacies of the interwar League of Nations crumbled, and before Dumbarton Oaks recast the postwar international consensus. Identity shaped the moral imagination of interwar Europe in the ugliest of ways, and so many innovations of the late Forties–institutional, literary, political–sought to redeem Europe’s collective wrongs. These innovations were often contradictory: the cosmopolitanism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed humanity’s common dignity as the UN Security Council secured the predominance of great power politics. But they were also complementary. That the Genocide Convention was the UN’s first human rights treaty is no mere trivia–for the UN’s framers, the symbolic protection of the provincial was both the prerequisite for and the partner of the universal. Lemkin’s term codified identity, previously a privilege of particular groups such as the Levant’s persecuted Christians, as a meaningful pillar of an international rights pantheon. In his design, the future’s proverbial European Jews would no longer fear annihilation for who they were or who they saw themselves to be.

That’s a very different thing than a universal right to life. To suggest that identity matters is to suggest that society is part of life’s meaning–that what makes us human is not simply that we exist, but that we interact in common, collectively. Lemkin’s anthropology of violence rebuts the interwar era’s eugenic consensus: it implies that, whatever ethnic, racial, religious, or national group one might belong to, that group and its members deserve an equal opportunity to thrive and, more importantly, to live.

The consequences of Lemkin’s term are profound and, as such, controversial. Being social, human identity cannot exist in a vacuum–it is defined as much by those who oppose it as by those who claim it. In eastern Poland, this means that an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Bialystok who has never associated with a Reform Jewish congregation in Berlin becomes “Jewish.” In the Central African Republic, this means that disparate Christian groups become “Christian,” because the Muslim government and the international community say so, but not because they’ve received the blood, body, and spirit of Christ. These identities are often false, or are insufficiently nuanced; but that they are constructed, either internally or externally, does not make them any less real, politically, morally, and anthropologically.

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