Genocidal Intricacies

Jun 8, 2010

By Gode Davis, political staff columnist – June 8, 2010

The most horrific crime of genocide existed long before the word was invented. This very specific term, a reference to violent crimes committed against a group of people with the malevolent intent of destroying the very existence of that group, was coined in 1944 by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) in an effort to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder and extermination against Jews, Gypsies, dissidents, “imbeciles,” and homosexuals during the Third German Reich, 1933-1945. Lemkin formed the word by combining geno – from the Greek word for race or tribe, with cide, from the Latin word for killing. In 1945, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, Germany brought Nazis, many of them recently prominent in Germany’s most infamous right-wing movement, to trial charged with “crimes against humanity.” While Lemkin’s word was included in the indictment, it was first used as a descriptive, rather than as a legal term.

On December 9, 1948, as Lemkin and others lobbied tirelessly for the new term’s legitimacy, the United Nations provided an imprimatur to The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, establishing “genocide” as an international crime of utmost magnitude. Enforcing such a prohibition was never easy.

Murder on a large scale, mass murder even of entire peoples, has always been complicated by intricacies – especially when the time comes to assigning blame. Deliberate minimizations, evasions, and outright denials of what came to be called genocides have been the rule, not the exception, throughout our often vicious human history. Although the magnitude, efficiency, and “uniqueness” of the Nazi Holocaust has resulted in an almost universal condemnation of it, so much so that a “Holocaust denier” is invariably assumed to be denying Nazi death camps (apparently to the exclusion of all others), the horrors perpetrated by Adolf Hitler’s gang of thugs are unique perhaps in that they’ve been addressed on the world stage more successfully than have other Holocausts occurring before or since. In fact, if a crime is monstrous enough in its magnitude, retribution is often the last thing on a society’s mind.

Americans and Australians, for instance, are seldom mindful of their own atrocities, even large-scale ones victimizing aboriginal peoples. It can be argued that genocide served as federal policy in both countries, particularly in the United States when Congress passed the Removal Act of 1830. During the so-called “Trail of Tears,” a forced march of Cherokees in 1838 that killed thousands of men, women, and children, few tears were shed by those in power. Adolf Hitler is said to have read contemporary American dime novels (reprinted in German) detailing systematic extermination of Native Americans — with a certain admiration and envy he would one day emulate. He was perhaps more directly influenced by accounts of Turkish massacres and the eventual genocide of the Armenians – and especially how a Turkish dictatorial triumvirate cleverly escaped worldwide condemnation for their systematic campaign of targeted extermination.

The killing lands in Turkey claimed nearly two million innocent Armenian lives through forced deportations and massacres. For nearly three millennia, Armenians and their culture had endured in Asia Minor, of which the politically-constructed nation of Turkey became a part – the Armenian populace surviving repeated invasions and occupations while retaining their pride and cultural identity. Armenia as a nation dated from 600 B.C. Prior to the genocide, a wholesale massacre had taken place. In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the ruthless despot Sultan Abdul Hamid, angered by young articulate Armenians pressing for political reforms, had ordered the slaughter of 100,000+ inhabitants of Armenian villages during widespread pogroms conducted by his ‘special’ regiments between 1894 and 1896.

But by July 1908, the evil Sultan was gone. Reform-minded Turkish nationalists known as “Young Turks” forced the Sultan to allow a constitutional government and guarantee basic rights. These ambitious junior officers in the Turkish Army seemed poised to deliver a brighter future for Turks and Armenians alike. Armenians shared in the jubilation at public rallies. Such jubilation was short-lived. When a triumvirate of Young Turks, Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal seized control in a 1913 coup and came to wield dictatorial powers while envisioning an ambitious plan for Turkey’s future that didn’t include Armenians ; their mythical “Turan” with one language and one religion (the Armenians were Christians; the Turks were Moslems). A genocidal stew was brewing. When World War I broke out in 1914, Europe’s young men were soon falling dead by the hundreds of thousands. With the World War providing “a distraction,” it seemed obvious to the three ruling Turks that a perfect opportunity to answer the “Armenian question” had come about once and for all. First, the entire Armenian population was forcibly disarmed – every last rifle and pistol seized. In the fall and winter of 1914, forty thousand Armenian men serving in the Turkish Army had their weapons confiscated. The soldiers were placed in slave labor battalions and used as human pack animals in brutal conditions. If they survived, they were simply shot.

With the active duty Armenian military eliminated as a threat, the ruling triumvirate issued actual extermination orders for the entire Armenian civilian population. Coded telegrams were sent to provincial governors throughout Turkey. During 1915, a series of orchestrated pogroms culminated in countless atrocities, including an extraordinary amount of sexual abuse and rape of girls and young women. Finally, the death marches began. These involved over a million Armenians, covered hundreds of miles, and lasted months. Indirect routes through mountains and wilderness were deliberately chosen in order to prolong the ordeal and to keep the caravans away from Turkish villages.

Food supplies being carried by the people quickly ran out. Further food or water was typically denied. Anyone stopping to rest or lagging behind the caravan were mercilessly beaten until they rejoined the march. If they couldn’t continue, they were shot. A common practice was to force all of the people in the caravan to remove every stitch of clothing and have them resume the march in the nude and barefooted under the scorching sun until they dropped dead by the roadside from exhaustion and dehydration.

The Turkish countryside became littered with decomposing corpses. When Mehmed Talaat was informed, he sent a coded message to all provincial leaders: “I have been advised that in certain areas unburied corpses are still to be seen. I ask you to issue the strictest instructions so that corpses and their debris in your vilayet are buried.” But Talaat’s instructions were typically ignored.

The roadside corpses and emaciated deportees shocked foreigners working in Turkey. Eyewitnesses included German government liaisons, American missionaries, and U.S. diplomats stationed in the country. News reports trickled back. The New York Times published headlines including these: Armenians are sent to perish in the desert – Turks accused of plan to exterminate whole population (August 18, 1915); Million Armenians killed or in exile: American committee on relief says victims of Turks are steadily increasing: Policy of Extermination (December 15, 1915).

World War I ended in November 1918. About six weeks before the war ended, Talaat, Enver and Djemal abruptly resigned their government posts and fled to Germany where they had been offered asylum. Armenian leaders (the few that were left) established an independent republic, but soon thereafter, this noble effort collapsed when no Allied Power came to the embryonic nation’s aid and it collapsed. Only a miniscule portion of the easternmost area of historic Armenia survived — by becoming part of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Turks destroyed any remnants of Armenian cultural heritage they could find – removing all traces of a 3,000-year-old civilization. Hitler duly noted the half-hearted reaction of the world’s great powers to the Armenian annihilation. In 1939, when preparing to conquer Poland, he said to his generals, “Thus for the time being, I have sent to the East only my ‘Death’s Head Units’ with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space that we need. Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?”

Hitler was also aware of atrocities committed between 1904-1907 during the Second German Reich when genocide in pursuit of African colonization decimated the Herero and Namaqua native peoples of what is known today as Namibia, and also of American atrocities in the Philippines during the same decade.

Most genocide has been similarly brutal, and similarities exist between many campaigns targeting entire peoples; on the heels of Hitler’s carnage a small and little-known genocide happened in Indonesia during the closing months of 1945 and early months of 1946. Instead of gas chambers and methodical extermination like the Nazi Holocaust, this one featured unpredictable violence accomplished with deliberate savagery and intimidation. Three hundred fifty thousand innocents died — anyone who even appeared Eurasian.

The names of genocides before and since resemble a geographical glossary – Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Palau, Bosnia, and Darfur, to name a few. Recent scholarship suggests that Josef Stalin deliberately created a famine that left at least 7,000,000 Ukrainians starved to death in what had been the Soviet Union’s breadbasket. New genocidal regimes continue to thrive when and where conditions are ideally horrific. Ghastly opportunities present themselves to human monsters on a fairly routine basis. If this is pure evil at work in our world, why aren’t genocides nipped in the bud? Why are the moral crusaders so impotent?

Within the absurd context of genocidal intricacies, as in theatres of so-called preemptive “wars of choice,” logical pro-humanity principles defer to expediency, along with baser motives, many of them political. Why didn’t the Allied nations come to the aid of Armenians? For reasons not unlike the “whys” that the Armenian genocide is denied by the American government in 2010: We don’t want to offend Turkey, our Middle Eastern contemporary ally. Because Turkey emerged as a victorious genocidal perpetrator, from a Turk’s perspective it’s deemed in their best interests to continue denying.

The United States of America is often represented as the “moral beacon” of the world. What intricacies interfere with that compass in the context of genocidal behaviors? It’s bloody complicated, according to specialists crafting foreign policy, both public and covert. While we publicly remain Israel’s staunchest ally, covertly we recruited thousands of Nazis, including depraved death camp physicians, when it suited our purposes during the peak of the Cold War. Other Nazi collaborators masquerading as anti-Communists were praised as heroes when brought less clandestinely to our choicest suburbs.

In addition to our own atrocities, the United States has been complicit in genocides – a fact which engenders a sickening ambivalence. Again, the locales which became “killing fields” seem prolific as phosphorous-laden fireflies. A CIA-backed coup handed Chile to Pinochet in 1973; something similar happened on the way to Teheran with the Shah. Hiroshima and Nagasaki created Holocausts in a millionth of a second that were rationalized on the pretext of saving American lives. Cambodia’s genocide can at least partially be laid at America’s doorstep. East Timor, Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan and Obama’s drones – where will it end?

What about stopping genocides once they began? Did the Clinton Administration do enough in Rwanda to curb the gruesome hacking? Why did Bosnia seemingly receive preferential treatment as compared to Darfur? Some would argue that American muscle arrived much too slowly to truly stop Slobodan.

Cynics would argue that it is in human nature to kill the OTHER, those who are different, whenever it suits us if we can escape the consequences. It’s innate, being true to our instincts, and immutable. As a confirmed agnostic, I hope to God that’s not true.

Books Featured in this Article


1. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (P.S.), Samantha Power, Basic Books, 2002
2. Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War, Christopher Simpson, Weidonfeld & Nicolson, 1988
3., What is genocide?, United States Holocaust Museum
4., Genocide in the 20th Century, The History Place
5., Herero and Namaqua Genocide, Academic dictionaries and encyclopedias
6. State of Darkness: US Complicity in Genocides Since 1945, David Model, AuthorHouse, 2008


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