What is genocide and why does it occur?

I used to believe that a genocide referred to the systematic decimation of a group of people. I still do, and yet, that meaning of what entails a “decimation” has changed to me. Through study, I’ve also come to better understand the root of genocide, which generally lies in interwar periods and sinks back into the history of rising tension between two distinct groups. Having grown up hearing about the Armenian Genocide and Holocaust, I assumed that a genocide consisted of killings. Yes, I knew cultural loss, ethical conversions, other sorts of non-murder assault were included, but I considered these as effects of the genocide, not part of it. Primo Levi exemplified this point in his work regarding the “gray zone” in which he revealed the moral ambiguity in the Holocaust, essentially disseminating the over-simplified ideas that we, as the general public, have about the victims and perpetrators of genocides. The actual qualifications of a “genocide” too have expanded in my perspective beyond just physical massacre. As according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide includes mental harm, prevention of births within the group, and the transfer of children. Looking back on the Armenian Genocide, this makes sense as men were forced to watch the tormentation of others (which caused psychological, even permanent, trauma and children were sold into slavery or converted to Islam, leading to a loss of religious culture for many Armenians. In the Holocaust, too, concentration camps led to millions of Jews and other discriminated races losing their sense of identity. Especially in this genocide, measures were taken to prevent births and thus to terminate the possibility of expanding the number of Jews. In the Rwandan Genocide, mental and physical harm was also inflicted upon people especially in the form of rape. Mothers and families were forced to watch their daughters raped and assaulted by Hutus.

It’s especially fascinating to me to study the differences between the three largest genocides: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan Genocide. The term “genocide” wasn’t coined until after the Armenian Genocide, and of these three, the holocaust of the Armenians remains the only one largely unrecognized by majors powers of today, including the U.S. According to the Turkish government, the deportations were a means of defense when some Armenians began to side with the Russians during World War I and just as many Turkish Muslims as Armenian Christians died during this time. Hence, Turkey claims that there was no real attempt to wipe out the Armenian race. This situation especially raises the question: what constitutes a genocide? In the case of the Turks or Armenians, history sides with the Armenians. The Armenian situation was a long withstanding one in the Ottoman Empire, dating back decades and especially during the late 1800’s Hamidian Massacres when hundreds if not thousands of Armenians were killed. Thus the deportations, mass massacres, rape, child transfers, psychological tortures, primitive physical abuse, among other atrocities towards the specific group of people, Armenians do in fact point to genocide. Yes, while other smaller Christian minorities were also included in the annihilations, the same could be said for the Holocaust, the genocide against the Jews, in which minorities like Gypsies and homosexuals were killed as well. Whether the Turkish or U.S. government recognize the Armenian Genocide is irrelevant in arguing that it indeed did occur. Recognition, in my belief, is something different than proving existence–recognition is a means of healing, a means to reconcile with the past, a means to demonstrate responsibility to the world, a means to prevent future genocides from occurring. If one genocide can be forgotten, can’t another? Can’t many more?

This leads us to question, why genocide occurs. In the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust, and Rwandan Genocide, mass-murders and other terrors of genocide were undergone during, most prominently, a brief interwar period between a general body of oppressors and a minority that had been a “troublesome” entity throughout the history of the two groups. In the case of the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire was already threatened during the time WWI began. The Balkan Wars, for one, preceded the Great War and essentially led to loss of territory for the Ottomans. With the Armenians declaring their desires for an independent nation, the Empire was threatened. Armenians, the relatively wealthy and Christian minority, were now a political threat with political demands. Not to mention, some Armenians (mostly on the border of Russia) were joining the Russian forces against the Ottomans, who had allied with Germany against the Russians (Ottomans declared Jihad against the West in 1914). Hence, the fear of disloyalty to the state during wartime and military crisis alarmed the Turkish Ottomans, especially the rising nationalists — the Young Turks — who were modernizing state-builders and committed to a racially-religiously homogenous community. The roots of the Holocaust were similar, with anti-semitism in Europe dating back 500 years. The Jews, another stateless people, were a unique evil and threat to nationalism within Germany and Eastern Europe especially. With German discontent about the Treaty of Versailles and Great Depression hitting, the Nazi party took power. In the 1930s, Jews’ civil rights were removed, businesses were burnt down and boycotted, and most notably, Jews were turned away as refugees from countries like the U.S. While the specifics of the pre-Holocaust time were not exactly the same as those of the pre-Armenian Genocide, the major similarity lays in the notion that both the Jews and Armenians were seen as political threats who had been the sources of rising tension in their respective regions of residency. Similarly, in the Rwandan Genocide, the Tutsis and Hutus had had years of conflict after colonization by the Belgians and the relatively recent racialization of the two groups. All three cases, therefore, had vastly alike roots of intergroup tensions that were enacted upon during war (Armenian Genocide, Holocaust) or through war (Rwandan Genocide). Thus, wartime violence was used almost like a cover for the murders and tortures of millions of people. It could be said that without war, these genocides would have been nearly impossible. For the case of the Armenians and Jews, I believe this to be true. During WWI and WWII, the West was preoccupied with the matters of global war. During the Rwandan Genocide, however, the war at hand was a civil one and thus the West had potentially opportunity to step in. How much this would have helped, though, is unclear.

In any case, when the holocausts actually began, it’s difficult to understand how the common people, even those with more power, could have gone along with such atrocities. How could actual orthogonal, everyday people become perpetrators of a genocide? In regards to the Holocaust, Browning claims that the true reason for the transformation of ordinary men into mass-murderers relies on the core tenets of human nature and socio-psychological factors. Conformity was the first major one of these components, one that I believe also applies to the Armenian Genocide. Deferring to widespread anti-Semitism campaigns and repeatedly being told that Jews were a sub-human race, policemen eventually mentally gave in to this idea while also yielding to authority who continuously reminded them of the Nazi ideals and visions for the Final Solution also stimulated these conceptions. Likewise, in the case of the Armenians, religious differences and constant struggle competing with a wealthy minority already had raised tensions between Turkish commoners and the Armenians. Furthermore, the adjustment to wartime procedures and duties, which includes maintaining order in enemy zones, meant taking up the job of executions. While many of the men may not have enjoyed or wanted to partake in these killings, some eventually became desensitized to the crimes they were committing. Maybe this allowed them to not think too much about the lives they were taking, thus easing the job they were set to do (and hence also easing the task of deferring to authority). Perhaps another reason that so many men were able to take part in the mass-murders had to do with the time period that they were living in. In hindsight, we find the acts of mass-murder repulsive but if we were in the same situation during that era, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same? Fifty years from now the generation ahead may think many of today’s acts as atrocious too. In other words, our morals grow and change overtime, depending on the factors around us (i.e. state of the nation, politics, tech, etc). And in times when we fear for the security of our country, we may partake in actions that would otherwise be seen as deplorable. Therefore, Browning’s “ordinary men” may not seem so “ordinary” to us today, but in that time, it is likely that they were a representation of typical men. I believe this to be true in terms of mass murder, but I still cannot conceptualize how (despite cases of, potentially, mob mentality) how individual men could traumatize–psychologically and physically–individual human beings. For instance, how could Hutus so carelessly rape so many innocent girls and women in front of their families without a second thought? Off that note, how could Hutu women stand by these acts and, even more so, how could they encourage this by actively participating in the genocidal terrors themselves (Rwanda: Not So Innocent — When Women Become Killers)? How could Ottoman perpetrators bring themselves to crucify young girls by nailing them down? How could those committing the Holocaust belittle other humans to a point of treatment, arguably, less than even that of even animals for as Primo Levi writes in Survival of Auschwitz, “Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.” I don’t know the answers to these questions. Despite historians’ and psychologists’ theories, I simply still find it unimaginable. To me, there is no justification. There is no redemption of constructed “conformity.” There is only inhumanity and sadism. So then, is the root of human nature truly this ugly? I believe this in part. As children, we all once or twice squashed an ant or killed the bugs we saw as “pests.” Perhaps the human enemies were just that–pests. Or it’s possible that the perpetrators numbed themselves to become robot-like in emotions so that they wouldn’t feel their victim’s pain as they killed and violated. Whatever the cause, the important thing is to realize that humans, unfortunately, are so vulnerable to feeling included, so keen to thrust everything into groups — them and us — that they often lose sight of a greater point: we are all human. Nothing more, nothing less.

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