Raphael Lemkin 1900-1959
Raphael Lemkin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on no less than ten occasions and he is best remembered today for coining the term ‘genocide’ and campaigning to establish the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPGG). The Genocide Convention is an international treaty that defines and criminalizes genocide. It was the first human rights treaty to be unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and it came into force on 12th January 1951.
The systematic murder of six million Jews in German-occupied Europe during the Second World War was the tragic culmination of centuries of virulent anti-semitsim. The Holocaust did not begin in the death camps of Treblinka, Belzec or Auschwitz-Birkenau, nor were SS officers serving with Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) on the Eastern Front, the first Europeans to contemplate the destruction of an entire group of people.
Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women and children reportedly chose to take their own lives in the bleak hillside fort of Masada in ancient Judea rather than face execution at the hands of the Roman occupiers. The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the desperate scene in some detail and his account is well worth reading. After the fall of Masada, many Jews were enslaved and Josephus tells us that over 30,000 were deported to Carthage in North Africa. For centuries thereafter, Jewish communities gradually grew up across Europe; especially in the vibrant city states that stretched across the Mediterranean.
By the Middle Ages, a distinction had been drawn between those Jews who settled in North Africa, Spain and Portugal, who became known as Sephardic, and those who settled in the Rhineland – from about the beginning of the 10th century onwards. These central European settlers became known as Ashkenazi Jews for, in ancient Hebrew, the word ‘Ashkenazi’ means ‘Germanic’. By the 1930s, there were an estimated nine million Jews in Europe. In Germany and Austria, Jews constituted less than 1% of the population and tended to be highly assimilated. It is often forgotten that Jews constituted such a small percentage of the population in Germany and numbered less than 300,000 individuals; most of whom lived in cities and were, more often than not, extremely highly educated. The Jewish contribution to the development of the modern world during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was immense. Of course, one thinks of figures such as Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud but there were many others. In many parts of Europe, especially towards the East, Jews tended to live more rural lives. In Poland, there were over 3,000,000 Jews and the majority of them lived in Shtetls and these were small market towns which were almost exclusively Jewish. In Poland and Russia, Jewish children attended separate schools, lived apart and there were Jewish football teams, social clubs and a whole way of life that served to set them apart in the eyes of others. Jews spoke Yiddish to one another, studied Hebrew and attended synagogues. Suffice to say that other than shared rituals of religious observance, German and Polish Jews had remarkably little in common.
The geneticist Adam Rutherford, points out that there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish gene’ and that it is impossible to attribute complex human characteristics and behaviours to DNA or the notion of a bloodline. Indeed, if you go back two thousand years then every single person now living is descended from the same pool of people. Racism in all of its abhorrence has precisely zero scientific basis. It is impossible to identify specific genes responsible for specific attributes. Currently, geneticists are unravelling an incredibly complicated interaction between our DNA and the environment but this is a concept that is only just beginning to be understood in any meaningful way.
It is tempting to think that the Holocaust was a historical aberration or an inevitable consequence of a rogue political ideology such as fascism. It is tempting to imagine that the Holocaust could not or would not have been possible without the rise of Nazism but history tells us that this conceit has no basis in reality. The history of antisemitism stretches back into the distant past and emerged in part from the slanderous accusation that Jews murdered Christians in order to use their blood in the performance of religious rituals. This, and other equally groundless accusations, were revived periodically and used as a justification for outbursts of violence which were often sanctioned by the state.
Jews and Muslims living in Palestine were routinely massacred during the Crusades. In 1190, York Castle was the location of one of the worst pogroms to occur in England. In that year a mob lay siege to the Jewish community in the city. Hundreds of Jews sought sanctuary in Clifford’s Tower. It soon became apparent that their position was hopeless and so their religious leader Rabbi Yomtob proposed that they should commit suicide collectively to avoid being slaughtered by the mob baying at the walls. Many Jews followed his lead but a few did surrender and promised to convert to Christianity. They were killed by the angry crowd. The impressive Norman Keep survives to this day and its role in the history of antisemitism is remembered by a small memorial plaque at the bottom of the mound upon which it is built.
Clifford’s Tower – York
In the same year, Jews in Norwich and London were attacked and killed. Indeed, the Jewish community in Norwich had never recovered from the baseless accusation that they were responsible for the death of a boy called William whose body was found on Mousehold Heath in 1144. In 1290, Edward I issued what became known as the Edict of Expulsion. The entire population of Jews then living in England were required to leave. Similarly, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and forced to find sanctuary abroad.
William of Norwich (1130-44)
The word ‘pogrom’ refers to an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group. The word became synonymous with the state-sanctioned murder of Jews in Tsarist Russia in the late nineteenth century. In 1919, a series of pogroms in Poland and Ukraine resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Jews. In the years preceding and immediately following the First World War, many Jews fled from Eastern Europe to seek a new life in Britain, America and Palestine. The city of Limerick in Ireland experienced its own pogrom in 1906 but this was more of an economic boycott than an act of violence. It was incited by the rabidly antisemitic Catholic priest, Father John Creagh. He published a hate-filled sermon which was filled with crude stereotypes
During the Holocaust, British policemen on the occupied islands of Guernsey and Jersey colluded with the Nazi authorities to round up the small number of Jews living on the islands. Three Jewish residents from Guernsey died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and two of them had fled to the Channel Islands to seek sanctuary from Nazism.
Of course, there were plenty of fascists in England during the 1930s. The ‘blackshirts’ were led by the far-right politician Sir Oswald Mosely were explicitly antisemitic. In 1936, there were a series of clashes between the British Union of Fascists and Jews living in the East End of London. On that occasion, the Jews of the East End were supported by various socialist groups and the Irish community. Together they formed an anti-fascist movement which successfully resisted the violent hatred of Oswald’s deluded and angry blackshirts. Still, such events serve to dispel the notion that the Holocaust is an aberration.
Sir Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts
Let us now return to Rapahel Lemkin. Raphael was a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent. He was born in 1900 in Bezwodna, a small rural village in what is present-day Belarus. His mother was an intellectual and painter whilst his father was a farmer. As a boy, Lemkin became fascinated by the subject of massacres and atrocities. He read about Mongol invasions, the Sack of Carthage and the persecution of Huguenots. Lemkin felt that it was possible to draw a direct link between these historical events and the murder of Jews tin the nearby city of Bialystok in 1906.
While studying law, Lemkin was troubled to lean about the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman authorities in 1915. In that year, Armenian intellectuals and political leaders were arrested and deported from Constantinople. Up to 1.2 million Armenians were sent on a death march through the Syrian desert. The deportees were deprived of food, water and subjected to appalling violence. By the end of 1916, less than 200,000 of the Armenians were still alive. They were dispersed to concentration camps and many women and children were forcibly converted to Islam. This act of genocide put an end to over two thousand years of Armenian civilization in eastern Anatolia. Still, despite plenty of evidence of this atrocity, as of 2024, only thirty four countries globally recognise the events as genocide.
The Armenian Genocide is all but forgotten.
Lemkin became a prominent lawyer in Poland and was a public prosecutor for the district court in Warsaw. He taught law at a college in the city and translated the Polish penal code into English in 1932. In 1933, he addressed the Legal Council of the League of Nations and he was a member of the Polish mission to the 4th Congress on Criminal Law in Paris where he was first introduced to the notion of defending peace through recourse to criminal law. This might not seem a radical idea to us but it was novel within the cultural and political context of the time.
In September 1939, Lemkin narrowly escaped capture from the Germans who were invading from the West and the Soviets who were invading from the East. He fled through Lithuania to Sweden and started to lecture at the University of Stockholm. He spent a huge amount of time gathering and forensically analysing Nazi decrees and edicts. Lemkin sought to trace the process by which Hitler’s anti-Semtic ideas, first articulated in ‘Mein Kampf’, found their way into legal codes. In terms of jurisprudence and political decision making, he looked for trends, patterns and signs of escalation. He concluded that the Nazis were committed to the wholesale destruction of the nations they invaded. The creation of ‘Lebensraum’ or ‘living space’ to be inhabited by Germans provided the motivation, as did antisemitism.
Lemkin lost forty nine relatives during the Holocaust and his only surviving relative was his brother Elias. Elias’ wife and two sons had been sent to a Soviet labour camp and, after the war, Lemkin worked incredibly hard to reunite the family. It was Lemkin’s definition of genocide which provided the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials where at least some Nazi leaders were legally held to count for their crimes. Lemkin went on to become an advisor to the Supreme Court of the United States and became a Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.
Lemkin died in 1959. By this stage he was living in relative poverty and obscurity in New York City. Few people attended his funeral and he was disappointed that his adopted country, America, failed to ratify the Genocide Convention. Shortly before his death, Lemkin despondently lamented that, ‘the rain of my work fell on a fallow plain….only this rain was a mixture of the blood and tears of eight million innocent people throughout the world. Included also were the tears of my parents and my friends’.
The International Court of Justice – The Hague
More recently, Lemkin’s name has become better known as despotic leaders have been held to account for their genocidal acts. In 2017, the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Srebrenica Massacre perpetrated during the Balkan Conflict of the 1990s. The Liberian warlord Charles Taylor is currently serving a 50 year sentence in a UK jail and others have been sentenced for their role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The International Court of Justice in the Hague has been criticised for its lack of success and the glacial process of proceedings. However, there is now a legal apparatus for holding those who commit genocidal acts to account under international law.
Given humankind’s ability to inflict harm upon one another it is extraordinary that such a legal mechanism has only recently been instituted. Without Lemkin’s personal courage and his pioneering work within the realm of international law, it is perfectly possible that more despotic leaders would contemplate committing such acts. From Darfur to Burma, from Syria to Bosnia, it is clear that the crime of genocide is not a peculiar feature of a particular place or moment in ttime.
The German philosopher Hegel bitterly concluded that ‘The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’ and it is easy to embrace such pessimism. I prefer the words of George Santanyana which are inscribed upon a stone at the very entrance of the exhibition in Auschwitz-Birkenau; ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’.
As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, let us reflect upon the fragility of democracy and the work of pioneering individuals such as Raphael Lemkin who recognising the vulnerability and defencelessness of people in the face of authoritarian and racist regimes, sought to create effective legal tools to counter such evil. The lives of bureaucrats and lawyers do not receive much attention but it is entirely appropriate that we should reflect upon their work during these uncertain times.
Headmaster of Rossall School