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The Unsung Hero Who Coined the Term "Genocide"

Arianna Vairo

If the history of the western moral imagination is the story of an enduring and unending revolt against human cruelty, there are few more consequential figures than Raphael Lemkin—and few whose achievements have been more ignored by the general public. It was he who coined the word “genocide.” He was also its victim. Forty-nine members of Lemkin’s family, including his mother and father, were rounded up in eastern Poland and gassed in Treblinka in 1943. Lemkin escaped to America, and in wartime Washington gave a name to Hitler’s crimes in his monumental study of the jurisprudence of Nazi occupation, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. He understood, earlier than almost anybody, that genocide was the darker purpose of Hitler’s war: “genocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.” After the war, thanks largely to his efforts, the United Nations approved the Genocide Convention, and thanks to his crusade a sufficient number of states had ratified the convention by the early 1950s for it to enter into force. He never lived to see a conviction for the crime he was the first to name.

Lemkin’s campaign to promote the convention became an all-consuming obsession: he left adjunct posts at Yale and New York University, neglected himself, forgot to pay his rent, was evicted, went without food while spending all his days lobbying, cajoling, and brow-beating diplomats, politicians, public figures, and newspapermen about genocide. Unfinished fragments of autobiography poignantly document his decline:

As I am devoting all my time to the Genocide Convention, I have no time to take a paying job, and consequently suffer fierce privations.... Poverty and starvation. My health deteriorates. Living in hotels and furnished rooms. Destruction of my clothes. Increased number of ratifications.... The labors of Sisyphus. I work in isolation, which protects me.

He collapsed at a bus stop on 42nd Street in New York in August 1959 and died at the age of 59, friendless, penniless, and alone, leaving behind a bare rented room, some clothes, and a chaos of unsorted papers.

Lemkin belongs historically to a select list of humanitarians such as Henri Dunant, who founded the Red Cross in 1863, and Eglantyne Jebb, who created Save the Children after World War I—or going farther back, to John Howard, the eighteenth-century sheriff of Bedfordshire who single-handedly awoke Europeans to the cruelty of their prison systems. These were all people who by their own solitary efforts, with an obsessional devotion to a private cause, changed the moral climate of their times. But unlike Dunant, the wealthy son of Swiss merchants, and Jebb, the gifted daughter of a distinguished English landed family, Lemkin achieved what he did without the backing of private wealth: he was a penniless Polish Jewish refugee in America.

Donna-Lee Frieze, an Australian scholar, spent four years in the New York Public Library, where the Lemkin papers are deposited, reading faded typescripts, collating different drafts, deciphering illegible scribbles, and occasionally filling in gaps between or within sentences. Now she has published Lemkin’s autobiography under his chosen title, Totally Unofficial, a phrase from a New York Times editorial that praised him for what made his campaign unique: he did it purely as a private citizen, without foundational, academic, or institutional support of any kind. Frieze has performed a labor of love with the materials that Lemkin left behind, but her best efforts cannot manage to turn the fragments into a complete and coherent book. Important chunks of the narrative are missing. We can only guess why Lemkin omitted to discuss his life between 1943 and 1945, when he worked in the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington and wrote Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Similarly missing is any treatment of his successful attempt to get genocide included in the official indictment of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in 1945. Lemkin consigns these achievements to silence, leaving us to ponder his deeper motivations.

The final decline of lonely men is often a chronicle of self-delusion, persecution, mania, and paranoia. Lemkin’s final years had their share of these afflictions, but they were also marked by an aching awareness of the damage he was doing to himself. He appears to have been one of Kafka’s hunger artists, those moving, self-punishing creatures who cut themselves off from the world, preyed upon by a guilt they cannot name, making their misery into their life’s work. In some deep sense, Lemkin chose his own destruction, and refused consolations that less complex characters would have easily embraced. In his strangely lucid refusal of the available consolations of career and company, Lemkin recalls another hunger artist of the same period, the young French philosopher Simone Weil. She starved herself so as not to eat more than the citizens of occupied Europe and died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in England in 1943, at the age of 34, after completing what she called her “war work” for the free French, a transcendent Declaration of the Duties of Mankind.1

Other pioneers in the battle to rebuild the European conscience after World War II—René Cassin, who helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Hersch Lauterpacht, who wrote the first treatise calling for an enforceable international convention on human rights—would have regarded these Jewish hunger artists with baffled pity. Cassin, from an assimilated and republican Jewish family in the south of France, joined De Gaulle’s Free French in London like Weil, but unlike her, he never took it upon himself to suffer for others. Cassin went on to help to draft the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights, and served as a judge on the European Court of Human Rights. In 1968, he won the Nobel Prize for his work. Lauterpacht, a Polish Jew from the same region of eastern Poland as Lemkin, left before the killing began in the early 1920s, and went to England, where he enjoyed a triumphant academic career, culminating as Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge and a judge on the International Court of Justice. Like Lemkin, Lauterpacht watched helplessly from abroad as his entire Jewish family was destroyed in the Holocaust. Like Lemkin, he played an important role in the Nuremberg trials. Unlike Lemkin, he did not rage at Nuremberg’s limitations and proved capable of working in a team, helping to write the briefs that Hartley Shawcross, the British prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunals, used to frame the indictment against the Nazi war criminals.2 As Jay Winter has argued in a fine recent study, both Cassin and Lauterpacht were Jewish insiders, while Lemkin remained an outsider, unmarried, untenured, unattached, and ultimately alone.3 His work on genocide finally became a trap from which he could not—and in the end did not wish to—escape.

Lemkin's autobiography resists easy explanations as to why this should have been so. All one can see clearly is that he had a perverse genius for steering away from available safe harbors. He was a Jew who resisted full identification with his people, so he was never a part of any of the Jewish communities or organizations that might have taken him in. He was a proud Pole who kept apart from Polish communities in the United States. He was a legal scholar too grimly obsessed with genocide to settle down with a stable academic career, though several beckoned, at Yale and at Rutgers. He was a human rights pioneer who quarreled with human rights advocates; a man who longed for company but had no time for small talk; a man who, as he ruefully confessed, always wanted to avoid three things in life—“to wear eyeglasses, to lose my hair and to become a refugee.” Now all three things, he said, “had come to me in implacable succession.”

From earliest childhood, Lemkin admitted to a peculiar fascination with tales of horror: the savagery of the Mongols, the cannibalistic rituals of primitive tribes, the brutal punishment that the Romans meted out to slave revolts. This obsession with human cruelty gave him the raison d’être of his life, but it could only have deepened his crippling isolation. One of the weirder and more poignant moments in his autobiography occurs when he meets a diminutive Chilean dancer in a half-empty ballroom of the Casino in Montreux in 1948, while he was working on the Genocide Convention. After dancing with her (“she danced with an exquisite slant, her eyes half closed”), he spent the night bizarrely regaling her with gruesome stories of the cruelties inflicted by the Spaniards on her Aztec ancestors.

This was a pattern. Potential friends drew away from him because his normal conversation was apt to dwell at unsavory length on horrible punishments and excruciating cruelties. He was a man who could not desist from telling strangers his nightmares. He devoted every spare minute of his final years to a world history of genocide. This project, mad in its Borgesian determination to create a total encyclopedia of world cruelty, lay unfinished at his death. It would be easy to turn aside from Lemkin’s bleak obsessions or to dismiss them as sadomasochistic were they not paired with a redeeming belief that fate had chosen him to save future generations from the genocidal furies that had claimed his own family.

The question that the autobiography raises but leaves unanswered is how he chose for himself the role of the humanitarian hunger artist. Extreme moral careers often have aesthetic roots: people choose their lives as dramatic acts of self-creation. There is something childlike, and also as unyielding as a child’s desire, in Lemkin’s self-dramatization. From an early age, he imagined himself as a hero in the popular turn-of-the-century Polish romantic novel Quo Vadis, with its kitsch world of noble slaves and lasciviously corrupt Roman owners. At the height of his influence right after World War II, he struck the disabused and cynical diplomats at the United Nations as “an agreeable fanatic,” but by the end of his life, his self-dramatization was a crippling caricature of lonely defiance, surrounded by imagined enemies bent on his humiliation and defeat.

Totally Unofficial, which he wrote in these final years, offered him an escape backward into his past. It is at its most alive when he evokes his childhood in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe before World War I. He was not from a shtetl family or an Orthodox one; and though he went to Hebrew school, his culture was always Polish and Russian as well as Jewish—which helps to explain why, in his writings on genocide, he never isolated the Jews from the fate of others, insisting that the Nazis were as bent on the destruction of the Polish nation as they were on the extermination of his own people. His self-identification as a Jew was always relatively weak, and his objective was to save from genocide not the Jewish people but mankind as a whole. This is why, when other Jews who survived the Holocaust became Zionists and put their faith in a defensible state of their own, Lemkin put his faith instead in international law, and in a convention that would proscribe the crime forever for every victim group.

But he was shaped, of course, by Jewish fate—in his case, by the glory and the burden of being born a Jew in what Timothy Snyder has taught us to call the bloodlands, the killing fields of Belorussia, Lithuania, and eastern Poland. When Lemkin was born in Wołkowysk in 1900, these lands were the Pale of Settlement and under the rule of the Russian czar. Jews were forbidden to own or farm land, to study in Russian cities, or to trade in alcohol. Lemkin’s father persisted as a small-holding farmer nonetheless, and Lemkin remembered when the local Russian policeman arrived at the house on horseback, tied his horse to a fence, and waited until Lemkin’s mother and father came up with the bribe that would make him go away again. When Lemkin was nearly six, pogroms broke out in Białystok, several miles away. While his family was never in danger, Lemkin remembered being told that the anti-Semitic mobs slit open the stomachs of some of their victims and stuffed them with feathers from pillows seized from their bedding. From early in childhood, Lemkin learned to think of history as a bleak tale of torture and suffering. “A line, red from blood,” he writes in his memoir, “led from the Roman arena through the gallows of France to the pogrom of Białystok.”

When Lemkin was a young law student in Germany in the 1920s, his heroes were two moral assassins. The first was the young Armenian who gunned down in the streets of Berlin one of the Turkish pashas responsible for the Armenian massacres. The young Lemkin thrilled to the assassin’s reported remark, as he watched his victim fall, that “this is for my mother.” The second was a Jewish tailor named Shalom Schwarzbard, who also used a pistol, this time in the streets of Paris, to gun down Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian minister of war who was responsible for the pogroms in the Ukraine that claimed the lives of Schwarzbard’s parents. Both assassins were arrested, went to trial, and were acquitted on grounds of insanity. Lemkin, still a student, wrote an article for a Polish magazine calling Schwarzbard’s act “a beautiful crime.” The phrase reveals how strongly Lemkin’s imagination was shaped by a romantic aesthetic of vengeance.

Vengeance contended with the law in the young lawyer’s imagination, but the law finally won. Like the other young Jewish lawyers Cassin and Lauterpacht, who came out of World War I determined to rein in the murderous propensities of the nation state, Lemkin held fast to a faith in international law that the brutal advance of Nazism and communist dictatorship did nothing to dispel. He put his faith, first, in the League of Nations and the League’s minority-rights regimes. As Mark Mazower has shown, those were pioneering first attempts to ensure that national minorities in Eastern Europe would not fall prey to the vengeance of newly self-determining national majorities.4

The minority-rights framework decisively shaped Lemkin’s approach to genocide. Unlike Lauterpacht, who came to see the individual as the primary subject requiring protection in international law, Lemkin remained wedded to the older League idea that it was groups who required protection from the murdering state. For Lemkin, the religious, ethnic, and national group was the bearer of the individual’s language, culture, and self-understanding. To destroy the group was to destroy the individual. This vision helps to explain his otherwise inexplicable hostility to the idea of human rights, his belief that Cassin’s Universal Declaration, passed in the same year as the Genocide Convention, offered no protection against genocide.

Back in Warsaw in the 1920s after studies abroad, now working as a public prosecutor and building a prosperous private practice, Lemkin began to seek a role for himself beyond the confines of Poland. In 1933, working through the institutions of the League of Nations, Lemkin, then in his early thirties, proposed the adoption of two new international crimes of war—barbarity and vandalism—the destruction of collective groups and the destruction of cultural heritage. This contained the kernel of his vision of genocide. He was about to present these new ideas in person at a conference in Madrid when his proposals were denounced in a Polish paper for protecting Jews only and hence for being un-Polish. The head of the Polish delegation, Emil Rappaport, later a long-serving judge in communist Poland, decided that Lemkin should withdraw.

Such experience of anti-Semitism often sundered Jews’ connection to their place of birth, but not in Lemkin’s case. He always saw himself as a Pole—one reason, perhaps, why since 2008 there has been a plaque commemorating him on the site where his house stood in Warsaw. The house was bombed and destroyed when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The most vivid chapters of Lemkin’s autobiography describe the incredible odyssey of his escape. He survived a German dive-bombing attack on the train carrying him out of Warsaw, and after eluding capture by the Russians, who invaded from the east, he made his way on foot, along with thousands of other refugees, back to the still untouched Jewish villages of eastern Poland.

There he lodged for a few nights with a young Jewish baker and his family. Not for the first time, Lemkin was tormented by his inability to shake his own people awake to the dangers that lay in store for them. He asked the young baker whether he had heard of Mein Kampf. Did he not know that Hitler had boasted he would kill the Jews like rats? The baker replied, “How can Hitler destroy the Jews if he must trade with them?” The baker had been under German occupation during World War I, in 1915. “I sold bread to the Germans; we baked for them from their flour. We Jews are an eternal people. We cannot be destroyed. We can only suffer.”

Lemkin sat with the baker’s family at their Sabbath meal on that autumn night in 1939, watching the baker’s wife with her “air of solemnity, self-assurance and discreet kindliness” light the candles. He joined the family in their prayers, the deep serenity and dignity of the occasion shadowed by his own premonitory dread. The night before, he had heard the baker praying by himself in the next room, “a crescendo: persuasion, solicitation, a delicate murmur of explanation.” From the next room, Lemkin listened to a dialogue with God, based in a covenant of deepest faith. After the Sabbath, however, the baker’s son, “a youth of about twenty,” said bitterly that his parents’ faith was inexplicable to him. “They would all make marvelous corpses: disciplined, obedient, they would all move like one and die silently, in order and solemnity.”

It was only in 1945 at Nuremberg that Lemkin established for certain what had happened to the baker’s family, and to his own. There among the thousands of witness affidavits prepared for the trial of the Nazi war criminals, he found the one that described the final moments of the baker, his family, and their village in 1942: “Without screaming or crying, these people undressed, stood around by families, kissed each other, said farewells, and waited for the command of [the] SS Man who stood near the excavation also with a whip in his hand.”

Unable to rouse the baker to the danger ahead, unable even to persuade his own mother and father to leave their homes, Lemkin escaped to unoccupied Lithuania and then to Riga in Latvia, where he met Simon Dubnow, the great historian of eastern European Jewry. (A year and a half later, Dubnow would be led to his death in the dark forests outside of Riga. His last words were “Write it down! Write it down!”) From Riga, Lemkin secured an exit visa and flew to Stockholm, where scholars he had met at international law conferences in the 1930s gave him refuge and work at the university. There he persuaded officials in the Swedish government to get their consulates and businesses across Europe to send him the regulations, decrees, and laws that the Nazis were promulgating throughout their zones of occupation. Studying them in the Stockholm University library, Lemkin became almost the first legal scholar in safety abroad to detect the racialized and exterminatory logic behind Nazi jurisprudence: the dismissal of non-Aryans from all posts in occupied countries; the proscription of interracial marriage; the systematic destruction of Polish religious, cultural, and social institutions; the proscription of the Jews; the regime of the yellow star; the creation of ghettos in Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Łódź.

Believing that he could act on what he had learned only if he could get himself to the United States, Lemkin contacted Malcolm McDermott, a Duke University law professor who had visited Lemkin in Warsaw and had helped him to translate and publish an English version of the Polish penal code. McDermott arranged an appointment for Lemkin at Duke, and armed with this letter Lemkin secured an American visa. (Even now Duke University, to judge by a recent visit of mine, seems barely aware of its historic role in enabling Lemkin’s escape.) Lemkin’s only available route to the United States took him by plane from Stockholm to Moscow, then across Siberia by rail to Vladivostok, then by boat to Japan, followed by a Pacific crossing to Vancouver and Seattle, followed by a train journey that ended finally in Durham, North Carolina in April 1941. When McDermott met him and drove him around the city of Durham, “a lively, bustling city smelling of tobacco and human perspiration,” full of people waving greetings to each other, the exhausted Polish refugee burst into tears.

America in the spring and summer of 1941 was still neutral, still observing the Nazi occupation of Europe from a safe distance. McDermott paraded Lemkin to audiences throughout North Carolina and neighboring states, and everywhere he encountered genial, kindly incomprehension when he talked about the exterminatory intentions of the German regime. This remained the case even after June 1941, when the Germans invaded Russia and the S. S. and their killing units began to scythe through the Jewish communities of eastern Poland. It was at Duke Station that Lemkin received a final letter from his parents, written on a scrap of paper inside a battered envelope, saying only that “we are well and happy that the letter will find you in America.” He understood that his parents were doomed. Driving to yet another Chamber of Commerce talk in the byways of North Carolina, he shook his fist at the windscreen in helpless rage. He was “ashamed of my helplessness ... a shame that has not left me to this day. Guilt without guilt is more destructive to us than justified guilt, because in the first case catharsis is impossible.” Guilt without guilt: this phrase comes as close as this memoir ever gets to explaining the self-lacerating obsession that gripped Lemkin until the end.

After America did enter the war in December 1941, Lemkin went up to Washington to work in the Bureau of Economic Warfare. Even Archibald King, a colonel in the judge advocate general’s department of the Army, had trouble grasping that the German occupiers were not observing the Hague Convention on Land Warfare. “This is completely new to our constitutional thinking,” King said, when Lemkin tried to lay out Hitler’s philosophy of occupation.

Lemkin wrote President Roosevelt urging him to issue a public condemnation of genocide in occupied Europe, but he hit the same wall of incomprehension that Jan Karski, the envoy from the Polish underground, encountered when he met the president at the White House in 1943, and later Felix Frankfurter at the Supreme Court. Frankfurter said of his meeting with Karski: “I did not say that this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him.” Lemkin was certainly the one person in Washington in 1943 who could have believed Karski, but the two Poles never met.

Unable to secure a hearing in official Washington, Lemkin persuaded the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to fund and publish in late 1944 the great book that he had begun in Sweden on the law of occupation under Nazi rule. It was in this work that he gave what Winston Churchill had called a “crime without a name” the name by which it has been known ever since. A frenetic decade of activity followed, as Lemkin crisscrossed the Atlantic, successfully arguing for the inclusion of the new word—genocide—in the Nuremberg indictments, and then campaigning in Paris, London, New York, and Washington for the passage of the Genocide Convention. He took up residence in the corridors of the United Nations, camping out in the delegates’ lounge, a lonely, balding refugee with an overstuffed briefcase and a fanatical mastery of every comma in the convention draft. Diplomats came to dread his approach.

It is typical of Lemkin’s method that one decisive breakthrough in his campaign occurred at one o’clock in the morning in a Geneva park when, unable to sleep, he accosted another insomniac, who happened to be the Canadian ambassador, and persuaded the ambassador to arrange an appointment for him with the Australian president of the General Assembly in order to place the Genocide Convention on the U. N.’s agenda. This was how he worked, cadging meetings and cajoling the powerful until finally, on December 10, 1948, the U. N. General Assembly, then meeting in Paris, passed the Convention. Instead of celebrating, Lemkin checked himself into a Paris hospital, suffering from exhaustion.

In retrospect, what seems extraordinary is that foreign ministers, diplomats, and statesmen were willing to listen to him at all. He benefited from a very brief window of historical opportunity, when utopian plans for global order and global justice could get a hearing and the wartime unity of the victorious allies had not yet collapsed into the acrimony of the Cold War. By 1948, the tide of commitment to justice for Nazi war crimes was ebbing. The British were already objecting to the Genocide Convention on the grounds that, surely, Nuremberg was enough. The Russians were becoming adamantly opposed to any inclusion of political groups in the definition of genocide’s victims. The Cold War was squeezing shut the narrow space in which the victorious superpowers could cooperate on projects of international legal reconstruction. By 1949, the U. N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the Genocide Convention—the four basic pillars of the postwar legal order—had been erected. Lemkin could justly claim to have been responsible for one of them.

For the remainder of his life, Lemkin defended his definition of genocide against all comers, while extending it to cases, like the organized famine of the Ukrainian peasants, which in those days were still awaiting recognition as genocidal crimes. He was always indignant that genocide was associated solely with physical extermination. He believed that genocide could take also non-exterminatory forms, as in the determined attempt he had seen in his native Poland to crush Polish language, culture, and faith and turn a people into slaves.5 That, too, he regarded as an attempt at genocide.

Lemkin would have been astonished and indignant at the afterlife of his word—how victim groups of all kinds have pressed it into service to validate their victimization, and how powerful states have eschewed the word lest it entrain an obligation to act. The most shameful example of this came in 1994, when the government of the United States refused to use the word to describe the killings in Rwanda lest it trigger a legal obligation to intervene. Lemkin would have been dismayed that it took until Rwanda for an international tribunal to secure the first conviction under his convention.

We can only hope that Lemkin’s deepest conviction—that genocide runs like a red thread through human history, past, present, and future—is wrong. Hitler’s dark appeal, and Stalin’s, as well as the Khmer Rouge killers of Cambodia and the génocidaires of Rwanda, lay in offering their people a final solution: a world without enemies. Genocide is not just a murderous madness; it is, more deeply, a politics that promises a utopia beyond politics—one people, one land, one truth, the end of difference.6 Since genocide is a form of political utopia, it remains an enduring temptation in any multiethnic and multicultural society in crisis.

Lemkin did not live to see that the solution to genocide is not a convention in international law, or a change in the dark hearts of men, but something simpler and more fundamental—democracy and political liberty. Free societies, which allow differences to speak and be heard, and live by intermarriage, commerce, and free migration, and democratic societies, which convert enemies into adversaries and reconcile differences without resort to violence, are societies in which the genocidal temptation is unlikely and even inconceivable. The red thread can be snapped. We can awake from nightmare. We are not compelled to repeat evil and we are not required to become angels. We are simply required to live and let live, to embrace the minority competition of free societies. The solution to genocide lay closer to Lemkin than he ever realized: in the teeming streets of New York where he collapsed and died, in the wild and exuberant jostling of peoples and races that only a few generations after his death became the new world we take too glibly for granted.

Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

  1. See Simone Weil's The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of the Duties of Mankind.

  2. See A.F. Vrdolak's 2009 article “Human Rights and Genocide: The Work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in Modern International Law” in the European Journal of International Law (Vol. 20 No. 4).

  3. See Jay Winter's and Antoine Prost's René Cassin and Human Rights: From the Great War to the Universal Declaration.

  4. See Mark Mazower's 2004 article “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950” in Historical Journal (Vol. 47 No. 2).

  5. See Dirk Moses's article “Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide”.

  6. On genocide as a utopia, see my article “Lemkin’s Word” in the February 21, 2001 issue of The New Republic.