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Bodies Count

A definition of genocide that makes sense of history.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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Stalin’s Genocides

‘For the Happiness of Our People’ (1949) by Dimitri Nalbandyan

akg-images / newscom

by Norman Naimark

Princeton, 176 pp., $26.95

In his biography of Stalin, Leon Trotsky wrote that “the twentieth century .  .  . has returned us in many respects to the ways and methods of the Renaissance.” Stalin’s world, Trotsky proclaimed, had deteriorated into “the most cruel Machiavellism,” where a ruler’s success depended not on his morals but on his ability to retain power.

Trotsky was right; he was even one of the victims when Stalin had him murdered. But Trotsky underestimated the extent of the cruelty. The numbers of those murdered are so enormous that it is still a struggle to comprehend their scale. One way has been to introduce the concept of genocide, a term that has been much more readily applied to Hitler than to Stalin. In 1933, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish intellectual shocked by the mass slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915-1918, unsuccessfully attempted to convince the League of Nations that anyone who tries to exterminate a “racial, religious, or social collectivity” is “liable for the crime of barbarity.” But in 1944, recognizing the enormity of Hitler’s crimes, he gave that barbarity a name: He coined the word “genocide” and argued that it included the “practices of extermination of nations and ethnic groups.”

In Stalin’s Genocides, Norman Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies at Stanford, wonders why Lemkin, and those who followed his analysis at the United Nations in writing the Genocide Convention, created a concept that incorporated Hitler’s killings—the attempt to extirpate the Jews was an attempt to exterminate an ethnic group (and nation)—but did not extend as far as Stalin’s murders. Naimark points out that Lemkin’s 1933 argument, unlike his 1944 book, included a reference to the extermination of a “social collectivity.” Such collectivities include political parties or groups organized around particular ideas; they could be almost any group considered to be a political opponent. In Lemkin’s earlier analysis, the attempt to exterminate such groups would also have been considered genocide. But not in 1944. And not in 1948, either, when Lemkin’s work influenced the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. That document also leaves out social and political collectivities, stating that genocide includes the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”

Naimark suggests that the reason for this alteration in the concept was simple, but it has had large consequences: Lemkin did not want to upset Stalin who, despite brutally exterminating political groups in the Soviet Union, was vital to the Allied war effort against Hitler. For similar defensive reasons after World War II, the Soviets refused to include social and political groups in the U.N. definition of genocide. They opposed a permanent U.N. tribunal for genocide, fearing what Aron Trainin, a leading Soviet specialist in international law, argued would be “unjustifiable interference in the internal life, in the justice system of individual states.”

It was ironic, too, that, although the United States was the Soviet Union’s nemesis, it took a similar position and also refused to ratify the convention. In A Problem from Hell (2002), Samantha Power argued that “American opposition was rooted in a traditional hostility toward any infringement on U.S. sovereignty.” Many politicians and lawyers worry that the convention would give carte blanche to the international community to violate the sanctity of U.S. sovereignty. So on December 9, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly compromised and adopted the convention without including political collectivities, thus protecting the Soviet Union from any recriminations while also making the United States uneasy about future interference.

This was the history of how genocide has been treated. On the one hand, as Naimark argues, the concept was made too narrow to encompass many crimes, but the early unease of the United States indicated that it was too broad as well. As far as the history of Stalin is concerned, Naimark shows that any reasonable concept of genocide should include Stalin’s crimes. And although much of what Naimark covers here has been explicated many times in many volumes, Naimark neatly summarizes the horrific history.

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