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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.

In 1929, Stalin began an aggressive program to collectivize the Soviet Union, which placed peasants on communal farms and socialized agriculture. But because many of the peasants, known as kulaks, refused to give up their land, Stalin ordered 10 million of them forced from their homes between 1929 and 1932, and declared that the kulaks “were to be eliminated as a class.” In total, Stalin had more than 30,000 kulaks killed outright and around two million deported to labor camps in the far north, Siberia, and Central Asia. Half a million of those deported to the camps had died by 1932.

As Stalin shipped off kulaks to their death, he also targeted Ukrainians for deportation. Part of the process of collectivization required the state to collect grain after it had been harvested as a way to pay for rapid industrialization, leaving peasants hopelessly underfed. In total, three to five million people died in Ukraine due to hunger. And as Naimark reminds us, Stalin encouraged this: Soviet authorities set up roadblocks to prevent Ukrainians from entering urban centers where food was available, refused shipments of food from abroad, and exported grain despite shortages. Stalin commanded that grain be obtained from Ukrainians “at all costs” and wrote that the Ukrainians “deliberately tried to undermine the Soviet state. It is a fight to the death.” Stalin, in other words, saw Ukrainian peasants as a political entity intent on undermining the revolution, and he sought to exterminate them.

There were also cases in which Stalin could have been condemned using the narrower concept of genocide as the murder of national enemies, particularly the Poles. One Soviet official, for example, declared that the Poles were to be “completely destroyed,” and Stalin commanded one bureaucrat to “dry up and purge this Polish espionage mud in the future as well. Destroy it in the interest of the USSR.” Stalin had 144,000 Poles arrested and 111,000 of those killed. Additionally, in what Naimark calls one of the clearest cases of genocide, Red Army soldiers removed Polish officers from detention camps and killed 4,400 of them in the Katyn Forest. This went beyond a simple political purge: “There is good reason to think that these actions,” Naimark writes, “derived from deeply embedded Russian and Soviet prejudices of anti-Polonism.”

But omitting political and social exterminations from the U.N. convention, Naimark argues, still weakened the concept of genocide. Samantha Power claims that because political groups were excluded from the convention, international lawyers had a difficult time accusing the Khmer Rouge of committing genocide in Cambodia when they “set out to wipe out whole classes of alleged ‘political enemies.’ ” A redefinition of the convention, Naimark believes, might allow for a more successful prosecution of genocidaires. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have passed their own laws which “have broadened the definition of genocide to include specific crimes .  .  . such as forced deportation and the execution of a group of resistors and their supporters,” and have convicted the first Soviet officials of genocide.

Naimark’s case is compelling: Who, after all, would want to leave loopholes for mass murderers to escape punishment they rightfully deserve? But one important problem with Naimark’s argument is his failing to consider the mixed consequences of such a major shift in the law. It is worth wondering what the immediate pragmatic results of such a change would be, given the failures of international law to pursue clear cases of racial and ethnic genocide. In places such as Rwanda and Sudan the international community failed to act even though the mass killings committed there fell under the old definition of genocide. A wider definition wouldn’t necessarily alter things.

A broader legal definition could also be a double-edged sword, making things worse for Western democracies who value human rights. In a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in 2009, Libya and Iran both accused Israel of committing genocide in the Gaza Strip, while Yemen’s representative referred to Israel’s military response to Gaza rocket fire as the “Gaza Holocaust.”

Naimark’s new definition makes the most sense in principle. It would be right to include oppressed political groups in our definition of genocide, especially if it allows us to make a stronger legal case against genocidaires. But broadening the convention’s definition will not make any difference in preventing genocide, and may multiply the accusations against countries, such as Israel or the United States, defending themselves against terrorism.

Aaron Rothstein is a writer in New York.


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