World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

The Question of Historical Perspective in World Historical Analysis


World History Analysis and the Comparative Study of Genocide

Brenda Melendy


     The debate is over. Where once a historian's mere suggestion that the Holocaust might be compared to other episodes of mass murder incurred accusations of relativazation, indeed launching an extensive and at times vicious Historikerstreit, the academic discipline of Holocaust Studies now embraces the study of genocide in a comparative context.1 The Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has named its journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies; history departments that once taught semester-long courses on the Holocaust instead now teach, often as a component of their general education curriculum, semester-long courses on genocide2; and works on comparative genocide have proliferated.3 The past insistence that viewing the Holocaust in a comparative context led to apologetics, that comparison itself degraded the meaning of the Holocaust, has faded, historians having recognized limits on claims that the Holocaust is unique. Comparison forms part of the historian's toolbox, and in the field of Genocide Studies, comparisons of some genocides (or some aspects of same) hold up, while others do not. It is in exercising such comparisons that knowledge is revealed.

     Indeed, the expansion of Holocaust Studies into Genocide Studies has moved the field of scholarly inquiry from European History into World History. If World History as a discipline seeks an "ability to see the world and see it whole," then the global perspective gained through studying genocide in a comparative context provides precisely that "comparison and contextualization" envisioned by the AP World History Curriculum Framework.4 "Genocide in World History" forms, regrettably yet significantly, one aspect of every World History survey course I teach. In fact, genocide easily book-ends the second-semester course, from massacres in early sixteenth-century Mexico to the Serbia-Kosovo war in 1998-9. A comparative genocides course, or unit, measures historical examples of mass murder against the Holocaust and against international standards of genocide. By its very definition, comparative genocide, it utilizes terms of analysis familiar to any World historian. The comparative distills common structures of genocides. One structure that every genocide has in common is intent: the intention to destroy the other. The methods and the time frame may differ from genocide to genocide, but intention not only forms an essential ingredient in the legal definition, it also constitutes the ideological scaffold upon which all the other structures of genocide are built. Ben Kiernan names that scaffold the "ideological preoccupation" of the state planning genocide.5 But definition itself remains problematic. While a juristic definition remains central to naming genocides once they have occurred, beyond the legal terminology lies practical knowledge. In identifying structural similarities that genocides share, analysis of genocide can assume global parameters—the discussion can broaden beyond historical cataloging of genocide after genocide to comparison across genocides using new terms of analysis. Here I will focus on three: the cover of war, the power of words, and misogynistic violence.

The G-Word

     Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist, invented the term genocide in 1942 to describe the crimes committed during the Nazi occupation of Europe. He combined the Greek word genos, meaning race or tribe, with the Latin word cide, meaning killing. Lemkin argued genocide signified "a coordinated plan . . . aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the ultimate goal of annihilating the groups themselves."6 Then, as now, genocide is used as "a universal word to label crimes . . . for which conventional words like catastrophe, massacre, [and] slaughter have insufficient meaning."7 Through its adoption of the Convention on Genocide in 1948, the United Nations provides a legal definition of genocide:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group:

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.8

This two-part definition not only provides a list of actions that count as genocide, but it also emphasizes intent. Without intention to "destroy, in whole or in part," genocide has not occurred. The convention also commits the signatories to take action "appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide" and it provides for the establishment of tribunals to try persons charged with genocide. The United States ratified this convention in 1988, forty years after its adoption by the General Assembly.9

     Just as the outlawing of genocide by the United Nations close to sixty years ago has not ended genocide, neither has it compelled the convention's signatories to take action to prevent or suppress genocide. The hesitancy of one nation to transgress the sovereignty of another remains high. Historically, international leaders have studiously avoided the use of the "G-Word," genocide. To use it implies commitment to act. The verbal acrobatics needed to avoid the use of the G-word reached ludicrous proportions in the United States in the spring of 1994 as the State Department debated how best to define what was happening in Rwanda. When asked in June 1994 by Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner to characterize those events, Christine Shelly, the State Department spokesperson, responded, "We have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda." The exchange continued:

Elsner: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

Shelly: Alan, that's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer.10

By the time the United States was willing to denote the events in Rwanda as genocide, at least 800,000 people had been killed, the Hutu extremists had already experienced military defeat, and the genocide of Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutu was, at that point, to all intents and purposes over.

     The legal definition set in the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide, itself the result of political horse-trading in the Cold War context, is both familiar and frustrating. The Convention has failed, again and again, in stopping genocide, largely due to the built-in limitations of the definition. For instance, state-directed mass murder of political opponents, such as the disappearance of tens of thousands of political dissidents during Argentina's Dirty War from 1976-1983, or, more pertinently, due to the need for the Soviet Union's approval of the convention in 1948, the millions of deaths in Stalinist Russia, would not count as genocides under the convention in its current format. The Cambodian genocide of millions of its citizens was not recognized as such while it was happening because of the perception that it was primarily political opponents, rather than religious or ethnic groups, who were being killed as a matter of state policy. The shortcomings of the convention instead tie signatories' hands when international crises erupt. Renowned Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer argues "We need stronger analytical tools than the ones provided to us by the 1948 convention to call a genocide a genocide when we see it."11 Comparison provides one such tool. Through comparison of such events as the deportation of the Armenians from Ottoman Turkey in 1915 and the targeting of educated and urban Cambodians for annihilation in the 1970s, patterns emerge that permit us to proceed from merely noting commonalities among genocides to mapping blueprints which have been employed to carry out genocides across the world.

Cover of War

     Genocides take place under cover of war. One can interpret "cover" in several ways, most specifically "cover" as in camouflage or protection, or "cover" as in cover-up and obfuscation. The violence inherent in war obscures and disguises the violence of genocide. Nations at war justify their military actions through claims of protecting the nation from external enemies—it requires only a short additional step to justify the need to protect the nation from internal enemies. War connects internal and external enemies, bringing the war closer to home and permitting genocide where the internal enemies are found: Kigali in 1994, or occupied Poland and Russia during World War II. And nations or individuals intent on genocide rely on the chaos of war and the expanded power of the executive or "on-the-spot" commanders to conceal their activities or, if genocidal acts are detected, to count on them going unpunished.

     The Armenian genocide of 1915 took place during, or "under cover of," World War I. The Ottoman government attributed its 3rd Army's poor showing on the Russian frontier (where Turkish Armenians lived) to Armenian sabotage. The government of the Ottoman Empire justified the rounding-up and deportation of Armenians in Turkey as a "wartime necessity"; the Empire needed protection from its internal and external enemies alike. Scholars can measure the success of Ottoman Turkey's "wartime necessity" strategy by the fact that no prosecutions were ever pursued (in spite of US ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr.'s urgent communiqués home on the endemic abuses (read "genocide") inherent in the deportations,12 and in spite of extensive documentation collected by Arnold Toynbee and published after the war by the British Foreign Office).13 And indeed, the "chaos of war" became the primary exculpatory factor in this case: war in all its chaos resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; who would be charged, who remained to bring charges, and in what court? The Ottoman genocidaires could count on no one caring, a sentiment captured in the most notorious pronouncement of international apathy uttered by Adolf Hitler just before Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland: "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"14

     The Holocaust provides the prima facie case for the use of war to cover genocide. The first genocidal killing, the euthanizing of Baby Knauer, took place just days after the war started on September 1, 1939.15 This infant was apparently born with one leg and part of an arm missing, may have been blind, and may have suffered from mental retardation. An appeal from the children's parents for euthanasia reached Hitler; he ordered his personal physician to examine the child and, if he concurred with the diagnosis in the appeal, to kill the child. The physician examined, concurred, and killed. But with newspapers full of feats of military heroism and triumphs in the war against Poland, how would the death of a severely handicapped child attract much attention? Begun in 1939, the killing of children defined as handicapped continued until war's end. Few records of the children's killings have survived; the best estimate is that doctors in Germany killed at least 5,000 children and teens—many for severe disabilities or incurable disease, but others for symptoms such as "slow learner" or "disobeys parental authority."16 The euthanasia of children preceded the killing of disabled adults by less than a year. For the official duration of the T-4 program (euthanizing adults) from 1940-1941, medical personnel "euthanized" a total of 70,273 adults in the six killing centers located in remote regions of Germany and Austria.17

     As has been extensively discussed elsewhere, the death camps that became the iconographic sites of the Holocaust (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Madjanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka) were located in occupied Poland, intentionally out of sight of the German people. Soldiers and SS who participated in killing in the camps or in roundups were sworn to secrecy. One of my students once naively wrote in a paper, "Why didn't people know about this? Didn't they broadcast these events on TV?" While his question on the one hand makes me yearn for a more innocent time when genocidal killing wasn't broadcast on television or you-tube, on the other it highlights once more the central motive—keep it secret, use war to limit access to the killing centers, and use war to restrict information flow in the name of national security. The example of the Holocaust also demonstrates the use of obfuscatory language: mercy death, resettlement, special treatment, final solution. Euphemisms have long formed a part of the cover of war—Americans remember Vietnam-era terms like friendly-fire, strategic hamlet, kill ratios.

     War formed the crucible for the Cambodian genocide. Just as the Khmer Rouge used the fear of expanding Communist power in neighboring Vietnam to solidify their power base, so too did they successfully exploit fear of United States bombing raids in Cambodia in the early 1970s to recruit members. As one such recruit later reported,

     Every time after there had been bombing, [the Khmer Rouge] would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched. . . . Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. . . . That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over. . . . It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.18

     International attention focused on Vietnam in 1973-1975, and a certain weariness threshold for strife in southeast Asia had long been crossed. The Lon Nol regime in Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, just two weeks before the last helicopter departed from the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon. The international media's focus on the long-anticipated and dramatic fall of Saigon eclipsed the tragedy unfolding in Cambodia.

     The genocide in Rwanda also took place in the context of an on-going war. In October 1990, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked Rwanda from Uganda. The RPF was largely comprised of sons of Tutsi exiles who, at the time of Rwandan independence in 1959, had fled violent reprisals instituted by the majority Hutu then coming into political power. The period between the start of the war and the onset of the genocide in April 1994 was marked by increasing violence against political opponents of the Hutu extremist regime. President Juvenal Habyarimana's government used the invasion of Rwanda as the justification for arms deals with Egypt, South Africa, and France, and to justify the drawing up of lists of "enemies of the regime" and contingency plans for organization at the communal level of "armed cadres" for the "self-defense of the nation."19 Indeed, already by 1992 the Hutu militias had acquired and begun distributing eighty-five tons of munitions and 580,000 machetes.20 This entire planning process took place in secret, under cover of the war against the "Tutsi Rebels." Even when an insider of the Habyarimana government blew that cover as late as January 11, 1994, Major General Romeo Dallaire's urgent telegram to his supervisor at the United Nations was dismissed as sensationalist.21 War obscured an accurate assessment of what was happening in Rwanda; the chaos of war, indeed, the established narrative of war itself, contributed to the willingness of outside observers to believe in the need for arming portions of the population. The use of the cover of war as a legitimization for violence perhaps reached its pinnacle with the shooting down of President Habyarimana's plane on April 6, 1994. Returning from a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania where regional powers had insisted he sign and begin to implement a peace agreement that would share some political power with the RPF Tutsis, Habyarimana, as well as Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryamira, perished in the plane crash. Students of the Rwanda genocide generally agree that the crash acted as the signal for the immediate implementation of plans that had been drawn up months previously for the systematic elimination of the opponents and enemies of Hutu Power.22 The uncertainty unleashed by the rocket attack on the plane as it passed over the President's compound in Kigali served as an effective cover for and deterrent from any counter action against the erection of roadblocks (the iconographic site of murder for this particular genocide) and the rounding up and murder of (mostly) Tutsi Rwandans. The killings continued unabated until the RPF achieved military control of the country, and they continue in the refugee camps in Congo. Genocide was covered by war.

The Power of Words

     Language provides another avenue for comparing genocides. No matter where, no matter what decade, genocidaires consistently use rhetoric that implies that the nation is under attack, and that the only solution is the control and ultimately the elimination of a series of internal enemies of the state. Genocidaires develop and employ language and rhetoric to define the nation in terms of citizens under attack by those the leaders wish to exclude from the national body. The redefinition of nation as well as the systematic control of those to be excluded from it emerges clearly in any study of genocide. Documents from four genocides illustrate this point. The first document is a transcription from a secret meeting held in December 1914 or January 1915. The document labeled "The 10 commandments of the COMITE UNION AND PROGRES [sic]" outlines a specific plan and method for killing or excluding Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, progressing from systematic arrests through isolation to outright extermination.23 The second document, titled "Ten Commandments of the Hutu," was published in the Hutu paper Kangura in December 1990. These commandments seek to end any social (including sexual) relationships between Hutu and Tutsi, and restrict economic, academic, and military occupations to Hutu alone.24 The third document is the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that likewise took as their aim ending sexual relationships between Aryans and Jews and stripping citizenship rights from German Jews. And the fourth document is the "Twelve Revolutionary Principles" or "Angkar's Commandments." These commandments constitute a series of "Thou shalt" injunctions instructing the Khmer to love, honor and respect the revolutionary people while maintaining a constant struggle against the enemy.25

     The four documents have different particular intents, but examined comparatively they reveal a unity of purpose. Each instance reveals a nation worried about its place in the international order, and preoccupied with its legitimacy or stability, seeking to reiterate its national identity. In three of those instances, the unstable nation emulates an ancient code of laws that itself established national identity. The new commandments recast the Mosaic law "you shall have no other Gods before me" as "the Nation is God, and the people of that nation shall be kept holy." The sacrosanct nature of that nation is protected through blood sacrifice, forcible conversion, and restrictions on sexual relations.26 Just as the ancient Hebrews (along with most other ancient cultures) used ritual sacrifice of animals as part of their religious practice to redirect aggressive community energies toward an external victim,27 so too did these threatened nations of the twentieth century seek to cleanse and purify themselves through demanding the "sacrifice"—exclusion or ultimately, elimination—of "foreign" enemies, whether Armenians, Jews, Tutsi, or "lackeys of American imperialists."28

     The use of language depicting genocides as the unsurprising result of "age-old conflicts" or "tribal hatreds" comprises another comparison. Language in these instances is used to obscure genocidal intent. For example, Nazi propaganda about "the eternal Jew" echoed anti-Semitic sentiments popularly held at that time. "Our burden, the Jew," when uttered by the Nazis, seemed a continuation rather than a culmination of centuries of western European traditions of persecuting Jews. Some Jews who had fled Germany in the violent period right after Hitler's assumption of power in 1933 even returned to Germany after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, reasoning that the clarity of the laws would calm things down, that the political climate would shift again eventually, and that after all, Jews had weathered bad times before and could do so again. The revitalization of an "age-old" conflict between Jews and Christians could be attributed to "natural" historical cycles, preventing the imperative recognition that the Nazi effort was fundamentally new and different. Familiar language was used to hide the Nazis' political need for a vehicle to assist their rise to power.

     Similarly, the complexities of the Rwandan genocide get lost in the simple explanation of "tribal hatreds" between Tutsi and Hutu. While an ethnic component certainly existed, the genocide constituted much more an overt attempt on the part of Hutu Power extremists to solidify their own political power—fueling anti-Tutsi resentments in order to achieve that aim. The American media doggedly latched on to the "tribal hatreds" explanation in spite of efforts to explain otherwise. When National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling interviewed Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, an associate professor of African Studies at Howard University, the journalist couldn't let go of the "tribal hatreds" explanation in spite of Nzongola-Ntalaja's efforts to stress the complexities and realities of political goals. Nzongola-Ntalaja attempted to directly answer Zwerdling's question, "Why is tribal violence so deep?" with "Most of it has been exacerbated by politicians hungry for more power," but Zwerdling found that response unacceptable. The exchange continued:

Z: . . . Well, of course, politicians can exacerbate what tensions already exist. I mean, you're not arguing, are you, that these tribal hatreds were not already there before modern politicians came along?

N: I'm saying that the ethnic groups do have prejudices and people do tend to feel they may be different from other groups. But it's not enough to make a person pick up a knife or a gun and kill somebody else. It is when politicians come and excite passion and try to threaten people—make people believe that they are being threatened by other groups that are going to be extinguished.

Z: Of course, in most of these battlegrounds, though, there is ancient ethnic hatred and something that surprises me actually is that you're blaming modern, contemporary African politicians for this divide and conquer, playing one tribe against another.29

While one might hope for NPR journalists to be intelligent and open-minded, here we have an American journalist who can't shed his perception that Rwandans (or any Africans?) are so crippled by "ancient tribal hatreds" that they prove incapable of political maneuvering. The facile explanation of "ancient tribal hatreds" thus served to obscure the import of the genocide, and the international public, eager to be exculpated for their lack of action, bought it. Ancient tribal hatreds. Nothing we could have done anyway. It was a genocide waiting to happen.

     Everyday language is used to instruct and sanitize genocide. Paul Rusesabagina, a director at the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali whose story was depicted in the film "Hotel Rwanda," asserted in his memoir of those events that "words are the most effective weapons of death in a man's arsenal."30 Code language called Rwandans to attack the "cockroaches": "Cut the tall trees. Clean your neighborhood. Do your duty."31 "If you kill a rat, you must also kill the rat in gestation. It will grow up to be a rat like the others."32 The Hutu militia, known as the Interahamwe, meaning "those who work together," initially carried the meaning of cooperative labor performed in the service of the state. In the coded language of genocide, however, the notion of "work" took on new meaning ("Let us go and do the work," namely kill)33 and in addition, the Interahamwe themselves blithely punned on their name with intemerahamwe, or "those who chop together." The coded language is both overt and provides "plausible deniability" for the leaders. Similar language appears in Democratic Kampuchea: "What is infected must be cut out. What is rotten must be removed. What is too long must be shortened and made the right length. It isn't enough to cut down a bad plant, it must be uprooted."34 The appeal to cut to size, to practice good hygiene, to destroy not just the apparent enemy, but its roots or progeny appears in both sets of rhetoric. The Khmer Rouge slogan, "No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out," sums up the better safe than sorry approach of genocidaires everywhere.35 Life lost its value; the language of hate had relegated that value to a sentimental past.

Misogynistic Violence

     While rape and violent acts against women are common to war, misogynistic violence is a distinctive feature of genocide. Women become special targets during genocides, doubly victimized due to their ethnicity and their gender. Misogynistic genocidal violence generally takes one of two forms. As bearers of the future generation of the "other," women of the despised ethnic group must be killed in order to eradicate the group and any possible avengers in the next generation. Alternatively, in firmly patriarchal societies where the ethnicity of the father determines the ethnicity of the offspring, mass rape and deliberate impregnation of the women in the targeted group likewise intended to eradicate the "other" through spawning a new generation of genocidaires on the bodies of the female victims.

     Destruction of women as the bearers of undesirable (from the genocidaires' perspective) life acts as central and common justification for murder within genocides. A gruesome example of this comes from the 1972 genocide in Burundi, where

[t]here was a manner of cutting the stomach [of a pregnant woman]. Everything that was found in the interior was lifted out without cutting the cord. The cadaver of the mama, the cadaver of the baby, of the future, they rotted on the road. Not even burial.36

The future cannot be permitted to be born; pregnant women in targeted groups are especially at risk. That pregnancy brought a death sentence was obvious to Gisella Perl, a Hungarian Jewish obstetrician and gynecologist deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Since "racial hygiene" as conceptualized by the Nazis excluded Jews from the national body, "it followed that Jewish women and their newly born or unborn babies were doomed. When she realized the fate that awaited pregnant women, especially Jews, Gisella Perl became a clandestine Auschwitz abortionist."37 Through ending life, Perl preserved life (and the possibility of future lives). Her actions reveal another example of a choiceless choice experienced by Holocaust victims, and indeed, other genocide victims.38

     In Rwanda, Tutsi women were demonized in Hutu Power propaganda as "calculat[ing] seductress-spies" who, commonly denoted in Kinyarwanda as Ibizungerezi (meaning beautiful and sexy), were accused of luring Hutu men into marriage only to bear a child "really for her Tutsi brothers."39 Tutsi women, therefore, were enemies of the state because of their sexual and reproductive power. Seen through this sexualized lens, ethnically-targeted violent rape became a dominant part of the genocide, rape meant to degrade and destroy Tutsi women painted by Hutu Power propaganda as thinking they were "too good" for Hutu men.40 Rape, genital mutilation and/or breast oblation of women before their murder (or as a prelude to being left to bleed to death) formed a common risk faced at Interahamwe roadblocks.41 Ironically, many convicted genocidaires have denied committing or witnessing rape,42 a claim firmly contradicted by solid evidence, which instead suggests between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes of women and girls as part of the genocide.43 Sexual slavery presented another form of misogynistic violence that accompanied this genocide; commanders selected attractive girls to keep as "wives," and women in this way deferred death for themselves and their families. This practice was itself cloaked in secrecy because, even though it fit with the loot-and-steal mentality of the genocidaires, it also contradicted Hutu Power philosophy that emphasized the uncleanliness of such Tutsi girls.44

     Mass rape becomes genocide when it is used as state policy to alter the ethnic composition in a war zone. To draw on a relatively recent example, it has been alleged that Arab militia in Darfur systematically raped, with intent to impregnate, the African women there in order to eliminate the African population of the region.45 While this constitutes a slow method of genocide that would extend over two to three generations, it nevertheless provides an example of misogynistic violence meant to result in the slow but steady destruction of a people. Serbs overtly embraced this ideology during the Bosnian genocide when they set up rape camps in schools, factories, and barns, among other ad hoc locations. Held for months at a time, women often were raped several times daily by Serbs, apparently under orders of the president.46 Gynecologists were summoned to certify pregnancies, and once pregnant, women often were held past the point where they could safely obtain an abortion.47 By this means the Serbs embraced a policy of "ethnic cleansing" that intended to eradicate the Bosnian ethnicity and replace it with Serb—a clear act of genocide under the 1948 Convention.

     The use of rape as a military policy in the series of conflicts constituting the demise of Yugoslavia has been well documented.48 Newsday reporter Roy Gutman conducted extensive interviews of rape victims in Bosnia in 1992, verifying that mass rape was a war aim.49 Rape was one instrument of the Serb policy of "ethnic cleansing," the attempt to rid Bosnia of Bosnians. Serb forces continued the "ethnic cleansing through rape" policy in their advances on Kosovo in 1999, where rape was used to terrorize the Albanian population. When rape is intentionally used to "inflict on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," as the Serb rape policies did, that is genocide. It is, as Beverly Allen has designated it, genocidal rape.50

     While the Genocide Convention does not specifically include rape as an act of genocide, rape has been universally recognized as a violation of human rights and as a war crime, and courts trying genocidaires have listed rape as one of the acts of genocides in the indictments. The Genocide Convention lists, among other things, "Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group," and certainly mass rapes of entire groups, as intentional policy, such as those perpetrated in Bosnia and in Rwanda, and later in Kosovo, caused both bodily and mental harm. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in their 1998 decision in the trial of former mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, found that rape and sexual violence targeting Tutsi women did indeed constitute genocide, setting the legal precedent for expanding the application of the Genocide Convention.51


     As the case of genocidal rape convictions demonstrates, the definition of genocide can be augmented. This is where Genocide Studies and World History cross paths. Through the comparative lens of World History genocide is revealed as more than gas chambers and machetes, the systematic machinery of death. What comes into view with a world historical analysis of genocide is the degree to which gender finds a place at its forefront. Initially, Holocaust historians were reluctant to embrace gender analysis, for fear it would dilute the meaning of the intended victimization of the Shoah. In expanding Holocaust Studies into Genocide Studies, parallel to the expansion of methodologies in World History, focused gender analysis reveals explicit, concentrated assault on women as a feature of genocides. Genocide Studies and World History thus mutually inform one another. The obscuring effects of war and of language, and the harm intended through words and misogynistic violence are clear hallmarks of genocide that contribute to this expanded definition. Placing genocide firmly within the new World History provides a thread to be followed throughout the expanse of human history, providing opportunities for comparisons between cultures and across time. Finally, in the classroom setting, including Genocide Studies within the curricula of World History is a powerful vehicle for motivating student interest and compassion. While to be sure each incident of genocide takes place in its own specific cultural, historical, and geographic context, employing comparative analysis does not sacrifice the particular for the universal. The value of recognizing structures in common lies in parsing the particulars, not in homogenizing the facts to create a generic genocide. Genocide Studies, partnered with World History, is a rich field of scholarly endeavor where commonalities among genocides function as a solid base upon which particular knowledge can be built.

Teaching Approaches and Resources on Genocide

     The bibliography on the topic is immense, but it is not difficult to develop a short list useful for teaching and learning on the subject. The two best starting points for teachers preparing Holocaust and genocide teaching units are the curriculum guide published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the website One Million Bones. Here teachers will find both excellent guidance on approaching the topic, as well as extensive practical resources and lesson plans.

A Resource Book for Educators: Teaching about the Holocaust. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1995.

One Million Bones. The go-to resource for all things genocide. Case studies, curriculum guides, and lesson plans. Filmographies, both documentary and Hollywood. On-line multi-media, both scholarly speeches and youtube videos.

Other useful on-line resources include:

The Genocide Teaching Project, Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Washington College of Law, American University. Two lesson plans include a 90 minute lesson on Rwanda, and a 45 minute lesson on the Sudan.

The Genocide Education Project. Lesson plans and instructional materials focused on the Armenian Genocide.

Rwanda Genocide Lesson Plan, created by the Holocaust Museum Houston. Comprehensive lesson plan, including bibliography of multi-media resources and accessible reading materials.

Lesson Plan for Teaching the Holocaust and Genocide.

Shawn Drake has crafted this lesson plan for his 10th grade World History class. Citing South Carolina state teaching standards, the lesson plan includes a bibliography of resources, student handouts, and pre- and post-tests.

Totally Unofficial: Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention: A Series of Three Lessons. Facing History and Ourselves. The focus of these lesson plans is understanding and applying the definition of genocide.

Lesson Planet. Many teachers may already be familiar with Lesson Planet. It has numerous lessons plans on comparative genocide and on individual genocides.

There are so many books on the Holocaust, the Rwandan, Armenian, and other genocides available. A few print resources to help teachers with background knowledge and accessible short articles include:

Bartov, Omer and Phyllis Mack, eds. In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. Good set of essays that provides a comparative overview of different genocides, using religion as an organizing theme.

Chalk, Frank and Kurt Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. Very useful for definitions and case studies.

Hinton, Alexander Laban, ed., Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Kiernan, Ben. Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. As the title suggests, a comprehensive look at genocides throughout world history.

Stone , Dan, ed. The Historiography of Genocide. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Brenda Melendy is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She can be contacted at


1 Charles S. Maier comments extensively on the Historians' Debate and the comparison issue in his series of essays, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

2 Components of the California State University System (both at San Francisco and Chico, e.g.) teach Holocaust and Genocide courses in their general education curriculum.

3 To give just two examples: Alan S. Rosenbaum, ed., Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009), and Carol Rittner, John K. Roth and James M. Smith, eds., Will Genocide Ever End? (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 2002).

4 Robert Strayer, "The Centrality of Context in World History: Teaching the Twentieth Century," World History Connected February 2011 <> (18 May 2011).

5 Ben Kiernan, "Hitler, Pol Pot, and Hutu Power: Common Themes in Genocidal Ideologies," in Rosenbaum, Is the Holocaust Unique? 223-4.

6 Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, 1944), 79.

7 Stephen C. Feinstein, "Understanding the G-Word," in Rittner, Roth and Smith, eds., Will Genocide Ever End?, 40.

8 Leo Kuper, Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 210.

9 Of the 43 nations that have ratified the convention, 33 ratified within 10 years of the U.N.'s adoption of the convention, and only 3 have ratified later than the United States did in 1988.

10 Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Perennial, 2003), 363-364.

11 Yehuda Bauer, "On the Holocaust and Other Genocides," Public Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 5 October 2006, 2.

12 Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 278.

13 James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916. Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Falloden by Viscount Bryce (Princeton: Gomidas Institute, 2000).

14 "Contents of Hitler's Talk to the Supreme Commander and Commanding Generals, Obersalzberg, 22 August 1939," Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), Vol. VII, Document L3, pp. 752-753.

15 Henry Friedlander, From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 39.

16 Friedlander, Euthanasia, 61.

17 Friedlander, Euthanasia, 109.

18 Power, Problem from Hell, 94.

19 "Self-Defense of the Population, Secret Order from the Rwandan Minister of Defense, Aug. 26, 1991," Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Arming Rwanda, Appendix C.

20 Power, Problem from Hell, 337.

21 Facsimile from Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander, United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, to Maj. Gen. Maurice Baril, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, "Request for Protection for Informant," January 11, 1994 <> (4 December 2006); Power, Problem from Hell, 343.

22 For instance, the organization African Rights reports "The crash of the Presidential aeroplane acted as a signal for the Interahamwe and Presidential Guard to begin the systematic hunt for Tutsis. The search started simultaneously in many parts of the country: Kigali, Kibuye, Kibungo, Cyangugu, Gikongoro." Rakiya Omaar, Rwanda: Death, Despair, and Defiance (London: African Rights, 1995), 574.

23 Balakian, Burning Tigris, 189-190.

24 Power, Problem from Hell, 338-339.

25 François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, Nancy Amphoux, trans. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), 117-118.

26 See, for instance the CUP interdiction, "Apply measures to exterminate all males under 50, priests and teachers, leave girls and children to be Islamized" (Balakian 190) or the Hutu edict, "We shall consider a traitor any Hutu who marries a Tutsi woman, befriends a Tutsi woman, employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or concubine" (Power 338).

27 Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 28-29.

28 Ponchaud, Cambodia, 118.

29 Power, Problem from Hell, 355.

30 Paul Ruseabagina, with Tom Zoellner, An Ordinary Man, an Autobiography (New York: Viking, 2006), xiv.

31 Rusesabagina, Ordinary Man, xiv.

32 Scott Straus, Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 47.

33 Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 368.

34 Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 156.

35 Henri Locard, Pol Pot's Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004), 210.

36 René Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 22 (italics mine).

37 Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, eds., Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1993), 105.

38 Lawrence Langer develops the concept of choiceless choices in his work, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); one convicted Rwandan genocidaire explained his choiceless choice: being forced to decapitate his own brother. "The reservist took me and gave me a machete. He put a gun behind my head and said, 'If you do not cut, I will fire.' So I cut. That is my crime." Straus, Intimate Enemy, 41.

39 Human Rights Watch /Africa, Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), 18, 16.

40 Shattered Lives, 18.

41 Christopher C. Taylor, "The Cultural Face of Terror in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994," in Alexander Laban Hinton, ed., Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 141.

42In the excerpted interviews presented by Straus, whenever a convicted genocidaire was asked if he had raped, the answer was No. Two interviewees indicated having heard that rape had happened, but they did not witness it. Straus, Intimate Enemy, passim.

43 Laura Flanders, "Rwanda's Living Casualties" in Anne Llewellyn Barstow, ed., War's Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes Against Women (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), 96.

44 The Hutu Ten Commandments condemned sexual relations with Tutsi women (Power, 338); one Hutu militia commander cautioned his men against taking Tutsi women as wives with the proverb, "He who sweeps must get rid of the waste, instead of bringing it into the house" (Strauss, 44).

45 Amnesty International, "Darfur: Rape as a Weapon of War: Sexual Violence and its Consequences," AFR 54/076/2004, 19 July 2004,
<> (7 March 2007).

46 United Nations Security Council, Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780(1992) [report on-line] (accessed 27 April 2011); available from; Internet.

47 Catherine N. Niarchos, "Women, War, and Rape: Challenges Facing the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia," Human Rights Quarterly 17 (1995): 657 n. 9.

48 Human Rights Watch, Kosovo: Rape as a Weapon of "Ethnic Cleansing [report on-line] (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000, accessed 22 April 2011); available from; Internet.

49 Carol Rittner, "Rape as a Weapon of Genocide," in Rittner, Roth, and Smith, eds., Will Genocide Ever End?, 93.

50 Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), vii.

51 Jennifer Balint, "Rape as a Tool of Genocide," in Israel W. Charny, ed., Encyclopedia of Genocide, vol. II (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999), 492.


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use