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History of Genocide

Genocide in History Study Guide (pdf)

Throughout history, people have been victimized due to race, color, religion, gender, national origin, ethnicity, social status, political ideology, sexual orientation, or mental or physical infirmities. While prejudice and discrimination do not always lead to genocide, they invariably precede it.

In the 20th century alone, man-made catastrophes claimed many millions of victims. One of the most horrific abominations was the slaughter of 11 million persons by the Nazis, more than 6 million of them Jews simply because they were Jews. Five million others murdered included Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally or physically infirm, Jehovah's Witnesses, and those who opposed Hitler.

Many of us would like to think we have learned from this and that such atrocities could never happen again. But they have. Areas more recently afflicted by genocide include Turkey, the former Soviet Union, China, Tibet, Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Bosnia. Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, genocide is taking place, for example, in Darfur in Africa.
Ladder of hate and intolerance

While large-scale massacres have taken place throughout the millennia, it is the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century which appears to have given Hitler the idea for what we now refer to as the Holocaust. For centuries, Christian Armenians were called the "faithful community" by Turks (the Armenians' original homeland had been divided up among the governments of Turkey, Russia and Iran). After Armenian leaders began pressing for greater protection and equal rights, and conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Russia escalated, the Empire began to look at its Armenian population as hostile. Between 1915 and 1923, Turkish Armenians had their property expropriated, and were deported, abducted, raped, tortured, starved, forced on death-marches and into concentration camps, and massacred. More than 1.5 million Armenians perished as a direct result of the Ottoman Empire's governmental actions, led initially by the "Young Turks" and later the "Turkish Nationalists." (Between 200,000 to 400,000 Greek Orthodox Christians also were deported; approximately one-quarter starved to death). While massacres had occurred before in the Empire, its policy of total extermination was unprecedented. By 1923, all of Asia Minor and what was previously known as West Armenia were literally wiped clean of Armenians.

The government took significant steps to keep its actions secret. Foreigners reported and took photos of the atrocities, almost the only reason the world knows of the Armenian Genocide. More than a few governments pressured the Ottoman Empire to cease its extermination of the Armenian people, and foreign relief agencies sent food and other supplies to survivors, but it was the end of World War I, consequent reshaping of the Empire into the Republic of Turkey and fall from power of its former government leaders that led to the end of the genocide. Sadly, those same governments failed to carry out their promises to provide help and support to the surviving Armenians afterward.

In 1939, when espousing his policy of "physical destruction of the enemy," known as extermination, to Nazi supreme commanders and commanding generals, Hitler said "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"*

It is ironic that the very person who pointed out the failure of the rest of the world to take effective action against the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, effect the rescue of its victims, or safeguard the well-being and interests of its survivors later, was the same person who took advantage of the knowledge gleaned from this terrible moment in history to launch the Holocaust and wipe many more millions of innocent people off the face of the earth.

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Genocide is defined here as the systematic extermination of a people for political, ethnic or religious reasons.

The Holocaust is defined here as the dispassionate, systematic extermination of more than six million Jews and five million members of other groups, including Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally or physically infirm, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, Catholic priests and others who opposed Hitler and the German Nazi regime from 1933-1945.

Intolerance is defined here as the unwillingness to grant or share equal civil, social or political rights. When it occurs particularly in religious matters, the freedom of expression is often attacked. Intolerance can be expressed and encouraged or instigated by individuals, groups, or institutions. When institutions such as local, state or national governments and private corporations express intolerance, it can and generally does lead to discrimination, which has been outlawed in the United States.

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, declared, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article l) and that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5).

For more information, please visit our Exhibits page.

*Hitler made his statement in Obersalzberg, on August 22, 1939. The English translation of this quotation comes from a document admitted into evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, referred to as L-3 or Exhibit USA-28.