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Reviewed by:
  • Lemkin on Genocide Raphael Lemkin edited by Steven Leonard Jacobs
  • Roger W. Smith
Lemkin on Genocide, Raphael Lemkin, edited by Steven Leonard Jacobs (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), xiv + 416 pp, hardcover $110.00, paperback $36.99, electronic version available.

Lemkin on Genocide raises fundamental questions about the destruction of human groups: the definition of genocide; the nature and history of genocide; what kinds of groups should be protected. Ethnic, national, racial and religious groups are obvious targets, but what of political organizations? Why focus on the destruction of groups rather than the individuals who comprise them? In what way and to what extent can international law effectively ban genocide? Lemkin raises these and other questions, but his answers are not always clear or sufficiently illustrated with examples or explanations. Lemkin was a pioneer who marked the paths, but he did not always explore the paths that he saw before him. Despite the limitations of his work in defining and clarifying genocide, he pointed out, for the most part, the right questions for those who would come after him. In this sense, Lemkin’s life work has been crucial for the modern understanding of the most horrible crime that can be committed against a people.

Lemkin on Genocide is not a book in the ordinary sense: it is comprised of two manuscripts, both unfinished and both previously unpublished. The first, a proposal for a book to be called “Introduction to the Study of Genocide,” is often more like an outline or sketch of numerous topics. Yet it is this section, only fifty pages in length, that is crucial to understanding Lemkin’s vision of what genocide is, and how ratification of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide could help prevent the crime in the future, ultimately not through fear of punishment, but through a prompting of conscience. Part II is titled “History of Genocide,” and it was to be a multi-volume work on case studies of genocide, with one volume each on [End Page 136] “Antiquity,” “the Middle Ages,” and “Modern Times.” None of the volumes was completed, and only a few case studies from the different periods of history were finished, some of them as short as a few pages, several of them over thirty. Altogether some 340 pages of the texts are presented in the volume before us. Lemkin anticipated doing nine cases from antiquity (two were completed), thirteen from the Middle Ages (two were actually finished), and forty-one from modern times (nine were completed, but oddly, at least two of these focused in large part on the Mongols in the thirteenth century). Several of the studies are well done, but many others are not, and the one on the Incas is not history but romanticism run wild. Nor is it clear who actually wrote the reports: it is known that at least one—on the killing of Christians in sixteenth- to seventeenth-century Japan—was written by a graduate assistant.

Lemkin’s idea of writing a history of genocide was important, but the project suffered from poor quality and incompleteness. Nevertheless, he was able to make good use of what he had, even though some of the case studies were not reliable. He used the case studies in three ways. Advocacy was perhaps the most important: he pressed for the Genocide Convention by referring to case after case, showing the long history of the destruction of groups and whole peoples, language that is incorporated in the Convention itself. He used the cases to help define the crime, arguing that one example, in this instance the Holocaust, was not sufficient: one must recognize the numerous ways in which genocide could take place. Closely related to this were the motives that he could extract from the various cases: revenge, greed (he puts a great deal of emphasis, perhaps too much, on economic motives), sadism, inducing terror, lust for power, and others. Then he mentions but does not explain something that he has noticed: “in all genocides, there is a gradual descent toward the violence which seeks utter extermination” (p. 92). But why? Is it learning by doing, dehumanization of the perpetrators...


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