Monday, February 7, 2011

Defining a "crime without a name"

“But, what difference can I really make? I am just one person.”

As a secondary social studies teacher, I hear this comment a lot. When we look at the sheer numbers of those lost in 20th century genocides, it can feel overwhelming. What can any individual do to stop so much destruction? And, so, too often, we allow ourselves to turn a blind eye. Instead, we can stress the power of one person to shape how we think of these actions. We can encourage our students to be the voice to label the “crime without a name.” (Winston Churchill labeled the actions of the Nazis in Europe in the early days of World War II as such in a radio address dated August 24, 1941)

What can one person do? They can name the crime and bring international attention. They can petition and raise awareness. They can raise their voice in the din, and refuse to remain silent. The term genocide was developed by Raphael Lemkin. The term derives from the Greek word genos for family or tribe, and the suffix cide, which translates from the Latin as to kill. Lemkin had an interest in language and had even studied linguistics at university. He sought to identify what he felt was a crime to which no law had been written. Lemkin created the term genocide to mean “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” (Taken from the Preface of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe)

Lemkin was at university when another young man sought to avenge his people. Soghomon Tehlirian was a survivor of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. One of the main planners of this action was Mehmed Talaat. Tehlirian approached Talaat on the streets of Berlin, raising a pistol and ending a single life. The assassin would stand trial for murder, while Talaat was seen to be the victim. The attention paid to the trial brought up questions surrounding the Armenian genocide, and the motives behind Tehlirian’s actions. Lemkin asked a professor at the time why Tehlirian stood trial for murdering one man, while Talaat never faced a jury for killing millions. His professor explained it in terms of state sovereignty. What a sovereign nation does to its own people is no other nation’s business. No international law allowed one country to enter another country to punish crimes against citizens of the primary nation. Only Turkey could punish Talaat for his actions, and they had no interest in resurrecting the past.

Lemkin studied law, and began practicing, while retaining his interest in the Armenian massacres. As Hitler’s ambitions grew, Lemkin grew more concerned. With the invasion of Poland in 1939, Lemkin fled to Soviet-occupied territory and eventually to the United States. He worked hard to publicize his creation of the term genocide, and sought recognition for crimes against humanity. In 1944, he published his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. While aimed at exposing Nazi brutalities in occupied territories, Lemkin paid special attention to those without a voice - dedicating an entire chapter to the issue of genocide and a world response.

When the United Nations is founded following the Second World War, Lemkin worked tirelessly to create a legal binding definition of genocide. In December of 1948, after years of work, the United Nations ratified a convention to identify and punish genocide. One man’s dream of bringing justice to the voiceless millions who suffered under the actions of their own governments was finally being realized.

Now, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of all of us. One man acted to define a crime. Now it is on us to see it through and demand action from our governments when we see it. The next time your students ask what one person can do, tell them the story of Raphael Lemkin .

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