Section: What was the Holocaust?

What is Genocide?

One of five hundred children’s drawings collected by Waging Peace showing killings, bombing and looting committed by government troops. In November 2007, the drawings were accepted by the International Criminal Court as contextual evidence of the crimes committed in Darfur.

One of five hundred children’s drawings collected by Waging Peace showing killings, bombing and looting committed by government troops. In November 2007, the drawings were accepted by the International Criminal Court as contextual evidence of the crimes committed in Darfur.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Genocide is defined as an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin  in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In creating the term ‘genocide’, Lemkin intended to more clearly define the crime of mass murder of groups of people and to raise awareness of it.

Genocide became a crime in itself following the adoption of the ‘Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948, as result of the events of the Holocaust. The Convention came into force on 12 January 1951.

Various different acts are defined in the convention as acts of genocide, including:

  1. Killing members of a group.
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Stages of Genocide

In 1987, Gregory Stanton, a professor of law, published a paper which explored how genocides develop and unfold.

In his original work, Stanton identified eight key stages which resulted in acts of genocide. According to Stanton’s model, some of these stages can happen at the same time or in a different order. In 2012, Stanton expanded on these ideas, and added two further stages (Discrimination and Persecution) to make ten. According to Stanton’s current model, therefore, the stages of genocide are as follows:

  1. Classification – Dividing people into ‘them’ and ‘us’.
  2. Symbolisation – Forcing groups to wear or be associated with symbols which identify them as different.
  3. Discrimination – Excluding groups from participating in civil society, such as by excluding them from voting or certain places. In Nazi Germany, for example, Jews were not allowed to sit on certain park benches.
  4. Dehumanisation – To deny the humanity of one group, and associate them with animals or diseases in order to belittle them.
  5. Organisation – Training police or army units and providing them with weapons and knowledge in order to persecute a group in future.
  6. Polarisation – Using propaganda to polarise society, create distance and exclude a group further.
  7. Preparation – Planning of mass murder and identifying specific victims.
  8. Persecution – Incarcerating groups in ghettos or concentration camps , forcibly displacing groups, expropriating  property, belongings or wealth.
  9. Extermination – Committing mass murder.
  10. Denial – Denial of any crimes. This does not necessarily mean denying that the acts of murder happened, but denying that these acts were a crime, and were in fact justified.

Stanton hoped that by identifying these stages it would be easier to recognise genocide before it took place and thus stop it from happening.

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide

A photograph showing German forces gathered in GSWA to join in the conflict against the Herero people in 1904.

A photograph showing German forces gathered in GSWA to join in the conflict against the Herero people in 1904.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide was the massacre of approximately 50,000 – 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama between 1904 and 1907 by German military forces in German South West Africa (GSWA) – modern-day Namibia .


Germany formally colonised GSWA in 1884. Prior to colonisation , several distinct native groups lived freely in the area, including the Herero, the Nama, the Damara, the San, and the Ovambo. Under German rule, many of these native groups were used as slave labour and had their land confiscated and their cattle stolen. As a result of this treatment, tensions between the native population and the ruling Germans continued to rise.


In January 1904, the Herero population, led by Chief Samuel Maharero, carried out a large armed rebellion against the oppressive German colonial rule. The German ruling forces were unprepared for the attack and approximately 123 German colonial settlers were killed by the Herero. Over the following months, however, the Herero were slowly overwhelmed by the more modern, well-equipped German force under the command of Major Theodor Leutwin. By June 1904, Major Leutwin had cornered the Herero forces at the Waterberg Plateau and was attempting to negotiate their surrender.

The German government in Berlin were frustrated by Leutwin’s slow progress in dissipating the uprising, and in May 1904 appointed Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha Supreme Commander of GSWA. Trotha arrived in GSWA on 11 June 1904.


On 11 August 1904, Trotha abandoned negotiations for a surrender and attempted an aggressive encirclement tactic, surrounding the Herero at the Battle of Waterberg  and killing between 3,000 – 5,000 Herero combatants. Yet, despite the brutal tactics of the Germans, most of the Herero managed to escape into the Omaheke desert.

Under Trotha’s command, the Schutztruppe  ruthlessly pursued the thousands of Herero men, women and children who were attempting to cross the desert to reach to British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana). Thousands of Herero died from being shot to death, drinking water from poisoned wells, or from thirst and starvation in the desert.

On 2 October 1904, Trotha escalated the violence against the Herero in an order: ‘Within the German borders, every male Herero, armed or unarmed […] will be shot to death. I will no longer take in women or children but will drive them back to their people or have them fired at. These are my words to the Herero people. [From] The great general of the mighty German Kaiser’ [Katharina von Hammerstein, ‘The Herero: Witnessing Germany’s “Other Genocide”’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 2016, 20:2, 267-286, 276].

In November 1904, the German government in Berlin overturned General Trotha’s inhumane execution order, and instead commanded that the surviving members of the Herero population be incarcerated in concentration camps, such as the Shark Island Concentration Camp . By this point, however, many thousands of Herero had already been murdered.

The remaining Herero who were incarcerated in the concentration camps were subjected to lethal conditions (with a mortality rate of 47-74%), and prisoners endured poor hygiene, little food, forced labour and medical experiments.

In 1905, the Nama people in the south also rose up against the German rule and engaged the colonisers in guerrilla warfare for the following two years. Any Nama that were caught by the Germans were executed or incarcerated in the same concentration camps as the Herero, with extremely high mortality rates.

In total, by the end of the conflict on 31 March 1907, approximately 50,000 – 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama had been murdered by the German ruling forces.

The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide was the mass murder of at least 664,000 and up to 1.2 million Armenians by the nationalist ruling party of the Ottoman Empire , the Committee of Union and Progress  (CUP, also known as the Young Turks), between 1915 and 1916.


The Armenians were a primarily Christian ethnic group who had lived in Eastern Anatolia (modern day Eastern Turkey) for centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, approximately two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire, primarily in rural areas although there were also small communities in large urban areas such as Constantinople. While life was often unpredictable and unjust, under the empire’s millet system in the nineteenth century, the group did enjoy significant administrative and social autonomy, and had their own language and church.

As the First World War loomed, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline and as a result had become increasingly polarised . Between 1912 and 1913, the Empire lost 83% of its European territories during the largely unsuccessful Balkan Wars. This led to increase in anti-Christian sentiment and amplified the nationalist desire of the Ottoman leaders to create an ethnically homogenous community. It was hoped that this community would then strengthen the empire through shared beliefs and, as a result, ensure its survival. As the majority of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were Muslim, the Christian Armenians were increasingly seen as outsiders and a threat to the harmony of the empire.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire joined forces with Germany and Austria-Hungary but suffered several significant defeats and quickly retreated. To conceal their failure from the public, the Ottoman leaders openly blamed their defeat on Armenians in the region and stated that they had betrayed their empire by fighting for and helping the enemy forces. This deliberate falsehood acted as a catalyst and justification for the genocide of the Armenian people, whereby the CUP government used the emergency wartime conditions to create a more ethnically homogenous community.

Persecution and genocide

As a result of this, Armenian soldiers were catagorised as a direct threat to the Ottoman war effort, removed from the Ottoman army, and massacred. The intellectual elite of Armenian society concentrated in areas such as Constantinople were also rounded up, imprisoned and later murdered. The remaining Armenians, primarily women, the elderly and children, were relocated from strategically important areas and forcibly marched to the Deir ez-Zor by Ottoman forces and local collaborators. Little to no food and water was provided on these ‘death marches’ – despite the length of the journey – and those who could not keep up or continue were executed.  As a result of these conditions, thousands died.

Some Armenians in low-density areas were able to escape execution by converting to Islam (as long as the number of Armenians in the area remained under 5-10% of the total population). Young girls and women were also occasionally spared for forced labour as domestic servants, to become wives in Muslim households or to be used as sex slaves.

Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in camps, such as at Deir ez-Zor or Ras al-Ayn, where conditions were extremely poor and many thousands died of disease and malnutrition. Between March and October 1916, there was another wave of executions, and as many as 200,000 more people were murdered.

In total, by 1917, at least 664,000 and up to 1.2 million Armenians been massacred.


Turkey and the Armenian Genocide

Although officially catagorised as a genocide by many scholars, countries, and institutions across the world and according to the creator of the term ‘genocide’, Raphael Lemkin, the current Turkish state reject the use of the term genocide to describe the event.

While recognising that mass deportations of Armenians took place during the First World War, Turkey continues to insist that these were necessary security measures as a result of Armenian treachery and violence and do not amount to state-sponsored genocide or mass extermination.

The Cambodian Genocide

The former S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, pictured here, is now a museum of the genocide.

The former S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, pictured here, is now a museum of the genocide.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The Cambodian Genocide was the murder of between 1,500,000 and 3,000,000 Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge (the popular name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea [CPK]), between 1975 and 1979.

The Khmer Rouge came to power following a period of civil war and unrest in Cambodia and in the midst of Cold War tensions between America, the Soviet Union and Communist China. The Khmer Rouge were led by Pol Pot and held radical totalitarian beliefs. They wanted to create a classless, rural, agricultural society where personal property, currency, religion and individuality did not exist.

The Khmer Rouge began to implement this vision immediately after taking power on 17 April 1975. Within hours, the new regime had expelled the capital city’s, Phnom Penh, two million residents to the countryside at gunpoint to begin agricultural labour.

People associated in any significant way with the previous government, religion, or education, as well as members of ethnic cleansing , were targeted for persecution, imprisonment, torture and murder. The Khmer Rouge created 189 prisons, which were de facto execution centres. The most notorious of these prisons/execution centres was named ‘S-21’, and of the approximately 14,000-17,000 prisoners held there by the Khmer Rouge, just 12 are known to have survived.

Outside of the prisons, many hundreds of thousands of people were also executed on the ‘Killing Fields’ – areas of farmland where people were killed by a blow to the back of the head before being dumped into mass graves.

Some Cambodians were also exploited as forced labourers by the regime and died as a result of over-work and malnutrition.

Despite the Khmer Rouge’s focus on production through mass forced labour, they were ineffective rulers and their economic mismanagement caused significant shortages of food and medicine. This mismanagement, combined with the regime’s murder of many of its doctors and medical staff, meant that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians began to die from hunger caused by the famine and treatable diseases such as malaria .

Later, as the economic situation worsened and paranoia increased, the Khmer Rouge also began to execute members of its own party for failing to achieve the unrealistic agricultural aims or for being supposed foreign spies.

After almost four years in power, in December 1978, in response to the Khmer Rouge’s invasions of the previous year, Vietnam successfully invaded Cambodia and, on 7 January 1979, overthrew the Khmer Rouge by entering the largely deserted capital of Phnom Penh.


The Aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide

Following the genocide Cambodia continued to be politically unstable. Although there was significant evidence of the atrocities, the Cold War  continued to dominate international concerns, and many Western countries were openly hostile to the new Vietnamese installed communist government.

Although Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were tried in absentia for genocide shortly after the collapse of the regime, it was not until 2001 that a court dedicated to persecuting perpetrators of the genocide was created, by which time many of the movement’s other leaders had already died. The court’s first trial began in 2009, and, since then, of the five people indicted, three people have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Genocide of the Tutsis

The Genocide against the Tutsi refers to the mass murder of up to one million people, primarily Tutsi , between 7 April 1994 and 15 July 1994. The genocide was carried out by extremist Hutu  army officers using military forces in Rwanda, with widespread collaboration  and assistance from civilians, the local police, and the institutions of government.

Historic tension

At the time of the genocide, there were three primary ethnic groups in Rwanda: the Tutsi (15%) and the Hutu (84%), the Twa (1%). Historically, the Tutsi formed the ruling class in Rwanda, with a Tutsi King ruling within a feudal system .

In 1884 Rwanda and Burundi became part of Germany’s colonial empire as a result of the Berlin Conference . In 1897, the German forces agreed an alliance with the Rwandan Tutsi King, and ruled the country through the Tutsi monarchy. Following the First World War, under a League of Nations mandate, Rwanda came under control of Belgium, who continued to support the monarchy and maintain Tutsi rule.

In the early 1930s, Belgium forces introduced compulsory identification cards, which further segregated the population according to three ethnicities: Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. Whereas previously the boundaries of these groups were permeable , the introduction of the identification cards with its required ethnic identification solidified the separate groups and promoted racial boundaries and ideas.

In 1959, the murder of a Hutu sub-chief, Dominique Mbonyumutwa, by an extremist pro-Tutsi party escalated these longstanding tensions and, along with encouragement from Belgian colonial officials, began what was called the “Hutu revolution”, in which Rwanda became an independent republic ruled by the Hutu majority. In 1973 the country faced further turmoil as the army’s head of staff Juvénal Habyarimana carried out a military coup, creating a one party (Hutu) state. A quota system restricted the presence of Tutsi in education and employment and this served to reinforce the racist ideology of three distinct groups. These events led to the murder of approximately 20,000 Tutsi, and many more fled to neighbouring countries to seek asylum.


In the late 1980s, some of the Tutsi refugees who had fled the country formed a new movement aiming to challenge President Juvénal Habyarimana, end rule by ethnicity with its compulsory identity cards and ensure a return home for the refugees who had fled the country in various anti-Tutsi programs. This political movement was named the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

In October 1990, an armed wing, the newly created Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) launched an attack from their base in Uganda. A three-year civil war ensured. Inside Rwanda, all Tutsis and Hutu who had not pledged their support to the president and his party were labelled accomplices and traitors.

In 1993 in Arusha in Tanzania, the RPF and the Rwandan government held several months of internationally sponsored peace talks and eventually agreed a power-sharing settlement providing for elections and a co-coalition government with representatives from both sides, and a return home for refugees in neighbouring countries.

However, just eight months later, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down and crashed over Kigali airport, killing all those on board.

This event acted as a catalyst for the genocide against the Tutsi to begin. Over the airways of the hate radio station RTLM, the RPF and the Tutsi were blamed for the president’s murder, and the elite presidential guard, government soldiers, civilians, businessmen and local militias almost immediately began assassinating those they deemed responsible – and anyone who had in any way favoured the peace agreement. An army of unemployed youth, indoctrinated in a racist “Hutu Power” ideology and trained to kill at speed and using a system of prepared roadblocks, now proceeded to kill everyone with a Tutsi identity card.  This militia, the Interahamwe , was responsible for the speed and efficiency of the killing.

Over the following 100 days, up to one million people were murdered with machetes and rifles or killed when the churches in which they were seeking refuge were blown up. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Tutsi women were brutally raped and sexually violated.

In July 1994, the RPF captured Kigali and declared a ceasefire, bringing an end to the genocide. In response, over one million Hutu who had been involved in the genocide fled the country.


Some of the high-profile perpetrators of the genocide have since been prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was set up in November 1994 in Arusha, Tanzania. In total, approximately 75 prominent individuals were prosecuted by the ICTR.

The majority of the perpetrators were prosecuted through Rwandan domestic courts and community-based courts, in a process which began in December 1996. In total, approximately two million cases were processed by the community courts between 2005 and 2012. In addition to this, 22 people were executed in 1998 for the genocide, and 10,000 people were tried by the conventional domestic legal system.

To learn more about the genocide, visit the website of The Genocide Archive of Rwanda.

The Srebrenica Genocide

Gravestones of some of the murdered men and boys at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

Gravestones of some of the murdered men and boys at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The Srebrenica Genocide was the massacre of approximately 8000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995 by Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) (VRS).


The genocide took place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), which grew out of the disintegration of Yugoslavia . In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina (whose population was made up of several ethnic groups, Bosniak Muslims [44%] Orthodox Bosnian Serbs [33%] and Catholic Croats [17%]) formed an independent state.

Bosnian Serbs disagreed with this decision and, led by Radovan Karadžić , joined forces with the Serbian and Yugoslav armed forces to secure territory for ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, initiating the Bosnian War. Throughout the war, Bosnian Serbs carried out acts of ethnic cleansing in line with their intention to eradicate non-Serbs and create an ethnically homogenous state (to be named Repubika Srpska).

Although it was historically inhabited by the majority Bosnian Muslim population, Srebrenica was a strategically important city to the Bosnian Serbs as it was situated in the middle of their imagined new republic. Throughout the war Srebrenica was occupied and recaptured several times by both sides, although it always remained surrounded by Serbian forces, who destroyed its water and electricity supplies and attempted to stop food entering the town. Many inhabitants of the town began to die of starvation. Meanwhile, the population of the city expanded, as Bosnian Muslims fleeing Serbian persecution and ethnic cleansing in other areas began to converge on the city.

In response to these deteriorating conditions, in March 1993 the war-torn inhabitants of the town were visited by General Philippe Morillon of the United Nations Protection Force, who informed them that the town was now under the protection of the United Nations . Following on from this, on 16 April 1993 the United Nations Security Council officially designated Srebrenica a ‘safe area’ and prohibited both sides from armed attacks in the area.

Although tensions and small skirmishes continued, the declaration ensured that neither party launched a large-scale attack on the city. However, by March 1995, Serbian forces controlled all of the surrounding areas, and further cut off supply routes to the town – despite of the UN presence. As the situation deteriorated, more civilians died of starvation.

Escalation and genocide

On 6 July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces broke international regulations and launched an attack on the area. The UN peacekeepers retreated into the city of Srebrenica. On 9 July, the Serbs received an order from their leader Radovan Karadžić to capture the city. The following day more than 20,000 inhabitants of the city fled north to the UN peacekeepers base in Potocari to escape the incoming Serb forces. By the afternoon of the 11 July, Serbian forces had captured the town.

Fearing imminent death under the Bosnian Serb forces, on the evening of 11 July 1995, 10,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys fled on foot through the nearby forest, hoping to reach the ‘safe area’ of Tuzla, approximately 30 miles away. However, in the following days, the group was tracked and split up at several points along the journey by Serb forces, who killed those that they captured. In their weakened state from months of poor living conditions, few successfully reached their destination.

In the morning of the 12 July, the Serbs approached the UN base at Potocari, where most of the Bosnian Muslim refugees from the city were sheltering. The Serbs informed the Dutch UN forces and civilian refugees that buses would take them safely to Bosnian Muslim territory, with women, the elderly and children leaving first. The group were informed that the remaining men and teenage boys would be held behind to be questioned, in case they were in fact Bosnian Muslim soldiers.

Following this announcement, approximately 5000 men and boys were separated from the women and elderly and sent to Bratunac . On 14 July, these men were systematically murdered by their Bosnian Serb captors and buried in mass graves.

In total, when combined with the number of men and boys killed when attempting to flee to Tuzla through the forest, it is estimated that between 7000 and 8000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were murdered.

The Bosnian War ended in November 1995 following peace negotiations, which agreed that Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially an independent state, made up of two different federal entities, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (a Bosnian Serb Republic in which Srebrenica is now located).

In 2007, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Srebrenica Massacre was an act of genocide. To learn more about the Srebrenica Genocide, visit

The Darfur Genocide

The Darfur Genocide is the ongoing murder of (to date) approximately 200,000 Fur , Zaghawa , and Masalit people in Darfur, a region in the north of Sudan, by the Sudanese government and their militia, which is known as the Janjaweed [‘Devils on Horseback]’. It began in 2003.

Sudan is an ethnically diverse country that, at the start of the genocide, was controlled by an Arab dictatorship in the capital Khartoum . In the years leading up to the genocide, tension in the Darfur region escalated over disputes about land and unequal power, and people in Darfur felt marginalised and ignored by the government, which concentrated its efforts and resources on the capital city and surrounding areas.

In 2003, in an attempt to secure more autonomy over their lives, some of the local inhabitants of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit groups in Darfur joined forces create the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), which launched an attack on a military airbase in April 2003. The SLA was soon joined by another group known as the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

In response, the Sudanese government armed and trained local inhabitants in the area to create violent, semi-professional militias known as the Janjaweed, who were instructed to carry out a series of attacks against Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit villages. The devastating attacks, which followed on from government bombing of the villages, intended to diminish any support for the SLA and JEM and secure Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit lands and resources for the government.

Between 2003 and 2005 thousands of villages were destroyed, and their inhabitants were raped, attacked and murdered. Those that survived the initial attacks were displaced, and attempted to survive in the desert (where the government obstructed aid, food and water supplies) or fled across the border to Chad. In total, over 200,000 people were murdered, and approximately 2.5 million were displaced.

Since 2003, the Janjaweed, supported by the government, have continued to target black Africans in the Darfur region, and this persecution continues today, with approximately 2.7 million people in the area having been displaced. In 2010, the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was charged by the International Criminal Court with three counts of genocide.

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The Cambodian Genocide

The Cambodian Genocide

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