Section: What was the Holocaust?

What is genocide?

A New York Times report of a massacre during the Armenian Genocide, 1915
A New York Times report of a massacre during the Armenian Genocide, 1915

Copyright © New York Times

Genocide is a deliberate, co-ordinated plan to destroy a group of people, usually members of a certain national, ethnic or religious group. The Holocaust was a genocide.

The term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944, but examples of its occurrence, such as the Armenian Genocide of 1915, pre-date this.

The ‘Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ was adopted 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.

Article 2 states that genocide means “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.


Acts of genocide include:

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

Genocide since 1900

Children of the Armenian genocide, 1915
Children of the Armenian genocide, 1915

Image courtesy of the Armenian Genocide Museum

Throughout history there have been many genocides of peoples across the world, perpetrated by groups and/or on behalf of governments.

The genocide section of The Holocaust Explained will firstly explain the stages of genocide.

It will then provide an explanation of a number of genocides perpetrated across the world since 1900.

These include:

The Herero and Nama Genocide, 1904-1907
The Armenian Genocide, 1915
The Cambodian Genocide, 1975-1979
The Rwandan Genocide, 1994
The Srebrenica Massacre, or Genocide, 1995
The Darfur Genocide, since 2003

Eight stages of genocide

What lessons can we draw from the Holocaust, a catastrophe that happened in the middle of the 20th century?

Since 1945 there have been genocides and examples of ethnic cleansing throughout the world. Prior to the Holocaust we can also identify examples with similar characteristics.

The problem is universal. Genocide is a process which unfolds in stages. 


The Stages of Genocide

In the case of the Holocaust, Jews in Germany were singled out for persecution long before the systematic murder of European Jews occurred. German Jews were banned from certain professions, banned from marrying non-Jews, and subject to attack. Antisemitic propaganda was directed at the community. Jewish-owned property was seized. Later, during the Second World War, Jews in Nazi-occupied areas were also subjected to these measures and isolated in Ghettos prior to the start of the Holocaust.

Professor Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and a major scholar in genocide education and prevention, has identified eight stages in genocides. He argues that at each stage, preventive measures can stop it.

You can explore Stanton’s stages of genocide by moving through the slides in the image gallery above this text.

The Stages of Genocide

Image: © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944.

It was coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (pictured above), who sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of European Jews.

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide

General Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, the chief military commander in German South-West Africa, with his staff during the Herero uprising, 1904.
General Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, the chief military commander in German South-West Africa, with his staff during the Herero uprising, 1904.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R27576 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Herero and Namaqua (or Nama) Genocide was the murder and persecution by the German Empire of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. Between 65,000 and 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were killed.

Following a rebellion in January 1904 by the Herero people against brutal German colonial rule, General Lothar von Trotha issued an order that all Herero men should be executed, and women and children led into the desert and left to die slowly.

German forces poisoned some of their victims, and destroyed the few wells in the desert. A rebellion of the Namaqua people followed in October 1904, and also resulted in mass extermination committed by the German army.


Concentration camps in German South-West Africa

The 15,000 Herero and Namaqua (mainly women and children and very few men) who survived, were gathered by the Germans and led to concentration camps. One of these was Shark Island Concentration Camp. The prisoners were forced into hard labour as slaves for German businesses. They were given some rice for their efforts, but nothing more. Many died as a result of the poor diet and severely exhaustive work.

In 1918 the British authorities announced that unto 74% of the Herero and Namaqua died within the concentration camps. Most of the dead were women and children.

The order for the genocide of the Herero and Namaqu was given by General Trotha.

“The nation of the Herero should immediately leave the country, because they are no longer considered German citizens. Whoever doesn’t obey and is found within the country, with our without a gun or an animal, they will be executed immediately. I am not going to show mercy to anyone. These are my commands and should be followed immediately…”

Concentration camps in German South-West Africa

Image: Southwest African Prisoners of war guarded by German troops, postcard c.1900, Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons.

The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide was the systematic expulsion and murder by the Ottoman government of around one and a half million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey).

The Genocide occurred during the First World War, in which the Ottomans were fighting on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. During the war, hostility grew against the Armenian community, a Christian religious minority suspected of not being loyal to the government.

Armenians were forced from their homes and sent on marches to remote desert areas, where killing squads murdered them. Many children were kidnapped, sent to live with Turkish families and forced to convert to Islam. The homes of Armenians were seized.

By 1922, fewer than 400,000 Armenians remained in the area we now know as Turkey. These events are classed by most historians as genocide, but the current Turkish state denies this.



In 1939, on the eve of launching the invasion of Poland at the start of the Second World War, Hitler produced a memo on his decision to attack Poland. In it he wrote, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’

In the memo he also wrote that he sought ‘death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.’

Ottoman military forces march Armenian men to an execution site, March 1915-June 1915.
Image courtesy of

The Cambodian Genocide

Map showing the location of Cambodia
Map showing the location of Cambodia

During 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, the Communist party in Cambodia, led by Pol Pot, committed genocide against an estimated two million Cambodians.They organised the mass killings of potential political enemies and ethnic minorities.The Khmer Rouge targeted civil servants, former government soldiers, Buddhist monks, intellectuals and professionals.They also murdered many from within their own ranks of whom they were suspicious.


Religion Outlawed

Victims of the Khmer Rouge included ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. In addition, the regime sought out Cambodians who also had Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry.Religion was outlawed as half of the Muslim population was murdered, as were 8,000 Christians. Buddhism was eliminated from the country.

Much of the population was forced to work on collective farms. Children were taken from their parents and forced to work in labour camps. Whole populations of towns and villages were made to leave their homes.
Anyone who refused to leave or did not leave quickly enough was killed.

The Rwandan Genocide / the Genocide of the Tutsis

In only 100 days in 1994, over 800,000 mainly Tutsi Rwandans were murdered in a pre-planned and state-sponsored genocide. The Hutu-dominated government and others in the political elite orchestrated the genocide, but civilians also participated.

Years of rivalry between the majority  and the minority Tutsi population forms the background to the Rwandan genocide.

In the past Rwanda had been a Belgian colony. The Belgians had favoured the Tutsi minority group because of their supposed European appearance.

At first, supported by the Belgians, the Tutsis had controlled Rwanda. However, between 1959 and 1962 the majority Hutu people had rebelled and overthrown the Tutsi government. The minority Tutsis had then been treated poorly as a result.

In 1990 a rebel group composed mainly of Tutsis based in neighbouring Uganda invaded northern Rwanda. The civil war that followed led to increased ethnic tensions within Rwanda.

Over the next four years the Hutu leadership used propaganda to assert that the Tutsis were planning to turn the Hutus into slaves. The message was that the Tutsis should be resisted.

The main triggers of the genocide itself included the outbreak of civil war, multiple interventions from Western nations in the politics of Rwanda, and the shooting down of the Rwandan President’s plane in April 1994.

The Srebrenica Genocide

The Srebrenica Genocide, also known as the Srebrenica Massacre, was the murder by the Bosnian Serb Army of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The massacre occurred during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, which was part of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina used to be part of a country in the Balkans called Yugoslavia which was made up of six different regions, including Serbia and Croatia. From 1991, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate.The majority of people living in Bosnia were ethnic Christian Bosnians, but there were also Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats who were both Christian.

Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in 1992. However, the Bosnian Serb population saw their future as being joined with Serbia, now an independent neighbouring state.

A civil war began during which the Serbs isolated Bosnian Muslims and started exterminating them.

The Darfur Genocide

One of five hundred childrens 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 childrens 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.

Drawings collected by Waging Peace researcher Anna Schmitt. Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Darfur Genocide is the ongoing mass murder and rape of Dafuris in the Dafur region of western Sudan.

Background to the Darfur Genocide

For many years there has been tension over land and grazing rights between the mostly nomadic Arabs, and the black African farmers.

The current conflict began when the Sudan Liberation Army accused the Sudanese government of oppressing black Africans in favour of Arabs. They began attacking government targets in early 2003. The government responded to the attacks by mobilising ‘self-defence militias‘ known as the Janjaweed.

The Attacks

In Sudan Janjaweed fighters have been used to drive out black Africans. Refugees report that air raids by government aircraft are followed by attacks from the militia. They enter the villages, kill men, rape the women and steal whatever they could find.The Darfuris say the militias patrol outside the camps and men are killed and women raped if they venture too far in search of firewood or water.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 2.7 million people were forced to flee their homes and still live in ‘makeshift’ camps near to Darfur’s main towns or Chad run by international aid agencies.
These atrocities have been condemned as genocide by human rights groups, the International Criminal Court and several governments around the world.
An international warrant was issued by the ICC for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the head of the Sudanese government. He has been charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and leading a genocide, but remains a free man.

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Life before the Holocaust

Life before the Holocaust

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