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Why Genocide Matters Posted Jun 20, 2016: Are we any closer to making “never again” a reality?


James Waller, Ph.D., is the Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College (NH).   Keene State College is home to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, one of the nation’s oldest Holocaust resource centers, and also offers the only undergraduate major in Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the United States. In the policymaking arena, Waller is also regularly involved, in his role as director of academic programs with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), as the curriculum developer and lead instructor for the Raphael Lemkin Seminars for Genocide Prevention.  These seminars, held on-site and in conjunction with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, introduce diplomats and government officials from around the world to issues of genocide warning and prevention. His fieldwork has included research in Germany, Israel, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala.


The decision to exterminate a group of people is the extreme end of a continuum that lies beyond proclamations that they cannot live, worship, or love as they see fit and beyond decisions to ghettoize them or force them out of your country. In his landmark work on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg writes of this continuum in the destruction of the European Jews: “The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.”

In the twentieth century this form of destruction would come to be called “genocide,” but it is not a modern phenomenon. The human reality of genocide predated its semantic taxonomy. As Leo Kuper, one of the pioneers in genocide studies, said, “The word is new, the concept is ancient.”  From the Hittites to the Greeks to the Romans to the Mongols to the Albigensian Crusades to the witch hunts in Europe to colonial destructions of indigenous peoples throughout the world, human history has been replete with cases of mass destruction.  In modern times, however, we have gotten very good—in a morally inverted sense of the word—at committing genocide.  Aptly dubbed the “Age of Genocide,” the past century saw a massive scale of systematic and intentional mass murder coupled with an unprecedented efficiency of the mechanisms and techniques of mass destruction. Genocidal death rates worldwide— 7,700 per 100,000—were an eight-fold increase over the previous 69 centuries.  On the historical heels of the physical and cultural genocide of North American indigenous peoples during the nineteenth century, the twentieth century writhed from the near- complete annihilation of the Hereros by the Germans in Southwest Africa in 1904; to the brutal assault on the Armenian population by the Turks between 1915 and 1932; to the implementation of Soviet manmade famine against the Ukrainian Kulaks in 1932–1933 that left several million peasants starving to death; to the extermination of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust of 1939–1945; to the massacre of approximately half a million people in Indonesia in 1965–1966; to genocide or mass killings in Bangladesh (1971), Burundi (1972), Cambodia (1975–1979), East Timor (1975–1979), Argentina (1976–1983), Guatemala (1980s–1990s), Sri Lanka (1983–2009), Iraq (1987–1988), the former Yugoslavia (1992–1995), and Rwanda (1994).

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