The tragic history of the coining of a word
Pope Francis created an international stir when he described the 1915 massacre of the Christian Armenian people as “genocide.” It would be wrong to debate that description in any great detail, as the term so perfectly fitted the event. Outside the bizarre intellectual bubble that is Turkey, few competent historians would challenge the description. What is there left to discuss?
What is startling, though, is that so few commentators noted the obvious irony involved in asking “Did this violence qualify as genocide?” In fact, the Armenian murders contributed overwhelmingly to creating the original concept of genocide, and ultimately of the word itself. The events of 1915 were not just an instance of genocide, but rather the prototypical act of that behavior.
The story goes back to the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Seeking revenge for the massacres, militant Armenian death squads assassinated former Ottoman leaders and collaborators, including leaders of the country’s wartime junta. One of these actions would have a powerful aftermath, when in Berlin in 1921 an Armenian named Soghomon Tehlirian killed Talaat Pasha, reputed mastermind of the genocide. Tehlirian’s supporters turned his subsequent trial into a sensational exposé of the genocide, in effect putting the former Ottoman regime in the dock. They succeeded so powerfully in stating their case that the German court actually freed Tehlirian on the basis of the horrors he had undergone. (He eventually died in Fresno, California, in 1960).
The case attracted international attention, and it particularly intrigued a Polish Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. Why, he wondered, did courts try a man for a single murder while no institutions existed to punish the murderers of millions? In the absence of international institutions to combat such massacres, he noted, surviving victims were forced to resort to vigilante justice.
That paradox continued to trouble him until, in 1933, new massacres of Assyrian Christians in Iraq forced him to define his ideas still further. Using the case of the Assyrians, and of the Armenians before them, he argued for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc).” Such crimes, he argued, should be an offense against international law that demanded to be punished by a special court or tribunal.
In 1943, Lemkin coined a new word for this atrocious behavior—namely, “genocide.” For many years, he was the most vigorous and visible campaigner to secure global recognition for the new concept, and finally, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However familiar the notion of genocide might be today, it originated at a specific (and quite recent) historical moment, and was largely formulated by one man, who must be remembered as one of the greatest humanitarian thinkers of the twentieth century.
Moreover, the concept of genocide as a uniquely horrible act demanding international sanctions has its roots in the thoroughly successful movements to eradicate Middle Eastern Christians, and above all, the Armenians. When Pope Francis denounced the Armenian massacres as "the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was speaking a self-evident truth.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.