Ethnic Cleansing: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:06 Ethnic Cleansing
  • 0:59 History
  • 1:56 Genocide
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

This lesson will explain the tragedy of ethnic cleansing. In doing so, it will highlight examples from the 1990s, the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, and even the ancient world.

Ethnic Cleansing

Today's lesson on ethnic cleansing will be very foreign to those of us who live in the 21st century modernized West. Yes, we may know what the term means, but it's seen as something that could only take place across the ocean. Sadly, many in the world don't share such a safe distance from this horrific term.

To start, ethnic cleansing is defined as an attempt to eliminate members of an unwanted ethnic group within an area. Although this type of brutality has been going on for centuries, the term 'ethnic cleansing' came into broad usage during the 1990s. It became widely used surrounding the brutal murder of Muslim groups living in Eastern Bosnia. Quite horrifically, this also occurred in the country of Rwanda, as the majority ethnic group brutally murdered members of the minority ethnic group.

Ethnic Cleansing Throughout History

Going back not too far in time, one of the most infamous cases of ethnic cleansing occurred in Hitler's Nazi Germany, in which countless numbers of Jews lost their lives as Hitler sought to create a land free of Judaism and its followers.

Tragically, Hitler and his forces were not the first to employ what has been termed 'ethnic cleansing'. For instance, the Assyrian empire of the ancient world would forcibly remove, if not kill, the inhabitants of its conquered lands. Just like modern times, their goal was to rid their newly-won areas from anyone who may cause them trouble in the future. Whether it be by forced deportation or just brutal genocide, they wanted a land free from their undesirables.

This tragic practice continued throughout the Middle Ages as Jews and Muslims were forced out of Spain during its infamous Spanish Inquisition. Sadly, many who did not leave the country were executed.


Our Assyrian and Inquisition examples brings us to a point of disagreement among many social scientists. To explain, some consider ethnic cleansing to include any act that seeks to rid an area of a certain ethnic group. To them, forced deportation or displacing a people group to another area falls under the umbrella of ethnic cleansing.

However, there are others who feel the term 'ethnic cleansing' should be reserved for genocide, the systematic killing of a people group, especially those of a particular ethnic group. Despite which camp social scientists find themselves in, all agree that ethnic cleansing always carries with it the desire to cleanse an area from an unwanted ethnic group. It's not simply random brutality or murder for murder's sake alone.

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