Genocide in the 20th Century: Causes & Consequences

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

Genocides in the 20th century were caused by the scapegoating of particular groups by political leaders during times of war and revolution. During the 20th century, genocide was declared illegal because of both the harm it causes to the persecuted groups and the world as a whole.

Genocide in the 20th Century

Can you imagine a world in which leaders are allowed to kill their citizens based on their group identity? At the beginning of the 20th century, world leaders were allowed to do exactly that. By the end of the 20th century, genocide--the extermination of a racial, religious, ethnic, or national group--was made illegal, although genocide continues to this day.

The Armenian Genocide, 1915-1923

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire struggled militarily. They needed someone to blame for its losses, and the Armenians were an easy choice. Many people thought that because they were Christians, Armenians were not loyal to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In 1915, the genocide began. The Ottoman government took the property of Armenians, deported many Armenians from their homes, and killed around 1.5 million Armenians.

Human remains from Armenians killed in the genocide
picture of human remains

While the leaders of the Armenian genocide were mostly unpunished for their role in the deaths of Armenians, the atrocities did lead the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to question why the genocide's leaders were allowed to go unpunished. He asked why international law allowed for leaders to kill their own citizens. He began to formulate a new crime in international law, one that would not allow people to be killed because of their group identity.

The Holodomor in Ukraine, 1932-1933

Ukrainian children digging up frozen potatoes on a collective farm during the Holodomor
Holodomor picture

From 1932-1933, many Ukrainians died in a man-made famine termed the Holodomor. At the time, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, then led by Joseph Stalin. Stalin had called for the collectivization of agriculture in 1928. Rather than individuals farming their own land, they would work on land owned collectively by the peasants or by the state. Ukraine was home to many peasants who resisted collectivization who Stalin termed kulaks and said must be eliminated. Many were shot, sent into exile, or forced in labor colonies.

The Soviet state began requiring Ukraine to give up so much of their grain that they could not feed themselves. They were also prevented from leaving their homes to areas were food was available. Instead, ten million Ukrainians were forced to starve to death. At the same time, many Ukrainian cultural leaders were murdered by the Soviet government. Together, killing the Ukrainian cultural leaders and starving millions of Ukrainians to death ensured that Ukrainians would no longer oppose collectivization.

The Nanking Massacre, 1937

The Nanking Massacre occurred during the Second-Sino War when Japanese troops first killed Chinese prisoners of war, and then attacked the local Chinese residents of Nanking. The number of estimated Chinese killed varies from 200,000 to 300,000, with many others raped, forced to become 'comfort women', or victims of other crimes like arson.

While the exact cause of the massacre is disputed, many historians place blame on Prince Asaka Yasuhiko who ordered the initial execution of military prisoners. Although some military leaders were eventually prosecuted for their role in the massacre, Prince Asaka, as a member of the royal family, avoided prosecution.

The Genocides of Romas and Jews, 1939-1945

The mass killings led by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler include the murder of six million Jews, as well as the Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, homosexuals, socialists, Jehova's Witnesses and other persecuted groups.

Shoes of Jewish victims of the Nazis at a camp in Ukraine
pictures of shoes of Holocaust victims

One of the main causes was Nazi racial ideology. The Nazis thought Jews and Romas were 'racially inferior' to the German people. Millions of Jews were murdered under the Nazi regime, as well as tens of thousands of Romas. Because the genocides occurred during World War II, the Nazi regime was able to kill many people from many different countries, including Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, France, and Romania.

One of the consequences of the genocides was the creation of the concept of genocide. In 1944, Raphael Lemkin formulated the term 'genocide' and used it to refer to the actions of the Nazis. Nazi leaders were punished for their atrocities in the Nuremberg Tribunals and other trials. Because of Lemkin's work, genocide was prohibited by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

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