The very word genocide is controversial and has been used for political purposes so frequently that it has almost lost its meaning. It is defined by the United Nations as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 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 imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The definition of a holocaust, any slaughter or destruction on a mass scale, is broader and can intersect with a genocide. Genocides are intentional acts while holocausts may or not be intentional.
It is impossible to rank genocides or holocausts in any meaningful way. How is human suffering quantified, measured or compared? And yet it is important to be reminded of depths to which human cruelty can sink if left unchecked. After the Nazi genocide of the 20th century, the phrase “Never Again” was used by survivors of the Nazi genocide and indeed by people of good faith all over the world, and yet genocide, mass killings and ethnic cleansing have continued into the 21st century, begging the question: how committed is the world to ensuring the end of murder on a mass scale? It may be a useful exercise, then, to remember the history of some of the world’s most atrocious holocausts and genocides, if only to remind ourselves of the need for constant vigilance and advocacy for the intrinsic human rights of all. Below is a list, in chronological order, of 10 of history’s most notorious genocides and holocausts.
10. Native American Genocide
It is difficult to accurately count the number of indigenous Americans who died during the European settlement of North America and some have even disputed that a Native American genocide even occurred, arguing that the death of millions of people who were living on the North American continent when Europeans arrived was not an intentional genocide but rather an unintentional, unavoidable consequence of colonization. Noted scholars of American history like Howard Zinn and David Stannard, however, disagree, arguing that the death of millions of people (most estimates place the number somewhere around 2 million) was, in fact, a series of genocides that occurred over the span of centuries and was carried out specifically for the purpose of accumulating land for the rapidly expanding American state. What is not disputed is that European settlers in the new world intentionally displaced native Americans, usually violently, and that egregious human rights abuses and the intentional murder of natives continued into the 20th century. Further decimation of native population came from a lack of immunity to European diseases brought to North America by early European explorers and until as late as the 1960s, Native Americans were forcibly assimilated into mainstream American culture, most notably in Indian schools. In 2000 the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency created in 1824 to manage land confiscated from Native Americans admitted to committing “ethnic cleansing”.
9. Ethnic Cleansing of the Circassians
Starting in the early 19th century, the Russian Empire waged a hundred-years war against Circassia in the Caucus region, in order to gain control of its strategic coast along the Black Sea. After a century of war the Russian Tsar tried a different method of gaining control of the coast: he ordered the expulsion of most of the Muslim population of the North Caucuses. Approximately 1.5 million Circassians were killed and most of the Muslim population was deported, effectively reducing the Muslim population of the region by 90%. n May 1994, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that Circassian resistance to Russian forces at the time was legitimate, but did not recognize “the guilt of the tsarist government for the genocide.” In 1997 and 1998, the leaders of the modern descendents of Circassions appealed to the Russian parliament to reconsider Yeltsin’s response, but got no response. In 2005 the Circassian Congress, an organization that unites representatives of the various Circassian peoples in the Russian Federation, called on Moscow to acknowledge and apologize for the genocide. Russia has yet to reply.
8. Holodomor (Ukraine Famine)
A man-made famine, the Holodomor, sometimes called “The Terror-Famine in Ukraine,” occurred between 1930 and 1933 in the Ukrainian Soviet Soviet Socialist Republic and killed about 7 million Ukrainians. When large numbers of Ukrainian farmers refused to join Soviet collective farms, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, classified all Ukrainians, as “class enemies” and began a fierce crackdown designed to “eliminate them as a class”. By 1930, Stalin had begun a program of forced resettlement of many Ukrainians, forcing them onto freight trains to be moved to Siberia. Almost 500,000 Ukrainian men, women and children died during the resettlement, and those left behind in Ukraine were faced with forced farm collectivization, or farrest and execution if they resisted. In an intentional bid to punish the Ukrainian people, Stalin increased mandatory farm production quotas, essentially robbing Ukraine of most of its abundant wheat crop, which he sold on the international market to fund his modernization of the rest of the Soviet Union. There was next to no wheat left in Ukraine, and its citizens began to starve. At Holomodor’s height, as many as 30,000 Ukrainians died per day died of starvation.
7. The Rape of Nanking
In December of 1937, in an official effort to break the city’s spirit, Japanese General Matsui had his Japanese Imperial Army march into China’s capital city of Nanking (now Nanjing) and began an organized campaign of pillage, rape and murder that left 300,000 out of 600,000 civilians and soldiers in the city dead. The 6 weeks of carnage became known as the Rape of Nanking and represents the first systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in the 20th century. Japanese soldiers were expressly told to rape and it is estimated that at least 20,000 women and girls of all ages were sexually assaulted. Many were also sexually mutilated and killed in the process. Following the cessation of hostilities, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East tried nearly 30 key Japanese commanders, eventually executing 7 “class A” war criminals in the Japanese equivalent of the Nuremberg trials. Controversially, the Japanese imperial family, including Emperor Hirohito and Prince Asaka, who were responsible for all Japanese military decisions during the war, received immunity.
6. Nazi Genocide in Europe
Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party made clear from the outset that it believed some lives were worth more than others and immediately upon seizing power in 1931, created a series of increasingly restrictive race laws, eugenics programs and plans for systematic harassment of those deemed undesirable. As the Nazi expansion across Europe continued, Hitler’s belief in a pure Germanic master race played out in the oppression of ethnic minorities, muzzling of free speech, and the construction of internment camps for political opponents and ‘undesirables’. By the end of the war, 6 million Jews, up to 1 million Romani (gypsy) people, 200,000 people with disabilities, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 15,000 homosexuals had been murdered by the Nazis and their allies. Additionally, between 2 and 3 million Soviet prisoners of war and an unknown number of political dissenters had been killed, making the Nazi holocaust the most prolific in modern history. Though it may be unique in scope and sheer number of deaths, the lessons it can teach about human depravity, the dangers of indifference, the consequences of state-sanctioned hatred and about humans’ capacity for bravery and acts of remarkable heroism in the face of unspeakable horror are universal.
5. Partition of India
One of the few genocides in human history that was not orchestrated by a government, the death of millions during the unrest that sprang from the division of India was the result of ancient ethnic divisions. When Great Britain left its largest and most important colony, India, in 1947, it hastily created a plan for partitioning the country into 2 sovereign states, Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The plan failed to take into consideration the distribution of religions throughout the subcontinent and left millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs stranded on the “wrong” side of the new national borders. The result was the uprooting of over 14 million people from their homes and ancestral lands, with many forced to walk hundreds of miles to the country they had been assigned to based on religion. During this great exodus, escalating violence broke out between the various religious factions, leading to up to one million deaths, much of it centered in the densely populated Punjab region. Though not state sanctioned, Britain’s failure to understand the religious tensions present in tits former colony and its failure to stop the violence remains a stain on British history.
4. The Great Leap Forward
An economic and social project of the Communist Party of China, The Great Leap Forward was part of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s modernization plan and lasted from 1958 until 1963. Its aim was the rapid transformation of an agrarian economy into an industrial one, but the rapidity of implementation combined with Mao’s indifference to signs that it was not effective created a famine that killed millions. Those who resisted the forced move from farming to industry were arrested, sent to forced labor camps or executed. The ill-conceived idea, which Mao refused to abandon in the face of undeniable evidence of its disaterous results, created the only period of economic shrinkage in China’s history and is estimated to have caused the death of up to 30 million Chinese. The Great Leap forward famine was by far the deadliest famine in the history of the world, killing 5% of China’s total population.
3. Rwanda Genocide
In 1994, the central African republic of Rwanda’s population of 7 million was comprised of 3 main ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa . Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political woes and of supporting a Tutsi rebel group. Through the use of propaganda and continual political machinations, Rwanda’s Hutu president Habyarimana and his allies increased divisions between Hutu and Tutsi. When Havyarimana’s plane was shot down, Hutu violence against the Tutsi was ignited. Beginning with Tutsi leaders and those able to put a stop to the violence, Hutu extremists systematically carried out a program of terror, organized rape, and genocide. Between April and June of 1994, 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children were murdered, along with up to 100,000 Hutu who had resisted taking part in the violence. The civil war and genocide only ended when aTutsi-dominated rebel group defeated the Hutu regime and President Paul Kagame took control. Policymakers outside of Rwanda, aware from the start that Tutsi were being marked for wholesale slaughter, refused to acknowledge the genocide and declined for weeks to challenge the legitimacy of the genocidal government. U.S. President at the time, Bill Clinton, has since said that not sending American troops to Rwanda during the genocide was the largest regret of his presidency and that he now believes that if the U.S. and Europe had acted sooner, 300,000 lives could have been saved.
2. Darfur Genocide
In 2003, in the Darfur region of the North African nation of Sudan, two Darfuri rebel movements revelled against the Sudanese government, complaining about the marginalization of the area and government failure to protect sedentary people from attacks by nomads. The Sudanese government answered by unleashing Arab militias known as Janjaweed, or “devils on horseback”. Sudanese forces and Janjaweed militia attacked hundreds of villages throughout Darfur. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed and millions of civilians were forced to flee their homes. In the ongoing genocide, civilians have been consistently displaced, raped, tortured and murdered at the hands of the Janjaweed. The genocide in Darfur has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people. The Sudanese government disputes these estimates and denies any link with the Janjaweed. In 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched investigations into human rights violations in Darfur, which the Sudanese government refused to cooperate with. On March 4, 2009 Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, became the first sitting president to be indicted by ICC for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians. The arrest warrant for Bashir follows arrest warrants issued for other Sudanese leaders, including the head of the Janjaweed. The government of Sudan has not surrendered any suspects to the ICC.
1. Pygmy Genocide in East Congo
During the Congo wars of the early 2000s, civil strife, murder, pillage and rape were rampant. One of the least-known groups of victims of Congo’s (formerly Zaire’s) civil war are the Pygmy people, a distinct ethnic group with very short stature who live in remote areas of the Congo Basin. In 2003, Pygmy leader testified to the United Nations that, during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. In the north of Congo, there has been cannibalism by a group known as the Erasers who have wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Many armed groups in Congo regard Pygmies as sub-human and some specifically hunt Pygmies down because they are believed to have magical powers if captured or eaten. The Pygmy people have requested that these crimes against humanity be investigated by international groups. Due to the conflict in the region, inaccessibility remote Pygmy villages and indifference, no official international group with power to act or intervene has acknowledged or investigated the ongoing genocide, making it difficult to estimate the number of Pygmies who have been killed. International aid groups in the area estimate that thousands of Pygmies have been killed and that if the genocide is not stopped, Central Africa’s Pygmy population could be decimated or even eliminated entirely.