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genocide by numbers :: a grim reminder

this was originally a world wide wednesdays post late last year, but i figured that it would be appropriate to re-post it today, which is holocaust memorial day. the holocaust is unique in the history of genocide for a few reasons [discussed further along in the post], and it is certainly an example of the worst sort of horrors people can perpetrate on each other. and for all the fact that we grow up hearing about what happened, that knowledge has not stopped later genocides from happening. [it has given us a precedent for the prosecution of those responsible, at least.]

the tone of this post may seem a little clinical, but i think that's where one has to start coming to terms with these things. but for another perspective, please read my friend joel's piece about his father, a holocaust survivor, which also touches on one of the least addressed aspects of genocidal campaigns: that they do not end when the killing stops, but live on in the damaged psyches of their survivors, and in their children, even if they never experienced these events first hand.

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mass jewish grave in germany
if you asked most people to name five genocides that have occurred in the last thousand years, they'd likely be stumped. many people likely couldn't name one aside from the holocaust. but there have been a lot of mass killings of ethnic, religious or other minorities conducted by governments and empires, on every continent in the world except antarctica. you read that correctly. every single continent has seen at least one genocide perpetrated on its soil and most have seen more than one.

the holocaust is the most widely recognised because it was so scrupulously documented by the perpetrators. most nations have gone to great lengths to prove that they were not responsible for the deaths of millions of people, but nazi germany seemed unsettlingly proud of their efficiency in this regard. the way that the holocaust was organised also made the horror of it more striking for those who discovered it. in other genocides, evidence has generally been slow to emerge, spread out over wide areas. when the allied forces liberated germany, they were confronted with camps full of people sent there to die. third, the holocaust was perpetrated during a war that had involved much of the world, and was therefore accorded international attention. finally- and perhaps most importantly- it was perpetrated on groups who posed no military threat to their killers. this has confused our view of genocide, because in most cases, it has resulted from a military struggle or threat of insurrection. that the victims cannot entirely be represented as innocent in those cases in no way changes the fact that a genocide was committed against them.

it's that last point- the innocence of its victims- that tends to make people consider the holocaust the worst instance of genocide in history. but defining "the worst" is a tricky business. there are a lot of ways to evaluate horror, ways that may seem cold, but which nonetheless help us understand the history of cultural murder and the circumstances that have led to it.

before getting into that, of course, it's necessary to point out that the definition of genocide is itself problematic. for instance, the the murder or mass displacement [with the expectation of death] of a group on the basis of political opposition is not a genocide. crimes perpetrated against a political group were left out of the definition at the behest of the soviet union, who likely feared that they could be prosecuted if it had been part of the definition. there are also cases where the actions of a group seemed to fit the definition of genocide, but where there was no official policy that guided those actions, allowing the government plausible deniability [e.g., the murder and displacement of beothuk indians and tasmanian aborigines by english settlers] . then, of course, there are those genocides which may be acknowledged by some, but not all [e.g., the mass murder and displacement of armenians by ottoman turks].

in order to give a standard reference point, i've used the events and totals in this chart and i've taken the higher estimated death toll to calculate.

highest total death toll :: far and away the genocide with the greatest body count is the mass extermination of american indians by european invaders. an estimated 42 million people died and far more were rounded up and placed on government-controlled reserves, or taken away from their families to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. the truly chilling thing is that the numbers would likely be much higher but for the fact that the europeans almost ran out of people to kill. the systematized extermination was carried on for over five hundred years after columbus landed in north america, but gains little attention because it was carried out by multiple governments, over a very long period of time and because its indirect methods [the spread of diseases to which the indigenous people of the americas had no immunity and forcible relocation away from resources] were so devastating.

most destructive :: another measure of a genocide is the impact it has on the victim population. survivors are left to resuscitate culture in the wake of a disaster and they are also the ones who can bear witness to the crimes. hitler and the nazis murdered 78% of the jews in the parts of europe that they occupied- almost four of every five. the ottoman turks murdered 750,000 assyrians over eight years, representing about 75% of the assyrians living in the empire. the qing [or manchu] dynasty killed 80% of the dzungar people [who lived in modern-day mongolia] over a period of three years in the eighteenth century, effectively destroying an entire culture. today, just over 15,000 people in mongolia identify as dzungar, or about 2.5% of the total number of people killed in the genocide.

in the nineteenth century, russia conducted a campaign against the circassians in the north caucasus that left only 80,000 out of a population of 1.5 million, meaning that nearly 95% of the population was killed or forced out of their homeland.

the percentage of american indians killed by european invaders has a huge range of estimates, from 50 up to 90%, but it's hard to tell, because there was no central government of all the tribes. the beothuk people of newfoundland were eradicated: the last surviving beothuk died in 1829. in just under twenty years, from 1878 to 1897, the canadian government starved more than half the population of the alberta sharphead band [a nakoda tribe], split the survivors into smaller groups and relocated them to live with different tribes before reclaiming the sharphead reserve lands for the crown. on the opposite side of the planet, the small population of aboriginal tasmanians was likewise wiped from the face of the earth. so of any group, english settlers have proven the most ruthless in conducting genocides.

victims of the armenian genocide
highest death rate :: one reason that the holocaust has such a profound grip on our imagination is the sheer number of people the nazis were able to kill and for how long. a total of 11 million dead between 1933 and 1945 means nearly a million deaths per year. the 1994 genocide in rwanda saw deaths at the same rate, as did the genocide of the igbo in nigeria from 1967-70, but both were much shorter in duration.

however, the mass deaths and displacement suffered by ukrainians at the hands of the soviet union in 1932-33 dwarfs both of those in comparison. because the deaths were indirect, the result of a famine that many believe was deliberately prolonged in order to weaken ukrainian opposition to the bolsheviks, not everyone accepts that this was a genocide. but 7.5 million people died as a result of stalin's actions, two-thirds the total that died in the holocaust in just two years. that's nearly four times the number of people per year than the nazis, all while maintaining plausible deniability. that, readers, is pure evil.

most genocidal nation :: there are a few countries that have done far too much to further the cause of genocide. which has been the most dangerous? well, there are a few different possibilities.

england is certainly a prime candidate, seeing as they conducted much of the indigenous genocides in north america and australia and set the framework in place for the future governments of canada, the united states, australia and new zealand to continue the work.

germany, the country synonymous with genocide, is "only" implicated in one, but clearly the scope of
statue of the "beothuk spirit"
the holocaust and the fact that the government directly murdered such a vast number makes it a unique case.

belgium should likely be considered alongside germany, however. over two and a half decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the forces of king leopold ii were responsible for the deaths of 10 million in the congo free state, as much as 50% of the population. that's very near holocaust numbers without the later advances in technology and outside of the government's immediate territory. the belgians got away with mass murder because many of the deaths were caused indirectly, through disease that was allowed [and encouraged] to spread and by deaths through forced labour. indeed, many don't even qualify this as a genocide, because the government was so successful in keeping themselves at a discreet distance.

when it comes to nations who are most likely to commit genocides, there are two that stand out:

russia is implicated in four separate genocidal campaigns, resulting in nearly 10 million deaths, over the last two hundred years. the czar went after the circassians, the civil war saw the deaths or deportations of the cossacks around the don river, then the bolsheviks starved and blockaded the ukraine and massacred the polish minority, all before the outbreak of the second world war.

mehmet vi, last sultan of the ottoman empire
turkey is implicated in five genocidal campaigns since 1915. they also have the dubious distinction of having conducted three concurrent genocides, against the armenians, assyrians and greeks from 1915-23. of course, they haven't acknowledged that these were genocides, which makes it a little difficult to move beyond the hurt and anger.

as difficult as it seems, i did want to end things on a slightly more positive note... that note is that, while we continue to see genocidal events around the world, they have decreased in frequency and scope and, perhaps most importantly, we're getting better at prosecuting them.

in the aftermath of world war ii, more than a hundred germans were convicted of crimes against humanity, as well as nazi collaborators in a half dozen european nations. eight japanese leaders responsible, including three former prime ministers, were sentenced to death for their role in the nanking massacre. more than three dozen people have been convicted in the genocidal massacres during the wars in the former yugoslavia. twenty-four people have been found guilty of genocide in rwanda, including the belgian-italian radio announcer who incited violence on air.

i was surprised to hear that demands that canadian history courses in school include the details of the genocide of first nations, inuit and m├ętis people in canadian school history curriculum. i was surprised not because it was demanded, but because i couldn't imagine any possible objection to it that wasn't based on "we'd like to continue to lie". these same kids are learning about the holocaust as if it's an isolated event and not what happened in their own country. how is that acceptable? as unpleasant as the subject is, the subject of racial and cultural violence against minorities and against vulnerable populations needs to be discussed, so that future adults can be aware of how easy it is for conflict to escalate. at the very least, i'd like it if most people i asked could answer my opening question about naming five genocides. knowledge is power, and while we're getting better, we need to be a lot more powerful still.



a child stands over a mass grave in rwanda

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