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Mon. May 20, 2024
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Genocide-labeling has always been political
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By Tal Buenos

At the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian suffering in WWI, it is made to seem as if President Obama faces a moral quandary: why not characterize the events as genocide?

Genocide scholars claim that in making the decision one should consider Raphael Lemkin’s opinion and work. Lemkin, a Polish Jew who lost family-members in the Holocaust, coined the term genocide in the book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. His background has long been portrayed as giving moral emphasis to the genocide narrative.

However, further examination of this narrative reveals that the origins of the term genocide, and how we label historic events, have always been political. 

Lemkin was working for the U.S. government as Chief Consultant in the Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration in 1944, the same year that the influential Axis Rule was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In fact, it is questionable that the book was Lemkin’s own project. Lemkin had only recently arrived from Europe with no experience of writing in English at that level. His autobiography was rejected more than a decade later amidst claims by publishers that his English needed correction.

Rather than fighting for genocide to be defined and ratified for the sake of humanity, Lemkin was originally serving the interests of his employer, the U.S. government, in its bid to control postwar Germany and maintain a favorable global status-quo. We are given a clue into Lemkin’s inspiration in the preface to Axis Rule, in which the last person thanked is a Robert R. Wilson.

Wilson had previously worked in the Treaty Division of the U.S. Department of State and was twice designated a Carnegie fellow on his way to receiving his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He became the first chairman of the Department of Political Science at Duke University; the same Duke University that offered Lemkin his first position in the U.S. before he became officially employed by the government. Wilson, not Lemkin, was elected to the executive councils of the American Society of International Law and the American Political Science Association, served on the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law, and published scholarly articles since the war’s beginning on matters of “Legal Questions Concerning War Relocation” and “Standards of Humanitarianism in War.”

Wilson, long before Lemkin’s arrival, was associated with the likes of Elihu Root, James Brown Scott, and Philip C. Jessup, the very people who utilized Andrew Carnegie’s fortune to invent think tanks and their publishing arms as we now know them. They revolutionized the manner in which information control is executed by non-government organizations on behalf of government interests.

Little is said on Eleanor Lansing Dulles either, who was related to influential people in the U.S. government, and started a long career in the Department of State first as an Economic Officer in the Division of Postwar Planning. These people had Lemkin’s “deep appreciation and gratitude,” but nobody in the genocide scholarship seems to care to know why.    

As for Lemkin himself, much of what he had to say publicly about genocide was affected by considerations of time and place, and audience and purpose. In the late 1950s, some years after his employment by the U.S. government and involvement in the U.N. Genocide Convention, Lemkin attempted to develop and promote “genocide” independently by working on a project titled “Introduction to the Study of Genocide.” While the book was never published, it shows his efforts to widen the applicability of the term by listing a total of over 60 cases of genocide throughout history.   

Of the 41 cases in “Modern Times,” number 39 states “Armenians,” but interestingly number 9 states “Genocide by the Greeks against the Turks.” In addition, the Lemkin papers have 100 pages on the case of “Belgian Congo” and 98 pages on the “Genocide against the American Indians.” This does not mean that all of these cases are genocide. It shows that as Lemkin drifted apart from the U.S. government, his personal interests led him to popularize the term genocide. Since then, not one of these many cases listed by Lemkin has received nearly as much attention in the form of genocide-labeling as the Armenian case. Why? Politics, not morality.

Armenian groups often cite an interview Lemkin gave to CBS in 1949 in which he states that he became interested in genocide because of what happened to Armenians. But, while interviewed in Italy some time before that he answered the same question without mentioning the Armenians. What’s more, the Armenians were not mentioned in Axis Rule. If the many other cases that Lemkin considered as genocide are not presented as such in today’s media or academic publications, why then does the Armenian tragedy receive special treatment? Politics, not morality.    

The narrow and misleading focus on Lemkin gives the genocide narrative a contrived frame. It leaves out the history of Native Americans and African Americans, for example.  

The current narrative on Lemkin and his role in coining genocide keeps stirring up the emotions of Armenian Americans who are then inspired to use genocide claims as political leverage in efforts to put international pressure on Turkey. It keeps the impoverished Armenian state isolated and in constant conflict with its Turkic neighbors. It keeps Nagorno-Karabakh in its occupied condition because the projection of Armenian victimhood allows the world to ignore their aggression against Azerbaijan. It keeps alive the spread of anti-Turkism in the West, vilifying good citizens whose national heritage is Turkish.

Far less people would be this impassioned into group-based hostility once genuine scholarship comes along to show that the term genocide is rooted in politics, not morality.

Tal Buenos holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah. 

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