When Claude Lanzmann was filming Shoah, he asked a Polish peasant whose fields abutted a death camp what he felt when he saw human ash from the crematoria chimneys raining down on his fields. The peasant replied: "When I cut my finger, I feel it. When you cut your finger, you feel it." The man's reply takes us to the heart of the problem of genocide. Why exactly is genocide a "crime against humanity"? Why is a crime committed against Jews or any other human group a crime against those who do not belong to that group?
The obvious answer seems obvious only if you assume what in fact requires demonstration, namely that we belong to the same species and owe each other the same duties of care. This concept came late to mankind, and to judge from the horrible century just past it is still struggling to make headway against the more evident idea that race, color, or creed mark impassible frontiers of moral concern. The Polish peasant was not implying that he had no feelings towards Jews. He was admitting only that he did not feel very much about them, and that his stronger feelings were reserved for people more like himself. To the extent that ethics follow feeling, his codes instructed him to care only for his own. In this, he reasoned as most human beings do.
Most moral principles take root within tribal boundaries and remain confined by the tribe's allegiances and interests. According to this conception of the ethical life, morality articulates identity and identity depends on difference. For millennia, human beings saw nothing odd about slavery, about selling and disposing of persons as if they were things. The Romans distinguished explicitly between war against civilized peoples, which had to obey certain rules of honor and mercy, and war against barbarians, which could be conducted without restraint of any kind. Moral universalism is a late and vulnerable addition to the vocabulary of mankind.
If all this is true, we need to force ourselves to think beyond the platitude that genocide is an abomination, and to understand the more difficult thought that it represents an unending moral temptation for mankind. The danger of genocide lies in its promise to create a world without enemies. Think of genocide as a crime in service of a utopia, a world without discord, enmity, suspicion, free of the enemy without or the enemy within. Once we understand that this utopia is the core of the genocidal intention, we have to realize that this utopia menaces us forever. Once we understand genocide as utopian, we understand also the vulnerability of universalism. The idea that there can be a "crime against humanity" is a counterintuitive one that has to make its way against the more alarming thought that what humans actually desire is not a world of brotherhood, but a world without enemies.
It will be said that moral universalism has an ancient pedigree, and that we can take comfort in how deeply the idea of the brotherhood of mankind runs in our religious and secular faiths. I am not so sure that we can derive such comfort from history. The moral world of the Old Testament is not only a universe of monotheistic universalism and prophetic justice; it is also a world of tribal moralities, of righteous slaughter rationalized by those who believed themselves chosen of God. The New Testament extends its new ideal of human equality only to the class of all believers. The precondition for Christian brotherhood is conversion.
Secular people, disgusted by the ingenious ways in which human beings have used religion to justify slaughter, may turn in relief to the secular universalism that we date to the Enlightenment. But as we now know, the Founding Fathers of the American civil religion did not see any contradiction between the universal claim that all men are created equal and the particularistic claim that slavery was merely a legitimate exercise of a constitutional right to property. It took the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the repeal of Jim Crow for the most egalitarian society on earth even to begin to narrow the gulf between principle and practice. We cannot date effective legal universalism in the United States any earlier than 1964, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
All of this is prologue to the thought that moral universalism is a modern conviction, established in our souls only after the most tenacious struggle to convince the powerful that they must practice what they preach. If we turn from the struggle to give equality a universalistic application to the struggle to establish the idea that the extermination of any group is a crime against all human groups, we discover again the modernity of moral universalism. To be sure, there are anticipations of the idea in the Roman conception of offenses against jus gentium, the law of all nations; but this is still a large conceptual step away from the idea of a common human race with equal rights and equal duties. The phrase "crime against humanity" enters the language of international law very late, only after World War I. The word "genocide" was not coined until 1943.
The man who coined it was Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer born in Bialystok in Poland a hundred years ago. Cast ashore in America by the Holocaust, and acting as a private citizen, without state support or salary, he single- handedly drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Genocide Convention, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948. This would be achievement enough, but Lemkin died alone and remains almost forgotten. The word that he coined--"genocide"--is now so banalized and misused that there is a serious risk that commemoration of his work will become an act of forgetting, obliterating what was so singular about his achievement.
To appreciate Lemkin's achievement, we must see it not as the ratification of easily available common sense, but as a counterintuitive leap of the imagination beyond the realm of what common sense deemed possible. For the extraordinary fact is that Lemkin coined the word "genocide" before the reality it applied to had revealed itself in its demonically modern industrial form. Already in August 1941, Churchill had said, in the face of Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe, that the world was faced with "a crime without a name." Yet when Lemkin coined the word, in 1943, while writing Axis Rule in Occupied Europe at Duke University, it was fully two years before the world knew the words Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau.
By the middle of 1942, to be sure, prophetic figures such as Jan Karski and Szmul Zygielbojm had begged official Washington and London to grasp the reality of extermination in Poland. But those to whom they brought the news--Justice Felix Frankfurter, for example--could not bring themselves to believe what they were told. Isaiah Berlin was in the British Embassy in Washington from 1942 onwards, and was constantly in touch both with Frankfurter and with Nahum Goldman, Chaim Weizmann, and other key figures in the Zionist movement. None of them could believe that what was happening in Europe was more than a massive pogrom, a continuation of an immemorial pattern of persecution. What escaped them was the terrible novelty of industrialized mass slaughter sustained by an ideological desire to wipe a people from the face of the earth, to grind salt into the earth, as the Bible would say, so that nothing would ever grow again.
How are we to explain that Lemkin had the moral imagination these great figures lacked? It cannot be because he was privy to what they knew. He came to Washington in 1943, but he remained an isolated outsider and was not aware of the secret that insiders refused to believe. Instead he had to extrapolate, by a leap of the mind, from his own particular experience to the terrible general reality, the continental catastrophe that all but a handful refused to see. In 1939, he was in Warsaw, a lawyer in private practice, when the Germans invaded. He joined in the defense of the city and then fled eastwards. On the way, he hid with a Jewish baker and his family in a small town. He begged the family to flee and the family refused. Lemkin never forgot what the baker said to him: "We Jews are an eternal people, we cannot be destroyed. We can only suffer."
This noble adherence to an ancient truth almost certainly cost the baker and his family their lives. This very Jewish endurance was an essential element of that inability to see against which Lemkin was to struggle throughout the war. He fled to Sweden, leaving behind more than forty members of his own family. He set himself up in a Stockholm law library and began a study of the legal decrees of the New Order in Europe, using evidence that reached him through the neutralist Swedish embassies, the Red Cross delegations in Germany, and German occupation radio.
Nobody before Lemkin had studied the German occupation from the standpoint of jurisprudence. His central insight was that the occupation, not just in Poland but all across Europe, had inverted the equality provisions of all the European legal traditions. Food in Poland was distributed on racial grounds, with Jews getting the least. Marriage in occupied Holland was organized entirely on racial lines: Germans responsible for getting Dutch women pregnant were not punished, as would be the case under normal military law; they were rewarded, because the resulting child would be a net addition to the Nordic race.
Lemkin was the first scholar to work out the logic of this jurisprudence. From its unremitting racial bias, he was able to understand, earlier than most, that the wholesale extermination of groups was not an accidental or incidental cruelty, nor an act of revenge. It was the very essence of the occupation. Lemkin published his findings, with the help of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in 1944, in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. This book is a rare example of scholarship as heroism: a patient, detailed, unprecedented, and unflagging demonstration, decree by decree, of modern despotism's infernal logic.
As Lemkin slowly worked out where this logic was headed, he was just as concerned about the fate of the Polish people as he was about the fate of his fellow Jews. In the decrees penalizing the use of the Polish language and promoting the destruction of Polish cultural monuments and treasures, the use of Poles for slave labor, the merciless repression of all resistance, and the settlement of Germans on Polish land--in all those awful edicts Lemkin could make out a concerted desire to subjugate, and if necessary to exterminate, the Polish people. The concept of genocide was invented, in other words, not only to describe the fate of his own people, but also to capture what was happening to the people to whom he would have belonged, had he been permitted. He was one of those Polish patriots never allowed membership in the nation that he claimed as his own. Lemkin's theoretical innovation taught a universalist lesson not least by example.
In understanding why he had such unique premonitory capacity, such a special gift for anticipating horror, we should remember that Lemkin was born and raised in a place where it was a matter of life and death for a Jew to anticipate the worst. Born on a farm near Bialystok, when Poland still belonged to the Russian czar, he remembered how his father had to bribe the local constable to turn a blind eye to the fact that the family owned a farm, a violation of Pale legislation against the Jews. He was twelve years old when Mendel Beilis was put on trial for ritual murder, and the family lived in fear until Beilis was released. In World War I, the Germans and Russians fought over the family's farm, and it was destroyed. After the war, when Trotsky and Lenin fought Pilsudski, Lemkin did service in Pilsudski's army. Later he trained as a lawyer and helped to draft the criminal code of a newly independent Poland. He served as a state prosecutor in Warsaw until anti- Semitic slurs forced him to withdraw into private practice in the 1930s.
Never secure in the Poland of his birth, he sought belonging in the law. He was not the only Jew from Bialystok to do so. Hersh Lauterpacht, later the Whewell Professor of Jurisprudence at Cambridge, was also from Bialystok, and made his escape to England in the 1920s. Like Lemkin, he became an international lawyer; and like Lemkin, he devoted his war work as a scholar to devising legal responses to barbarism. In Lauterpacht's case, it was by drafting an international bill of rights that influenced both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and, more directly, the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950. Both men responded to barbarism in the same way: by seeking to draft international legal instruments that would ban it. In a deeper sense, both these men found a home in the law, and their passionate attachment to international law was a consequence of their homelessness anywhere else.
This ideal of a world made civilized by international convention drove Lemkin first to define genocide as a crime in international law, then to secure its inclusion in the Nuremberg indictments in 1945, and finally to secure a convention making the crime a matter of universal criminal jurisdiction in 1948. When it was finally passed by the General Assembly in 1948, he was discovered weeping in a corridor of the United Nations. He wanted to be left alone, and in every sense he was alone. All of his family, except one brother, had perished in the Holocaust.
Lemkin's faith in international law was not universally shared. The surviving Jews of Poland put no trust in a world made safe by international covenants against genocide. For them, safety and home lay where Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion said it lay: in a defensible nation-state of their own. But Lemkin never identified with the promise of Zion. In an article written in April 1945, he rather poignantly identified himself as "Polish but his viewpoint is international." There is pathos in this internationalism, since internationalism had always betrayed him. He had believed in the League of Nations, and he had presented his first legal ideas to outlaw barbarism and vandalism to League of Nations experts in 1933, only to find himself laughed at by the German delegations.
Yet he was one of those rare people who take scorn as proof that they are right. Lemkin never deviated from the conviction that only a just international legal order could protect his own people. Zionism, a Jewish homeland, was a distraction. He never stopped to consider that a defensible homeland is a more reliable remedy for genocide than any U.N. convention. In his way, he too was a utopian. The young journalist A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times once challenged Lemkin to explain how a legal document, a "scrap of paper" could stop a Hitler or a Stalin. Lemkin replied: "Only man has law. Law must be built, do you understand me? You must build the law." Alas, his faith in law was not only powerful, it was also poignant: the Genocide Convention Lemkin labored so hard to draft and to have ratified has secured only one conviction in its fifty-year existence.
He was also a prisoner of his past in his strange scorn for human rights. As Samantha Power shows in a forthcoming study of the history of the Genocide Convention, Lemkin was contemptuous of the work of Eleanor Roosevelt and the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which secured General Assembly approval within days of the vote on his Genocide Convention. Mere declarations, he believed, were meaningless. What was needed was a binding convention, with universally enforceable powers.
But here, too, history has been ironic. Human rights have gone on to become the faith of a faithless age, while the Genocide Convention has been honored only in the breach. Against all of Lemkin's expectations, conventions have proved less influential than declarations. Indeed, his own convention has had perverse effects. During the genocide in Rwanda, State Department spokesmen refused to use the word "genocide" to describe it, lest it entrain the very responsibilities that Lemkin had written into the convention.
Those who should use the word "genocide" never let it slip their mouths, and those who do use the word "genocide" banalize it into a validation of every kind of victimhood. Thus slavery is called genocide, when--whatever else it was--it was a system to exploit the living rather than to exterminate them. Aboriginal peoples in North America speak of a microbial genocide, when it should be evident that microbes do not have intentions. Genocide has no meaning unless the crime can be connected to a clear intention to exterminate a human group in whole or in part. Something more than rhetorical exaggeration for effect is at stake here. Calling every abuse or crime a genocide makes it steadily more difficult to rouse people to action when a genuine genocide is taking place.
Towards the end of his life, with his convention a dead letter and its ratification by the United States stalled in the Senate, Lemkin wrote mournfully that there had been three things he had wanted to avoid in his life: wearing eyeglasses, losing his hair, and ending up as a refugee. All three, he said ruefully, had taken place. He died alone and forgotten in a Manhattan hotel in 1959.
Was he a failure? I do not believe so. The achievement that cannot be taken away from Lemkin is the intelligence and the courage to have identified an abominable new intention when others saw only immemorial cruelty, and to have given this new intention--to live in a world without enemies--the name that it deserves. It must be said, too, that it was Lemkin who gave meaning to what has to be the central concept in the postwar moral imagination: the idea of a crime against humanity.
Yet we cannot share the meaning that Lemkin gave to his concept. For if you were to ask Lemkin the question that I posed at the outset--why is a crime against Jews also a crime against Gentiles?--he would have replied that what human beings share is a common civilization, in which the achievements of one group are shared by all. Thus in a passage written in April 1945, at the very moment that the world was discovering what lay behind the barbed wire at Auschwitz and Belsen, he continued to write:
Our whole heritage is a product of the contributions of all peoples. We can best understand this when we realize how impoverished our culture would be if the so-called inferior peoples doomed by Germany, such as the Jews, had not been permitted to create the Bible, or to give birth to an Einstein, a Spinoza; if the Poles had not had the opportunity to give to the world a Copernicus, a Chopin, a Curie; the Czechs, a Huss, a Dvorak; the Greeks, a Plato and a Socrates; the Russians, a Tolstoy and a Shostakovich.
There is something affecting--and also something wrong--about this idea that what humanity holds in common is civilization. Kultur did not prevent Germans from massacring even their fellow citizens. Indeed, Kultur was Germanized in such a way as to deny Jews any right to belong to the civilization that they had made in common with Gentiles. Lemkin remained trapped by the hopeful optimism of a civilization in twilight, just as he was trapped by the illusion that what was Western was universal. But when Tutsis start massacring Hutus, when Khmers start killing fellow Cambodians, what shared civilization is supposed to mobilize Europeans to intervene?
This perplexity returns us to the Polish peasant and the mysterious question of why the fate of one group should concern the fate of another. What can we say that is truthful enough to acknowledge the ineluctable difference between human beings that saved Polish peasants from extermination and condemned their fellow beings to infamous death? What we can say--what Lemkin did not say--is that it is not civilization we share, but those very differences.
What it means to be a human being, what defines the very identity we share as a species, is the fact that we are differentiated by race, religion, ethnicity, and individual difference. These differentiations define our identity both as individuals and as a species. No other species differentiates itself in this individualized abundance. A sense of otherness, of distinctness, is the very basis of the consciousness of our individuality, and this consciousness, based in difference, is a constitutive element of what it is to be a human being. To attack any one of these differences--to round up women because they are women, Jews because they are Jews, whites because they are whites, blacks because they are blacks, gays because they are gay--is to attack the shared element that makes us what we are as a species. In this way of thinking, we understand humanity, our common flesh and blood, as valuable to the degree that it allows us to elaborate the dignity and the honor that we give to our differences--and that this reality of difference, both fated and created, is our common inheritance, the shared integument that we must fight to defend whenever any of us is attacked for manifesting it.
Michael Ignatieff is Carr Visiting Professor of Human Rights Practice at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A different version of this essay was delivered as a lecture for the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in December.
By Michael Ignatieff