On Genocide and the Brutality of European Colonialism
Daniel Alan Bey
The term genocide was first coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, the brilliant Polish-Jewish lawyer who campaigned for genocide to be criminalized under the umbrella of international law.
Lemkin’s campaign was inspired by the horrific events in Nazi Germany, but his concept of genocide began in 1933, long before the mass-extermination of the Jews. This detail is often overlooked.
Indeed, when we think of the term genocide, it is often just a few catastrophic episodes that spring to mind. These include, but are not limited to, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Bosnia between the years of 1992-1995 and, of course, the Holocaust.
These events represent humanity at its lowest point, where acts of extreme, inhumane violence were seemingly performed without conscience. But genocide is not simply a case of evil men murdering innocent victims; neither can genocide be reduced to an arbitrary explosion of irrational hatred and violence. Rather, genocide is the product of complex, historical, structural and ideological processes that affect and produce the agency of individuals in particular situations.
Lemkin would eventually draw a distinction between genocide as “event” and genocide as “process.” In 1933, he understood genocide to be the former: A combustive, spontaneous act. This is how the Holocaust is often interpreted. In the realm of Holocaust studies, for example, the mass extermination of Jews is often perceived as a unique, separate, incomparable event without parallel in world history. But a decade later Lemkin wrote that genocide is often a process that is entwined with settler-colonialism. Here, Lemkin developed a more complex definition of genocide as potentially subtle, intricate, and multifaceted, which may lead to the more explosive, violent episodes many of us understand genocide to be.
Colonialism and imperialism are not usually considered genocidal. Yet in Lemkin’s formulation, the two cannot be separated. Genocide is inherent to settler-colonialism, while settler-colonialism is inherently genocidal. In fact, Lemkin’s understanding of the term genocide was developed through a critique of colonialism from the 16th century onward, including the philosophical traditions that justified the brutal realities of European colonization. Consider the words of the great 19th century evolutionist Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, who argued that the “more intellectual and moral [European people] must displace the lower and degraded races.” Or, consider the words of the Darwinian Oscar Peschel, who claimed that the “decline of the Tasmanians should be viewed as a geological or paleontological fate: The stronger variety supplants the weaker.”
It is important to understand that these ideas were not exclusive to the realms of science; they were reflected in the political, literary, philosophical and anthropological writings of the time. David Hume, the eminent 18th century British philosopher, for example, possessed a view held by many of his countrymen. In his philosophical essays, he wrote that there was “never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation.”
In a similar fashion, John Locke, one of the great liberal thinkers of the 17th century, justified colonialism on the grounds of property. In “Two Treatises of Government,” he argued that the greater the use and exploitation of nature, the greater the right a social group has to its surroundings. The British colonization of America could be justified, argued Locke, because the Europeans were better able to utilize and exploit the land’s natural resources.
In these examples, the writer accesses the Other through an imperialist position of Western supremacy, always defining the foreign in terms of opposition. These ideas also objectified and often dehumanized non-European others as barbaric, uncivilized and ultimately subhuman. Furthermore, by dividing the world into binaries such as European/non-European and civilized/uncivilized, colonialism was justified. Can a parallel therefore be drawn between European colonialism and Nazi Germany?
It is not difficult to see how Adolf Hitler drew on the imperial experiences of the European colonial nations in formulating his vision for Nazi Germany. “The settlement of the north American continent succeeded,” writes Hitler in Mein Kempf, “out of a sense of justice that is rooted only in the conviction of superiority and with that the right of the white race.” Furthermore, speaking about the occupation of Poland, Hitler writes that there is only “one duty – to Germanize the country by immigration of Germans and to look upon the natives as redskins.”
This collective notion, espoused here by Hitler and executed through the Nazi regime, proposed a collectivity identifying “us” against “them.” This is inseparable from the idea of a European identity constructed in opposition to non-European peoples and cultures.
Historians have revealed the true nature of European colonialism, which has been one of brutal violence and oppression. It is not difficult, then, to draw a parallel between Nazi Germany and the murder of men, women and children, the use of concentration camps, slavery, hate crimes or the exploitation of wealth as experienced in the former colonies.
For Hitler, as with the European colonizers, conquest and domination were the driving forces behind history, and conquest meant either the subordination or the absolute destruction of the non-European races. This was achieved through both mass-killings, as well as social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, religious and moral impositions.
Raphael Lemkin’s concept of genocide is the direct consequence and product of the history of colonialism. And Nazi Germany, widely considered to be the most horrific event in world history, utilized colonial history, and brought those practices inherent to the European colonies to Europe itself.