David Patrick, University of Edinburgh, The Four Key Indicators of Genocide: Lessons from the Holocaust and Rwanda

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David Patrick, University of Edinburgh, The Four Key Indicators of Genocide: Lessons from the Holocaust and Rwanda

The 4 Key Indicators of Genocide: Lessons from the Holocaust and Rwanda

By David Patrick

University of Edinburgh

What truly set the last century apart was the extent to which the mass killing of civilians was used for political or ideological purposes. Countless millions lost, and continue to lose, their lives to such. In the post-1945 world, genocide has gone from being ‘unimaginable’1 to being considered the most serious crime against humanity2 - and this paper seeks to gauge what factors, using historical examples as a model, are the clearest indicators of violence of this nature.

The principal concern of this work will be to identify 4 key historical indicators of mass killing and, employing the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwandan genocide as the prime examples, attempt to show that certain occurrences and actions can be viewed as a prelude to genocidal acts. Essentially; in the same manner in which physicians can identify an illness based on a list of given symptoms3, informed members of the international community should have the ability to identify cases of genocide before they degenerate into the level of violence which was prevalent in the last century. A logical starting point for this paper, however, would surely be to give an explanation of what exactly it is that constitutes genocide.

Genocide: Its History and Meaning

For the intents and purposes of this paper, ‘genocide’ will in effect mean any case where deadly mass violence is used against a substantial number of people. It should be stated though that the intent to kill a substantial portion of the targeted population is a necessary factor. So therefore, to avoid early confusion, the likes of 9/11 or even the nuclear decimation of Nagasaki do not constitute a genocidal act.

The exact legal meaning of the word genocide, however, has a slightly more strict meaning attached to it. The neologism itself was coined by Rapahel Lemkin who, believing that no existing term was sufficient to describe such acts4, first put the word in print in 19445. A lawyer by profession, Lemkin was also an amateur historian of cases of mass-violence. Combining his legal and historical skills, he found it curious that an individual could be tried for killing another individual and yet, in examples throughout history, states could freely kill multitudes of their own subjects without legal reprisal. He decided that to help his cause and to draw attention to the problem, he needed a new word with which to describe such monstrous acts. After lengthy deliberation, he settled on ‘genocide’ – which was formed from combining the Greek word genos (meaning ‘race’ or ‘type’) with the Latin word cide (meaning ‘to kill’ or ‘to put an end to’)6. Despite literally meaning ‘race killing’, Raphael Lemkin intended it to relate to any acts which targeted a group on racial, national or religious grounds. Until his death in 1959, Lemkin worked tirelessly to publicise and criminalise the impact of such violence and the culmination of his hard work came with the formation of the United Nations’ ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ in 1948 – Article II of which is quoted below:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group, as


  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within he group;

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.7

There have been a number of genocides throughout history though, and so to invoke a number of them within the confines of this paper would be ill-advised. Instead, as was stated in the introduction, the cases of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide will suffice.

These case studies have been chosen for two reasons. The first is that they arguably represent the most catastrophic instances of genocide of the 20th century – with the Holocaust being the ‘largest’ in terms of final death toll, and the Rwandan genocide representing the ‘swiftest’ case in recorded history. The second is that as this paper is aimed at those both familiar and unfamiliar with such affairs, the multitude of recent popular culture ventures regarding both events (in the form of mainstream movies such as Schindler’s List & Hotel Rwanda) makes them the most likely examples for the reader to have at least some prior knowledge of. In any event, it is helpful to give a background to these two terrible episodes so that the points examined later on in the essay should become more accessible and revelatory to the reader.

The Holocaust and Rwanda: Scars on History

The Holocaust is, for many people, the defining aspect of the Nazi regime. Beginning around 1941 with the Nazi invasion of Russia, mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe were in full gear by early 1942. Later that same year, partly in response to the psychological effect on the SS troops who were committing the atrocities, the now infamous death camp system was devised. From then until the war’s end in 1945, these camps – the most well-known of which is Auschwitz-Birkenau - would witness the gassing and cremation of upwards of 3.5 million Jews. Along with shooting and hanging, and combined with those who died in the over-crowded ‘ghettos’ up to 1941, the Nazi method of industrial extermination8 claimed a total of some 6 million Jews. By its culmination, the Holocaust had lead to the deaths of more than a third of all Jews around the globe9, and left its mark on history forever. Following on from these unimaginable horrors it is difficult to believe that killing like this would ever be allowed to happen again, but in 1994, almost fifty years after the writing of the Genocide Convention, Rwanda witnessed a genocide which dwarfed even the Holocaust in terms of speed and brutality.

In the 100 days following April 6, 1994, an orgy of violence completely consumed the country of Rwanda. Beginning in response to the assassination of the president and triggering the civil war which would ultimately end the killings on July 19, the genocide saw the Hutu majority of Rwanda massacre upwards of 800,000 of the Tutsi minority along with a number of politically moderate Hutu. This figure works out to around 5.5 deaths per minute 10and means that the violence occurred at a rate in the region of 5 times that of the Holocaust11. What made the bloodshed all the worse though was the manner in which the majority of this 800 were butchered - most of the killing was done using primitive weapons such as machetes and nailed-clubs. Perhaps most horrifying of all was the fact that ordinary people got involved in the killing. Men, women and children all helped to slaughter their neighbours and even doctors and priests turned their hand to murder. The predominantly Tutsi rebel army (the Rwandan Patriotic Front), who had responded to the massacres by re-starting the civil war on April 8th, finally took the capital in mid-July. By that time however, the majority of the damage had been done.

So what are the factors then which history has shown can act as an ‘alarm’ for impending genocide?

(a) Economic Instability

It is an old argument that money is the ‘root of all evil’ and, in most instances of genocide, economic volatility has indeed been seen to correlate with the onset of mass violence12. This can be for any number of reasons. Perhaps one of the most common though is the failure of the state to match the economic aspirations of the dominant people13. When this occurs, especially over protracted periods of time, populations can become increasingly isolationist and reactionary – to the point where it becomes almost logical that the destruction of a certain group will lead to an upturn in the fortunes of the ‘impoverished masses’. At the very least, history has shown that economic recession can make the policies of extremist and radical parties far more appealing to a greater percentage of the population. This is a fact which was demonstrated in both 1920s Germany and in early 1990s Rwanda.

In pre-Nazi Germany, the effects of the Great Depression were felt far more than in perhaps any other nation in the world. The Wall Street Crash hammered the average people of Germany. As a result, they desperately looked for someone to lead them out of the crisis – and for someone to blame. The group that would step forward in this midst of this economic meltdown were Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, and the group which they attributed the blame to were the country’s Jewish minority14. The impact of this radical change in electoral behaviour would be the eventual seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933 – a development which would subsequently see the world plunged into war and would lead to the near-destruction of the Jewish race in Europe. The effects of economic turmoil leading to such a radicalisation of the electorate cannot be understated. This is perhaps illustrated most vividly by the fact that following the onset of the Depression in 1929, the Nazis saw their share of the popular vote climb to 18.3% in the 1930 election: an increase on the paltry 2.6% in the (pre-crisis) election of 192815.

A similar story can be seen in Rwanda where economic recession also led to a radicalisation of national politics. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, the drop in world coffee-prices in the late 1980s led to the country descending into previously unimaginable levels of poverty. By the early 1990s, with no natural resources to fall back upon16, unemployment soured and many were attracted to Hutu extremist parties. When one combines this dire economic situation with the fact that Rwanda was Africa’s most densely populated country17, it is not surprising that a situation emerged where sections of the populace agreed upon the need for a ‘cull’18.

What these historical examples show then, is that economic volatility can undeniably be described as a ‘foot in the door’ for extremist (and thus politically genocidal) regimes. Indeed, it may even be described as the first indicator which can alert the international community to the potential for violence.

Despite being a possibility, economic deprivation rarely leads to genocidal practice on its own, though. Despite the fact that desperate people will do desperate things, economic recession generally has to be accompanied by other developments in order to trigger mass violence. These will now be discussed below.

(b) De-humanisation of Intended Victims

A virtual constant throughout the history of genocide is the reduction of the victims to ‘sub-human’ status. For perpetrators of genocide this process helps to remove feelings of guilt19, and goes a long way to convincing ordinary ‘non-extremists’ to join in with the violence. The use of abstract language, and the misuse of scientific theory, has been used during several episodes of human conflict. It is a practice which today continues in ethnic conflicts around the world, and is a key indicator of impending violence.

This process of de-humanisation is perhaps the most important factor in explaining how the Nazi state was able to liquidate such numbers of people. As part of a systematic process to isolate Jews within the Reich, the Nazis increasingly targeted a range of vile language towards the Jews in the years after 1933. Hitler described the Jews as ‘a maggot in a rotting corpse’20, and several similar viral-like descriptions were subsequently levelled towards that group. The Jews were constantly referred as an infection within in Germany – to the point where they were categorised as bacteria21. The repetition of such language through the media led many ordinary Germans to viewing the physical mixing between ‘Aryan Germans’ and Jews as degenerative of Germanic blood. Prior to the Holocaust, these beliefs peaked with the 1935 ‘Protection of German Blood and Honour and State Citizenship Law’22. Jews and Aryans were no longer allowed to marry, and sexual relations of any kind were forbidden. These measures, which coincided with the constant assertion by the Nazis that the Jews were behind a grand scheme of Judeo-Bolshevik world-domination23, went a long way to ensuring that they were regarded as sub-human within the eyes of the citizens of Hitler’s Reich. As a result, few people objected when the persecution of the Jews descended into violence and extermination.

Similar terminology was also used both before and during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hutu extremists worked hard to cultivate an atmosphere in which the destruction of the Tutsis would become acceptable to the majority of the population24. They did this by referring to the Tutsi as ‘cockroaches’ and called for their extermination in a manner which made such violence seem like the civic duty of the Hutu. The use of the term cockroaches was used for two specific reasons. First of all, it provoked revulsion towards the Tutsi and helped to erode their humanity. Secondly, the term ‘cockroaches’ had actually been first propagated by the Tutsi RPF army to describe their undetectable stealth attacks in the early 1990s. By constantly using this RPF-originating word, the extremist regime was able to argue that all Tutsi were RPF-sympathisers25. Much like that which had occurred in Nazi Germany, this set of circumstances allowed many would-be murderers to see their actions as entirely justifiable.

As a factor for predicting genocide, the de-humanisation of the intended victims is a major warning signal. What the examples from Germany and Rwanda show, along with numerous other cases throughout history, is that the mass killing, rape and murder of one’s fellow human beings is rendered far more plausible when the targeted group are reduced to sub-human levels.

(c) The Cover of War

When looked at from a historical perspective; it almost seems an unwritten rule that genocide must take place under the cover of a separate conflict. As a result of war, there invariably comes a point when ‘people cease to be shocked or disgusted at the wanton taking of human life’26, and so the social barriers to such violence eventually disappear. Few genocidal acts, therefore, have ignited during times of relative peace and harmony. For regimes engaging in genocide, ‘secondary’ war can provide a justification, as well as a cover, for extreme violence.

The confusion and hysteria which arose during the Second World War was used to murderous effect by the Nazis. With Germany virtually hegemonic over continental Europe27, and with lines of communication severely strained, conditions were near perfect for the Nazis to embark upon their ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. The conditions of the war allowed Hitler’s regime to cover up the transportation and elimination of entire populations from towns and villages all across Europe. Indeed, many people, upon hearing about the camps, failed to believe that such atrocities could be possible. Hitler may have indeed wished for a ‘war of annihilation’28 against the Slavs and Jews from day one but, without the cover of war, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have gotten away with such crimes for as long as they did. Certainly, the evolution of the Holocaust is somewhat unimaginable without the blinding destruction of the Second World War.

In Rwanda, the civil war which coincided with the genocide actually erupted in response to the mass-killing. The RPF, who were in Rwanda as part of the Arusha Peace Accords, restarted their earlier conflict when they realised that Tutsis were being massacred across the country. The problem with this, however, was that the existence of a civil war blinded most of the international community to the unfolding genocide29. Indeed, the portrayal of what was happening in Rwanda as a case of civil war was one of the factors which ultimately helped to ensure that calls for outside intervention were half-hearted at best. As Melvern has explained, framing the genocide as a civil war went a long way to undermining the case for intervention30 and so, until the RPF took the capital, the Hutu extremists carried out the bloodshed virtually unopposed.

As the historical examples given indicate, war can be used as a ‘smoke-shield’ for mass killing and the like, and genocidal events can consequently become over-shadowed by general societal conflict. However, considering that history also shows that times of war are consistently the most conducive to genocide31, then the onset of war should always be regarded as a prime indicator of potential genocide.

(d) ‘An Opening Act’

Last, but certainly not least, is the idea that several acts of genocide have started with a ‘scaled-down’ version of the eventual grand slaughter. Indeed, very few instances of genocide throughout history have been the very first expression of such violence. For the perpetrators of mass-killing this ‘warm-up act’ serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it determine’s just how willing the population will be to condone such violence (an important consideration for those in power). Secondly, it allows the genocidal regime to gauge the possible reaction of the international community to such acts. If it is found that an outbreak of such violence is met by little more than half-hearted condemnation by other states; many perpetrators will take this as a green light for an escalation in barbarity. In both Germany and Rwanda, the eventual genocidal horrors that were witnessed had indeed followed on from previous ‘lesser’ tragedies.

Although not clear at the time, many scholars now view the events of the 9-10 November, 1938, as a prelude to the Holocaust32. This incident has now become known as Kristallnacht – meaning, ‘Night of the Broken Glass’. The name comes from the vandalism and destruction which was ordered by the Nazis to terrorise the Jewish minority. It occurred in response to the assassination in Paris of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, by a young Jew called Herschel Grynszpan33. It ultimately saw more than 90 people murdered and some 30,000 thrown in concentration camps34. Although the events of Kristallnacht were met with global disapproval, none went further than harsh words and it wasn’t until later in the war – when knowledge of the Final Solution became known – that the importance of that night as a warning sign became all the more obvious.

If the warning signs for future Nazi aggression were plain for all to see following Kristallnacht, then the warning signs in the early 1990s pointing to an escalation of violence in Rwanda can be regarded as shockingly obvious. Smaller massacres, which none-the-less claimed hundreds of victims at a time, happened in response to the original RPF invasion of 199035. Many in the international community took note of the violence and warned against the potential for further bloodshed36, but no one expected violence of the scale which eventually unfolded.

What both of these examples illustrate is that small-scale violence should always be treated as a possible indicator of impending genocide. In the same manner in which a single cloud can indicate that a storm is on the way, isolated outbreaks of violence should always alert the international community to the possibility for further atrocities. Perhaps more than any of the other factors listed in this article, this final indicator is the one which carries the most ‘predictive clout’ within a model for genocide. Whilst most of the other factors can be regarded as ‘developments’ or ‘abstract warning signs’, this actual physical eruption into violence is the most concrete warning sign of a descent into mass slaughter.


The variables discussed in this paper were chosen because, historically, they have been seen to be indicative of potential mass violence – especially when in combination with each other. With this in mind, one could argue that the present political climate in Iraq is looking dangerously conducive to genocide. Whilst not likely whilst there remains a heavy Western presence, the country none-the-less demonstrates the some degree all of the factors mentioned in this paper. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone if that state should witness catastrophic violence within the next decade – especially if there is a dramatic pull-out of US soldiers.

One detail that should be made clear, however, is that it is entirely possible that a state could demonstrate all of these indicators and still not necessarily descend into genocide. In a similar vein, although very unlikely, the same state could show none of these factors and yet genocide could indeed unfold.

1 William D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis, (New York: Routledge, 2000), page 32 – In this section Rubinstein describes how, in the early years of Nazi rule, the possibility of physically exterminating the Jews was incomprehensible.

2 Linda Melvern, “Genocide by Machete”, Daily Mail, March 5 (1999), page 10

3 Franklin L. Littell, “Essay: Early Warning”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 3 (4), (1988), page 487

4 James Axtell, Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), page 261

5 Niall Ferguson, Colossus The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, (London: Penguin, 2005), page 141

6 Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), page 79 – for a superb insight into the development of the term, please refer to Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (London: Flamingo, 2003), pages 1-61.

7 Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide – 6th impression, (London: Zed Books, 2006), Appendix 2 (page 251)

8 Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, (London: BBC Books, 2005), page 199

9 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews – 3 volumes (3rd edition), (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), pages 1047-1048 & 1220

10 Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations in Rwanda, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), page 1

11 Andrew Sinclair, An Anatomy of Terror: A History of Terrorism, (London: MacMillan, 2003), page 320

12 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, (London: Penguin, 2006), page lix

13 Michael Freeman, “The Theory and Practice of Genocide”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 6 (2), (1991), page 188

14 Niall Ferguson, War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, (London: Penguin, 2006), page 195; Albert S. Lindemann, Anti-Semitism Before the Holocaust, (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), page 57

15 Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History­ – paperback edition, (London: BBC Books, 2005), pages 36-37. Some scholars have stated that the Great Depression was the decisive factor in allowing the Nazis to gain power in Germany, see – Stephen J. Lee, Hitler and Nazi Germany, (London: Routledge, 2001), page 8

16 Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 2003), page 6, 89

17 George Packer, “Justice on a Hill”, in The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention – 2nd edition – edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, (New York: Basic Books, 2003), page 140

18 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, (New York: Viking Books, 2005), page 326

19 Michael Freeman, “The Theory and Practice of Genocide”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 6 (2), (1991), page 190

20 Valkan Dadrian, “The Role of Turkish Physicians in the World War I Genocide of Ottoman Armenians”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 1 (2), (1986), page 175

21 An illustration of these believes is shown by Hitler’s words to Slavko Kvaternik in July, 1941: ‘If even one state for whatever reason tolerates one Jewish family in it, then this will become the bacillus source for a new decomposition’ – cited in Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy – September 1939 – March 1942, (London: William Heinemann, 2004), page 315. See also, Albert S. Lindemann, Anti-Semitism Before the Holocaust, (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), page 24

22 David Ceserani, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, (London: Vintage, 2005), page 41

23 Michael Veranov (ed), The Third Reich at War – compiled by Angus McGeoch, (Bristol: Sienna, 1998), pages 597-598

24 Fergal Keane, Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey – 2nd edition, (London: Penguin Books, 1996), page 10

25 Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations in Rwanda, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), page 78

26 Darryl Li, “Echoes of Violence”, The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention – 2nd edition – edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, (New York: Basic Books, 2003), page 126

27 William D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis – reprint, (New York: Routledge, 2000), page xv

28 Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History – paperback edition, (London, BBC Books, 2005), page 143

29 Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations in Rwanda, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), pages 103, 156 & 112

30 Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide – 6th impression, (London: Zed Books, 2006), page 172

31 Barbar Harff. “No Lessons Learned From the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955”, American Political Science Review, Volume 97 (1), (February 2003), page 70

32 One of the best history’s of this period is provided in: Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, (London: Harper Perennial, 2007).

33 Ron Roizen, “Herschel Grynszpan: The Fate of a Forgotten Assassin”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 1 (2), (1986), page 217

34 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, (London: Penguin, 2006), page 268

35 Bill Berkeley, “Road to a Genocide”, The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention – 2nd edition – edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, (New York: Basic Books, 2003), page 105

36 Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide – 6th impression, (London: Zed Books, 2006), page 36

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