Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Bad Word

Polish émigré Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide at the end of World War II.  As Samantha Power explains in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Lemkin sought a word that could facilitate discussion of the ugly phenomenon and yet convey the horror.  He arrived at a compound of the Greek noun genos (people, nation) and the Latin verb cidere (to kill).  When I teach the history of genocide I go through the origins of the word in the first week.  At a faculty meeting last month, the philosophy professor reminded me that Friedrich Nietzsche used basically the same term in German long before Lemkin.  In the fifteenth chapter of his The Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher mentions “a dreadful ethic of mass murder (eine grausenhafte Ethik des Völkermordes).”  Though Nietzsche was not addressing the issue of genocide but making a point about Greek drama, I’ll give him honorary credit in the classroom for coming up with the term.

Still, Lemkin was the one who coined the specific word we now use for the most evil crime humans are capable of.  Before he came onto the scene, indeed before the Nazi Holocaust, observers of genocide had grappled with language to articulate such evil acts in a succinct way. U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr. who witnessed the genocide of the Armenians, referred to the Turks’ systematic planning as “race murder.”  Did Morgenthau, an American of German-Jewish extraction, have Nietzsche’s Völkermord in mind?  A decade earlier a New York Times headline called the massacre of thousands of Armenians in the 1890s “Another Armenian Holocaust.”  We should note here that the word holokauston has been around since the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Periodically writers have employed it in reference to sacrifice or destruction.  It’s only with the Nazi murder of almost six million Jews in the 1940s that we get the Holocaust with a capital “H.”

The language of extermination and annihilation was in full operation before the “Century of Genocide” got underway, especially during the fin de siècle.  I recall Mr. Kurtz’s chilling words in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902): “Exterminate all the brutes!”  To be sure, the atrocities committed during the “Scramble for Africa,” and the Belgian Congo above all, included a series of genocidal massacres on the part of European countries.  In one of the first genocidal massacres of the 20th century, German troops decimated the Herero and Nama people of German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia) between 1904 and 1907.  The commander, General Lothar von Trotha, promised to “annihilate the revolting tribes with rivers of blood and rivers of gold [my italics].”

From the annals of history we can find references aplenty to slaughter, butchery, and massacre. Indeed, the Spanish “Black Legend” of sadistic torture and murder in the New World, as recounted by Las Casas and others, is riddled with such language.  In the years leading up to the Thirty Years War confessional polemicists used verbs like auβrotten (eradicate) and extirpare  when describing the “real” intentions of their opponents.  Going back much further, King Menelaus of Mycenae in Homer’s Illiad is encouraged to dispatch the Trojans. “The whole people must be wiped out of existence, and none be left to think of them or shed a tear.”  This account is mythical and perhaps completely fictional, but it makes the point that the language of genocide had been around for millennia, even if the word didn't yet exist.  I’m not intending to discuss depictions of mass murder throughout history so much as the search for a label that could aptly describe the evil crime.

Let us turn to our own nation's past for a moment. As a columnist for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer in 1891, L. Frank Baum, who would become the author of the beloved children’s book The Wizard of Oz (1900), writes: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”  One thinks of Nazi propaganda depicting the “filthy Jew” when in fact the Nazis had created the conditions for their victims' poverty and degradation.  Similarly, Captain Wait Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony likened the Indians in 1675 to “A Swarm of Flies” and “Swarms of Lice a Nation may destroy.”  Whether in the name of Manifest Destiny or an Aryan Utopia the results were the same for the victims.

It helps to have one word that in one fell swoop conveys the gravitas of these crimes.  Genocide embraces the annihilation, massacre, slaughter, and destruction that have continued among Homo sapiens since time immemorial.  Alas!  Genocide appears to be an adaptation in our species firmly ensconced in the human genome.  How do we reverse the curse of our evolutionary heritage, you ask?  First, we identify the problem and find language to articulate it.  We can thank Mr. Lemkin for his services in this regard.  Second, we look to another gene hardwired within us for a way out of the darkness: empathy.