Skip to main content

European Genocide in the Twentieth Century

Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.


Introduction to genocide

Genocide can be defined as the act of killing,
causing harm, preventing the reproduction, creating intolerable living
conditions, or removing the offspring of any group such as racial, ethnical,
national or religious, that is “committed with intent to destroy [the group],
in whole or in part” (Stanton, 2002). Although the extermination of the Jews is
most likely the most widely known example of European genocide in the twentieth
century, there were actually many instances of mass murder involving virtually
countless people of multiple races, ethnicities and nationalities which were
perpetrated by several different organizations, governments and individuals.
The people involved on either side, the events leading up to each genocidal attack,
the intentions of those responsible and the supposed purposes of each instance
were as varied and complex as the sickening, horrendous acts themselves. While
there have been occurrences of genocide all over the world, throughout history
and continuing through to today, the emergence and frequency of genocide in
Europe during the twentieth century are almost inconceivable and ought to be
clearly etched in the minds of people around the world.

Upon approaching the topic of genocide in Europe during the twentieth century, one should first contemplate the term genocide itself. While the definition of the word has already been discussed, there is far more to contemplate than merely the dictionary definition. So what is genocide and what is it not? Genocide is intentional harm by an individual or group where the victims are members of a particular other group, it is not limited to mass murder or even murder at all. While by the definition given and the fact that the crime is not limited to one physical act may make it seem as though it is merely another name for violent hate crimes, genocide can manifest without violence, for instance, one could argue that a government that creates laws specifically with the intent of minimizing, preventing, or effecting the reproduction habits of, restricting the movement of, or oppressing in anyway one group of people is committing an act of genocide. It is a very broad term, but is not used lightly. The term genocide was first used in the 1940’s by Dr. Raphael Lemkin in his attempt to come up with a word that “conveyed the biological and cultural destruction” (para.) of the crimes during the twentieth century emergence of genocide in Europe, so while the word’s literal definition is race killing, it is used more liberally as a term that identifies any crime that is intended to cause destruction against an individual due to their biologic or cultural affiliation (Lemkin, 1946).

Genocide differs from other occurrences of mass murder in many ways. Mass murder is often the result of people being randomly targeted due to their proximity to the perpetrators whether civilian or military. To be called an act of genocide, the victims had to have been intentionally targeted due to their biologic or cultural affiliation and they do not have to have been killed to be considered to have been victims of genocide, they only had to have been targeted for some type of oppression, repression or violence due solely to their ties to a particular group. According to Claudia Card, genocide is “social death, a loss of social vitality or loss of identity and thereby one’s existence” (Card, 2003). By this definition, anyone who was ever born can become a target at any time and by multiple individuals or groups, of course, Europe in the twentieth century provided proof of precisely that.

Check out this and other great titles


European genocide and the Nazi Party

The term genocide was not coined in the twentieth century because that was when it first emerged, rather, that was when it re-emerged and became alarmingly frequent enough to require a designated identifier; the truth is, that there had been a global history of genocide for quite some time. The oldest known case of genocide is believed to have occurred at Carthage in 146 BC and was perpetrated by the Romans against the Carthaginians for no other reason than who they were and where they came from (Kiernan, 2004). There have been instances of genocidal acts all over the world. Early European-American settlers could certainly have been guilty of genocide against the Native American tribes. According to Dr. Gideon Polya, in Australia genocide against the Aborigines at least as recently as 2008 in various forms (Polya, 2008). In 1994 at least 800,000 people were brutally slain in Rwanda because of their Tutsi affiliation (The United Human Rights Council, 2013). The list could go on and on, the point is, the events that unfolded in Europe during the twentieth century regarding genocide were certainly not isolated, it is not something specific only to Europeans any more than it was an issue limited to the twentieth century. Clearly, genocide is not to be taken lightly and the lessons that can be learned from the frequency of genocidal emergence in World War Two era Europe should be seriously scrutinized.

Genocide in twentieth century Europe is most often characterized by the events that unfolded regarding the attempted extermination of the Jewish people perpetrated by Nazi Germany lead by Adolf Hitler so it is pertinent that these events be involved in any study having to do with genocide, historical Europe or World War Two. During World War One Germany had experienced some blows and the aftermath was devastating. In response, the German people sought someone to blame and something to focus their efforts on in hopes of reviving their beloved country and national pride. Adolf Hitler gave them precisely the means to do that. Under his rule, people of Jewish lineage became the primary focus of blame for the nation’s woes and cleansing the planet of their perceived filth and eventually that of anyone who did not align with their notion of a pure Aryan became their ideal method of reviving their nation.

“The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators” in other words, the Holocaust was genocide allowed by the government in power for an extended period of time against the Jews (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013). The issues began with anti-sematic propaganda which led to limiting the movements of the Jewish people and continued with heavier and heavier oppression and violence against them which then led to sending them to labor camps and eventually culminated with the liquidation of the ghettos and the mass murders which often took place in what had then become death camps. According to most sources, over six million European Jews were killed during the Holocaust, to say nothing of the countless other horrors they and anyone associated with them endured. It is a terrible and tragic truth, but what is worse is that the Jews were not the only victims of Europe’s genocidal heyday.

The Nazis were responsible for the torture, oppression and deaths of many who were not Jews, they referred to the terror of anyone who was not considered worthy of their new race and new nation as the “final solution”. Anything done by a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer or a group of the like in the name of this “final solution” was deemed not only necessary, but both acceptable and desirable as well, this was because the Nazi party, which had in fact, become as much a religion as it was a political party, believed they were on a holy mission of sorts to revive the master race and improve the gene pool. Extreme Nationalism played a very large role in encouraging German citizens to allow such atrocities and even to participate as they felt that through this darkness would come a light, they would once again hold their heads high and be proud to be Germans, the world would finally see how special they were and would bow to the glory that would be the new Germany.

Awful though it may be to consider, it is important to note that the Germans even preformed a mass euthanasia on their own people, Germans who were mentally ill or carried some physical deformity or undesirable trait (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013). Clearly few were safe from genocidal Nazi Germany. Some groups were targeted due to perceived racial inferiority. The Roma, of whom it is estimated that tens of thousands were murdered while many more were tortured or forcibly removed from their homelands, were a continuous focus of the Nazi party due to the idea that they were somehow inferior to Germans and for their inferiority were deemed prime candidates for torturous human experiments (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013). People of Slavic decent could expect a similar fate, well over one hundred thousand were displaced, tens of thousands sent to work camps, many slaughtered and many of their children removed to go through “Germanization”, which is basically another form of genocide in and of itself (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013). While this does not come close to exploring all of the groups affected by the Nazis or the horrible crimes committed against them, it does provide a clear glimpse into the issue of Nazi instigated genocide, unfortunately, the Nazis were far from being the sole proprietors of the genocide business during the twentieth century, they were not even the first.


A few other examples

In 1915 it is estimated that approximately one to one and a half million people of Armenian affiliation were brutally slain by Turkish militants during a forced mass deportation. The Armenians suffered at the hands of the Turks for two reasons, one they were a Christian nation while the Turks were a Muslim nation and two, the Turkish government believed that the Armenian government had aligned itself with Russia. The Armenian people were victims of genocide; they were being targeted because of their cultural, religious and national affiliations in mass. While the issues are still being debated to this day, several nations have concurred that the events which unfolded in 1915 in fact do constitute genocide, despite the fact that the Turkish national government adamantly denies it. The effects were not short lived and the cultural devastation is visible to this day, the wounds of the Armenian people still require attention, though due to the Turkish government’s refusal to accept full responsibility, that requirement may never be met.

Two later victims of genocide in twentieth century Europe were the people of Bosnia and the Khojaly people of Azerbaijan. In the case of the Bosnians, political upheaval due to the fall of communism had led to growing ethnical tensions. Serbia rose against Bosnia’s attempt to secede and in an effort to “ethnically cleanse” the nation, they set out to exterminate all Bosnian Muslims (Holocaust Museum of Huston, 2013). Bosnian Muslims were raped, otherwise tortured, starved, sent to concentration camps, and murdered in staggering numbers. The Khojaly situation had happened only a year earlier and while the statistics were less impressive, the situation is, to say the least, perplexing. On February 26th, 1994, Armenian armed forces occupying Azerbaijan attacked the Khojaly people with the intent of “total or partial extermination of people on the ground of their national origin” (New Europe News Team, 2013). This genocidal attack is particularly intriguing when one considers the notions that not even a century earlier the Armenians themselves had been victims of a massive genocidal attack which left their nation crippled, yet here they were perpetrating the same crime against another group without hesitation. Despite the fact that the numbers were small in comparison to the Serbian attack on Bosnian Muslims, entire families were exterminated, identification of victims is ongoing and like the Armenians themselves had been not so long before, the Kholjaly were a devastated people. Surely there is something to be learned from this, it is a shame the Armenians were not able to learn it before perpetrating the same crime they themselves had suffered so greatly from.

Scroll to Continue

Check out this and other great titles

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

So After reading about these various occurrences genocide in twentieth century Europe, it is pertinent to ask ourselves what we know of the subject, clearly there were multiple instances of genocide clustered on one continent and in one century, this paper has not even scratched the surface of all of the attacks. The alarming frequency in which instances of genocide took place sort of leaves one scratching their scalps in confusion, therefore it becomes important to explore some possible explanations of the phenomena happening so much and so often in a single area. According to current research, nearly all genocides, including those in Europe during the twentieth century occurred “either during or in the aftermath of internal wars, revolution and regime collapse,” (Harff, 2003). This is an important discovery because armed with this knowledge one can search current events for similar occurrences that may leave nations or people vulnerable to genocidal attacks. This information may also assist world leaders in being prepared for the fallout of such leadership or governmental changes in countries at risk. Those countries most at risk would be the ones which have had a blow to national pride and whose new leaders use ideologies that incite hate as platforms to mobilize and unite their people (Harff, 2003). Clearly each of the countries in Europe were facing difficulties such as political upheavals and certainly authority figures used platforms of fear and hate to incite their people into action. If it is true for each of the occurrences of genocide in twentieth century Europe, than surely the idea can be applied in other instances as well.

While it is possible that the major outbreak of genocide in twentieth century Europe could have been avoided, it is doubtful, the conditions were right and nations do not want to get involved in the internal problems of other nations and risk losses to their own, and then of course there is the social control theory. It has been theorized by some that genocide is an acceptable method of social control, ensuring that the masses stay in line and that cultural identifiers remain and outliers and deviants are destroyed to prevent unnecessary pollution to the mix, “a response to deviant behavior”(Campbell, 2009). While this type of theorizing is precisely what the Nazi regime propagated, it obviously is not acceptable nor is it beneficial. It destroys culture and economy thereby causing undue destruction or at the very least, disruption to any nation depending on the victimized group. We live in a globalized world where each nation is dependent on others, but this is something that has changed since early twentieth century instances of genocide in Europe and while there have been instances since, never as drastic, perhaps that is part of the puzzle.

The fact is that there are many new approaches to genocide. There are multiple theories, endless lists of watch groups and activists, not to mention all of the national alliances to prevent it from occurring, unfortunately, no matter what they do there is always a threat. Thankfully, humans are capable of learning from the past, despite the fact that Armenia did not, perhaps there is hope that the rest of the world can learn from their mishap. New information is emerging regarding genocide all the time, the more research on past events that is done, the more the word is spread and awareness raised, the better chance we have of preventing any future occurrences, or at the very least, being prepared and able to identify what we are seeing to deal with it more efficiently when it does happen. While there is no comfort or solace in any of the events involving genocide in twentieth century Europe, if there is anything positive that one can take away from it all, it is knowledge and the potential to spread it far and wide in hopes of better understanding of what took place and the potential to prevent it in the future because there is much to be learned from the past.

Find out more from this and other great titles


BBC News Team (2008) The Armenian genocide dispute Retrieved from

Campbell, Bradley ( 2009) Genocide as Social Control, Sociological Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 150-172 Retrieved from

Card, Claudia (winter, 2003) Genocide and Social Death, Feminist Philosophy and the Problem of Evil Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 63-79 Retrieved from

Harff, Barbara (2003) No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 pp. 57-73, Retrieved from

Holocaust Museum of Huston (2012) Genocide in Bosnia 1992-1995 Retrieved from

Kiernan, Ben (2004) The first genocide: Carthage, 146 BC. Retrieved from

Lemkin, Raphael (1946), Genocide American Scholar, Volume 15, no. 2 (April 1946), p. 227-230 Retrieved from

New Europe News Team (2013) Ombudswoman speaks on 21st anniversary of Khojaly genocide Retrieved from

Polya, Gideon (2008) Australian Aboriginal Genocide Continues Despite Historic Apology Retrieved from

Stanton, Gregory (2002) The International Alliance to End Genocide Retrieved from

The United Human Rights Council (2013) Genocide in Rwanda Retrieved from

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2012) Holocaust History Retrieved from

© 2013 Myranda Grecinger


Kitty88 on September 08, 2017:

I believe the effects of these atrocities still affect Europe.Most notably the loss of the Jews from Europe but also the war itself which left Britain impoverished.Why do people from a supposedly civilised place do these things.One explanation I read is that Europe is not really Christian because people were converted by force and so Christianity has only a shallow basis in them and the barbarian is still here inside us.I don't know if that can be proved but forced conversion seems very wrong to me.A very interesting article.Thank you.

Related Articles