International Relations 20th Century Genocides
Simon Payaslian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0105


The scholarship on genocide has grown exponentially since the 1970s. The two general objectives of genocide studies have been to develop more systematic explanations of causes of genocide and a deeper understanding of consequences than previously available in the literature. Genocides in the 20th century are estimated to have cost more than forty million lives. The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin (b. 1900–d. 1959), a Polish-Jewish legal scholar, who in reaction to the atrocities taking place during World War II advocated the creation of an international legal instrument to prevent genocide. His efforts led to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (9 December 1948). The convention is legally binding under international law but has become the subject of much heated debate, mostly regarding contending definitions of “genocide.” A consensus has formed among scholars that genocides in the 20th century encompassed (although were not limited to) the following cases: Herero in 1904–1907, the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915–1923, the Holodomor in the former Soviet Ukraine in 1932–1933, the Jewish Holocaust in 1938–1945, Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia in 1975–1979, East Timor in 1975–1999, Bosnia in 1991–1995, and Rwanda in 1994. The diversity of subject areas, theories, and methodologies in genocide studies notwithstanding, most work is primarily concerned with the role of the perpetrator state; the nature of leadership; the ability of the leaders to transform ordinary men into murderers and bureaucracies into instruments of murder; and, finally, how to prevent future genocides. Although a small number of scholarly works have also paid attention to followers and bystanders, this area requires more research, as does genocide prevention. Regardless of the paucity of scholarly literature on genocide prevention, the European Union, in cooperation with the government of Hungary, took the significant step of establishing, in 2011, the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

General Overviews

The literature on genocide consists of general surveys; comparative analyses of two or more cases; anthologies on a specific genocide, with individual chapters analyzing various aspects of the case; and case studies that offer historical analyses with varying degrees of detail and units of analysis. General surveys—for example, Totten and Parsons 2009—often first discuss definitions of “genocide” and theoretical considerations, followed by individual chapters devoted to each case of genocide. The comparative approaches develop theoretical frameworks and identify key factors common in the cases under consideration. The comparative approach has registered limited success in furthering the subfield; frequently, these books contain chapters on individual cases rather than systematic comparative analyses of two or more cases. Melson 1992 and Midlarsky 2005 are successful comparative studies. Anthologies covering a case of genocide usually contain chapters that address different aspects of the case, such as the chronological sequence of events, the leadership of the perpetrator regime, the psychology of trauma suffered by the survivors, and the international or geopolitical situation. The largest body of scholarship consists of single case studies, which provide fairly detailed analyses of the events and personalities, while advancing a specific theory or theories about the causes and consequences of the genocide. The scholarship on genocide in the 20th century underscores several variables that contribute to such human catastrophes. Rummel 1994 and Valentino 2004 stress the role and nature of the state; Valentino 2004 pays particular attention to the personal characteristics of the leaders and their ability to mobilize the machinery of murder (e.g., bureaucracies of civil services, the military, and intelligence) and the population. Staub 1989 focuses on the psychology, culture, and ideology of the perpetrator group. Charny 1999 is a monumental, two-volume encyclopedia of genocide, covering various dimensions of mass murder and genocide. The significant growth in genocide studies clearly reflects efforts to understand genocides, with the hope of finding effective means of preventing future genocides. Hamburg 2010 proposes new approaches to conflict resolution and management. Similarly, Staub 2011 discusses various social and psychological factors contributing to conflict escalation and approaches to early prevention.

  • Charny, Israel W. Encyclopedia of Genocide. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 1999.

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    The two volumes offer a comprehensive, indispensable source for specialists and nonspecialists alike. Particularly strong are the sections on the study of genocide, the Armenian genocide, and the Holocaust. The guiding principle, as articulated by Charny, is that genocide is a universal phenomenon.

  • Hamburg, David A. Preventing Genocide: Practical Steps toward Early Detection and Effective Action. Rev. ed. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010.

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    Identifies early warning methods for proactive assistance for countries experiencing violence. Hamburg recommends the creation of international centers for the prevention of genocide, one within the UN system and one in the European Union. Democratic and economic development would further strengthen preventative measures.

  • Melson, Robert F. Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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    Provides an excellent comparative analysis and an explanatory model. Discusses the significance of several variables, including revolutionary regime, the personal characteristics of the leadership, the ideology of the perpetrator (e.g., pan-Turkism and anti-Semitism), and war. War creates the political and bureaucratic space for the implementation of a policy of annihilation.

  • Midlarsky, Manus I. The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491023E-mail Citation »

    Midlarsky presents a comparative analysis of domestic (social and economic) and international (geopolitical) environments of the 20th century genocides. He correctly contends that comparative analyses of genocide are necessary for more meaningful understanding of genocide and mass murder. He also considers nongenocide cases in an effort to develop an explanatory framework.

  • Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.

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    Rummel introduces the concept of “democide,” as applied to the intentional killing by states. The word “genocide,” he argues, should be reserved for state-sponsored mass murder for the physical and cultural destruction of a people. Numerous data are presented in useful tables. Democratization represents the best solution to end democide.

  • Staub, Ervin. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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    A psychological and cultural study on the susceptibility of ordinary citizens to turn into perpetrators of genocide and mass violence. Under certain circumstances, individuals embrace stereotypical thinking that serves as ideological justification for mass murder. This volume also examines the role of bystanders. Outlines specific steps toward nonviolent conflict resolution.

  • Staub, Ervin. Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    This study analyzes the causes of various forms of mass violence and—based on several case studies (e.g., Rwanda)—certain principles and practices of prevention and reconciliation. The author stresses the role of political leaders, the media, nongovernmental organizations, and bystanders in preventing escalation of conflict and creating opportunities for reconciliation.

  • Totten, Samuel, and William S. Parsons, eds. Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    This anthology is essential reading on the genocides of the 20th century. The volume combines background information and analyses with eyewitness accounts to explore the causes and consequences of genocide. The final chapter considers the sociological and international dimensions of genocide prevention and legal, military, and humanitarian responses.

  • Valentino, Benjamin A. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

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    Argues that although psychological and sociological factors (e.g., ethnic hatreds) contribute to genocide, such mass killings are ultimately policies orchestrated by a small circle of dictatorial leaders and implemented by loyal followers. Genocide is an instrument of policy, and prevention necessitates the removal from power of such leadership.

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