In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 20th Century Genocides

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Herero, 1904–1907
  • The Armenian Genocide, 1915–1923
  • The Holodomor, 1932–1933
  • The Jewish Holocaust, 1938–1945
  • Bangladesh, 1971
  • Cambodia, 1975–1979
  • East Timor, 1975–1999
  • Bosnia, 1991–1995
  • Rwanda, 1994
  • Prevention of Genocide

International Relations 20th Century Genocides
Simon Payaslian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • 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 2013 and Jones 2017—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. Midlarsky 2005 and Jones 2017 also discuss non-genocide or “contested” cases in an effort to emphasize the key components of genocides. 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. Finally, two anthologies, Totten 2008 and Totten 2013, offer some of the best scholarship on genocide prevention.

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

    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.

    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.

  • Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2017.

    A valuable contribution to genocide studies. In addition to individual cases of genocide, this volume also offers an extremely useful section on “social science perspectives,” including psychological, sociological, anthropological, and political science perspectives. Discusses a number of issues, such as gendercide and “gendered propaganda,” usually omitted in most other survey textbooks.

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

    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: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491023

    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 non-genocide cases in an effort to develop an explanatory framework.

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

    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: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    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: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    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, ed. The Prevention and Intervention of Genocide. Vol. 6, Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2008.

    Surveys through essays and annotated bibliographies various approaches to international prevention and intervention and the failure and successes of the international community at prevention. Examines the obstacles to prevention and calls for the institutionalization of early warning regimes. Looks at the issue and effectiveness of sanctions. Discusses the challenges posed by state sovereignty in addition to a host of other obstacles to international protection of groups victimized by perpetrators of genocide, as in the case of Rwanda. Explores avenues to punish perpetrators and to establish a just post-genocide society, including the importance of education and training.

  • Totten, Samuel, ed. Impediments to the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide. Vol. 9, Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2013.

    Examines through essays and annotated bibliographies approaches to the prevention of genocide, with particular emphasis on the employment of military intervention. Looks at obstacles to the development of international mechanisms for such intervention. Identifies several impediments, such as historically realpolitik conceptualization of sovereignty and the international system, lack of political will both at the national and international levels, and the willful ignoring on the part of governments and international organizations of mass killings underway in different parts of the world. In addition, other contributing factors to inaction when confronted by genocide include contending interpretations of the UN Genocide Convention, the role of the media, and the lack of sufficient information in the process of an ongoing genocide.

  • Totten, Samuel, and William S. Parsons, eds. Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    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.

    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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