In the twentieth century, governments killed hundreds of millions of people through war and genocide. In most of our memories, we cannot remember our own government doing anything as evil as genocide, but for many around the world, they are not too far removed from murderous governments. Indeed today many governments still murder their own civilians, although we don’t usually like to talk about it. During WWII the worldwide death toll was about 55 million. In China just between the years 1958-1962 under the leadership of Mao, about 45 million Chinese civilians were “worked, starved, or beaten to death” according to The Independent. Millions or tens of millions more Chinese civilians were murdered over the next 50 years.
In Russia, Stalin starved about 7 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933, while American intellectuals were busy telling Americans how great Uncle Joe was. Most estimates put additional civilians killed by Stalin and the USSR government between 20-60 million. Conventional estimates are that in Germany during WWII excluding military casualties, Hitler was responsible for the death of 6 million Jews, and another 6 million assorted “enemies” of the state. In the early 1900′s over one million Armenians were murdered by their government, and in North Korea just since the 1990′s several million civilians have been murdered by the government, or died in forced labor camps, according to Wikipedia. Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia murdered 2 million civilians in the 1970′s, and the Rwandan genocide in the 1990′s saw over a million deaths.
I could go on but I think my first point has been made; the murder of civilians by government is common, and continues. It is easy to think of genocide as a thing of the past, of something that governments only participated in around the mid-20th century, but genocide continues today. It has been a while since a “World War”, though we have become used to unending wars in the middle east, and are growing accustomed to regional civil wars in countries like Libya and Syria. The real point I am trying to make, is that governments trying to murder people is not going to go away. In fact I might go so far as to say as long as there are governments, there will be government murder of civilians. What we can do is recognize the lead up to these genocides so that we can stop them before they happen. Genocides are actually one of the easier tragedies to see coming, though they are not so easy to prevent.
There are generally 8 stages which lead up to a genocide. Not all 8 stages always occur before a genocide, nor does each stages’ occurrence necessarily signify an impending genocide. However these 8 things should all be red flags, presenting the opportunity to stop the potential impending mass murder before it starts. The first step is the classification of “Us” versus “Them”. Nazi’s are such an easy target when it comes to explaining genocide–they claimed the Jews were different, that they were undermining the culture, and that they were stealing from the rest of Germany by being the middle-man in many transactions. In Russia the bourgeoisie as the business class were targeted as the enemy, and pitted against the proletariat, the working class who had supposedly been exploited by the bourgeoisie. The Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s are a made up distinction coined by Belgian colonials based on height, neck length, and the darkness of skin. Before each genocide took place in the respective countries, this “Us against Them” perspective was exploited by leaders.
Secondly, symbolism is used to distinguish the “lesser class” from the perpetrators of the impending genocide. Nazi’s forced Jews to wear the Star of David sewn onto their sleeve, and Nazi’s themselves were identified by the Swastika. Members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia wore Red to identify their members, and symbols like eye-glasses were associated with the “evil” business class.
After symbolizing the enemy comes dehumanization, often referring to the future target of genocide as rats, cockroaches, vermin or a cancer. Before the murder of Tutsi’s in Burundi, the radio announced that it was time to “kill the python in the grass”. If people are thought of as less than human, as was so obvious with the Nazi treatment of Jews, it is easier to carry out atrocities against those people.
Fourth in the eight stages which lead up to genocide is organization and group crimes. Groups are key to carrying out genocide, because people behave differently in groups, and can hide behind others’ actions. Take any one individual participating in a riot, and they would probably not just go and throw a rock through a window of a store. But rally them into an exclusive group of people, and the pressure from the group will allow evil to pass as normal. Generally with genocide groups are organized into para-military style units so that when the time comes for the “final solution”, resistance is more easily crushed. During the Armenian genocide the victims were marched into the desert without food or water, and systematically attacked, robbed, raped and killed by groups of Kurds working under the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks were the political group that sprung up with the goal of eliminating Armenians from their Turkish society. Organization is key to carry out the genocide, and groups are key so that people will do horrible things unthinkable in an individual setting.
Fifth, polarization of the groups must occur. Hate groups are set up that drive people apart, and moderates are ushered into one category or another, “because you are either with us, or against us”. In these circumstances moderates often become a silent part of the problem, fearing reprisal from the initiators of the genocide. It became a crime to sell weapons to Jews in Nazi Germany. This is the more violent and hate filled second phase of the “us against them” philosophy set up in step one of the genocide process. It must happen after dehumanization because moderates need to be done away with, and fewer people will stand up to protect rats, than will protect neighbors.
Soon after this polarization comes organization, where the polarized group will soon be ushered into the ghetto or into concentration camps. Logistics are put into play, with secret police or other groups trained to carry out raids, and conditioned to perform atrocities. This is the main planning stage when the method of murder is decided. Concentration camps, the gulag, the desert, or abandoned schools in Cambodia have all served as the setting for genocide.
The seventh step of genocide is extermination. In this stage Jews were put in concentration camps and murdered, and Hutu’s and Tutsi’s (at various stages in various places) were hunted down by neighborhood groups and murdered with machetes. The people carrying out the atrocities will say it is a good deed, that the world will be better to be rid of the targeted group. In Soviet Russia the bourgeoisie were carted away because of past “crimes” that exploited the working classes. In Cambodia children were either “reeducated”, or if that failed, murdered.
Finally after it has all been done, the victims have been murdered, and the murderous regime has fallen (or not) there is denial. Denial of the scale of the atrocities, denial that they ever happened, denial that the perpetrators are who we say they are. Bodies are burned and buried in the hopes of not being discovered. It took years for people in the west to know about and believe the Soviet orchestrated starvation of 7 million Ukrainians, or even the true nature of the gulag.
War criminals on trial say that they were just following orders. New governments will help cover-up the atrocities to save face, facts will be denied, paper trails will be burned, and excuses will be made for why it happened. To this day countries will deny the existence of genocides that happened, or question the magnitude, or seek to redefine genocide so that what happened in their country does not fit the definition. But by the denial stage it is too late to help most of the victims, and the only thing to do is to bring those responsible to justice.
This are just a basic overview of each of the 8 stages of genocide. If we can recognize one of these things happening in the early stages, we have the chance to prevent what otherwise may become a genocide. We can start by refusing to engage in an “us against them” philosophy, to think of everyone as humans and discuss our differences as human differences; not making our “enemy” into a subhuman. We can stand up against group crimes, and against the creation of government paramilitary groups with a common enemy. Although I do not believe a genocide is even remotely close to occurring in America, it is a scary yet enlightening exercise to go through each of the eight stages and list the things which happen in America in concurrence with the eight stages of genocide. It would be a worthwhile discussion to have about recognizing the steps which can lead to genocide in today’s world.