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By Jacob L. Shapiro

German lawmakers in the Bundestag yesterday voted overwhelmingly to characterize Ottoman actions against Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey responded by recalling the Turkish ambassador to Germany for “consultations.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the German parliament’s decision would “seriously affect German-Turkish” relations, and that next steps would be discussed upon Erdoğan’s return from a trip abroad.

Genocide is a landmine of a word, and is not well understood. It was first used in 1944 in a book entitled “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” by Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Genocide combines the Greek word genos, which Lemkin translated as “race or tribe” and the Latin-derived suffix cide – derived from the verb caedere, which means “to kill.”

Lemkin created the word because he believed the actions of Nazi Germany against its Jewish, Roma and other subnational populations were historically unique. This had to do both with the intent behind Adolf Hitler’s motives – the complete annihilation of a nation or ethnic group – but also with the systematic and organized attempt by Nazi Germany to eliminate all the “essential foundations of the life” of the peoples they targeted.

Both Herodotus, the father of history, and Thucydides, the father of geopolitics, used the word genos in their writings. But for both, genos most often referred to a group of people or a nation that was united by common descent. There was no such thing as race as, we understand it today, in Ancient Greece.

Race is a thoroughly modern concept, borne of 17th century Europe. The idea took form as the Scientific Revolution worked to find the natural relations between things, and Europeans discovered the New World and its native populations.

Lemkin’s inclusion of race in his definition is not just a semantic curiosity. Without understanding the concept of race, one cannot understand the scientific logic that Nazi Germany used to develop the notion of the superiority of the Aryan race – and the inferiority of the Jewish race, among others.

Lemkin saw no antecedent for what he was observing, so he harkened back to a Greek word and injected it with a dose of modern meaning to create the word genocide. The meaning of the word was then significantly broadened in 1948. The United Nations, then just two years old, passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Article II of the convention states that killing, injuring, making life horrible, preventing reproduction or forcibly transferring children, when aimed at any “national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” constitutes genocide. The U.N. even spelled out five different ways a person can be found guilty of the crime, from directly committing the crime all the way down to being complicit in its commission.

World War II changed the way wars were fought and conceived of in Europe. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, wars were not supposed to be battles between individuals of different national groups. Wars were instead thought to be fought between states.

The Laws and Customs of War that were agreed upon at The Hague in October 1907 had this conception of war in mind. Soldiers were supposed to only fight soldiers (or declared combatants), and militaries were supposed to go out of their way not to bomb museums or churches.

Prisoners of war had rights, including the right to have tariffs waived on gifts sent to them by their families. The organizing principle of the international political system became the nation-state: the idea that every nation of people had a right to a state. But when it came to the conduct of war, in order to keep it “civilized,” it was the state, not the nation, that was important.

The term Lemkin originated – genocide – had this issue in mind. It grappled simultaneously with two problems. The first was the existence of many nations that did not have their own states. The second was the development of an ideology that encouraged a sense of racial purity, what Churchill referred to as the “the lights of perverted science.”

Mass murder was not a new phenomenon. Examples were recorded countless times throughout the history of the world, in times of war, revolution, chaos, imperial collapse and even relative peace. What was new was a coordinated, industrial system to destroy an entire “race” based on what was believed to be its scientifically demonstrable inferiority.

The world – and Europe in particular – was so horrified at the awful things that happened during World War II that it sought absolution in the idea that a lesson had been learned, and that never again would things be allowed to escalate to that point.

So the word genocide was taken from its original context and its meaning was broadened. Its prevention was affixed as one of the central purposes of the foundation of a new international organization called the United Nations.

And then two things began to happen. People began to look backward in time and apply the new word, accurately or not, to previous instances of mass murder, war crimes and other reprehensible human acts.
Meanwhile, events that met the U.N.’s expanded definition of genocide happened many more times – most famously in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan, but also in other lesser known instances detailed in reports to U.N. sub-commissions that were barely noticed by many and then forgotten by most.

And the world never did anything to stop them, but felt bad afterward. Apologies were often issued for the world’s inaction and a few dictators and generals were even prosecuted to show that the world really meant it.

Geopolitics does not deny that words and ideas can have power. But this is not one of those cases. Armenia will be happy that another country backs its claim. Turkey will be angry and will lodge its protests. Then it will try to extract even more concessions out of Germany and the rest of the European Union in return for its help in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria.

And life will continue, and Turkey and Germany will carry on doing whatever they were doing. And people will find new ways to kill each other, and some of them may very well be used to commit genocide.

Whether Turkey and the EU will continue to cooperate comes down to the more mundane and consequential realm of shared interests. Europe needs Turkey because it does not want to deal with the crisis of the Middle East, and it has not been able to effectively deal with the problem of refugees. Turkey cannot afford to make an enemy of everyone and wants money and support from Europe. It will use whatever means it can to get both.

History teaches us much about geopolitics, and one of its most important lessons is that the past is past. Interest and power, not moral posturing, point the way to the future.

GPF Team
Geopolitical Futures is a company that charts the course of the international system. It’s an ambitious mission, maybe even foolhardy, but hear us out.