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Genocide and Historical Debate

William D. Rubinstein ascribes the bitterness of historians’ arguments to the lack of an agreed definition and to political agendas.

During the past generation, an important sub-discipline, that of ‘genocide studies’, has arisen among historians around the world. Incorporating also insights by political scientists and anthropologists, it has produced more than its share of fierce and important debates, as well as a large volume of scholarly writings and two academic journals (Holocaust and Genocide Studies and The Journal of Genocide Research) with contributors from around the world. Given the importance of genocides and mass murders in the history of the world during the past century (and before), ‘genocide studies’ represents an important new area of academic research. It is a field which is remarkable for its fierce and hotly-contested controversies, and one where, for many of these debated areas, there is no consensus among historians.

Rather surprisingly, there is no agreed definition of ‘genocide’, and it is simply not the case that what might be termed the ‘common-sense’ definition of ‘genocide’, is universally accepted. To the average person, ‘genocide’ is likely to mean the deliberate and intentional killing of all or most of a specified group of people simply because they are members of that group and for no other reason. Most such targeted groups – at least in the best-known examples of genocide such as the Jewish Holocaust, the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, and the mass murders in Rwanda in 1994 – have been ethnic minorities, although some widely accepted examples of what has been termed ‘genocide’ have been aimed against politically-defined groups, as was the case in Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Yet almost everything in this ‘common sense’ definition of genocide has been questioned, both by scholars and in international law; even – remarkably – whether genocide must necessarily entail the killing of anyone.

This article is an extract from a full article written by William D. Rubinstein which was published in History Today publication, April 2004.

William D. Rubinstein is the author of Genocide. Published by Pearson Education in February 2004.

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