Simon Dubnow Lecture

Raphael Lemkin und der Begriff vom »Genozid«

4th Simon Dubnow Lecture

Speaking to a large audience on 18 December 2003, the historian Anson Rabinbach from Princeton University presented the fourth Simon Dubnow Lecture, entitled »Raphael Lemkin und der Begriff vom ›Genozid‹« (Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of »Genocide«).

Anson Rabinbach is Professor of Contemporary History at Princeton University and Director of the Institute for European Cultural Studies. In this lecture, he picked up on a central aspect of his own research. The presentation explored the coining of the concept »genocide« by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1901–1959). The concept of genocide and the associated notions in international law have gained increased attention in recent years in public discussion against the backdrop of the mass murders in Ruanda and the policy of targeted ethnic cleansing, for example in the conflict in Yugoslavia. As Rabinbach described developments, the United Nations General Assembly passed a Genocide Convention as early as December 1948, in appreciable part the product of Lemkin’s engagement of behalf of this concept (see ).

The history of the concept of genocide can be traced back to the interwar period in Europe, a phase of profound political and intellectual crises in the aftermath of the collapse of the great empires in Europe. Rabinbach worked out the ways in which the genesis of the concept of genocide was linked with Lemkin’s biography.

Raphael Lemkin, born in eastern Poland in 1901, was from 1929 a public presecutor in Warsaw. Everf since the days of his studies in Lodz and Heidelberg, he had had a strong scholarly interest in questions of international law. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, he initially fled to Riga. Rabinbach quoted in his lecture from the unpublished memoirs of Lemkin in which he speaks about a conversation he had with Simon Dubnow in his apartment in Riga about the catastrophe that was threatening and soon to possibly befall the Jews.

From Riga Lemkin went to Sweden and then to the United States. Almost all his relatives died in the Shoah. In 1944, Lemkin published his highly respected study Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he developed the concept of genocide. Lemkin emphasized that the Jews were »one of the most important target groups of German genocide policy,« but saw their fate as part of a broader  historical tapestry that included the sufferings of the Polish people, which he thought should not be destroyed, and the fate of other minorities whose legal status had not been clearly defined and regulated in the peace treaties after the end of WW I.

Using quotations from unpublished autobiographical documents of Lemkin, Rabinbach showed impressively how Lemkin placed his own biography, i.e. his experiences as a Jew, in the background, repeatedly stressing the general dimension of the concept of genocide. As a matter of historiographical fact, precisely in the 1990s, the concept of genocide came under repeated criticism because of its broad and somewhat imprecise definition.

Lemkin died totally destitute in New York in 1959. The creator of the concept of genocide, so long important in international law, was for a long time forgotten. But in recent years, together with reinvigorated discussion of the concept of genocide, interest in Lemkin as a person has grown considerably. Yale University now awards a Raphael Lemkin Prize for international human rights, and the U.N.  honored Lemkin with a memorial commemoration on the occasion of his hundredth birthday in 2001.       


Tobias Brinkmann

18th December 2003
Old Exchange in Leipzig

The Simon Dubnow Lecture is supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation