Wordly Benefits: The war over genocide

Probably the earliest term to define the massacre of Jews has its origin in Czarist Russia. The word ‘pogrom’ literally means “devastation as if by a thunderbolt”.

Written by Amitabh Ranjan | Updated: September 21, 2015 10:30 am
The concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin. File/AP Photo. The concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin. File/AP Photo.

In the centenary year of the incident which saw the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman forces, a debate is raging whether it can be termed as genocide or not.

While descendants of victims scattered around the world have insisted it was intentional, Turkey has maintained that it was a regrettable side-effect of an ethnic conflict which saw a large number of Armenians dying of hunger and disease en route to the Syrian deserts. The country’s concern about the term getting validated to refer to this unfortunate turn of events of the early 20th century can be gauged by the statement of one of its diplomats: “I refuse to let my forefathers be equated with Hitler.”

In fact, when a new word was needed in the 1940s to describe the Nazi crime of wiping out national, ethnic or religious groups, Raphael Lemkin, a Belarus-born Polish Jewish lawyer, added ‘cide’ to a Greek word element meaning nation or group and came out with the all too familiar word ‘genocide’, adding to the family of such words as ‘homicide’ (killing of one’s fellow man) and ‘suicide’ (self-slaughter).

In the decade after that, historians started using the term ‘holocaust’ to specifically mean the slaughter of almost six million Jews by the Nazis in concentration camps during the World War II. Probably the word was used as an equivalent of Hebrew ‘hurban’ and ‘shoah’ meaning ‘catastrophe’, which was already in coinage to define the event. It was later over-shadowed by holocaust. At first, the term was in common use mainly among Jews, but it gradually spread to more general domain.

However, probably the earliest term to define the massacre of Jews has its origin in Czarist Russia. The word ‘pogrom’ literally means “devastation as if by a thunderbolt”. It comes from Russian ‘po’ (like) and ‘grom’ (thunder). It referred to the killing of Jews by a particular community often with the connivance of the government. It has also been applied to comparable acts of mass murder of ethnic minorities elsewhere, including the massacre of Armenians in 1915-16. One should be, however, aware of the term’s historical background and should not use it loosely to refer to general racial oppression or mere backlash.

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