Lemkin, Rafael or Rafał, b 24 June 1900 in Bezvodno, Vaŭkavysk county, Hrodna gubernia, Russian Empire (present-day Belarus), d 28 August 1959 in New York. Polish and American jurist and professor. Lemkin was the author of the term ‘genocide,’ and his ideas played a major role in the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.
Born into a Jewish farming family, Lemkin graduated from the Białystok gymnasium in 1919 and began studying law at the University of Cracow. In 1921 he moved to Lviv, where he studied philology and law at Lviv University. There, Lemkin became interested in the Turkish massacres of the Armenians during the First World War. Under the influence of the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, who in March 1921 assassinated Talaat Pasha, former Minister of Internal Affairs of the Ottoman Empire and responsible for the mass killing of Armenians in 1915, Lemkin began to study international law. He continued his education in Germany, France, and Italy, and thereafter returned to Poland to pursue a career in Polish courts of law, mainly in Warsaw.
In 1926, he published his first book, Kodeks Karny Republik Sowieckich (The Penal Code of Soviet Republics), with a preface by Juliusz Makarewicz, a professor of Polish criminal law at Lviv University. Lemkin secured a position as a law professor at Tachkemoni College and taught comparative criminal law at the Free Polish University (1927–39) despite prohibitions on Jewish participation in public service. Between 1926 and 1929, he served as the secretary of Poland’s Court of Appeals. In 1930, Lemkin was appointed assistant prosecutor at the District Court of Berezhany, Ternopil voivodeship of Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine), where he likely became aware of forced collectivization and the eventual Great Famine (Holodomor) in Soviet Ukraine. In 1931–32, Lemkin was a referendary to the Codification Committee of the Second Polish Republic and Secretary General of the Polish section of the Association internationale de droit penal (the International Association of Penal Law). In 1933, Lemkin prepared a report entitled Les actes constituent un danger general (interetatique) consideres comme delist de droit des gens (Acts Constituting a General [Transnational] Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations) for the fifth International Conference held in Madrid in 1933. In 1934, Lemkin published an extensive comparative study of national criminal codes entitled Sędzia w obliczu nowoczesnego prawa karnego i kryminologii (A Judge in the Face of Modern Criminal Law and Criminology). From 1934 he lived in Warsaw and had a private law practice.
At the beginning of the Second World War, he escaped to Lithuania and then Sweden, where he taught law at the University of Stockholm (1940–41). There Lemkin started collecting documents—which were more readily available in a neutral country—related to the massive destruction of the population by the Nazis in the occupied territories. In 1941, he traveled through the USSR, Japan, and Canada to the United States of America. There he joined the law faculty at Duke University (North Carolina). The following year, he moved to Washington, DC, where he worked as a consultant for the Board of Economic Warfare. He served as an advisor on foreign affairs at the war crimes office in Washington, DC and then as an assistant to the chief American prosecutor Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg trials.
In 1944 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he synthesized his ideas of barbarism and vandalism into one conception of genocide. The word ‘genocide’ was a new term coined by Lemkin earlier, in 1942. In the book, he argued that when the Germans were applying the theory of racial purity to annihilate whole population groups in occupied Poland and other European countries, the Soviets were ‘re-educating’ the ‘bourgeois elites’ and the masses by killing through forced labor. Lemkin stated that the population of occupied Poland suffered similarly under both totalitarian regimes.
For Lemkin, genocide signified a social process of destroying nations that was not necessarily quick or violent. It was ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’ According to Lemkin, the objective of such a plan was the ‘disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.’
Lemkin described eight techniques of genocide: politics (destruction of the local institutions of self-government and instituting new juridical orders in the occupied territories), the social technique (destruction of existing social structure), cultural techniques (Germanization of cultural and educational institutions, targeting local language and cultural activities), economics (manipulating financial systems; destruction of important economic groups; i.e., the peasant class); biological techniques (ideas of racial purity, race, and biological superiority); ‘physical debilitation and even annihilation’ of national groups; religious techniques (persecution of Christian clergy, etc.); moral genocide (i.e., inflated food prices, but cheap alcohol).
By the mid-1940s Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, an international lawyer and human rights activist who developed a legal norm of ‘crimes against humanity,’ were called upon to put their academic work into practice. Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht had significant involvement in the preparations and proceedings of the trial of key Nazi officials at Nuremberg during the years 1945–46. Lemkin worked tirelessly to include the term ‘genocide’ in the Nuremberg Judgment. But when Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence delivered the court’s judgment on 30 September and 1 October 1946, the word ‘genocide’ was absent. However, the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland used Lemkin’s term in the trial of a Nazi German politician Artur Greiser. On 11 December 1946, less than two months after the Nuremberg Judgment, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 96(I), which stated in its preamble that ‘genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups . . . and is contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations.’ Thanks to Lemkin’s efforts, on 9 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), an international treaty that criminalizes genocide and obligates state parties to pursue the enforcement of its prohibition.
Starting in 1948, Lemkin gave lectures on criminal law at Yale University. In 1955, he became a professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey.
In the 1950s, Lemkin became close with the Ukrainian diaspora community in the United States of America. Although between 1928 and 1950 Lemkin never wrote anything about Soviet atrocities, he was most definitely aware of them. These acts were widely reported in Polish newspapers, and a sizeable Ukrainian community lived in interwar Poland. The Stalinist terror and the Holodomor of 1932–33 were major concerns in the Lviv and Warsaw presses at the time. In 1939, Lemkin wrote that such totalitarian regimes as the Soviet Union or Hitlerite Germany used economics to annihilate or punish the local population for their political stances. On 7 March 1953, he published an article in the Ukrainian daily, Svoboda, entitled ‘Investigation of Soviet Genocide by the United Nations.’ He called on the press ‘to use every opportunity to keep the eyes of the world on Soviet genocide.’ On 20 September 1953, he took part in the commemoration of the Holodomor organized by the Ukrainian community in New York. For this occasion, he prepared an essay entitled ‘Soviet Genocide in Ukraine,’ one of the earliest written reactions to the Famine-Genocide of 1932–33 in Ukraine by a non-Ukrainian scholar. Lemkin was the first scholar to define the Holodomor as ‘the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification – the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.’ He spoke about the famine-genocide not only as the destruction of the Ukrainian peasantry, but also as the destruction of the intelligentsia and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church.
In the last years of his life, Lemkin lived in New York. At the time of his death, he left several unfinished works, including an Introduction to the Study of Genocide and a three-volume History of Genocide. In 2009, his essay ‘Soviet Genocide in Ukraine’ was published in 28 languages as part of the Lessons of History Project of the International Charitable Foundation “Ukraine 3000” (Raphael Lemkin: Soviet Genocide in Ukraine / Rafael' Lemkin: Radians'kyi henotsyd v Ukraïni, ed. Roman Serbyn).
Cooper, J. Ralph Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention (New York 2007)
Holodomor – Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine, ed. L. Y. Luciuk (Kingston 2008)
Serbyn, R. ‘Raphael Lemkin on the Ukrainian Genocide.’ Holodomor Studies 1, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2009)
Vrdoljak, A. F. ‘Human Rights and Genocide: The Work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in Modern International Law,’ The European Journal of International Law 20, no. 4 (2010)
Moses, A. D. ‘Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. D. Bloxham, and A. D. Moses (Oxford 2010)
Sands, P. East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ (New York 2016)
Irvin-Erickson, D. Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide (Philadelphia 2017)
Irvin-Erickson, D. ‘The 'Lemkin Turn' in Ukrainian Studies: Genocide, Peoples, Nations, and Empire,’ in Andrea Graziosi and Frank E. Sysyn (eds). Genocide: The Power and Problems of a Concept (Montreal 2022)
[This article was written in 2023.]