The Meaning of Genocide and the Political Stakes of Naming

Following Ben Meiches’s introductory post yesterday to our symposium on his new book The Politics of Annihilation,  we welcome a first guest contribution from Jelena Subotic. Jelena is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, Atlanta. She is the author of two books: Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans (Cornell University Press, 2009) and Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell University Press, forthcoming, 2019). She is the author of more than twenty scholarly articles on memory politics, national identity, human rights, and the politics of the Western Balkans.


In his deeply thoughtful book, The Politics of Annihilation, Benjamin Meiches invites us to reconsider one of the fundamental concepts in the contemporary study of mass violence – the concept of genocide. He then asks us to separate the construction of the term genocide from its political usage. Meiches carefully traces the development of the concept of genocide, and in the process challenges the conventional narrative that situates the birth of the term squarely with the individual entrepreneurship of Raphael Lemkin in the mid-1940s. Instead, Meiches demonstrates, Lemkin built on a vast array of already existing scholarship in philosophy and international law. The concept of genocide – and Lemkin’s understanding of it – was immediately contested both theoretically and politically and has remained an unsettled field of meaning, prone to politicization.

It is this political power of the concept of genocide that truly bothers Meiches and that forms the heart of the book. As The Politics of Annihilation persuasively demonstrates, the fluidity of the concept of genocide has allowed for pervasive international hypocrisy – where only some conflicts, in some countries, among some groups, in some time periods get to be understood and processed as genocide, while many other instances of mass atrocity, brutality, and political murder do not earn the same designation, leaving them outside political conversation but, much more important, also outside any meaningful political response.

Continue reading

Advertisements