This paper draws from the works of Genocide scholars such as Daniel Feierstein to argue that understanding the crime of genocide requires one to appreciate the transformative effect it has on social relations between génocidaires and their victims within a society;
an effect that has the potential to reorganize relationships, reinterpret identities and roles of victims and survivors in ways that are socially narrated by the perpetrators of genocide.
Such an approach not only recognizes genocide for what it is- a recreation of societal relations and society itself, guided by racial , ethnical, national considerations, but also contributes to the prevention and punishment of such atrocities.
Genocide’s transformative effect on society– The Reorganization of social relations
The Renowned Genocide scholar, Daniel Feierstein provides a sociological account of six stages of modern genocide which form a cycle. The ‘central aim’ of genocide, he argues, is manifested in its transformative effect on a society:
‘’by destroying a way of life embodied by a particular group, and thus reorganizing social relations within the rest of society’’ ( Feierstein 2014, p.126).
The idea that such a reorganization of social relations characterizes genocidal societies is inherent in the work of Raphael Lemkin, ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’.
Lemkin, the creator of the concept of Genocide, explained that the term itself is ‘a hybrid consisting of the Greek genos meaning race, nation or tribe; and the Latin suffix, cide, meaning killing.’ (Lemkin , p.147).
Lemkin explained that:
‘genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killing of all members of a nation.
It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves’ (Lemkin 1944, p.79).
The objectives of such a coordinated plan in Lemkin’s conception ‘would be the disintegration of the…social institutions of culture, language, ….and the economic existence of national groups’ (Lemkin 1944, p. 79).
Feierstein points out that to Lemkin, genocide’s aim was to destroy the identity of the society in which it is carried out, raising the argument that ‘it may seem pointless to destroy the identity of a group of people if one is already destroying them physically.” (Feierstein, Debates on the Criminology of Genocide,p.123)
Feierstein’s rejoinder is that ‘Lemkin does not see these two types of destruction – bodily and cultural – as contradictory because in his view , genocide does not target those who are annihilated so much as the survivors .
He argues: ‘for the perpetrators , what matters is the effect these deaths will have on those who left alive ….referring to more complex effects on ways collective identities are constructed in the modern nation State”(Feierstein, Debates on the Criminology of Genocide, p.123).
Drawing from Feierstein’s interpretation of Lemkin’s conception of genocide, it is argued that the annihilation associated with genocide–
‘is not the end but only the means’ (Feierstein, Debates on the Criminology of Genocide, p.123) by which génocidaires of a society achieve their objective of reorganizing social relations and reinterpreting cultural identities within and between the oppressed groups and the genocidal society they live in.
The idea that such social and cultural objectives are intended by genocidal societies is arguably underpinned by Lemkin’s description of the two phases of genocide:
‘one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.
This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population…after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals’ (Lemkin Axis Rule 1944: 79).
Feierstein argues that ‘Lemkin’s genius was to observe the functional nature of modern state sanctioned atrocities :
their use as a tool… to transfrom identities by eradicating the identity of the oppressed group and imposing the identity of the oppressor.’
The physical and social destruction of racial, ethnical groups such as the Jews and the Roma during the Holocaust, —
the disintegration of their social relations and cultural practices, followed by the imposition of the ‘national pattern of the oppressor’(Lemkin Axis Rule 1944: 79), is arguably one way of recognizing the ‘evil’ of genocide.
The Lemkian notion of genocide is, therefore, not limited to senseless mass killings of people groups, but involves a ‘coordinated plan’ conceived by génocidaires to destroy the social, cultural and linguistic foundations of national groups.
Genocidal actions, from this perspective, correlate to an outcome or product intended as its objective – the reorganizing of social relations.
In this context, Powell explores a relational sociology of genocide that exemplifies the ways in which genocide reorders social relations within groups by breaking down a network of relationships within an oppressed group
Powell argues that:
”In a relational view, “genos” must connote a type of social figuration. The collective object designated by Lemkin’s use of “genos” must, like other social structures, have the general property of being a dynamic relational network formed through practical social interactions in historical time…..
given that a genos is a network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships. This corroborates Lemkin’s insistence that genocide can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
The most obvious way to destroy a network might be to kill all the people in it,
but it might be easier and less expensive to kill only enough people to cause the network as a whole to collapse;
or to disperse the people in it so that they can no longer be connected to one another;
or to prevent them from communicating with other; to suppress their language, religion, law, kinship systems, and other cultural practices through which they maintain the relations among themselves;
to break up the central institutions that maintain the cohesiveness of the network — their government, economic system, religious organizations, centres of learning, and so on; to impose on them harsh conditions of life that break down social solidarities; and on, and on.
These effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy; they could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. (Powell, p.538)
Such Genocidal destructions of social relations between families, relatives and friends is conceived by Claudia Card as a social death, which she argues is ‘central to the evil of genocide’ experienced by victims of the Holocaust:
”The Czechoslovakian Jews of Terezin from the “family camp” at Auschwitz who walked into the gas chambers singing the Czech national anthem and the Hatikva clung to their social as well as spiritual vitality to the very end …
Nevertheless, the Nazi genocide robbed them of descendants who might have shared it (Card 2010: 5577–85).”
To Lemkin. a Polish Jewish lawyer, the horrors of the Holocaust could be not be fully conceived and articulated without relying on the concept of Genocide.
“The realities of European life in the years 1933-45 called for the creation of such a term and for the formulation of a legal concept of destruction of human groups.
The Nazis had embarked upon a gigantic plan to change permanently the population balance in occupied Europe in their favor.” (Lemkin, p.147).
Lemkin’s reference to a permanent change in the population balance in Europe suggests that the concept of genocide employed by him was linked to the idea of restructuring and redefining the social relations and practices of entire populations of racial and ethnical groups of people.
From this perspective, Genocide was not just manifested in the mindless mass killings and ghettoization of Jews , Gypsies and other social groups.
Rather, the concept correlates to certain social objectives génocidaires seek to achieve.
As Feierstein argues :
‘’…. a sociological understanding of genocide as a social practice needs to take into account three interconnected processes: the construction, destruction, and reorganization of social relations’’ ( Feierstein 2014, p.109)
This paper argues that such a sociological approach focusing on the social processes and outcomes that génocidaires set out to achieve in a society should not detract nor limit one’s awareness and repugnance of the horrors and brutalities of mass killings associated with genocide;
Rather, as Feierstein explains:
‘’In Foucauldian terms, we need to shift our focus from what the social practices of genocide set out to destroy (a culture, a national group, a political tendency), —
to what they were intended to create (usually, a new society).” (Feierstein 2014, p.121)
Such an approach involving the recognition of how and why post-genocidal societies emerge as a reorganized social group arguably ‘supplies the key for how genocide can and should be remembered, or reappropriated’(Feierstein 2014, p.121), and possibly prevented.
Martin Shaw points out Feierstein’s critique of Holocaust historiography, specifically that ‘there has been no adequate account so far of the role played by concentration camps as stepping stones to genocide or the range of victim’s imprisoned or murdered in them during the ”reorganization” of German society and the Reich’s military expansion outward.” (Shaw p.184) .
Shaw notes that Feirstein”s reorganizing” concept ”reminds us that the destruction of specific groups within a society is often part of a project to reorganize society as a whole” and ”generally changes social relations in a profound way.” (Shaw p.184)
This paper argues that such a functionalist approach acknowledging rather than denying that a post-genocidal society has experienced the unravelling and destruction of social and cultural ties, producing fundamental restructuring of social relations among ethnical, racial and cultural groups of people, is vital to recognizing and preventing genocide.
The need to go beyond what appears at first glance, to be senseless mass killings carried out by one racial, cultural or political group against another in the name of securitization against the threat of ”terrorism’posed by the other, —
may upon further analysis reveal a darker project planned for the victimized other, the reordering of their very identity…
Preventing Genocide: Recognizing distortions of facts woven by post-genocidal societies that reorder social relations
It is not uncommon to hear of post genocidal societies weaving narratives of blame and denial;
On the one hand, blaming its victims comprising entire social, cultural groups for the mass murders, torture and brutalities they suffered at the hands of their State militaries.
On the other, narratives of denial masterly woven by politicians pointing to, for instance, existential threats to the racial composition, safety and security of a dominant social group posed by victims of an imminent genocide.
A historical example of such denial preceding the Holocaust is found in Hitler’s statements in 1935 at the Reichstag in Nuremberg –
that he had felt compelled to introduce anti-Semitic legislation directed at the Jewish population because ”loud complaints of provocative actions by individual members of this race are coming from all sides ”making it necessary ”to prevent this behavior from leading to quite determined defensive action on the part of the outraged population.’ (Laurence Rees, p.87)
The justificatory power of racism embedded in such narratives rationalizing the actions of both pre and post genocidal societies that deny accountability for their role in atrocities is succinctly portrayed by Feierstein:
‘’racism is both a symbolic and a material contrivance allowing the state to take the lives of its citizens thanks to a biological discourse that makes the victims responsible for a gradual “degeneration” of the race—a race whose “genes” must be protected at all costs.’’
“Thanks to this biological rationale, a state that evolved to guarantee and protect the life of its citizens is “forced” to implement a machinery to destroy life—the lives of those who threaten the “health” of the wider population.’’ (Feierstein 2014, p.104)
It is imperative that one recognizes the distortion of facts and justificatory discourses woven by such post genocidal societies —
while identifying the sociological cues that point to the reorganization of social relations within a post-genocidal society .
To achieve this, Feirstein argues:
“we need to problematize the assimilation structures or levels of understanding at which various postgenocidal societies tend to narrate events, and which separate genocide from the social order that produced it. They do so not by denying the facts, but by distorting their meaning. (Feierstein 2014, p.121)
Note, for instance, the distortions of reality presented by the de facto leader of Myanmar , Aung San Suu Kyi, following the 2017 massacres of the Rohingya communities;
a massacre which the International Community including the United Nations Human Rights Council has recognized as genocide.
Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu ,based in Yangon, had this to say about Aung San Suu Kyi after she delivered a speech at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), denying that her country’s military had committed a genocide of the Rohingya people:
”after she came into office, she started refusing to call us Rohingya. She urged her government not to use either Rohingya or Bengali but to use ‘Muslims from Rakhine state’,” ;
“Refusing to call us Rohingya is also a part of genocide. This was the same thing she did at court yesterday. She failed to recognise our identity.
Calling us Muslims is not right. It is a religious identity. In our country, Myanmar, ethnic identity is the most important.
Religion is private belief. I would call her now a genocide denier. She has officially denied genocide. She has dismissed genocide.” (Aljazeera 13 Dec 2019)
It is as if such an ethnical group, the Rohingya, never existed…..
having been eliminated from the consciousness of those genocidaires within the post-genocidal society of Myanmar and their relations among the Burmese people and the International Community
It is crucial that one identify the sociological stages involving the reorganization of social relations that precede genocides and prevail in their aftermath.
Feierstein, in this regard, presents a six-stage process,
”beginning at the moment that a group of individuals with an autonomous social identity is negatively constructed as Other ,
and continuing until its symbolic extermination in the minds of the survivors,
which may happen after the physical acts of extermination themselves, and rob the survivors of the possibility of being subjects “for themselves.’’ Feierstein 2014, p.110)
The six sociological stages depicted by Feierstein characterizing the social practice of genocide
Stage One. Stigmatization:
The reorganizing of social relations among génocidaires and their victims begins with the introduction of a form of stigmatization that undermines and unravels the social bonds that exist between the oppressed group and the oppressor.
A minority group’s identity, sense of belonging, self-worth and assimilation within the larger community is questioned through the symbolic and practical effects of stigmatization by for instance dehumanizing and demonizing a minority group.
Feierstein explains :
”The first step in destroying previously cooperative relations within or between social groups is stigmatization.”
”In order to construct the “negative Other” as a distinctive social category, those in power draw on symbols in the collective imagination, build new myths, and reinforce latent prejudices.
Two groups are thus created: the majority or in-group (“us”), and a minority or out-group (“them”) that does not wish to be like everyone else—and therefore does not deserve to exist.” (Feierstein 2014, p.110).
The Rohingya, are an example of a persecuted minority ethinc group in Myanmar who have been subject to years of ‘stigmatization, harassment, isolation and systematic weakening’ argues Alicia de la Cour Venning, a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), which she notes ‘are four of the six stages of genocide, according to a model devised by Daniel Feierstein, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.’ (THE DIPLOMAT 2017)
Ibrahim further argues that post 1962, ‘the military junta in effect created a new logic whereby only Burman Buddhists could really be loyal citizens.’ (Ibrahim p.4).
This ‘logic’ was arguably promoted in a number of ways which included stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship, property and basic access to medical care and education.
Linguistic and racial differences also underpin the unjust treatment of the Rohingya who, appearing to be ‘visibly alien’ in the color of their skin, in their language, and most of all in their religion, have borne the brunt of this discriminatory thinking’. (Ibrahim p. 4).
Stage Two. Harassment
Feierstein explains that :
”This stage marks a qualitative leap from symbolic to physical violence. In general, it advances more quickly in times of crisis, as the anxiety and latent violence resulting from current deprivations and uncertainty about the future can be directed against those who insist on maintaining a separate identity or on flouting norms others have accepted”(Feierstein 2014, p.113-114)
Thus the stigmatized group is blamed for the crises that plagues society – economic recessions, national security threats in the form of ‘terroristic violence, ‘corrupting public morals, undermining national unity, or conspiring with foreign agents in ways that would not normally stand the test of common sense. (Feierstein 2014, p.113-114)
Bullying and disenfranchisement characterize this stage; ‘radicals or “shock troops” carry out sporadic attacks, claiming that their “tolerance” is at an end and calling for “firm action.”(Feierstein 2014, p.113-114).
Not only does such sporadic violence further the stigmatization process ‘they test society’s readiness to buy into physical violence”(Feierstein 2014, p.113-114).
The geoncidal killings of the Rohingya in 2017 were not the first time that the Rohingya were subject to such violent atrocities.
The cycles of violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military in 2012/2013 led to the Rohingya fleeing for refugee camps that emerged at that time within Myanmar. (Ibrahim p.10). Such violence against the Rohingya was largely unheeded by the Burmese population and the international community at that time.
Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar, told the UN that the solution was either to send millions of Rohingya to another country or to have the UN look after them. He stated:
“We will take responsibility for ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognise the illegal border-crossing Rohingya who are not of our ethnicity,” (ALJAZEERA 2012)
A vicious cycle come into play, notes Feierstein: ”The authorities use the breakdown of law and order created by these “spontaneous” acts of aggression to justify authoritarian and repressive policies, and to strengthen the “legitimate” security forces”.
The second outcome of this stage of Harassment is the gradual deprivation of the stigmatized group of its civil rights.
”This begins with restrictions on property and marriage, as well as on practicing certain professions and customs (e.g., the Nazi prohibition on kashrut, or kosher slaughtering), and ends in the loss of citizenship” (Feierstein 2014, p.113-114).
Stage Three. Isolation
Stage 3 of the social practice of genocide is depicted by Feierstein as the isolation of the persecuted group, the objective being to ‘to demarcate a separate social, geographical, economic, political, cultural, and even ideological space for those who are “different,” and at the same time to sever their social ties with the rest of society.’ (Feierstein, p.115).
The ghettoization of the Rohingya was arguably a further step in alienating them from the rest of society.
‘Within the Aung Mingalar ghetto for instance, the Rohingya are deprived of the bare necessities of life, and cowed into living ‘with the ever-present fear of violent attack.’ [ISCI Report Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar, 2014].
Feierstein argues that this stage ‘makes it easier for the genocidal forces to identify the victims and, at the same time, to hide the process of harassment and extermination from the public’ (Feierstein, p.115).
The isolation of the persecuted groups like the Rohingya by the State therefore allows for further degradation, brutality and eventual annihilation of the group that is to follow without the possibility of public scrutiny and questionin.
‘It gives the genocidaires much more room to maneuver and identify those they wish to annihilate, removes the process of discrimination, harassment, and destruction from the public gaze, and from the eyes of those who might raise ethical and moral objections’. (Feierstein, p.116).
One might further argue that the social and physical isolation of such victims who have been cut off from human interaction and contact with the rest of the world contribute to a sense of apathy or indifference by the international community to the plight of such victims,–
since access to the media, political leaders and humanitarian organisations are by now denied by the State.
It is instructive to note that the denial by the Myanmar government of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in 2017 took place in the context of the Myanmar government ‘blocking aid agencies’ access to Rohingya still trapped in Myanmar — about 120,000 confined to camps in central Rakhine and tens of thousands more in desperate conditions in the north.’
( The New York Times, Oct 24, 2017)
Stage Four. Policies of Systematic Weakening
Feierstein explains that:
”At this stage the perpetrators set priorities. They distinguish between those that must be exterminated, and those that may be exterminated, depending on the political and social circumstances and the perpetrators’ capacity to kill.
Once the victims have been isolated from the rest of society, the perpetrators typically implement a series of measures aimed at weakening them systematically.
These consist of strategies of physical destruction through overcrowding, malnutrition, epidemics, lack of health care, torture, and sporadic killings; and of psychological destruction, manifested in humiliation, abuse, harassment or killing of family members, attempts to undermine solidarity through collective punishment, the encouraging of collaboration in categorizing and classifying prisoners, and denunciation and peer abuse.” (Feierstein 2014, p.121)
Primo Levi, a survivor of the Auszwitz death camp narrates how the Nazis determined whether a person would be killed or allowed to live (from Survival in Auschwitz, (Simon and Schuster):
”The climax came suddenly. The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: ‘How old? Healthy or ill?’ And on the basis of the reply they pointed in two different directions.In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich;we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later…” (TIME 2015)
Stage Five. Extermination
Feierstein notes that ‘the extermination stage is characterized by the physical disappearance of those who once embodied certain types of social relations.’
‘The industrialization of death by the Third Reich rendered the relationship between victims and perpetrators anonymous, as well as dissolving individual moral responsibility by breaking the process into a succession of separate stages.’
Feierstein outlines the various stages undertaken by the Nazis leading to the eventual extermination of millions of Jews, Roma and other groups of people
”The production line started with the organization of trains and the deportation of the victims to the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, or Treblinka, and ended with the victims’ bodies being burned and their remains ground to dust.
With the gas chambers, the perpetrators did not even have to watch their victims die. This depersonalized form of murder has since been copied in other genocidal processes. This systematic, impersonal, and tremendously efficient ability to make entire populations disappear in a relatively short period of time also marks a new stage in the exercise of power by dominant classes.” (Feierstein 2014, p.121)
Stage Six. Symbolic Enactment
The degree to which social relations within a genocidal society have been successfully reorganized by the perpetrators is measured by the symbolic ways that such atrocities are socially interpreted and narrated by them to the rest of society. Feierstein argues that:
”Destruction only benefits the perpetrators if it can be turned into certain forms of social narrative that re-present annihilation.
In other words, genocidal social practices do not end in the physical annihilation of the victims, but rather in the symbolic ways that this trauma is represented.
If the overarching purpose of genocide is to transform social relationships within a given society, it is not sufficient to kill those who think or behave differently.
The types of social relationships that these people embodied (or potentially embodied) must be replaced either with traditional in-group models of relating or, more commonly, with new ways of relating.
The most effective form of symbolic genocide is not oblivion, which ignores the disappearance of a way of life as if it had never disappeared, but does not preclude its reappearance.
The most effective form of symbolic genocide is the pious pretense that genocide is somehow irrational and inexplicable.
For genocide to be effective while the perpetrators are in power it is not enough for the perpetrators to kill and materially eliminate those who stand for a particular social order the perpetrators wish to destroy. They need to spread the terror caused by genocide throughout society.
Conversely, the best way to perpetuate the effects of terror in a postgenocidal society is by dissociating genocide from the social order in which it occurred—not in a crude and obvious way by denying the facts, as Turkey continues to do with the Armenians, but by changing the meaning, logic, and intentionality of genocide. (Feierstein 2014, p.121)
‘ICJ speech: Suu Kyi fails to use ‘Rohingya’ to describe minority’, AlJazeera 13 December 2019.
Card, Claudia. “Genocide and Social Death.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 1, 2003, pp. 63–79.
Christopher Powell, What do Genocides kill? A relational Conception of Genocide, Journal of Genocide Research (2007), 9(4), December, 527–547.
Why is the world ignoring Myanmar’s Rohingya? ALJAZEERA , 23 July 2012.
“Are the Rohingya facing a Genocide, THE DIPLOMAT, 19th September 2017.
Genocide as a Crime under International Law Author(s): Raphael Lemkin Source: The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1947), pp. 145-151
‘Reshaping Social Relations through Genocide:Genocide as Social Practice’, DANIEL FEIERSTEIN Published by: Rutgers University Press. (2014)
Ibrahim, Azeem. (2016). The Rohingyas : inside Myanmar’s hidden genocide. London : C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd
Lemkin, R., Axis rule in occupied Europe: laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress, (Washington [D.C.]: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944).