Raphael Lemkin


Legal scholar and creator of the term "genocide"

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish-born legal scholar who created the term “genocide” and contributed significantly to the early development of international laws against genocide, as well as to the academic discipline of genocide studies. He first introduced the concept of genocide in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, joining the Greek word ‘genos’ (race, nation or tribe) and the Latin suffix ‘cide’ (from ‘caedere,’ to kill) to describe mass political killings. The historical examples that informed his conception of the term genocide included not only the Holocaust, but also the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 and incidents of extra-European genocide in early modern and modern colonialism (McDonnell and Moses 2009, 57–58). Lemkin immigrated to the United States during World War II to escape Nazi persecution, but later returned to Europe during the Nuremberg Trials to serve as an advisor to U.S. Justice Robert Jackson. Today, Lemkin is considered to be “the father of genocide studies”; his extensive correspondence and scholarly writing form the foundation upon which the first generation of postwar genocide scholars built. The United Nations Genocide Convention, for which Lemkin had long advocated, was adopted on December 9, 1948, became a legally binding treaty on January 12, 1951, and is still in force today.

Early Legal Career in Europe

Lemkin’s legal career was shaped in part by his humanistic upbringing and the experience of persecution in early-twentieth-century Europe. Raphael Lemkin was born on June 24, 1900 into a traditional upper-middle class Jewish family near the Belarusian town of Wolkowysk. His mother, a painter and philosopher, home-schooled her children, believing that “young children should first of all be indoctrinated in feelings and sensitivities [as] the great impact of early emotions [formed] the character” (Cooper 2008, 9). From an early age, Lemkin learned to read, write, and speak Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and Hebrew, in addition to his native Polish; he later added English, French, German, and Swedish.

In the early 1900s, anti-Jewish violence, propaganda, and suppression were common occurrences in Eastern Europe. Lemkin witnessed this in his adolescence and was very much aware of the fact that local law enforcement rarely came to the aid of persecuted groups. These were formative experiences for Lemkin and led him to understand that groups threatened with ethnic cleansing and genocide lacked the legal support of both domestic and international law.

With the beginning of World War I, the Lemkin family’s estate was destroyed as the German Army advanced into Eastern Poland in 1914 and again during the army’s retreat in 1918. Despite the raging war, Raphael continued his education at two secondary schools in Bialystok and Vilnius. He also became increasingly involved with the Jewish community life in the city of Wolkowysk. At the end of World War I, Lemkin became drawn to the cause of the newly established Polish state and, as a result, an outspoken opponent of the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks. In the years between 1918 and 1920, Lemkin again became keenly aware of the deadly results of ethnic and religious hatred as brutal pogroms against the Jewish population in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine erupted time and again.

In 1919, Lemkin entered the University of Lvov, studying philology, and adding Sanskrit and Arabic to the plethora of languages he was able to read and write. He went on to study philosophy at the University of Heidelberg before returning to Lvov to enter a law program. One of the key events that influenced Lemkin’s decision to study law was the Armenian genocide in 1915 and its aftermath. The Turkish Minister of the Interior responsible for the deportation and murder of the Armenian people during the Young Turk regime, Mehmed Talaat Pasha, was murdered in 1921. His killer was tried and then acquitted, whereas Pasha himself could not have been tried for murder at all as there was no international law under which the Minister could have been indicted without infringing upon Turkish state sovereignty. The Armenian genocide was considered an “internal” affair. Lemkin, recognizing the glaring absence of international law, commented that “sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people” (Power 2002, 1).

After law school and despite a political climate in which Jews in Poland were increasingly barred from public service professions, Lemkin maintained a rather steady career in the public service sector. From 1929 to 1934, he worked as a prosecutor in Warsaw, and substantially helped shape the legal code for the newly established Republic of Poland. In 1934, he was forced to resign his post as a result of increasing anti-Semitism in Poland, but continued to practice law privately in Warsaw until 1939. He was also actively and enthusiastically involved in Warsaw’s Jewish community, writing columns for a Yiddish newspaper and teaching law courses at both Tahkemoni College, a rabbinical seminary, from 1927 until 1939 and at the Free University of Warsaw.

At the same time, Lemkin actively promoted his idea of creating international criminal laws to prevent and punish mass political violence at international conferences across Europe. Lemkin believed that in order to prevent mass slaughter in the future, the international community had to formulate laws that would ban the practice. To that end, the draft paper for a 1933 international criminal law conference he planned to attend in Madrid included a law that would prohibit the destruction of nations, races, and religious groups—a forerunner to what would later be incorporated into the UN Genocide Convention. Lemkin’s proposal specifically cited the offenses of barbarity and vandalism. However, the Polish foreign minister prohibited Lemkin from attending the conference and thus, his proposal had to be read out in his absence. It was met with little enthusiasm by the delegates in Madrid and was tabled.

Sometime between 1936 and 1938, Lemkin established first professional connections to the United States; he was introduced to Professor Malcolm McDermott of Duke University Law School and the two worked together to translate the 1932 Polish Penal Code into English. Subsequently, Lemkin was offered an academic position at Duke University but, for the time being, he turned it down. Only when the political situation for Jews worsened, not only in Poland but across Europe, during the years 1937 and 1938 did Lemkin begin in earnest to nurture the idea of going abroad to a country where his professional skills would be more appreciated. He would ultimately realize these plans in 1941 by immigrating to the United States. In his memoirs, he notes on his immigration plans: “My impatience to go to America was increasing. The United States was formally a neutral country, but its expressions of human concern were warming Europe like the Golf Stream. But I was powerless, caught in this pocket between Russia and Germany [referring to his stay in Stockholm]” (Lemkin 2002, 378).

Anti-Genocide Advocacy in the United States

World War II and the Nazi genocide gave new urgency to Lemkin’s cause and affected him personally. When the Germans launched their blitzkrieg attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Lemkin was in Warsaw. He fled the city and managed to escape back to Eastern Poland to see his family one last time before leaving the country. Of his immediate family, no one accompanied him. In November 1939, Lemkin arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania. From there, he contacted Karl Schlyter, former minister of Justice in Sweden; Count Carton de Wiart, president of the International Association of Criminal Law and former president of the League of Nations; and Malcolm McDermott of Duke University, to ask for assistance with his immigration plans to the United States.

During his flight from the Nazis, he lived with other people, ate at their tables, and was dependent on their goodwill to help him in these difficult times. Lemkin stated in his memoirs that “there were three things I wanted to avoid in my life: to wear eyeglasses, to lose my hair, and to become a refugee. Now all these three things [had] come to me in implacable succession” (Lemkin 2002, 377). He went on to assert that to overcome the difficulties of being a refugee, he had to immerse himself even more deeply in his intellectual work, claiming that only through his “spirit could he change his refugee status.”

Early in his exile, Lemkin began documenting the Holocaust and advocating the need for a legal response. During his stay in Vilnius, he was granted his visa for Sweden. He thentraveledto Riga where he met with the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnov; the two men discussed Lemkin’s approach to mass political killings, essentially agreeing that mass political violence must be punished internationally and not in national courts. From Riga, Lemkin flew to Stockholm. He stayed in Sweden until 1941. During his stay, he taught himself Swedish and began collecting a plethora of legal documents concerned with Nazi occupation policy in Eastern Europe and the confiscation of Jewish property, all of which pointed to the Third Reich’s discriminatory and exterminatory policies towards the Jews. Their collection and analysis formed the basis for his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe that would later be published in 1944 following his immigration to the United States. Through Malcolm McDermott, Lemkin obtained a position as a tenured lecturer at Duke University in 1941, which ultimately secured his immigration plans.

Lemkin began teaching comparative law at Duke University and worked on two important articles on prewar criminological and family law studies. He continued to translate and analyze the Nazi decrees he had collected in Sweden and lecture widely, speaking to both university and local audiences about the worsening situation in wartime Europe.

In the summer of 1941, Professor McDermott took him on a trip to Washington, D.C. There, Lemkin met with the law librarian of the Library of Congress, John Vance, to whom Lemkin had initially been introduced in 1937 at the Congress of Comparative Law. Vance invited Lemkin to give a talk at the Annual Convention of the American Bar Association about the Nazi agenda to gain totalitarian control of foreign economies. Lemkin was later introduced by Vance to Colonel Archibald King of the Military Government Section of the War Department. As a result, Lemkin gave several talks about the Nazi occupation and their military conduct in the School for Military Government in Charlottesville, VA. These government connections propelled Lemkin into the public eye and, a year later, won him a professional appointment with the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington.

Creating Awareness of the Nazi Genocide in the United States

Throughout his time at Duke University, Lemkin was filled with a sense of intense anxiety about events in Europe, especially since the first reports appeared in the American press in the fall of 1941 about the massacre of Jews in Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that the United States maintained embassies in Budapest, Bucharest, and Vichy France until 1942, American policymakers remained unbelieving of the sheer horror that reports from the region conveyed. Lemkin tried repeatedly to direct his university colleagues’ attention to the plight of Eastern European Jews, but often observed that they, like the policymakers in Washington, were preoccupied with their own assignments.

Because of his government contacts and his work on the economic impact of the war, Lemkin was offered a government position in the summer of 1942. In Washington, D.C., Lemkin became an advisor at the Board of Economic Warfare and the Foreign Economic Administration. It was during that time that he began establishing closer professional ties and occasional friendships within Polish émigré circles in Washington. In many cases, the fate of the Polish people who suffered under the German onslaught brought Lemkin and the Polish émigrés together, and fostered cooperation in efforts to create awareness of the situation in Eastern Europe. By his own account, Lemkin found it easier to garner support for his work on mass political violence and the prevention thereof in these Eastern European circles than among his American colleagues both at the BEW and the university (Power 2002, 27).

Years later, in his quest to make the Genocide Convention a binding legal treaty, Lemkin again tried to rally international support in order to secure the necessary approval of at least 20 UN member states. To that end, Lemkin increasingly relied on both professional and private contacts he had established over the years in the United States and Europe. Among the groups to support his cause were the American Jewish Committee, the American Zionist Council, and the US Committee for a UN Genocide Convention. When, starting in 1952, these relationships soured, he increasingly turned to Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian émigré groups in the United States to garner support for his ongoing battle to highlight the importance of the Genocide Convention and its provisions, particularly in light of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

During his appointment in Washington, Lemkin busied himself lobbying high-ranking politicians to build support for a law that would ban the destruction of national or ethnic groups. He met with both President Roosevelt and Vice President Henry Wallace on numerous occasions, but while both men listened with interest to his proposal, neither of them acted upon it, believing that the time was not right for the adoption of such a law and instead focused their attention on the war effort. Lemkin was deeply disappointed by their lack of action and became convinced that politicians would always put their own interests before those of others, especially those of endangered minorities. As a consequence, Lemkin resolved to spur interest among the general U.S. public, who would then influence the policymakers. This may also havefueledhis determination to publish a substantial work on mass killings and the punishment of the perpetrators.

Lemkin was determined to find a legal response to crimes that fell outside the existing boundaries of international law. On August 24, 1941 Churchill gave a speech via radio in which he decried the horrors of Nazi occupied Europe and described the barbarity with which the Nazis pursued their exterminatory goals as “a crime without a name.” In order to more concisely define the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against designated civilian groups, Lemkin had to come up with a name for their actions. He immersed himself not only in the dynamics of mass political killings, but also in linguistic and semantic theory in order to find a word that would capture the true gravity of mass murder—Genocide. The term first appeared in Lemkin’s 1944 Axis Rule and was soon incorporated into Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Increasingly, his work found recognition within the government and the general public. In 1944, he left his job at the Economic Board and became an advisor on foreign affairs in the War Department. In November of that same year, he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe with reasonable recognition and critical success. By late 1945, Lemkin had become a well-established scholar and legal expert, and, as Samantha Power remarks, “he suddenly found himself with a measure of cachet in the U.S. capital and with a standing invitation to contribute to the country’s major [academic] publications” (Power 2002, 48). At the same time, however, his health took a turn for the worse as both his workload and his anxiety about the situation in Europe took their toll.

In 1946, he returned to Europe for the first time since his emigration. As an advisor to U.S. Justice Robert Jackson, Lemkin observed the Nuremberg Trials. His work entailed collecting information on the Nazis’ exterminatory policies: articles, transcripts, affidavits, case files, and legal directives in German and Polish. As someone intimately familiar with Polish law and fluent in German, he assisted the court with the attempt to reconstruct the legal system that framed the Nazi genocide. Lemkin tried to incorporate the crime of genocide into the indictment against the German war criminals, however, only German war crimes and crimes against humanity were tried. The trails focused on Nazi Germany’s wars of aggression, which were referred to as “the supreme crime,” but not on their exterminatory policies since, at the time, anti-genocide measures did not yet exist in international law (“The Holocaust and Other Genocides”).


Shaping the UN Genocide Convention

Lemkin redirected his energies and began lobbying delegates of the newly formed United Nations as they formulated their fall agenda in late 1946. The UN proved to be the perfect environment not only because it was an international body, but also because it was new and attracted a lot of media interest. On December 11, 1946, in the Lake Success Resolution, the UN General Assembly condemned genocide and tasked a UN committee with drafting a full UN treaty to officially ban the crime. Lemkin helped prepare the first draft of the Genocide Convention, but then spent the better part of 1947 writing a history of genocide, citing various cases in and outside of Europe. He maintained contact with UN delegates and flew to Geneva in the summer of 1948 to lobby the UN subcommittee that was drafting the text of the Convention.

In 1948, the U.S. Committee for a UN Genocide Convention, and NGO born out of the National Council of Christians and Jews, gradually became the main supporter of Lemkin’s cause and assisted him in his efforts to promote the adoption of the convention. The Committee established close contacts to prominent figures including the authors Pearl Buck and Aldous Huxley, and the poet Gabriela Mistral. Through the efforts of the Committee, Lemkin was able to rally a worldwide network of people which in turn the Committee used to write petitions that would represent millions of people. After months of drafting battles, the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was finally passed on December 9, 1948. In it, genocide is defined as being the cultural and physical destruction of designated groups because of their religious, racial, ethnic, and national belonging. The thought behind this definition comprises the bedrock of Lemkin’s work.

This major success was much cherished by Lemkin, but he continued his anti-genocide advocacy. From 1948 until his death, he dedicated his time to defending “the moral imagination and singularity of his achievement” (Elder 2009, 39). He spent his later years advocating for the national ratification of the Convention in the United States and across Europe. He also continued his research on genocide and other instances of mass political violence, and strove to educate the public via articles, radio addresses, interviews, and lectures that highlighted contemporary genocides. Though never published, Lemkin also began writing his autobiography as a way to expose a new audience to both the matter of genocide and his personal struggle. The History of Genocide, a comprehensive multi-volume work on historical examples of genocide and the nature of this crime that would have been the culmination of his life’s work, also remains unpublished.

Four years of intense publicity came to an end in 1952 after the United States did not sign the Convention and Lemkin failed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated six times between 1950 and 1958. Concern for international treaties decreased as the United States entered the Korean War and, as a result, a period of isolationism. Upon his return to the United States in 1949, Lemkin became a lecturer in law at Yale University, where he taught a course on genocide that focused not only on the legal aspects of the Convention, but also stressed interdisciplinary approaches to the study of genocide, drawing from psychology and anthropology. Aside from his teaching, he continued to devote time to lobbying the United States to ratify the Genocide Convention.

Towards the end of his life, he became heavily indebted and dependent on donations from various sources, including some of the same Jewish and Eastern European émigré groups that had assisted him financially during his earlier lobbying work lobbying for the ratification of the Genocide Convention. Although Lemkin had successfully brought the word “genocide” into common use while in the United States, he would remain utterly disappointed by the country’s refusal to sign the Genocide Convention—something that would only happen in 1988 under the Reagan administration, nearly thirty years after Lemkin’s death in 1959.

Raphael Lemkin’s formative experiences with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in his early life compelled him to pursue a career in international law, believing it to be the only way to prevent future mass political violence. It was only in the United States that he was given the means and opportunity to turn his aspirations into actual results, as can be seen in his influence on the UN Genocide Convention, the widespread adoption of the term “genocide” in academic and popular discourse, and the extensive body of work he produced while teaching at American universities and working for the U.S. government. Lemkin’s first-hand knowledge of the wartime and postwar situation in Europe lent real credence to his work and to his efforts to establish an international legal basis for the prevention of genocide. In the United States, he developed professional ties with many influential Americans in both academia and the government, while maintaining contacts to Eastern European groups with whom he shared his émigré background.

His transatlantic connections remained strong throughout his life as he returned to postwar Europe within the frameworks of the Nuremberg Trials and the preparation of the Genocide Convention. He was able to rally support and bring to life the Genocide Convention through a combination of his personal skills as a lobbyist, his knowledge of multiple languages, and his understanding of European and American legal systems. In his memoirs, Lemkin said of his immigration: “It had been my strongest desire to go to the United States. From there, I hoped I could explain to the Allies and friendly neutrals the real purpose behind the Nazi war policy” (Lemkin 2002, 379). Though not without challenges, Lemkin was able to achieve this goal, both by providing the theoretical basis for the study of genocide and by influencing the international legal framework for its punishment.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Raphael Lemkin
  • Coverage 1900-1959
  • Author
  • Keywords Raphael Lemkin, Poland, Polish, Law, Legal, United Nations, Genocide, Political Violence, Yale University, Duke University,
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018