Learning from past genocides is critical to preventing future genocides and mass atrocities. History has shown us how hardship coupled with tension between groups can turn into the horror of genocide. The better we understand these events, the better equipped we are to effectively prevent and respond to current and future atrocities committed against civilians.
Beginning in 1915, ethnic Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were rounded up, deported and executed on orders of the government. The combination of massacres, forced deportation marches and concentration camp deaths due to disease is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million ethnic Armenians and Assyrians between 1915 and 1923.
After coming to power in 1933 on the basis of providing an ethnic and political scapegoat for Germany’s challenges following World War I, the Nazi Party implemented a highly organized strategy of persecution and murder. Their targets were the so-called “undesirables”: Jews, Slavs, Roma, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, as well as political and religious dissidents.
The Nazis began with stripping citizenship from German Jews on the basis of their religious identity. Shortly thereafter, in November 1938, the organized pogrom of Kristallnacht marked the beginning of mass deportations of German Jews to concentration camps. As the Nazis conquered large areas of Europe, Jews and others in Nazi-controlled areas were also deported to camps. When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union, it soon gave rise to mobile killing squads operating throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, which killed more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of other civilians. The construction of extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkanau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor led to the Nazis’ killing of 2.7 million Jews and other “undesirables” through the use of cyanide gas, summary executions and medical experimentation. Poor living conditions in non-extermination camps led to the deaths of millions more. It is estimated that six million Jews, two out of every three living in Europe, and another 5 million “undesirables” were killed by 1945.
When the Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975, they declared the beginning of a new age dedicated to a peasant-oriented society. Instead, after outlawing education, religion, healthcare and technology, the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Cambodia’s cities and forced these residents to labor without adequate food or rest. At the same time as summarily executing those who were unable to keep up, the Khmer Rouge began to target suspected political dissidents. These citizens, including doctors, teachers and those suspected of being educated were singled out for torture at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. In four years, between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians died in the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields.’
Beginning in 1991, Yugoslavia began to break up along ethnic lines as political leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic began to use nationalist sentiment as a political tool. While Slovenian independence was relatively bloodless, Croatia’s declaration sparked a civil war between the province and the Yugoslav government. Troops from the mostly Serb Yugoslav army entered Croatian territory and committed widespread human rights abuses, including the siege of Vukovar and the shelling of Dubrovnik.
In 1992, the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) also declared independence and the region quickly became the central theater of fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, all belligerents committed abuses against the civilians. Soldiers and paramilitaries used rape, torture, forcible displacement, and summary executions to “ethnically cleanse” areas under their control. The actions of Serbian units, including the Bosnian Serb army and paramilitaries, were particularly notorious, due to the four year-long siege of Sarajevo, as well as massacres at Foca, Tuzla, Visegrad, and Srebrenica. At Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces under General Radko Mladic overran a U.N. safe-area and executed at least 7,500 Bosniak men and boys who sheltering with Dutch peacekeeping troops.
Due to the notorious nature of attacks on civilians during the Bosnian and Croatian wars, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1993. This tribunal is tasked with prosecuting offenders who contributed to the deaths of at least 96,000 people.
Since independence, Rwandan society had experienced tensions between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, leading to massacres and Tutsi expulsions from the country in 1959 and 1963. In 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down outside of the country’s capital, Kigali. Habyarimana’s assassination provided the spark for an organized campaign of violence against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country. Despite the efforts of UNAMIR Peacekeepers, extremist Hutu groups used radios to direct the killings of between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus across the country in only 100 days. In 1994, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), dedicated to bringing those responsible for the genocide to justice. While slow-moving, the ICTR has determined that the widespread rapes committed during the Rwandan genocide may also be considered an act of torture and genocide on their own.
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For More Information
For more information about past genocides, visit
- The Armenian Genocide Museum-institute
- The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- The Museum of Tolerance
- USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education
- The Killing Fields Museum
- Research and Documentation Center Sarejevo
- Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre