Anson Rabinbach, Professor of History at Princeton University, traces the legacy of Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), the Polish-Jewish jurist described as a “largely forgotten immigrant from Poland who coined the word “genocide” and pushed a convention outlawing it through the General Assembly.” (New York Times, June 19, 2001).
Just a few years after he coined the term “genocide” in 1943, Raphael Lemkin became embroiled in a fierce controversy over the politics of race in early post-World War II America. African-American intellectuals and political activists saw the UN Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948, as an opportunity to address segregation, racial violence, and lynching in the U.S. The result was a petition entitled “We Charge Genocide; The Crime of Government against the Negro People,” signed by leading figures of the early civil rights movement. The Truman administration, fearing a Soviet propaganda coup, abandoned its support for the convention and took aggressive measures against the petition’s organizers. Southern segregationists seized the opportunity to stigmatize the convention as a propaganda device and as foreign interference in American affairs. With the U.S.’s ratification of the convention in doubt, Lemkin denied any linkage between genocide and human rights or civil rights. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the memory of the Holocaust, racial atrocities in the American South, the politics of civil rights advocacy, U.S. foreign policy, and the fate of the Genocide Convention were inextricably tied together.
Programm 3. Carl E. Schorske Lecture.pdf (59,0 kB)
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