George Mason University
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George Mason University

Genocide, the ‘Family of Mind,’ and the Romantic Signature of Raphael Lemkin

by Douglas Irvin-Erickson

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  • Published Date: September 1, 2013
  • Display Date: September 1, 2013
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis Online


On 9 December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The first humanitarian law of the UN, the Convention was singlehandedly pushed by the jurist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide in Axis rule in occupied Europe (1944). Using Lemkin's unpublished writings, this essay seeks to correct several misunderstandings of Lemkin's thinking on genocide as the destruction of nations. Lemkin defined nations more broadly than simply a group of people inhabiting a particular state. Instead, Lemkin used the work of an art historian to define nations as ‘families of minds’, arguing that the idea of a nation exists within the minds of people. In doing so, Lemkin broke from the tradition that nations had an objective organic existence defined by language, blood and territory. He took on an understanding of nations that sided with the political thought of Mazzini, who offered the dictum: ‘the Patria is the consciousness of the Patria’. The Genocide Convention, Lemkin wrote, protected the minds of people. Such human groups protected by the convention under the rubric of nations, he continued, could range from religious minorities to criminals—any ‘family of mind’ who genocidists attempted to destroy. The article analyzes Lemkin's ideas using his writings on the Soviet genocide in Ukraine and France's genocide in Algeria.

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