Home » With Fire and Sword: War Crimes and Genocides

With Fire and Sword: War Crimes and Genocides

by Andrea Mulas

by Andrea Mulas. Researcher, Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation.

Scholars have noted that a fundamental step in perpetrating war crimes and genocides is the work of constructing the identity profile of a dangerous enemy who must be annihilated. Thanks to this strategy, today and historically, some events or disasters have often been greeted with indifference by their contemporaries.

Is it possible historically and morally to compare different types of violence? To compare or distinguish war crimes with genocides, beyond legal terminology? How would this analytic exercise serve to separate mass violence from massacres, genocides, and war crimes? And do we classify them according to whether they were committed in times of peace or war? But then, would war violence become the justification for genocidal violence? The historian Marcello Flores wrote in this regard that “it is paradoxical and provocative, of course, to compare the violence of war, especially if committed by those who are forced to go to war to counter the violence of invasion, to submission and human destruction, with that expressed in its most heinous and brutal level, that of genocide.”

But, moreover, this exercise appears so artificial also in light of the fact that in history the denunciation of horrors are not given priority actions to try to stop them. The historian Enzo Traverso has pointed out that a paradox spans the twentieth century: some events or catastrophes that today appear to us as full of violence have often been received with indifference, ignored or trivialized by their contemporaries. The most emblematic case is Hiroshima, whose gravity has been removed for decades. Le Monde had hailed the mushroom cloud as a “scientific revolution,” so much so that in the United States the atomic bomb would be celebrated as a source of national pride and for having put an end to the Second World War.


Genocide means each of the following acts, committed with the intention of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Article II of the Convention for the Prevention and Suppression of the Crime of Genocide (1948).

We speak here genocide, but there are many different forms of violence that human beings unleashed in the twentieth century. The Second World War alone caused fifty million victims and probably, on a quantitative level, it remains the most violent and destructive event of the twentieth century and perhaps in human history. The wars of the twentieth century represent 95% of the deaths in the conflicts of the last three centuries, and the percentage of civilian deaths grew to 50% in the Second World War. But, as Flores suggested, the numbers must be read carefully, and depending on the methodology of the analysis, the points of view change, and not just a little. If we take, for example, the percentages of the population killed during mass massacres, looking among the highest, we will have a remarkably different list. Among the most affected populations we have two of colonial Africa: Namibia and Congo, then Cambodia subjected to the communist regime, Poland as victim of the Second World War, and Equatorial Guinea. But the genocides of Armenians and Jews do not appear in such a list.

In reading the story, one episode above all is emblematic: the controversy aroused by the exhibition project of Enola Gay, the Hiroshima bomber, at the Smithsonian Institute. John Dower, an American historian specializing in modern Japan, has shown with numerous studies how, according to whether the story is told from the perspective of the Americans or the Japanese, it is represented and valued in an entirely different way. On the American side, the heroic and triumphal narrative in which the atomic bombs annihilated the enemy is exalted. On the Japanese side, however, what predominates is a “victimization narrative,” in which “the atomic bombs have become the symbol of a particular kind of suffering – quite similar to the Holocaust for Jews.” Yet, Tzvetan Todorov points out in his Memory of Evil, Temptation of Good (Garzanti, 2001), that nothing in the city of Hiroshima recalls the massacres in Nanjing, perpetrated in China in 1938 by the Japanese army, and precisely by the garrisons stationed in Hiroshima, massacres whose victims amount to about 300,000.

If the term genocide can be considered exaggerated, it can nevertheless be noted that German colonization has constantly touched upon (if not practiced openly) a genocidal policy in southern Africa. It is very often a question of exterminating a race, so much so that in some respects black Africa was the laboratory of that extreme violence that would be unleashed in Europe a few decades later. The genocide of the Herero people in Southwest Africa (now Namibia), perpetrated since 1904, has provided a convincing example of this. Out of 80,000 Herero, according to the data of the official census of 1911, about 70 thousand would have disappeared during the extermination campaign. The survivors, just over 10 thousand women and children and about 4 thousand men, are instead interned in the three “concentration camps” (Konzentrationslager, a term that is explicitly used for the first time in a telegram addressed to the German Chancellor in Berlin on January 14, 1905). The German general Lothar von Trotha urged his soldiers stationed on the African continent, “We must exterminate them to do away with all possible insurrections of the future.”

When in 1904, after numerous protests filed against the violence committed by the Belgians, the International Commission of Inquiry into the Congo delivered its report, it confirmed the reality of the extermination carried out by the German forces, but justified the repression as a necessary means to civilize the inferior races: “In a word, it is only through this medium that the Congo can become part of modern civilizations, and that the population can emerge from its natural wild state.” In general, all Western models of conquest, from German to British, French to Italian, justify their violent actions with the same racial and cultural discrimination against non-Western peoples, sometimes with the logic of bringing progress, other times with that of territorial or economic domain.

How to forget and not condemn the events of Debra Libanòs, in Ethiopia, the scene of the massacre by General Pietro Maletti by order of Rodolfo Graziani, viceroy of Ethiopia, where the most serious massacre of Christians ever happened on the African continent: about two thousand monks and pilgrims were killed between May 20-29,1937. The massacre was planned and implemented with a careful strategy to cause the maximum number of victims, far exceeding the logic of a strictly military operation.

In 1944 Winston Churchill, referring to the horrors of Nazism, spoke of “a crime without a name,” and Raphael Lemkin, an American Jew of Polish origin, professor of international law at Yale University, answered him the same year, coining the word “Genocide” to identify the war practices of Nazi Germany.

Not all crimes against humanity, genocides and massacres of the 20th century are modern at the same level: the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 (called “the first genocide of the century” by the final report of the UN Commission for Human Rights in 1973), the Polpottian genocide in Cambodia, that of the Tutsis of Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, etc: they associate, in a specific way each time, modern traits and archaic traits. The four massacres that most fully represent the modernity of barbarism are the Nazi genocide against Jews and Gypsies, the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the Stalinist gulag, and the US war in Vietnam. Here the amount of bombs and explosives dropped on Vietnamese territory was higher than that used by all the belligerents during the Second World War!

The situation is different with regard to the colonial wars of the twentieth century. Think of Indochina, Algeria, Portuguese colonial Africa and so on. But if you look back through a few chapters of the history manuals you will come across the genocide that occurred due to the colonization of the New World, or the devastating secular consequences of the different but similar forms of slavery and apartheid.

In the mid-1990s, the term genocide was used again on the European and African continent. Although it represents the worst case in the scenario of serious human rights violations, in the most recent history in the face of systematic violence the West has repeatedly stammered on the great nominalistic controversy of the existence or not of a genocide, as in the case of Darfur or Rwanda. In April 1994, when the massacres of Tutsis by the government and the Hutu militias began, the UN Security Council debated whether or not to use the term genocide only under the pressure of humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. Eventually it was ruled out under pressure from the US and British governments, and only when estimates started to mention at least five hundred thousand people killed did the State Department spokesperson admit that “we have every reason to believe that genocide has taken place in Rwanda.”

Ph. Support Ukraine in Vienna © Tetiana Shyshkina via Unsplash


Another dramatic page in the history of humanity is the violence that accompanied the Balkan civil war of the 1990s: daily bombings, mass summary executions, mass graves, and once again the appearance of concentration camps in the heart of Europe. The scene of the height of barbarism is the city of Srebrenica, where on July 11, 1995 about eight thousand Muslim men and boys were killed in an act of genocide by Mladić’s Serbian militias, and the nightmare of genocide returns to Europe.

Today it is not a question of denying a crime against humanity, such as the one against the Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Donbass region denounced by Putin. There are few historical references to put the Armenian genocide or that of the Tutsis on the same level with the clash that takes place in the separatist territories of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. According to a United Nations document, published on January 27, 2022, from 2014 to the end of 2021 the number of victims is between 14,200 and 14,400: at least 3,404 civilians, about 4,400 members of the Ukrainian forces, and about 6,500 members of armed groups. In the case of repression in the Ukrainian separatist regions, it is not a question of genocidal denial, but of Putinian revisionist exploitation, the result of the loss of the status of superpower which remains a wound, a source of continuous frustration for a considerable part of the population that is still linked to the image of Soviet imperial grandeur. This is the logic of a power that justifies the twentieth-century imperialist nationalism by connecting the people back to the times of the Cold War.

In the light of Putin’s reasons for invading and subduing the Republic of Ukraine, it is clear that even the most rigorous historical analyses crumble in the face of vulgar revisionism, in the face of neo-imperialist resurgence.

From the speech of the Russian autocratic president who announced on February 24th the start of a “special military operation” in Ukrainian territory, the topicality and adherence of the analysis of the events at the end of February emerged twenty years ago. According to the Russian historian Victor Zaslavsky, the generation to which Putin belongs “grew up at the mercy of Soviet propaganda with its ideologization and mythologization of contemporary history, in particular of Soviet history. The historical consciousness of entire generations is totally manipulated and distorted, dominated from the image of a permanent struggle, ‘us versus them,’ of a great plot against Russia, of a permanent threat to the territorial integrity of the country and to the very existence of the Russian nation.”

Genocidal regimes rise to power through a process of construction, consolidation or redefinition of the state to better address—by contesting and challenging—the existing international order, viewed as dominated by hostile Western powers. For this reason they tend to mythologize threats and orchestrate fears. In this sense, they are all more or less “revisionist” states that aim to strengthen their statehood.

And today the images of the “urbicide” of Kiev, Mariupol, Kharkiv bring to mind the terrible bombing of Dresden in February 1945 which caused the death of forty thousand people. Marshal Robert Saundby, head of the British Bomber Command, later commented with these words on the tragedy in Dresden to which he had contributed: “It is not so much this or other means of waging war that are immoral or inhuman. What is immoral is the war itself. Once a global war has broken out it can no longer be humanized or civilized, and if one side tried to do so it would in all likelihood be defeated.”

Ph. Piero Nigro © via Unsplash

Andrea Mulas

Andrea Mulas

Researcher, Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation

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