Raphael Lemkin was a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who is best known for creating the word ‘Genocide’ and initiating the ‘Genocide Convention’.
In 1933 Lemkin made a presentation to the Legal Council of the League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid, for which he prepared an essay on “The Crime of barbarity” as a crime against international law. The concept of crime, which later evolved into the idea of genocide, was based on the Armenian Genocide and prompted by the experience of Assyrians massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre. In 1934, under pressure from the Polish Foreign Minister for comments made at the Madrid conference, resigned his position and became a private solicitor in Warsaw. While in Warsaw, Lemkin attended numerous lectures organized by the Free Polish University.
In 1937, Lemkin was appointed a member of the Polish mission to the 4th congress on Criminal Law in Paris, where he also introduced the possibility of defending peace through criminal law. Among the most impostant of his works of that period are two compendium of Polish criminal fiscal law, “Prawo karne skarbowe” (1938) and a french language work, La réglementation des paiements internationaux, regarding international trade law (1939).
He left Warsaw on the 6th of September, 1939 and made his way towards Wolkowysk, northeast of Lwow, caught between the Germans in the west, and the Soviets who now approached from the east, Poland’s independence extinguished by the pact between Stalin and Hitler. He barely evaded capture by the Germans and traveled through Lithuania to reach Sweden by the early spring of 1940 where he lectured at the University of Stockholm. Curious about the manner and imposition of Nazi rule he started to gather Nazi decrees and ordinances, believing official documents often reflected underlying objectives without stating them explicitly.
He spent much time in the central library of Stockholm, gathering, translating, and analysing the documents he had collected, looking for patterns of German behaviour. Lemkin’s work led him to see the wholesale destruction of the nations over which Germans took control as an overall aim. Some documents by Lemkin analysed had been signed by Hitler, implementing ideas of Mein Kampf on Lebenstraum, new living space to be inhabited by Germans.
In November 1944, the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace published Lemkin’s most important work, entitled ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’ published in the United States. This book included an extensive legal analysis of German rule in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the course of World War II, along with the definition of the term genocide.
Lemkin’s idea of genocide as an offence against international law was widely accepted by the international community and was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. In 1945-1946, Lemkin became an advisor to Supreme Court of the United States Justice and Nuremberg Trial chief counsel Robert H. Jackson. The book became one of the foundational texts in Holocaust studies, and the study of totalitarianism, mass violence, and genocide studies.
Lemkin presented a draft resolution for a Genocide Convention treaty to a number of countries, in an effort to persuade them to sponsor the resolution. With the support of the United States, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally presented on December 9th, 1948.
Lemkin’s broader concerns over genocide, as set out in his ‘Axis Rule’ also embraced what may be considered as non-physical, namely, psychological acts of genocide. The book also detailed the various techniques which had been employed to achieve genocide.