Rationale: The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the history of the term genocide and the process by which it was established in international law. Students learn that genocide as a word and concept did not exist prior to World War II. Students use primary documents and text to learn about Raphael Lemkin a Polish, Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to institutionalizing the prevention and punishment of genocide in international law, and to challenging the inviolability of state sovereignty. Students reflect on quotes about state sovereignty, and explore how the notion of sovereignty has served as an obstacle to the institutionalization, prevention and punishment of genocide. Students create a timeline that captures critical events and ideas from the story of Lemkin and his work on the Genocide Convention.
- Students will define and explore the concepts of genocide and state sovereignty.
- Students will learn about a Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, and his role in the prevention and punishment of genocide.
- Students will learn about the history and passage of the Genocide Convention.
- Students will analyze primary documents to learn about codification of laws against genocide in the United States and internationally.
National Standards (.pdf format -35 KB - requires Acrobat Reader)
Age Range: Grades 10-12
(Click on the link above for a master pdf file with all of the handouts or click on any individual title below for an html version of that single handout.)
Other Materials: chart paper, markers, tape, construction paper, assorted art supplies (for
students to create timeline in Part III of lesson)
Time: Approximately 2 hours or 3 class periods (Parts I and II can be taught
together in 45 minutes; Part III can be omitted if no more than one class period is available)
Techniques and Skills: analyzing primary documents, brainstorming, connecting past to present, cooperative group work, creating a timeline, critical thinking, historical understanding, large and small group discussion, reading skills, research skills
Key Words: annihilate, Allied powers, atrocity, Axis powers, autonomous, barbarism, codification, convention, crimes against humanity, deportation, extermination, genocide, Hitler, Holocaust, indifference, infringe, intent, institutionalize, intervention, isolationist, inviolability, jurisdiction, Nazi, Nuremberg Trials, oppression, passivity, perpetrators, pogrom, propaganda, ratify, resolution, sovereignty, systematic, United Nations
Part I (20 minutes)
1. Post the following quote on the board or a sheet of chart paper:
Ask students if they know who stated these words and what they refer to. After some discussion, inform students that Great Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, spoke these words in 1942 as the public grew more aware of the Nazi's systematic extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and many others.
"We are in the presence of a crime that has no name."
2. Ask students to consider why Churchill described Nazi atrocities as "a crime that has no name." Suggest to them that there had been many examples of mass murder and acts of barbarism prior to World War II (click here for examples that can be posted as an illustration). Ask students what made the Nazis' murderous campaign different from these examples, and beyond description using the conventional language of the time. Highlight the following ideas, which characterize the Nazi Holocaust and set it apart from most other mass murders that preceded it:
- The Nazis' motive for their crimes arose solely from racial and religious hatred.
- These crimes were waged on a scale that had never existed before.
- These were not crimes against the rules of war, but crimes against humanity as a whole.
- There was a deliberate intention and systematic plan of action to completely exterminate a particular group of people.
- Those who designed and implemented the plan were "cool-minded theorists first and barbarians only second."
3. Ask students what term is commonly used today to describe Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people (genocide). Offer the following definition: Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of an entire national, racial, religious, or ethnic group, including acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, such groups.
4. Ask students if Hitler and the Nazis were guilty of the crime of genocide during the time they carried out their murderous campaign. Tell students that they may be surprised to learn that the term genocide did not even exist prior to World War II and there were consequently no international laws banning it (though the Hague and Geneva Conventions did prohibit "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity").
Part II (25 minutes)
5. Write the word sovereignty on the board and ask students to define the term, especially as it relates to states or nations. If students are not familiar with the term, offer the following definition: The exclusive right of a government or ruler to exercise supreme authority over a nation; complete independence and self-government with freedom from external control).
6. Post at least four of the Quotes About Sovereignty, each in a different area of the classroom. Make sure to use at least two from the In Support of Sovereignty section and and at least two from the Critique of Sovereignty section. Ask students to silently read all of the quotes and to stand next to the one that resonates most for them. When students are positioned by quotes, ask for volunteers to share what the quote means to them and why they chose to stand by a particular statement.
7. Explain to students that the idea of state sovereignty has been so firmly entrenched as a principle of world politics for so long that most countries resist intervening in the affairs of other autonomous states, even when atrocities are being committed. Tell students that:
- The reticence of nations to infringe upon state sovereignty has contributed to policies of nonintervention during genocides or mass murders in Turkey (the Armenian Genocide), Cambodia, Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Sudan, to name just a few examples.
- Even after the Holocaust, Nazi war criminals were convicted only for those crimes committed after Hitler invaded other countries, implying that the violation of state sovereignty was the basis for all charges rather than the crime of mass murder wherever it took place. (Another way to illustrate this point is to suggest that had Hitler exterminated only the Jews of Germany and never invaded another country, the world may not have considered it a crime under international law).
8. Tell students that they will be learning about a Polish, Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to challenging the inviolability of state sovereignty and to institutionalizing the prevention and punishment of genocide in international law. Distribute the reading, The Totally Unofficial Man: Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for a Genocide Convention, which can be read independently in class or assigned as homework. Questions for Discussion or Homework have been included to extend this reading.
Part III (60-90 minutes)
9. In advance, prepare a timeline out of construction or chart paper and post it in the front of the room. Title it "Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for a Genocide Convention" and divide it into six sections, which the students will fill in later.
10. Divide the class into six groups. Tell them that they will be revisiting one section of the reading about Raphael Lemkin in depth. Assign each group one of the following sections:
Group 1: Introduction and "The Emergence of a Vision"
Group 2: "A Law against 'Barbarity' and 'Vandalism'" and "World War II Begins"
Group 3: "Lemkin Flees to Safety" and "The Crime That Has No Name"
Group 4: "The Aftermath of World War II" and "A New United Nations Provides Hope"
Group 5: "Toward Ratification" and "The Cold War Weakens Support"
Group 6: "Renewed Efforts" and "Lemkin's Aspiration Finally Fulfilled"
Instruct each group to reread the assigned section and to highlight what they consider to be the two or three most important events or ideas during that part of Lemkin's life. Tell students that they will be creating a visual representation of at least one of those important events or ideas for the timeline hanging in the front of the class. Encourage students to be creative and to work collaboratively. (Examples of visual representations include maps, copies of primary documents, symbolic artifacts, illustrations, historical photos, imagined letters or journal entries in the voice of historical figures, etc.)
11. Ask each group to prepare a brief (2-3 minute) oral presentation summarizing the significance of the visual representation they have created. Allow time for each group to display their work, discuss it, and answer questions.
12. Conclude the activity by asking students to silently reflect for a moment on the life of Raphael Lemkin and the history of the genocide convention. If students have participated in Lesson 1, ask them to comment on how Lemkin and the Genocide Convention have helped to achieve the ideal of "never again." If students have not participated in Lesson 1, ask for volunteers to share a single word or phrase that sums up their feelings about what they have learned.
The following primary documents are referenced within the reading on Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention:
Assign students one or more of these documents to analyze either in class or as a homework assignment. Ask students to answer one or more of the Document Based Questions (DBQ) on the Genocide Resolution and Conventions. Encourage students to do further research on these documents in order to provide a context for their analysis. Ask several students to share their responses in class and allow time for the students to discuss and debate these responses.