Genocide. The very utterance stops conversations flat. Images of universal suffering, starvation and killing; everything we reject but sadly have to remember about our history; not just death and not just death en masse, but the exacting potential of human violence when a society misplaces its humanity and hoards of people die at its feet.
Anyone interested in history will find equal parts repulsion, disgust and fascination with genocide. Though war is no less tragic, the nature of the violence may be in some way easier to reconcile—there’s reciprocation, action and reaction; a mass-expression of conflict; a metaphorical fist fight. But genocide is unpassionate, unfeeling, cold and a one-way offensive. Driven by ideas and ambition, a sort of mathematical rendering of that violence on a large, systemic scale, human beings are distilled down not to warriors or violent animals as in a war, but to mere numbers, obstacles, pests to be subtracted, overcome, removed. Genocide doesn’t denote human beings but their very fabric: their genes, their genus, their history.
Much like many wars, these events happened under the pretense of some collective advancement resulting from impossibly complex historical developments. But unlike war, the calamity of violence was normalized, seemingly forgotten and deemed synonymous with progress in these 5 biggest ever crimes against humanity.
5 Cambodian Genocide: 2.5 million dead
Some 20,000 mass grave sites in Cambodia called “killing fields” remain the starkest evidence of atrocities committed by the communist Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Led by the described “Hitler of Cambodia” Pol Pot, the regime sought a return to the nation’s “mythic past” through an agrarian socialist utopia. It rejected all foreign relations and aid. To Pol Pot, the ethnic peasantry was the only true class; he set out to eradicate all minority languages, all religions and ultimately all people who interfered with the regime’s purification plans.
Vietnamese, Chinese, Islamists, Christians, Buddhists, former political and military leaders, businessmen, journalists, students, doctors and lawyers were all targeted. Estimates say some one and a half million fell to mass executions in the genocidal years between 1975 and 1979, with the remainder succumbing to systematic starvation, malnutrition, relocation and forced labour. In all, 25% of the population perished by the time Vietnam invaded in 1979.
Pol Pot died in 1998 by apparent suicide, nearly twenty years after he fled into the Cambodian jungle and the Khmer Rouge collapsed. No war crimes trials occurred until 2009; only five indictments and one conviction have been made so far.
4 Nigerian Civil War: 3 million dead
Nigeria’s civil war was ultimately set in motion by the sudden removal of colonial oversight which formerly ignored, suppressed and exacerbated underlying cultural tensions in the territory. Throughout Africa, colonialism had lumped previously autonomous ethnic groups together and forced them to compete within unified states. The result was a country forced to reconcile a twisted hybrid of Western organization and traditional African ethos which, in the absence of Western dominion, descended into brutal conflict.
For Nigeria, the story begins with independence from Britain in 1960. The three biggest ethnic groups—the Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba—started struggling for political power in the country. By 1966, a series of messy coups and counter coups by the Muslim Hausas in the north began executing the region’s Christian Igbos. The Igbos fled to the southeast and attempted secession from Nigeria; only five countries in the world officially recognized their new independent Republic of Biafra.
The Nigerian government launched assault. Within a year it captured Biafra’s oil fields and virtually all its revenue sources. By the end of 1967 Biafra’s food supplies were cut. Within months, 50% of Igbos lay starving in their new republic as hundreds of thousands more were brutally slaughtered by the Nigerian army. By the time Biafra surrendered in 1970, 3 million Igbos had been murdered.
Ethnicity still remains a source of conflict and political instability in Nigeria.
3 Holodomor: 7.5 million dead
Just days ago, Crimea officially declared independence from Ukraine and joined Russia as it were, and here we sit recalling the Holodomor—Ukrainian for “hunger-extermination”—caused by the Soviet Republic from 1932-1933: Stalin’s artificially engineered famine to genocide the Ukrainian people.
In the late 20s, Stalin’s collectivized agriculture coerces Ukrainian farmers into giving up their private land and property to work state-owned factory farms. The aim isn't specifically to feed Soviet cities, but to provide surplus exports to make the state enough money to meet Stalin’s ambitious industrial targets. When the majority of Ukrainian farmers resist, Stalin launches class warfare.
Soviet troops confiscate Ukrainian land, livestock and property en masse. Families are evicted, relocated, crammed into freight trains and shipped to Siberia without food or shelter and left to perish. But the final “crushing blow” (Stalin’s words) becomes the impossible increases in Ukraine’s agricultural quotas. Unable to meet them, the Soviet government decrees harsh policing and raids across the territory, confiscating food supplies and tightening the already starving Ukraine’s belt. In mid-1933, famine kills 30,000 people a day. Stalin denies any starvation and exports millions of tons of grain.
In 2008, European Parliament officially recognized the Holodomor as a premeditated crime against humanity. Holodomor Memorial Day takes place on the fourth Sunday of every November in Ukraine.
2 Holocaust: 17 million dead
Easily the most well-documented genocide in history, Nazi Germany’s systematic violence against Jews spawned films, novels, essays, artworks and countless other staunch historical inquiries, not to mention the term “genocide” itself. The Holocaust exterminated approximately two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe, with a sheer scale of systemic capture, enslavement and execution made possible by a network of more than 40,000 death facilities fed by brutal anti-Semitic legislation and nationalist propaganda throughout the German Reich of World War II. But six million Jews weren't the only victims of Hitler’s Aryan utopia.
The 1935 Nuremberg Laws—which legally removed basic rights and work freedoms for Jews—eventually grew to include “Gypsies, Negroes or their bastard offspring.” In all, some hundreds of thousands of political and religious dissidents - 200,000 disabled, 2-3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 15,000 homosexuals and millions of Polish, Soviet and mixed-race civilians - lost their lives to the Third Reich. Many slowly starved, many laboured in slavery till death and many simply disappeared. But the most horrible images that remain are the “factory-like” death camps, where prisoners marched like cattle into mechanized slaughter houses designed to poison, burn and dispose of hoards of human beings with utmost efficiency.
1 European Colonization of the Americas: Up to 100 million dead
A handful of reasons make this a disputed entry as the biggest genocide in recorded history, but if you believe the collective disregard of one (or a series of) ethnic groups’ basic human rights, or the normalized practice of subverting entire populations’ way of life suffices as a “crime against humanity”, then you probably won’t take issue with condemning the near-extinction of North American indigenous peoples by European colonialism.
The genocide question here remains complex. For one, human rights as we know them today didn’t exist for much of Europe’s colonial expansion, and the very term “genocide” didn’t arise until last century. But Columbus’ “discovering” of the Americas in 1492 initiated an explosion in European wealth and power which ended in Europe’s total control of the Western Hemisphere by the 20th century, and the death of 95% of American indigenous peoples.
Hence the colonization of America denotes not a single “act” of killing, but a long phenomenon of displacement, disease and subjugation of its previously thriving populations. In many respects conflict and violence was a mainstay of conquest, and European colonists, by definition, worked to displace indigenous groups. But the lines of premeditated genocide start blurring when the simple fact of European contact, and their introduction of new world diseases, caused the overwhelming majority of indigenous deaths. To be sure, European settlers did (and perhaps could only do) very little to mitigate their catastrophic impact on the aboriginal way of life.