The concept of peace constitutes an incredible awareness of the circumstances that allow all living things to exist comfortably in their state of being. Achieving peace requires an active input from all individuals. Often the effort put forth by one individual will significantly influence the way others approach their struggle and and affect their understanding of peace through actions or by introducting a concept. The Polish-born lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, is one such individual who has accomplished this type of effort on an international scale.
With glasses, blue eyes, and tall stature, Raphael Lemkin was multi-talented and could paint a beautiful landscape, play a decent game of checkers, and fish all day. Among his hobbies, Lemkin held within him a deep concern for the dignity and right to life that is common among all individuals. He made his concern known worldwide by developing the word genocide to describe the deliberate destruction of a racial, ethnic, or religious group.
Lemkin was born to Jewish parents on June 24, 1901, on a farm in Eastern Poland. Until the age of fourteen, Lemkin, with his two brothers, were educated mainly in the humanities by their mother, tutors, and the family library. Lemkin wrote that his mother was "a brilliant intellectual…Somehow, she saw to it we had a tendency to practice what we were learning." Before entering legal training, Lemkin studied philology at the University of Lwow in Poland and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He spoke nine languages and read fourteen. He also studied in France and Italy. Lemkin called law a "social engineering," because "law gives you an instrument to influence society by the way of formulation."
After deciding on a career in law and earning his doctorate, Lemkin became a public prosecutor for the District Court of Poland (1929-1934), and represented Poland at international conferences in many countries. He taught law at Tachkimoni College in Warsaw, and became secretary of the Committee on Codification of the Laws of the Polish Republic (1929-1935).
At a young age Lemkin was upset by the mass murder of two groups of people. The slaughter of Armenians by Turks during World War I and the massacre of Christian Assyrians by Iraqis in 1933 caused Lemkin to wonder why such inhuman acts were allowed to occur. He began to focus his attention on these heinous acts and examined them as crimes. Writing on the subject and drawing up a document to outlaw "acts of barbarism and vandalism," he then presented his proposal before the Legal Council of the League of Nations in Madrid. He urged the adoption of his proposal as an instrument for the protection of minorities; but the council refused. Dr. Lemkin's efforts towards this cause in Madrid were not looked upon favorably by the Polish government, which at that time was pursuing a policy of conciliation with Nazi Germany. He eventually retired from his public position and went into private law practice in Warsaw (1934-1939).
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. During the fighting outside the city of Warsaw, Lemkin was wounded in the left leg and for six months he hid in the Polish forests, finally escaping to Sweden by way of Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. He and his brother Elias were the only surviving members of the Lemkin family which contained over forty members. During 1940-1941 Lemkin taught at the University of Sweden in Stockholm, and also began the work of compiling documents on Nazi rule in the occupied countries of Europe. After making his way to the United States via Russia, Japan, and Canada, Lemkin joined the law faculty at Duke University in North Carolina in 1941. During the summer of 1942 he lectured at the School of Military Government at Charlottesville University in Virginia. He also wrote Military Government in Europe, which was a preliminary version of his more fully developed publication, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. From 1942-1943 Dr. Lemkin was appointed chief consultant of the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department.
In 1944 his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In the words of Professor Lemkin's preface, the book was designed to provide "undeniable and objective evidence regarding the treatment of the subjugated peoples of Europe by the Axis powers." In this book the word genocide was first used, which Lemkin had compounded from the Greek genos (race) and the Latin cide (killing) to describe the policy of "destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group." He further defined the concept as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." In commenting on the long history of wars of extermination, Lemkin concluded that the modern objectives were for "the disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups."
Material from Axis Rule in Occupied Europe was used in establishing a basis for the Nuremberg War Trials, and Lemkin was appointed an adviser to the Nuremberg Trial Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Since the Nuremberg trials handled cases of war guilt only and genocide in times of peace was not punishable under those terms, Lemkin resolved to carry on the campaign that he had begun in Poland in 1933 for the establishment of genocide as a crime under international law.
He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1945, but was unable to persuade the delegates to adopt such a measure. Lemkin continued to write and speak on the subject though. Many called him a dreamer and fanatic, but he persuaded United Nations delegates to propose and support a resolution naming genocide a crime under international law. In 1946 the UN General Assembly approved the resolution and directed the formulation of an international treaty to that effect. The UN Economic and Social Council, with Lemkin as adviser, rewrote the draft and in December 1948, in Paris, the UN General Assembly approved the international treaty by a vote 55 to 0.
In an article that appeared in the New York Times, the document was called durable and stated that "the genocide treaty is a triumph of one man's ideal over cynicism." By the terms of the treaty, genocide is established as a crime, punishable in an international penal tribunal;and the crime is defined as the mass murder or persecution of a group for reasons of race, religion or culture. The treaty, which is binding only on countries that ratify it, provides for the punishment of responsible individuals, "whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals." The new international pact became a part of international law on October 16, 1950.
In 1950 and 1952 Raphael Lemkin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the Grand Cross of Cespedes from Cuba (1950) and the Stephen Wise Award of the American Jewish Congress (1951). He died on August 28, 1959. Lemkin often indicated that reading Tolstoy in his youth had affected him deeply. He commented, "Tolstoy taught me to live an idea." And living an idea, is what Raphael Lemkin undertook to the fullest extent.