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Comparing the features of genocides and other instances of mass killing provides a way to identify what makes a mass killing a genocide. The features that are evident in an historical comparison of genocides are different than the features defined in the UN Genocide Convention.

What exactly is genocide? When does a violent conflict become a genocide? What are the processes that make genocide possible?

One way to approach these questions is to compare the features and contours of genocides. What do they have in common? Even though all genocides look different to some degree, are there any characteristics they share?

This is a different exercise than analyzing the legal definition of genocide contained in the UN Genocide Convention. Critics complain that the Genocide Convention is not always sufficient to identify genocides when they are on the way or even in process. In order to better be able to identify genocides, we need to look at genocides from a comparative perspective and identify common elements.

Historian Mark Levene compares the features of the three events most widely described as genocides: the Holocaust (or Shoah), the Armenian genocide and the Rwandan genocide. His goal is to identify what they have in common. Additionally, Levene compares these three genocides with two cases of mass killing that are less commonly thought of as genocides. Adding these two cases, even if one doesn't consider them genocides under the Genocide Convention, provides information helpful in understanding genocides.

Comparing Genocides

The Holocaust (Shoah)

The Armenian Genocide

The Rwandan Genocide

Soviet Liquidation of Kulaks

Khmer Killing of “Vietnamese Minds”


1941-45, continuous throughout the time period.

1915-16, eighteen months of near continuous killing.

April-early July 1994.


Summer 1978 to January 1979.

Geographical Range

Across Europe in areas under direct or indirect Nazi control. Most intense in Poland and the Western USSR where there were large concentrations of Jews.

Areas of Armenian population concentration in eastern Anatolia and southwards into the Syrian desert.

All areas of central and southern Rwanda under control of the Hutu regime.

Throughout the USSR.

The Eastern Zone of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Organizer of Genocide

Nazi German leadership, including the SS and other bodies in the German state, headed by Adolph Hitler. German satellite and puppet states also contributed to organizing the genocide.

An inner committee of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in the governing regime. Helped by a limited number of other key officials in the Ottoman state.

New Hutu regime including elements of the previous MRND government. Other party leaders, senior military leaders and a palace clique.

The Communist Politburo, dominated by Stalin.

The central leadership of the Khmer Rouge regime, lead by Pol Pot.


Though the genocide was spearheaded by specially designated SS units, the genocide was carried out by military, para-military and technical and administrative staff from all levels of German society. Special operatives were also recruited from subject populations.

Military and para-military forces of the state as well as auxiliaries from other Ottoman populations like Kurdish tribes.

The Presidential Guard, the Rwandan army and police, and people from all sections of the Hutu population.

The secret police (the OGPU), army, police, militias and specially enrolled Communist party cadres, aided by local party activists (including poor peasants).

Party organized army and cadres from zones neighboring the Eastern Zone.

Targeted Population as Defined by Genocide Organizers

All Jews, including children from Jew-Gentile marriages, converts to Christianity and non-religious Jews. Jews were supposedly identifiable by physiological characteristics and mental traits.

Armenian religious and political collectivity.

Tutsi were characterized as a racially alien population from another part of Africa. Anyone who was identified as Tutsi by identity cards, who looked Tutsi or were suspected of trying to protect Tutsi were targeted.

There were no clear definitional boundaries. Independent peasant proprietors—called “kulaks” (meaning “tight fisted”) were identified as the targets, but in practice anyone who was opposed to the government's policy of collectivization was targeted.

Ethnic Khmer who had supposedly been contaminated with “foreign” elements and thinking. “Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds.”

Targeted Population Self-Defined Status

There was no universally agreed upon definition of Jewishness. Diaspora Jews used different combinations of religion, ethnicity, nationality, race and other criteria to define their Jewishness. Central European Jews were more likely to identify themselves with their country of birth, assimilate and intermarry with non-Jews. More traditional Jews in eastern Europe tended to retain linguistic and cultural separateness.

A native, linguistically and religiously distinct population. A growing sense of nationhood created links to Armenian populations across the Russian border and in the diaspora.

Unclear. Tutsi were identified as distinct under Belgian colonial rule along the lines of caste, lineage and wealth. Tutsi and Hutu share a common language and culture and intermarriage is common.

There was no such self-definition. Broadly, those targeted were part of interrelated peasant households and communities.

No such self-definition. Eastern Zone people were normally part of indigenous, mostly peasant communities or populations recently deported to this zone.

Targeted Population Status as Defined in Laws

Following the Nazi Reich Citizenship (Nuremberg) Law of 1935, Jews and half-Jews were denied citizenship (they were citizens before this time). Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe were forced to wear a yellow star beginning in November 1939.

Armenians were entitled to full Ottoman citizenship alongside other national groups. Historically one of two tolerated but inferior self-governing Christian groups within the Ottoman Empire.

Tutsis had full Rwandan citizenship but were ethnically identified by a universal identity card system introduced under Belgian colonial rule and maintained by Hutu controlled governments.

Technically, all were citizens of the USSR until they were branded as kulaks when they became liable to disenfranchisement and punishment.

Not applicable. The targeted population included both “new people” who had been living in the area controlled by the preceding regime as well as “base people” who had been living in Khmer Rouge territory prior to the 1975 civil war period.

Warning Signs (Genocidal Process)

Openly anti-semitic Nazi regime comes to power in 1933. Economic and civil disenfranchisement, segregation, physical assaults grow until country-wide Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938. After Poland is liquidated in September 1939 the anti-Jewish activity is ratcheted up with various programs to remove Jews from Nazi-occupied territories. Conscious starvation and hyperexploitation, massacres and executions become commonplace. Evidence appears in 1941 of a systematic program of extermination.

Violence against Armenians in the eastern regions by Kurdish tribes went unpunished by the Ottoman state. Ottoman state increasingly responded violently to Armenian revolutionary groups. Extensive state sponsored massacres in 1894-6. CUP coup in 1908 lead to further massacres. CUP became more stridently nationalistic (Turkish) and entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914 and the situation with the Armenians worsened. By 1915 eastern Anatolia was reduced to a largely lawless zone.

Many Tutsis fled to neighboring Uganda and Burundi following the fall of Belgian colonial rule (which supported Tutsi dominance) between 1959 and 1962. Tutsis who remained were removed from office and subject to sporadic violence from the government (often in response to Tutsi violence against Hutus in Burundi). In 1990 the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded northern Rwanda from Uganda when the country was already in economic crisis. The RPF invasion had already dislocated as many as 1 million people.

The former New Economic Policy was repudiated (where peasants could sell grain on the open market) in favor of direct and violent seizure of grain in 1928-29. This opened the way to a Five Year Plan to create a total command economy with fast paced industrialization and forced collectivization of peasants.

Mass death had been symptomatic both before and after the 1975 civil war. The Khmer Rouge held to the belief of a mythic Khmer race-nation that had fallen from greatness due to the encroachment of foreign influences. The regime sealed off borders to the outside world and emptied towns to put everyone to work in the countryside. Bad rice harvests brought about mass starvation which the regime used as an excuse for more executions. The drive for racial purification began to focus on the Eastern Zone bordering Vietnam. Relations between the countries deteriorated as did the regime's relations with the Eastern Zone.

Trigger or Immediate Catalyst

No scholarly consensus. Triggers either built up of followed the initial success of Operation Barbarossa (Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941).

Several events between April 20-25 1915. Anglo-French troops landed at Gallipoli at the same time that Armenians in Van mounted an armed insurrection. Turkish interior minister, Talaat Pasha authorized mass deportation of Armenians into the Syrian desert.

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Habyarimana's plane was shot down. Hutu elements hostile to an internationally brokered accord with the RPF seized power and began a preplanned program to eliminate internal opposition.

On December 27, 1929 Stalin announced in the Party newspaper, Pravda, the regime's intention to liquidate the kulak class.

Arrest and execution of leading Eastern Zone cadres in May 1978. This sparked an insurrection in the Eastern Zone.

Wider Context

Escalation of Type I war with Western powers (1939) to a life-and-death struggle in Type II war with USSR (1941). War with USA begins.

Life and death struggle of Ottoman empire to survive. CUP attempting to transform the country to a modern “national” state within total war conditions.

The RPF had cancelled a ceasefire and resumed advancing on Kigali. Hutus feared not only losing the control they had gained in the 1959 revolution, but also feared that they would face the same anti-Hutu violence they had seen in Tutsi controlled Burundi. The UN made no serious effort to stop the violence.

Because the 1917 revolution had not brought the hoped for world Communist revolution, the USSR found itself in competition with Western advanced capitalist economies. Stalin and other Party leaders believed that they needed an accelerated program of economic change.

Cambodia had already been destabilized as a result American bombing in the early 1970s. This opened the way for the total social revolution envisioned by the Khmer Rouge.

Nature of Genocide

Repeated military-style massacres up till summer/autumn of 1941 when specially created killing plants (incorporating gas chambers) were used. Starvation, on-going massacres and death through hyperexploitation continued as adjuncts.

Repeated massacres of whole communities in eastern Anatolia. Most able bodied Armenian soldiers were killed simultaneously in their army units. The remaining population was subject to death marches into desert camps where many more were killed.

Initial liquidation of opponents to Hutu power gave way to a grass-roots killing spree which included murder at roadblocks with machetes and blunt objects. Participants often violated, disemboweled and murdered neighbors, friends and fellow church-goers.

The initial focus was on 60,000 of the “most dangerous” kulaks, and these were executed outright. The fate of the family was generally the same. Deportation of families to distant settlement camps via cattle cars was responsible for huge mortality numbers—especially among children. There was a later bout of mass executions of kulaks in camps in the “Great Purges” of 1937.

Troops from the South-West Zone carried out repeated massacres (often of entire villages) in the Eastern Zone. Tens of thousands of survivors were marked for liquidation (with blue scarves) and deported.

Organizer-Perpetrator Defense/Rationalization

The Final Solution was the remedy for an international Jewish conspiracy (sic.) that was responsible for Germany's defeat and humiliation in 1918. The conspiracy operated through many avenues (economic, political, biological, etc.) and so only their complete annihilation would keep them from destroying Germany.

Armenian revolutionary aims were already evident. Actual or projected general Armenian uprising in favor of a Russian or Allied invasion. The CUP argued that extermination was not the goal of forced deportation, but was rather to remove Armenians from the eastern theater of war.

Rwandan Tutsi could not be trusted. They had attempted an invasion from Burundi in 1960 and if the RPF took Rwanda then the Hutu expected to see the kind of anti-Hutu massacres they saw in Burundi. The Hutu had to strike Rwandan Tutsi before they became victims themselves.

Collectivization of the countryside in the interests of the Soviet state could not take place without removing class enemies and counter-revolutionaries. The alleged goal, however, was removal and not extermination.

The Eastern Zone cadres were plotting against the central government and in league with the Vietnamese. The Eastern Zone was collectively tainted by its proximity to Vietnam.

Target Population Actual Danger to State


Debatable. Armenian groups had carried out terrorist attacks against the previous regime and could pose a threat by supporting Allied or Russian forces in eastern Anatolia. However, much Armenian resistance appears to have been localized, desperate and reactive in the face of liquidation.

The RPF was a threat to the Rwandan Hutu government. However, the RPF was primarily an exile organization and had little connection to Tutsis in Rwanda. The ability of Rwandan Tutsi to stage an insurrection was negligible to the point of non-existence.

Resistance was reactive. Peasants opposed collectivization, but resistance was not organized. It is debatable whether this class of people posed any real threat to the central government.

There may have been planned insurrections by the Eastern Zone cadres. The central regime's actions worked as a self-fulfilling prophesy as it galvanized a Vietnamese invasion. Blanket ascription of guilt to the entire population of the Eastern Zone was paranoia.


None. Rare sparing of children of mixed marriages based on special orders from Hitler.

Many young women and children escaped killing through forced conversion to Islam and reduced to slaves and/or property. Most Armenians in metropolitan communities like Constantinople or Smyrna escaped killing.

A few prominent genocide organizers were Tutsi by birth and were not killed. Hutu husbands sometimes tried to save their Tutsi wives.

Kulaks who did not resist deportation were to be spared their lives. In practice, these guidelines were rarely adhered to. In later years, kulaks who survived deportation and labor camps, especially children, were released.

Not reported.

Other Related Killings

“Mercy killings” of mental institution and sanatoria inmates (1939). Massacres, deportation and hyperexploitation decimated wide swaths of Polish, Ukrainian and Slavic populations. Roma (gypsies) were exterminated alongside Jews.

Smaller sectarian Christian communities in eastern Anatolia (the Nestorians) were also targeted.

Hutu who were opposed to Hutu power or were willing to protect Tutsi were also killed. Members of a smaller minority group (the Twa) were also killed.

Man-made famine and specific assaults on whole regions (like Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the North Caucasus) were part of the campaign. These continued alongside the purges of 1937-39.

Wide swaths of ethnic Khmer as well as ethnic minority groups like Vietnamese, Chinese and Muslim Cham.

Termination of Genocide

Ended only with the absolute defeat of Germany by the Allies in May 1945. Jewish extermination continued until the very end of the war.

From late 1916 as Armenian society and culture in eastern Anatolia were destroyed.

Genocide in the south stopped with the invasion of French troops in June. The genocide came to a full stop when the RPF won a complete military victory over their Hutu power adversaries. Some 2 million Hutu fled to neighboring Zaire.

By 1933 the “dekulakization” of the countryside was complete.

In January 1979 when Democratic Kampuchea was liquidated by the Vietnamese military.

Estimated Deaths

Estimated between five and six million—72% of the Jewish population of countries under Nazi control.

Of the estimated 2 million pre-war Ottoman Armenian population, 800,000 to 1 million were estimated to have been killed.

Between 500,000 and 800,000 primarily Tutsi, out of a total Rwandan population of about 8 million.

We do not know for sure. Estimates range from 30,000 people executed outright to 1.5 million by the end of the first campaign in 1930 rising to 3.5 million in 1933. Millions more perished as a result of deportation to the Gulag and other settlement camps.

It is estimated that over 1.6 million (or 21% of Cambodia's total population) died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 100,000 and 250,000 came from the Eastern Zone's population. Most died of starvation, disease and execution.

What Do They Have in Common?

Levene finds eight features shared by the three genocides.

  1. In each case we see a government or regime in control of the state that is committed to eliminating one or more groups for political purposes. In each case, the regime had the resources and logistical capacity to carry out direct physical extermination.
  2. There was no real threat of outside interference in these cases,
  3. The government or regime believed it was in extreme danger and that crisis was looming,
  4. The killing was extended over time and did not happen in one or a few episodes of mass murder,
  5. Victims were killed regardless of gender or age,
  6. The killing was spearheaded by the military and para-military organized by the state. Other elements of the dominant population participated.
  7. The victim groups were in no position to protect themselves or fight back. They had no way to halt or impede the killing.
  8. The government or regime had a palpable sense that the targeted group was a present and future threat to the state or dominant society regardless of whether the victim group was a cohesive or even coherent unity.

The two other instances of mass killing make clear one more common feature:

  1. The targeted group was identified based on the perpetrator's perception of reality, not on any sort of essential feature of the targeted group.

How Does This Square with the Genocide Convention?

When we come at understanding genocide this way, we see some notable contrasts to the UN Genocide Convention.

First, the state or regime is the prime organizer of the genocide. The state does not appear in the Genocide Convention. This only makes sense. The Genocide Convention is a United Nations treaty and the United Nations is, after all, an organization of states. The notion of exactly what constitutes a state can be mushy in some circumstances (e.g., during a regime change) and it is not clear that the organization of the genocide needs to come from the very center of the state. However, it clear from these instances that states are involved in the conception, organization and execution of genocide.

Second, there is a paradox inherent in these common features. The state or regime believes it is extreme danger and that the way out of the danger is to destroy the targeted group or groups. The problem is, genocide can only occur when the targeted group cannot defend itself. If the targeted group was a serious physical threat to the state, then they would have the wherewithal to fight back—in which case genocide probably would not be possible. Whether the state is truly in any serious danger—and if genocide is really possible there is probably no real danger—the point is that leaders believe in the threat.

Third, because the state believes it is in danger it will justify the killings as a matter of self defense. Whether or not there is any basis in reality, the state believes that with respect to the current crisis or opportunity, the targeted group represents a threat. The life of the state, so the argument and thinking may go, is at stake. The only solution is the extermination of the group that poses the threat.

Fourth, the way that the perpetrators define the “dangerous” group or groups may be quite different than the way the group defines itself. In all cases, what it meant to be a Jew, Armenian or Tutsi were more fluid in reality than in the minds of the perpetrators. This points up a problem in the Genocide Convention. Where the Convention restricts the definition of genocide to “stable, permanent groups whose membership is determined by birth,” reality shows that these groups were neither stable nor permanent. More traditional Jews in eastern Europe may have questioned the Jewishness of assimilated Jews in mixed marriages in central Europe. Nazi did not. All you needed to do was look like a Tutsi to get hacked down by a machete in Rwanda. And this is the point. It is the perpetrator and not the victim or bystander that defines the targeted group. In fact, the perpetrator may define a group as an organic collectivity in spite of itself.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Analysis of primary and secondary historical sources.

Funding Sources:

  • The Nuffield Foundation,
  • The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation,
  • The British Academy.
Full Text Availability:
Full text available for purchase at

Levene, Mark. 2005. The Meaning of Genocide. London: I.B. Tauris. Chapter 1, pp. 35-89.

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