11 Apr 2019

Text & Translation: Corinna

#Situation coloniale

In science, especially in the field of genocide studies, there is an intense discussion as to whether the crimes committed in the course of colonialism fall under the concept of genocide. The ‘situation coloniale’ in (but not just) Africa was marked above all by massacres, deportations, oppression and forced labour, as well as the destruction of soil, livelihood and cultural and social institutions of indigenous people. The violent crimes against the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa (known as Namibia) as well as the Aborigines in Australia and the indigenous peoples in North America are mostly classified as genocide.[1]

Picture: creative commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Africa1898.png

But why is the concept of genocide so difficult to understand and why is there a difference between mass murder and genocide? Isn’t this just a glossary of terms? Genocide is the worst of all crimes, so it shouldn’t be used inflationary or for political purposes. Sociologist Helen Fein warned against a ‘wave of abuse and rhetorical abuse’ of the term. The result would be a comparative trivialisation of serious historical crimes, which is unethical and immoral towards the victims.[2]

#The concept of genocide

#General opinion

Which concept of genocide does one take as a basis if one wants to take a closer look at European colonialism in Africa? The general and political understanding of genocide is mostly based on the Holocaust: mass violence, concentration camps and the immediate, total and violent extermination of the victim group(s). If one follows this view, the ‘situation coloniale’ in Africa does not constitute genocide, because the European conquerors were dependent on the labour of the indigenous people and therefore not interested in exterminating them completely. This argumentation is used by many politicians and lawyers to avert reparation demands and not to create precedents.[3] But this view is too general and incorrect, so it is worth taking a look at the UN Genocide Convention.


#Genocide Convention

According to Article 2 of the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, genocide means:

[…] any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The definition does not require the complete physical extermination of a group, but is still not sufficient to analyse colonial mass violence in Africa, because the original definition of ‘genocide’ (genos = race / caedere = kill) contains further elements, and these should be considered in the colonialism debate.

#The genocide concept of Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin, originator of the concept of genocide, refers in his definition of genocide to eight dimensions: the political, social, cultural, economic, biological, physical, religious and moral destruction of a group. The aspects of physical, biological and cultural destruction received the most attention by the international community. Social and cultural destruction pursues the elimination of all institutions and characteristics of a group. This goal is often achieved by banning traditional practices as well as art, literature and music, eliminating the native language, destroying religious institutions and attacking the intellectual elite of the group concerned.[4]

European colonialism in Africa has all these characteristics. According to Lemkin’s definition, the ‘situation coloniale’ was not only violent, but genocidal by nature.

The first drafts of the UN Genocide Convention also contained cultural genocide as a criminal offence, but after lengthy discussions it was deleted. Some countries, such as the USA, France, South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand or Brazil, were afraid that a cultural protective element could be used by minorities as a political weapon and counteract natural assimilation.[5]

As a compromise, the UN Convention not only covers the act of killing, but also recognises the infliction of systematic physical and psychological harm, the transfer of children to another group and the prevention of births as characteristics of genocide.[6]

Photo: Dierk Schäfer/www.flickr.com/creative commons

#Colonial Genocide and Indigenocide

Historians dealing with colonialism have looked at alternative concepts of genocide. For example, the term ‘colonial genocide’ was created and also used several times in literature, but this term lacks clear defining features.[7] The term ‘indigenocide’ by Raymond Evans, which has five distinct defining features, is coherent. Accordingly, the perpetrators must 1) intentionally invade the land in order to colonize the indigenous people there; 2) the invaders must exercise power over the land and the indigenous people; 3) kill a large number of indigenous people or deprive them of their livelihood to the extent that they come close to extinction and 4) destroy their indigenous belief and life systems. Furthermore, the perpetrators must 5) regard the victims as the ‘lowest form of humanity’, who virtually deserve to be exterminated. Overall, the natives are of less value to the invaders than the land they live on.[8]

The problem with both definitions is that they suggest an image according to which genocide in Africa under colonial rule and genocide in Europe are fundamentally different. This is not only unethical, but also unhelpful in the debate and, last but not least, unnecessary when one recalls Raphael Lemkin’s original definition.[9]

#European colonialism in Africa and the question of intention

The European Colonialists invaded Africa to exploit the continent’s natural resources and bring ‘progress and development’ to the indigenous peoples. However, this project was mostly accompanied by exploitation, forced labour, terror, violence, murder and the destruction of traditional social and political structures, which are essential elements of indigenous cultures.

Violence and the spread of diseases, as well as the loss of habitat, culture and identity, have in almost all cases led to mass death and the destruction of indigenous populations, but this type of violence does not fall within the concept of genocide in the sense of the UN Genocide Convention, because it was (mostly) not the intention of the settlers to exterminate all or part of the indigenous peoples. It was partly accepted, but in fact, the European invaders needed the indigenous community as labour, because there were not enough emigrants to replace the workers.  

Photo: Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The so-called ‘dark continent’ was not attractive enough for most Europeans and Asians. Thus, the colonial rulers mainly wanted control over land and workers, but used massive violence to force independent indigenous workers into a system of capitalism. Social, political and religious structures were deliberately destroyed to gain control over the workers. The individual tribal identity was deliberately destroyed to transform the African society into a proletariat.[10] Although the African society was not physically exterminated in this way, much of it was destroyed, and this constitutes at least cultural genocide.


The current official definition of genocide in Article 2 of the UN Genocide Convention is considered insufficient by many historians and social scientists who deal with mass violence in the course of colonialism. According to this definition, the cruel crimes of the colonial era do not fall under the concept of genocide, even though Raphael Lemkin regarded these crimes as genocide. 


# Sautman, B. (2006) ‘Colonialism, Genocide and Tibet” in Asian Ethnicity. Volume 7, No. 3, p. 243 – 265

# Schaller, D. J. (2008) ‘Colonialism and genocide – Raphael Lemkin’s concept of genocide and its application to european rule in Africa” in Development dialogue. Revisiting the heart of darkness – Explorations into genocide and other forms of mass violence. No. 50, pp. 75-94

# Nersessian, D. (2005) ‘Rethinking cultural genocide under international law. Human Rights Dialogue: Cultural rights’. Available at: https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/archive/dialogue/2_12/section_1/5139.html/:pf_printable (Accessed: 23.12.2015)

# Docker, J. (2004) ‘Raphael Lemkin’s History of genocide and colonialism”. Paper for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies , Washington DC, 26. Februar 2004 Available at: https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20040316-docker-lemkin.pdf (Accessed 14.12.2106)

# Wolfe, P. (2006) ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’. Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(4), December, pp.387-409

[1] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 77/ 78
[2] Sautman, B. (2006) S. 243
[3] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 77/ 78
[4]Nersessian, D. (2005)
[5] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 79/ 80
[6]Nersessian, D. (2005)
[7] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 82
[8] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 82
[9] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 83
[10] Schaller, D. J. (2008) S. 80-85


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