Crimes against Humanity: Genealogy of a Concept, 1815-1945

Prof. Peter Holquist giving his lecture

Prof. Peter Holquist giving his New Directions lecture

On February 5, 2015, Peter Holquist (Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania) gave a fascinating lecture entitled “Crimes against Humanity: Genealogy of a Concept, 1815-1945” for REEEC’s New Directions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasian Studies lecture series. Prior to his arrival at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, Professor Holquist taught at Cornell University. He founded and currently serves as the editor of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, and he wrote the book Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921.

Professor Holquist traced the history of the term “crimes against humanity” and highlighted Russia’s involvement in its introduction. His lecture began by discussing an Allied note issued in 1915 to the Ottoman Empire regarding the Armenian genocide. This note focused on holding members of the Ottoman government responsible for the atrocities. Importantly, it introduced the term for the first time as “a penal concept.”

Professor Holquist divided his lecture into three sections. First, he discussed how the term “crimes against humanity” had roots in the nineteenth century and how Russia played a significant role in its establishment. In particular, Professor Holquist discussed how the second half of this century witnessed the development of important war codes. Through Russian involvement, acts of war moved to the realm of “treaty law.” Professor Holquist mentioned the 1868 Petersburg Declaration, which outlawed exploding bullets in warfare due to the notion of “legitimate violence” and the concept that one “can’t violate the laws of humanity.” Additionally, Russia organized the Brussels Conference of 1874, which implemented major war laws. Professor Holquist examined how Russia proved highly influential at this conference in creating these laws. Furthermore, he explained that in the nineteenth century, Russia disagreed with the Ottoman Empire over “humanitarian intervention,” declaring that it had the right to “protect certain groups.”

In the second part of his lecture, Professor Holquist examined the history and construction of the 1915 Allied note. Relative to the other allied powers, Russia stood in a different position. The Russians received first-hand accounts of the atrocities committed against the Armenians. As a result, Russia played a significant role in drafting this note by their knowledge. Professor Holquist cited the Russian foreign minister as an instrumental figure in establishing the charges against the Ottomans. Next, Professor Holquist looked at the Paris Peace Conference and how the term “crimes against humanity” was applied. He described how a Commission sought to investigate “offenses of the Central Powers” during the war. Britain and France were using the terminology “crimes against humanity” and “violation of the laws of humanity” at this time. He noted that an important issue was “how to charge a government for the massacre of its own people.” I found it interesting that the United States blocked the Commission’s actions as they “opposed” the application of the concept to “international law in a penal sense.”

In the third part of his lecture, Professor Holquist examined how the term “crimes against humanity” was used after World War I and during World War II. 1919 was the year when the term began to “take off.” Yet, it was amazing to see how much the opposition from the United States impacted the treaty process. As Professor Holquist mentioned, the United States was against an internal high court and also against the notion of “violation of the laws of humanity.” Therefore, the peace treaties only utilized the term “violations of the laws of war,” which had tremendous implications. Professor Holquist explained that a government could not face charges for “massacring its own people.” Above all, he stressed that the “legal order” after World War II was deeply connected to past history. He discussed how this was exemplified during the Nuremburg Trials, which referred to previous notions of and use of the term. In contrast to 1919, Professor Holquist noted that the U.S. delegation now believed that heads of state should be put on trial and a high tribunal was necessary. At this point, the French were instrumental in applying the term “crimes against humanity.” They explicitly referred to a “tradition of intervention in defending minorities,” echoed in the words of the British Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials when he stated that the term was “extending a practice.”

I found this lecture exceptionally informative. I was unaware of the complicated history that the term “crimes against humanity” had and how long it took to be cemented into law. Furthermore, I did not know that Russian statesmen worked so tirelessly to promote the humanitarian practice of war during the nineteenth century and that the history of the term is heavily based on their accomplishments. Professor Holquist effectively linked the Nuremburg Trials with legislation and events from past history, and I now understand that these trials were significantly shaped by that history.

Ryan Eavenson is a MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  He is particularly interested in communist development in Eastern Europe.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history, Czech history, and Russian and Czech language.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After graduation, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs and then continue his education.

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