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.

From the Great War to the Bloodlands: Rethinking Europe’s History

On November 10, 2014, Timothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University, gave a lecture entitled “From the Great War to the Bloodlands: Rethinking Europe’s History.” Over the past few years, Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) has attracted much attention, positive as well as negative, for his treatment of the mass killings that occurred in parts of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In this lecture, Snyder presented his theory about modern political violence, in which he sought to explain why so many Europeans, both soldiers and civilians, died in extremely violent wars and genocide during the twentieth century. To explain his theory of violence simply, Snyder utilized a comparative approach that explored contrasting concepts such as colonization and decolonization, integration and disintegration, expansion and oppression, and nationalism and empire.

Prof. Timothy Snyder giving his Millercom Lecture

Prof. Timothy Snyder giving his lecture to a packed auditorium

Professor Snyder began by discussing how the forces of colonization and decolonization interacted in Europe and contributed to the causes of both World Wars. He asserted that the Great War was a prolonged, natural result of decolonization within Europe itself. He explained the different types of European empires that existed before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 – land empires or maritime empires. He described how each of the land empires (Romanov, Hohenzollern, Ottoman, and Habsburg) broke apart during or after the Great War, while the maritime empires (Great Britain, France, and the United States) emerged victorious and helped create the post-World War I boundaries of Europe. The idea of national self-determination had also won the war, and the empires that had crumbled were divided into numerous sovereign nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Snyder explained that these fragile new nations of the Interwar Period, which were mostly located in Eastern Europe, the region he has designated the “bloodlands,” needed protection to develop and remain autonomous nation-states, but the existing maritime empires failed to defend them from outside colonizing forces. In the 1930s, the Great Depression distracted the U.S., England, and France, which meant that no powerful nations were watching out for these smaller, more fragile states. Snyder asserted that this failure contributed greatly to the chaos of the Interwar Period and led directly to the Second World War. Without the victors of the Great War to protect the new sovereign nations’ borders, both Germany and the Soviet Union expanded and colonized these fragile nations. This seizure of the “bloodlands” by outside powers with assertive ideologies and objectives meant that the people who lived in Eastern Europe became susceptible to their new rulers’ desires, even when those desires included mass killings of parts of the local population.

Emily Lipira is a M.A. student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, with a primary focus on Russian history and Russian language. Her research interests include modernity, identity, and culture in early twentieth-century Russia in the decades around the 1917 revolutions. She received a B.A. in history from Northwest Missouri State University in 2008 and a M.A. in Modern European History from Saint Louis University in 2010.

A Minute With…War and Peace Expert John Vasquez on 100th Anniversary of WWI

Along with other departments and area studies centers on campus, REEEC will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. This is a re-posting of an interview published by the U of I News Bureau. To read the original interview, please see


This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I, remembered mostly for its four years of seemingly pointless trench warfare, in which an estimated 10 million died. The spark was an assassination on June 28, 1914, followed a month later by the war itself. Why and how it happened is still debated, in fact more so in recent years, says University of Illinois political science professor John Vasquez, an expert on war and peace and crisis diplomacy. He is a co-editor of the new book The Outbreak of the First World War, and the author of The War Puzzle and other books. He also just finished teaching a month-long course in Austria with U of I students, looking at the causes of the war. Vasquez spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

You describe the lead-up to World War I as one of the most complex cases in history. What has made the cause of the war so difficult to settle?

Prof. John Vasquez

Prof. John Vasquez

Part of the reason is that the First World War had such a psychological impact on the world, and on scholars. We have had consensus at various points in history over why the war was brought about, on some of its factors, but what has happened is that that consensus has broken down. It was always subject to different views on morality and blame and guilt, and we still have that today. The lessons get sketched out before really understanding what was going on. We are only beginning to emerge out of the shadow of that, so we can look at it more objectively.

Probably the most common view among Americans is that Germany was to blame for the First World War, just as it’s blamed for the second. But how and why did that view take hold?

First, the Germans were actually forced to sign this war guilt clause, legally binding them, in the Versailles Treaty, to accepting the blame for the war. Starting even in the 1920s, some scholars began to challenge that.

But the biggest influence in establishing what’s been called the “German paradigm” was a German historian, Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1960s, arguing that Germany was to blame and that its leaders actually sought it out. Only in the last maybe 15-20 years has that view been chipped away. You still can find plenty of historians and plenty of political scientists who accept it, but more and more people are chipping away at it, and I don’t really adhere to it.

So if Germany is not to blame, then who?

My view is that it was not brought about by any single country, though it’s clear there were hardliners in several countries who wanted war. I argue that contagion was very important, and by that I mean a process through which events and decisions built upon each other, with the help of alliances, such that a local war became a continental war and then a world war. The notion of contagion here, in its simplest form, is that if there wasn’t a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, then Germany would not have fought a war with Russia and France.

The “German paradigm” sees German leaders as plotting and looking for an opportunity, whereas the contagion model is saying, no, it’s not like this opportunity fell into their lap. It would not have occurred if this particular incident, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had not occurred.

Was the war inevitable?

My view is that the war could have been avoided, and it could have been avoided at several different important links. The decision-making process was such in that environment, though it might have been primed for war, that slightly different decisions would have prevented the war.

The decision-makers at the time actually didn’t think war would occur. There is much circumstantial evidence for that. The crisis lasts a whole month before war is declared. Many people thought it would be resolved.

One problem is that they wanted to keep the peace by fighting these coercive games in which you go almost to the brink of war. But some of these games, they break down. And this broke down. The notion is like in a chicken game, with two cars coming at each other. Normally both should swerve, and what happens here is that neither side swerves and we have this collision.

How did World War I change our view of war?

It had a huge impact. Before World War I, war was considered a glorious thing. People did not want to avoid it at all costs. The thought was that real men don’t waste their lives making money, real men go into the army and they do their duty and they fight for God and country. But there’s no glory in running into a machine gun.

Modern Greek Studies to screen “Twice a Stranger” documentary

This is a re-posting of an article from the May 7, 2014, issue of The Daily Illini. To view the original article, please see Featured in the article is Dr. Sebnem Ozkan, Outreach Coordinator  at the European Union Center, who is a colleague of REEEC.


Her name was Eleni, and she was just a toddler when she and her siblings fled Turkey barefoot with everything they could carry during the forced migration of the early 1920s.

With her brother at her side, disguised as a girl so the Turks wouldn’t take him, they set off toward boats that were sent to help evacuate her coastline town, Smyrna, and headed to their new life in Greece.

“My grandfather — her husband — was also from there, and he was about 11 when this was happening,” said Hellen McDonald, clinical assistant professor in Social Work. “Her mother dressed him up as a monk so the Turks would not keep him.”

They arrived at Pirea, the main port of Greece and began their new life in a country that saw them as dirty and not Greek. Returning home, where they were also viewed as outsiders, wasn’t an option.

She married at 16 and moved to a makeshift home that the community built for all of the migrants.

“The community built these huge apartment complexes for them and that’s where a lot of the refugees — they don’t like to be called refugees — a lot of the individuals that came from Smyrna settled in,” McDonald said.

She lived in a town called Peristeri until her death in 1999. In English, Peristeri means dove, the symbol for peace.

The Greek-Turkish exchange, German-Polish exchange, Partition of India and Cyprus Crisis are all events of forced migration in the 20th century, when millions of people were forced to leave their homelands, largely never returning.

The documentary “Twice a Stranger” combines video testimonies, rare film archives and photos from survivors to bring their stories to light. The film will be shown by Modern Greek Studies at 6 p.m. on May 8 in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Languages Building.

Dr. Stefanos Katsikas, director of Modern Greek Studies, will begin the screening with a short introduction to provide background on the historical events being highlighted.

“Twice a Stranger” premiered at an exhibition in the Benaki Museum in Athens and was highly successful, Katsikas said. He had to receive permission from the museum to show the documentary, making this the first time it will be screened in the Midwest.

A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over control of the region around Smyrna. The Greek army was granted a mandate after World War I to exercise control of the region for five years followed by a referendum which would determine the future status of the area, Katsikas said.

Greek authorities took advantage of a strong presence of ethnic Greeks in the area. The outcome of the referendum would be in Greece’s favor and the region would become Greek territory. This was not seen favorably by Turks who wanted this region to be part of the Ottoman Empire or any succeeding Turkish nation state.

Greece lost the war, and its troops withdrew, which sparked a negotiation between the two sides over the territorial status of Greece and Turkey, ending the signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty. Part of this treaty was a protocol which provided for the compulsory exchange of populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece. It was believed that a population exchange would guarantee peace and security between the two states.

A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over occupying territory in Turkey. While Greece was granted a mandate after World War I to occupy the region, Greek authorities in Smyrna were working on a five-year referendum that would determine the fate of the same area.

Greece lost the war and its troops were forced to leave, which sparked a negotiation: the two states would exchange populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece.

“In order to be a Greek, you need to speak a Greek language and be Greek-Orthodox. In Turkey, the established view was to be a Turk, you had to speak Turkish but also be a Muslim,” Katsikas said. “This resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the beginning of the 20th century – 1.5 million Greek-Orthodox and half a million Muslims leaving their homelands.”

Katsikas said one of the problems with this was many Muslims couldn’t speak Turkish and many of the Greek-Orthodox couldn’t speak Greek, causing them to be viewed as outcasts.

Today, McDonald’s extended family still lives in the suburbs of Athens. Eleni and her husband were able to move out after buying land and building a new home.

“My grandfather was able to put aside money – he did all sorts of jobs that weren’t originally accepted. They were considered dirty and like not real Greeks,” McDonald said. “They really struggled with assimilating, but through the years, I think they proved them wrong.”

McDonald remembers her grandmother as quiet and not very talkative, but she was strong in her values.

“Now that I’m in social work, I have a better understanding of why,” she said. “It might have been too traumatic to talk about it.”

On the other side of the conflict stood Esma, a Turkish woman who was forced to flee Greece with her five children. The hardships they encountered took the life of one of her twins. Sebnem Ozkan, outreach coordinator at the European Union Center, said her great-grandmother remembered packing all of their belongings and taking the trip to Turkey.

“She always remembered Greece as a nice place,” Ozkan said. “She always talked about her neighbors there, both Turks and Greeks, and she would tell stories about how everybody got along really well, there wasn’t really tension or any fighting … it was the politics and the government who were really messing up things.”

Esma and her family migrated to Sakarya, Turkey, where they ran an olive business to support themselves. Economic hardship after migrating was common because not all belongings could be taken with them, Ozkan said.

The migration didn’t happen in a single day. Political tensions had been brewing and the people knew they would have to leave, but they kept a separate identity, Ozkan said, although that identity has been withering away with each generation.

Like Eleni, Esma and her family also had trouble assimilating and were not welcomed. Even though they spoke Turkish, a difference in customs made them look suspicious. She never returned home but also never expressed the desire to.

“She was still sharp,” Ozkan said. “If somebody told her there were people from this town in Greece from Vodena where she was from, she would insist to go and find them. She was still very committed to her birthplace and she just kept talking about it until she died.”

Esma lived to be more than 100 years old despite facing so many challenges in life, including losing her husband in the war.

“It is quite a lot to deal with, but she never complained,” Ozkan said. “She just thought, ‘This is life,’ and you do the best you can do under the circumstances and you just move forward, stay positive, and I think that was one of the reasons why she lived such a long life.”

Partition of India

As the British left India, the question of whom to transfer power to was imminent. South Asian Muslims worried that if power transferred to the Congress party, there would be a Hindu majoritarian rule, leaving Muslims no say in politics.

“Around 1946, I think the British decided enough is enough,” said Tariq Ali, assistant history professor. “They wanted to cut their losses and run, which meant they needed a quick solution.”

The quickest solution was partition: dividing the country into one Muslim state and one Hindu state.

“This was a solution that no one really liked,” Ali said. “But it’s the solution the British were willing to give.”

Ali said hardly anyone foresaw the enormous violence that would ensue after 20 million people were forced to move. An English lawyer then drew abstract lines on a map and India and Pakistan were born.      When Pakistan gained independence in 1957, the new borders had still not been announced. People celebrated without knowing what country they were in, Ali said.

“What happens is we have Hindus and Sikh militias and Muslim militias going on killing rampages against the other religion,” Ali said. “The death toll was horrific.”

A large number of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have family across borders today and still have memories of the homes they left behind, Ali said.

Nishant Makhijani, senior in Engineering, remembers his grandparents sharing stories from when they were forced to leave Pakistan during the partition.

Once they heard the news, they packed up their belongings and precious metals, mostly gold jewelry, and left.

When they arrived in India, they stayed in refugee camps until his grandfather’s brother found a job as a police inspector in a small town five hours outside of Mumbai.

“They didn’t know that they were leaving Pakistan for good,” Makhijani said. “They didn’t know that they were never going to see their houses again.”

German-Polish migration

During World War II, Germany had the intention of wiping Poland off the map, said history professor Peter Fritzsche.

What was left of Poland was turned into a military region occupied by Germany. Germany pursued three policies: to move in German settlers, to get rid of all the Jews and to move Polish people out.

“There was an ethnic cleansing,” Fritzsche said. “There would not be any German communities left in Eastern Europe, and so whoever didn’t flee in 1945 was basically kicked out in 1945 to 1947.”

Roughly one third of Germans were on the road without a home, but resentment and bitterness remained moderate, Fritzsche said.

“People made new lives,” he said. “Most Germans realized they started World War II, and they didn’t necessarily say they deserved their fate, but they understood their fate.”

While there were some groups that wished to return home, it was not possible, and as more generations were born, that desire vanished. Today, Europe is more homogenous than it was 100 years ago, Fritzsche said.