Exploring Raphael Lemkin's Actions: The Invention of the Word "Genocide" | Facing History & Ourselves
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A photograph of several delegates who signed the UN Genocide Convention  Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of United Nations

Exploring Raphael Lemkin's Actions: The Invention of the Word "Genocide"

Students learn about the challenges Lemkin faced from the international legal community, including its lack of sufficient language to talk about crimes against humanity and civilization.


One 50-min class period


  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

This lesson focuses on how Lemkin turned his moral outrage into action. Upon learning about the trial of Tehlirian, Lemkin became educated about international law. Following Lemkin's path, students will explore the concept of sovereignty that made it difficult to prosecute perpetrators of genocide. Lemkin was also frustrated by the fact that people, including politicians such as Winston Churchill, did not have sufficient language to represent horrible crimes against humanity and civilization. Indeed, Churchill referred to Nazi atrocities as a "crime without a name." Lemkin took it upon himself to invent a new word-genocide-to represent acts committed with the intent to destroy a group of people. 

In this lesson, students will begin to understand Lemkin's notion of what genocide is, as they also consider their own definitions of crimes against humanity and civilization.

  • What is sovereignty? How should it apply when dealing with crimes against humanity?
  • What is genocide?
  • In what ways can language be powerful? To what extent can language limit or provoke action?
  • How can you turn moral outrage into action?

Students will:

  • Understand the concept of sovereignty as it applies to international law in general, and crimes against humanity in particular;
  • Consider the power of language and why Lemkin felt the need to invent a new word to describe crimes against humanity;
  • Understand what Lemkin meant by the term genocide.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 3 readings
  • 4 assessments

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Lesson Plan

Activity 1

This lesson assumes students have prior knowledge about the crimes the Ottoman Empire committed against its Armenian citizens. This material was explored in Lesson 1. If students have not experienced Lesson 1, you might begin this lesson by first asking students to locate Turkey and Armenia on a map, and you can explain that these territories, among others, were once governed by the Ottoman Empire. Students should understand that the Turks were the ruling majority of the Ottoman Empire and that the Armenians were a religious and national minority living within the Ottoman Empire.

Have students read the second half of the reading, "Sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions" (after the asterisks). Or, you can assign this text for homework. 

Before reading, you might ask students to think about the questions: Should another country (i.e. France, Saudi Arabia, China) be allowed to influence what happens in the United States? If so, when? Explain that students will be reading about a man named Raphael Lemkin that was confronted with a similar question back in 1921. 

As students read, you might have them answer the following comprehension questions:

  1. Who was Raphael Lemkin? What angered him?
  2. What did the law professor mean when he used the metaphor, "Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing"? Do you agree with this statement? How does it relate to the idea of sovereignty?
  3. According to this reading, after World War I Talaat and other Turkish leaders were found guilty of mass murder in Turkish criminal court and they were sentenced to death. If this is the case, then why was Talaat living comfortably in Germany in 1921?
  4. What is the ideal of sovereignty according to Lemkin's law professor? Provide an example of this concept as it applies to the real world.
  5. What problem does Lemkin have with his professor's ideal of sovereignty?
  6. In the final paragraph of the reading, Lemkin refers to an illness and medicine. What is the "illness"? What does he think could be the "medicine" that might cure this illness?

Review the comprehension questions from Activity 1 with students. To connect material in Lesson 1 to this lesson, you might ask students to discuss what they think the Allies meant when they wrote in their declaration to the Ottoman Empire, "the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime-Porte that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres." To what extent did the Allies have the ability to follow through on this threat?

Students will do a barometer activity to help them understand the notion of sovereignty in international law. Post two signs in the room. On one side of the room, the sign should read "national sovereignty" on the other side of the room, the sign should read "foreign intervention". Explain to students that you will give them a scenario and that they should stand closest to the side of the room that best represents their opinion about how the situation should be handled. To promote deeper critical thinking, you might encourage students not to stand in the center of the room, but to stand at least a bit toward one side or the other. Once students are in their spots, you can ask them to explain their placement decision. Some teachers allow students to move their position if they hear something that causes them to change their opinion.

For a practice round, you can start with the chicken/farmer metaphor used in the reading.

Situation: A farmer owns a flock of chickens. He kills them. If students believe the farmer has the right to kill his chickens, they should stand on the side of the room that says "sovereignty". If they believe that someone should intervene to protect the chickens, they should stand on the side that reads "intervention". You might make this more complicated by asking students: What if you knew the farmer was killing chickens in a particularly gruesome manner? Would that change where you are standing?

Below are situations you might use for subsequent rounds. All of these represent historical examples of situations when national sovereignty has been called into question. If you have limited time, just use the situation "crimes against humanity and civilization" because this is the one most relevant to the case study of Raphael Lemkin. When you ask students to explain where they are standing, ask them to explain how they defined "crimes against humanity and civilization." This will segue to the next activity.

Situations for Barometer Activity

  1. Slavery: Should the international community intervene if a nation is using people as slaves, or does a nation have the right to decide policies regarding slavery?
  2. Mistreatment of prisoners of war: Should the international community intervene if a nation is mistreating prisoners of war, or do nations have the right to treat prisoners as they see fit?
  3. Terrorism: Should the international community intervene if a nation is harboring terrorists or do nations have the right to decide how to handle terrorists?
  4. Crimes against humanity and civilization: Should the international community intervene if they think another nation is committing crimes against humanity and civilization?

To debrief this activity (or as an assessment task), you might ask students to reflect in their journals on the question: Under what circumstances should nations be able to intervene in the affairs of another nation? Under what circumstances should a nation lose its sovereignty?

In this next activity, students will go through a process similar to that which Lemkin went through when he coined the term genocide. In groups, ask students to come up with a list of acts that they think constitute crimes against humanity and civilization. 

Then, have groups suggest a word to represent this list-a word that could be used in place of the phrase crimes against humanity and civilization. You can have groups write their lists and names for them on poster board in order to share with the class. 

After groups have shared their work, students can discuss the following questions:

  1. What did you notice about how groups defined crimes against humanity and civilization? What were the similarities? What were the differences?
  2. Compare the different words students chose to represent their lists. How might different words evoke different responses or interpretations?
  3. Does it matter if people have different definitions of what crimes against humanity and civilization are? Is it possible to punish people for committing a crime that does not have a single definition?
  4. Raphael Lemkin thought it was necessary to define what crimes against humanity and civilization meant and to invent a new word to represent this definition. Why might he think this was important work to do? Do you agree?

Students can apply what they have learned to the case study of Raphael Lemkin. Explain that in defining crimes against humanity and civilization and coming up with a word to represent this definition they are grappling with the same questions that challenged Raphael Lemkin in the years before and after World War II. The readings, “Crimes Against Individuals as Members of a Larger Group” and ““A crime without a name”” in Totally Unofficial: Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention, explore this material. You can have students read them or you can summarize the key ideas for them. Some important material to highlight includes the following:

  1. Lemkin himself had to flee Europe to protect himself against persecution by the Nazis. Indeed, most of his family were victims of the Holocaust. Lemkin's outrage against crimes against humanity and civilization began in the 1920s, well before the Nazis had power in Germany, and over a decade before the concentration and death camps came into existence. How do you think Lemkin was influenced by his historical context? How might his identity as a Polish Jew have played a role in his struggle to prevent future crimes against humanity and civilization?
  2. In 1941 Winston Churchill told listeners to a radio broadcast "whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands-literally scores of thousands-of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German police troops..." Then he said, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name." How might these words have influenced Lemkin? What are the implications when a crime remains nameless?

Pass out Excerpt from Axis Rule in Occupied Europe by Raphael Lemkin. Focus on the first paragraph and in groups or pairs, ask students to read the paragraph, highlighting important terms and phrases. Then ask them to rewrite the paragraph in their own words. Or, you might ask students to write a dictionary definition of genocide based on the ideas in this paragraph. Students can share their summaries or definitions with the class. You can also have students compare the word genocide to the terms they used earlier to label crimes against humanity and civilization.

After coining the term genocide, Lemkin drafted a law to prevent and punish this crime. In the next lesson, students will learn more about the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. For now, share with students the definition of genocide as it appears in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Ask them to compare Lemkin's original definition to this one. 

Another reading of the case study, “Negotiating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” explains compromises Lemkin made in order to have the United Nations adopt the Genocide Convention, such as omitting political groups from protection under Article II of the treaty. This final activity could also be given for homework.


Scholars, lawyers, and government officials have argued that the United Nations definition of genocide should be revised. Allan Ryan exemplifies this attempt to improve the current legal definition. You might ask students to take on the challenge of improving the definition of genocide by drawing on their understanding of the United Nations definition from Article II, Lemkin's original definition of genocide, and their own definition of crimes against humanity and civilization.

Students can write an essay or journal entry on the following: Language has the power to shape action. How do you think Lemkin might respond to this phrase? Use evidence from class and the case study to defend your answer. Do you agree with Lemkin? Why or why not? Can you think of examples of powerful language from your own life? Consider political slogans, advertisements, and brand names.

Students can define the following terms in their own words: genocide, sovereignty, and crimes against humanity and civilization. Or, you might have students represent these terms visually-in a drawing or sculpture. Students can write short artist's statements explaining their work.

Lemkin had to persuade many people, such as diplomats, scholars, and government officials, to accept the legal concept of genocide. What might he have said to convince people that the law was necessary? Draft a speech he might have given or a dialogue that might have taken place between Lemkin and a United States senator.

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