Mass killing

Last updated

A mass killing, as defined by a genocide scholar Ervin Staub, is "killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership". [1] [nb 1] This term is used by a number of genocide scholars because the term "genocide" (its strict definition) does not cover mass killing events when no specific ethnic or religious group is targeted, and when perpetrators are not intended to eliminate of the whole group or its significant part. This article primarily discusses different models used by genocide scholars to explain and predict the onset of mass killing events.

Ervin Staub is a professor of psychology, emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the founding director of the doctoral program on the psychology of peace and violence. He is most known for his works on helping behavior and altruism, and on the psychology of mass violence and genocide. He was born in Hungary and received his Ph.D. from Stanford. He later taught at Harvard University. He worked in many settings, both conducting research and applying his research and theory. He worked in schools to raise caring and non-violent children, and to promote active bystandership by students in response to bullying, in the Netherlands to improve Dutch-Muslim relations, in Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo to promote healing and reconciliation. He has served as an expert witness, for example, at the Abu Ghraib trials, lectured widely on topics related to his work in academic, public, and government settings in the U.S. and other countries, and is the recipient of numerous honors.

Genocide is intentional action to destroy a people in whole or in part. The hybrid word "genocide" is a combination of the Greek word γένος and the Latin suffix -caedo. The United Nations Genocide Convention, which was established in 1948, defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group".



According to Weiss-Wendt, any attempts to develop a universally accepted terminology describing mass killings of non-combatants was a complete failure [3] Below are listed the terms used by genocide scholars to describe mass killings.

Mass killing
Referencing earlier definitions, [nb 2] Joan Esteban, Massimo Morelli and Dominic Rohner have defined mass killings as "the killings of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under the conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims". [6] The term has been defined by Benjamin Valentino as "the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants", where a "massive number" is defined as at least 50,000 intentional deaths over the course of five years or less. [7] This is the most accepted quantitative minimum threshold for the term. [6] [8] [9] [nb 3]
Under the Genocide Convention, the crime of genocide generally applies to mass murder of ethnic rather than political or social groups. Protection of political groups was eliminated from the UN resolution after a second vote, because many states [10] anticipated that clause to apply unneeded limitations to their right to suppress internal disturbances. [11] Genocide is also a popular term for mass political killing, which is studied academically as democide and politicide. [9]
The term "politicide" is used to describe the killing of groups that would not otherwise be covered by the Genocide Convention. [12] Barbara Harff studies "genocide and politicide", sometimes shortened as geno-politicide, to include the mass killing of political, economic, ethnic and cultural groups. [9]
R. J. Rummel defines democide as "the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command". [13] According to him, this definition covers a wide range of deaths, including forced labor and concentration camp victims; killings by "unofficial" private groups; extrajudicial summary killings; and mass deaths in deliberate famines, as well as killings by de facto governments, e.g. civil war killings. [13] [14]

Rummel's "democide" concept is very similar to "geno-politicide", however there are two important differences. First, an important prerequisite for geno-politicide is government's intent to destroy a specific group. [15] In contrast, "democide" deals with wider range of cases, including the cases when governments are engaged in random killing either directly or due to the acts of criminal omission and neglect. [13]

Second, whereas some lower threshold exists for a killing event to be considered "geno-politicide" (Valentino uses 50,000/five years, other authors use lower threshold), there is no low threshold for democide, which covers any murder of any number of persons by any government. [13]

Proposed by Michael Mann to describe the "intended mass killing of entire social classes". [16] [nb 4]

Dispossessive vs coercive mass killings

Benjamen Valentino, who sees ruler's motives as the key factor explaining the onset of mass killings, outlines two major category of mass killings, dispossessive mass killings and coercive mass killings. [18] The first category included ethnic cleansing, killings that accompany agrarian reforms in some states led by communists, mass killings during colonial expansion, etc. The second category includes mass killings during counter-guerilla warfare, killings during the Axis imperialist conquests during the World War II, etc. Although Valentino does not consider ideology or regime type as an important factor that explains mass killings, [19] he outlines communist mass killings as a subtype of dispossessive mass killings, which is considered as a complication of original theory his book is based on. [9]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Mass killings under communist regimes organized communist killing of large numbers of non-combatants

Mass killings occurred under several 20th-century Communist regimes. Death estimates vary widely, depending on the definitions of deaths included. The higher estimates of mass killings account for crimes against civilians by governments, including executions, destruction of population through man-made hunger and deaths during forced deportations, imprisonment and through forced labor. Terms used to define these killings include "mass killing", "democide", "politicide", "classicide" and a broad definition of "genocide".

Global databases of mass killings

Two global databases of mass killings are currently available. The first compilation, by Rudolph Rummel, covers a time period from the beginning of the 20th century till 1977, and the second compilation, by Barbara Harff, combines all mass killing events since 1955. The Harff database is the most frequently used by genocide scholars. [9] These data are intended mostly for statistical analysis of mass killings in attempt to identify the best predictors for their onset. According to Harff, these data are not necessarily the most accurate for a given country, since some sources are general genocide scholars and not experts on local history. [13] A comparative analysis of these two databases revealed a significant difference between the figures of killed per years and low correlation between Rummel's and Harff's data sets. Tomislav Dulić criticized Rummel's generally higher numbers [13] as arising from flaws in Rummel's statistical methodology. [20]

Rudolph Rummel American academic

Rudolph Joseph Rummel was professor of political science who taught at the Indiana University, Yale University, and University of Hawaii. He spent his career studying data on collective violence and war with a view toward helping their resolution or elimination. Rummel coined the term democide for murder by government, such as the Stalinist purges and Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Barbara Harff is Professor of Political Science Emerita at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In 2003 and again in 2005 she was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. Her research focuses on the causes, risks, and prevention of genocidal violence.

Genocides and politicides from 1955 to 2001 as listed by Harff, 2003 [15]
Country and dateStartEndNature of episodeEstimated number of victimsRelated articles
SudanOct 1956Mar 1972Politicide with communal victims400,000–600,000 First Sudanese Civil War
South VietnamJan 1965Apr 1975Politicide400,000–500,000 South Vietnam
ChinaMar 1959Dec 1959Genocide and politicide65,000 1959 Tibetan uprising
IraqJun 1963Mar 1975Politicide with communal victims30,000–60,000 Ba'athist Iraq
AlgeriaJul 1962Dec 1962Politicide9,000–30,000
RwandaDec 1963Jun 1964Politicide with communal victims12,000–20,000
Congo-KinshasaFeb 64Jan 1965Politicide1,000–10,000
BurundiOct 1965Dec 1973Politicide with communal victims140,000
IndonesiaNov 1965Jul 1966Genocide and politicide500,000–1,000,000 Indonesian mass killings of 1965–1966
ChinaMay 1966Mar 1975Politicide400,000–850,000
GuatemalaJul 1978Dec 1996Politicide and genocide60,000–200,000 Guatemalan genocide
PakistanMar 1971Dec 1971Politicide with communal victims1,000,000–3,000,000
UgandaDec 1972Apr 1979Politicide and genocide50,000–400,000 Genocides in central Africa
PhilippinesSep 1972Jun 1976Politicide with communal victims60,000
PakistanFeb 1973Jul 1977Politicide with communal victims5,000–10,000
ChileSep 1973Dec 1976Politicide5,000–10,000
AngolaNov 19752001Politicide by UNITA and government forces500,000
CambodiaApr 1975Jan 1979Politicide and genocide1,900,000–3,500,000 Cambodian genocide
IndonesiaDec 1975Jul 1992Politicide with communal victims100,000–200,000
ArgentinaMar 1976Dec 1980Politicide9,000–20,000
EthiopiaJul 1976Dec 1979Politicide10,000
Congo-KinshasaMar 1977Dec 1979Politicide with communal victims3,000–4,000
AfghanistanApr 1978Apr 1992Politicide1,800,000
BurmaJan 1978Dec 1978Genocide5,000
El. SalvadorJan 1980Dec 1989Politicide40,000–60,000
UgandaDec 1980Jan 1986Politicide and genocide200,000-500,000 Genocides in central Africa
SyriaMar 1981Feb 1982Politicide5,000–30,000
IranJun 1981Dec 1992Politicide and genocide10,000–20,000 Casualties of the Iranian Revolution, 1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners
SudanSep 1983?Politicide with communal victims2,000,000
IraqMar 1988Jun 1991Politicide with communal victims180,000
SomaliaMay 1988Jan 1991Politicide with communal victims15,000–50,000
Burundi19881988Genocide5,000–20,000 Hutu massacres of 1988
Sri LankaSep 1989Jan 1990Politicide13,000–30,000
BosniaMay 1992Nov 1995Genocide225,000 Bosnian genocide
BurundiOct 1993May 1994Genocide50,000 Burundian genocides
RwandaApr 1994Jul 1994Genocide500,000–1,000,000 Rwandan genocide
SerbiaDec 1998Jul 1999Politicide with communal victims10,000

This list does not include deaths from the Great Chinese Famine and Great Leap Forward.

Explanation of the onset of mass killings

The term "mass killing" was proposed by genocide scholars in attempts to collect a uniform global database of genocidal events and identify statistical models for prediction of onset of mass killings.

Frank Wayman and Atsushi Tago use the term "mass killing" as defined by Valentino, and they concluded that, even with a lower threshold (10,000 killed per year, 1,000 killed per year, or even 1), "autocratic regimes, especially communist, are prone to mass killing generically, but not so strongly inclined (i.e. not statistically significantly inclined) toward geno-politicide".[ citation needed ]


  1. "In contrast to genocide, I see mass killing as 'killing (or in other ways destroying) members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group, or killing large numbers of people' without a focus on group membership." [2]
  2. In the Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999), Israel Charny defined generic genocide as "the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims." [4] In the 2006 article "Development, democracy, and mass killings", William Easterly, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat adopted Charny's definition of generic genocide for their use of "mass killing" and "massacre" to avoid the politics of the term "genocide" altogether. [5]
  3. "Our term, 'mass killing', is used by Valentino (2004: 10), who aptly defines it as 'the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants'. The word 'noncombatants' distinguishes mass killing from battle-deaths in war, which occur as combatants fight against each other. The 'massive number' he selects as the threshold to mass killing is 'at least fifty thousand intentional deaths over the course of five or fewer years' (Valentino, 2004: 11-12), which of course averages to at least 10,000 killed per year." ... " One reason for selecting these thresholds of 10,000 and 1,000 deaths per year is that we find that in the Harff data on geno-politicide, which are one of our key datasets, there are many cases of over 10,000 killed per year, but also some in which between 1,000 and 10,000 are killed per year. Therefore, analyzing at a 1,000-death threshold (as well as the 10,000 threshold) insures the inclusion of all the Harff cases. Valentino chooses 50,000 over five years as 'to some extent arbitrary', but a 'relatively high threshold' to create high confidence that mass killing did occur and was deliberate, 'given the generally poor quality of the data available on civilian fatalities' (Valentino, 2004: 12). We believe that our similar results, when we lower the threshold to 1,000 killed per year, are an indication that the data in Harff and in Rummel remain reliable down even one power of ten below Valentino's 'relatively high' selected threshold, and we hope that, in that sense, our results can be seen as a friendly amendment to his work, and that they basically lend confidence, based on empirical statistical backing, for the conceptual direction which he elected to take." ... "Within that constant research design, we then showed that the differences were not due to threshold either (over 10,000 killed per year; over 1,000; or over 1). The only remaining difference is the measure of mass killing itself - democide vs. geno-politicide." [9]
  4. "Mann thus establishes a sort of parallel between racial enemies and class enemies, thereby contributing to the debates on comparisons between Nazism and communism. This theory has also been developed by some French historians such as Stéphane Courtois and Jean-Louis Margolin in The Black Book of Communism: they view class genocide as the equivalent to racial genocide. Mann however refuses to use the term 'genocide' to describe the crimes committed under communism. He prefers the terms 'fratricide' and 'classicide', a word he coined to refer to intentional mass killings of entire social classes." [17]

Related Research Articles

Democide is a term proposed by R. J. Rummel since at least 1994 who defined it as "the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command". According to him, this definition covers a wide range of deaths, including forced labor and concentration camp victims; killings by "unofficial" private groups; extrajudicial summary killings; and mass deaths due to the governmental acts of criminal omission and neglect, such as in deliberate famines, as well as killings by de facto governments, i.e. civil war killings. This definition covers any murder of any number of persons by any government.

Homicide is the act of one human killing another. A homicide requires only a volitional act by another person that results in death, and thus a homicide may result from accidental, reckless, or negligent acts even if there is no intent to cause harm. Homicides can be divided into many overlapping legal categories, including murder, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, killing in war, euthanasia, and capital punishment, depending on the circumstances of the death. These different types of homicides are often treated very differently in human societies; some are considered crimes, while others are permitted or even ordered by the legal system.

Politicide is the deliberate physical destruction of a group whose members share the main characteristic of belonging to a political movement. It is a type of political repression, and one means of the political cleansing of population, with another being forced migration. It may be compared to genocide or ethnic cleansing, which involve killing people based on membership in a racial or ethnic group rather than holding a political ideology.

The term genocidal massacre was introduced by Leo Kuper (1908–1994) to describe incidents with a genocidal component but which are committed on a smaller scale when compared to genocides such as the Rwandan Genocide. Others such as Robert Melson, who also makes a similar differentiation, class genocidal massacres as "partial genocide".

Genocides in history Wikimedia list article

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. The term was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. It is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) of 1948 as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

David Edward Stannard is an American historian and Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii. He is particularly known for his book American Holocaust, in which he argues that the genocide against the Native American population was the largest genocide in history.

Policide is a neologism used in political science to describe the intentional destruction of an independent political and social entity, such as a city or nation. The term is used with some regularity within political science, generally to refer to a policy of destruction that falls short of genocide or ethnocide.

The Political Instability Task Force (PITF), formerly known as State Failure Task Force, is a U.S. government-sponsored research project to build a database on major domestic political conflicts leading to state failures. The study analyzed factors to denote the effectiveness of state institutions, population well-being, and found that partial democracies with low involvement in international trade and with high infant mortality are most prone to revolutions. One of the members of the task force resigned on January 20, 2017 in protest of the Trump administration.

This is a list of scholarly and international legal definitions of genocide, a word coined with genos and an English suffix -cide by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. The precise etymology of the word however, is a compound of the ancient Greek word γένος or Latin word gēns and the Latin word caedō. While there are various definitions of the term, almost all international bodies of law officially adjudicate the crime of genocide pursuant to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). This and other definitions are generally regarded by the majority of genocide scholars to have an "intent to destroy" as a requirement for any act to be labelled genocide; there is also growing agreement on the inclusion of the physical destruction criterion. Writing in 1998 Kurt Jonassohn and Karin Björnson stated that the CPPCG was a legal instrument resulting from a diplomatic compromise. As such the wording of the treaty is not intended to be a definition suitable as a research tool, and although it is used for this purpose, as it has an international legal credibility that others lack, other definitions have also been postulated. Jonassohn and Björnson go on to say that for various reasons, none of these alternative definitions have gained widespread support.

Massacre incident where some group is killed by another

A massacre is a killing, typically of multiple victims, considered morally unacceptable, especially when perpetrated by a group of political actors against defenseless victims. The word is a loan of a French term for "butchery" or "carnage".

Classicide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of a social class through persecution and violence. The term "classicide" was termed by sociologist Michael Mann as a term that is similar but distinct from the term genocide. Examples includes Joseph Stalin's mass killing of the affluent middle-class peasant Kulaks who were identified as "class enemies" by the Soviet Union. Similar classicide has been committed by China during the Great Leap Forward, by North Vietnam as part of the Land Reform, and by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

In 1996 Gregory Stanton, the founding president of Genocide Watch, presented a briefing paper called "The 8 Stages of Genocide" at the United States Department of State. In it he suggested that genocide develops in eight stages that are "predictable but not inexorable". In 2012, Stanton added two additional stages, Discrimination and Persecution, to his model, which resulted in a 10-stage model of genocide. The stages are not linear, and usually several occur simultaneously. Stanton's model is a logical model for analyzing the processes of genocide, and for determining preventive measures that might be taken to combat or stop each process.

The assessment of risk factors for genocide is an upstream prevention mechanism for genocide. This means that, if used correctly, the international community would be able to foresee a genocide before the killing took place, and prevent it. Countries can have many warning signs that it may be leaning in the direction of a future genocide. If signs are presented the international community takes notes of them and watches over the countries that have a higher risk. Many different scholars, and international groups, have come up with different factors that they think should be considered while examining whether a nation is at risk or not. One predominant scholar in the field James Waller came up with his own four categories of risk factors; including, governance, conflict history, economic conditions, and social fragmentation.


  1. Staub, Ervin (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN   978-0-521-42214-7.
  2. Staub, Ervin (2011). Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN   978-0-195-38204-4.
  3. Weiss-Wendt A. (2008) Problems in Comparative Genocide Scholarship. In: Stone D. (eds) The Historiography of Genocide. Palgrave Macmillan, London. DOI "There is barely any other field of study that enjoys so little consensus on defining principles such as definition of genocide, typology, application of a comparative method, and timeframe. Considering that scholars have always put stress on prevention of genocide, comparative genocide studies have been a failure. Paradoxically, nobody has attempted so far to assess the field of comparative genocide studies as a whole. This is one of the reasons why those who define themselves as genocide scholars have not been able to detect the situation of crisis."
  4. Charny, Israel (ed). (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.
  5. Easterly, William, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat. (2006). "Development, democracy, and mass killings", Journal of Economic Growth 11: 129-156.
  6. 1 2 Esteban, Joan Maria, Morelli, Massimo and Rohner, Dominic, Strategic Mass Killings (May 11, 2010). Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich Working Paper No. 486. Available at SSRN:
  7. Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, Dylan Bach-Lindsay, (2004), "Draining the Sea: mass killing and guerrilla warfare", International Organization 58,2 (375–407): p. 387.
  8. Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 91.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wayman, FW; Tago, A (2009). "Explaining the onset of mass killing, 1949–87". Journal of Peace Research Online. 47: 1–17. doi:10.1177/0022343309342944.
  10. Jones (2010) Genocide p. 137.
  11. Beth van Schaack. The Crime of Political Genocide: Repairing the Genocide Convention's Blind Spot. The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 106, No. 7 (May 1997), pp. 2259‒2291.
  12. Harff, Barbara; Gurr, Ted R. (1988). "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945". 32: 359–371.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Barbara Harff. The Comparative Analysis of Mass Atrocities and Genocide. Chapter 12. p. 112–115. in N. P. Gleditsch (ed.), R. J. Rummel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice 37, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-54463-2.
  14. Barbara Harff. "Death by Government by R. J. Rummel". The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer, 1996), pp. 117‒119. MIT Press.
  15. 1 2 Barbara Harff. No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political MassMurder since 1955. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 57-73. Published by: American Political Science Association. Stable URL:
  16. Mann (2005) Dark Side of Democracy p. 17.
  17. Semelin (2009) Purify and Destroy p. 37.
  18. Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 70.
  19. Scott Straus. Review: Second-Generation Comparative Research on Genocide. Reviewed Work(s): Genocide in the Age of the Nation State by Mark Levene; The Dark Sideof Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing by Michael Mann; The Killing Trap: Genocide inthe Twentieth Century by Manus I. Midlarsky; Purifier et détruire: Usages politiques desmassacres et génocides by Jacques Sémelin; Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide inthe Twentieth Century by Benjamin A. Valentino; A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Raceand Nation by Eric D. Weitz. World Politics, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Apr., 2007), pp. 476-501. Published by: Cambridge University Press. Stable URL:
  20. Tomislav Dulić. "Tito's Slaughterhouse: A Critical Analysis of Rummel's Work on Democide", Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 85‒102. Sage.

See also