President Joe Biden used the word “genocide” this week to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine. He’s wrong – and to see why, let’s go back nearly 80 years.
A 16-year-old girl named Maria Kostipolis works as an apprentice to a dressmaker on the island of Rhodes, Greece, in 1944. She goes to church, where she sings in the choir. She has no Jewish friends or relatives. Suddenly the Gestapo arrest her and her father. The accusation: that her father’s long-dead father was Jewish before his family converted to Greek Orthodoxy when he was two years old. He was never told of his Jewish heritage.
The Gestapo had examined birth certificates dating back 100 years and determined that Maria and her father were genetically Jewish, according to Nazi racial categorization. They were put on a ferry and then a train and arrived at Auschwitz four days later, where Maria was forced to serve as a Reich prostitute for the camp guards. After three months, she was sent to the gas chamber and her body cremated.
There were many of these “Marias” – the one pictured above is a composite of these victims – who were murdered by the Nazis, including nuns and priests with a Jewish grandparent. Nothing but genetics mattered to the Nazis.
It is genocide. It was the Holocaust. It is the systematic attempt to exterminate anyone in the world with a Jewish genetic makeup, regardless of religion, nationality, profession, politics or any other characteristic. No matter where they lived – no matter how far they were from the war or from the land the Nazis wanted to clear for German expansion – if you were a generic Jew, you were the target of extermination. As Elie Wiesel said: not all victims were Jews, but every Jew was a victim. It was not part of the German war effort. On the contrary, it was incompatible with any military objective. Soldiers have been diverted from fighting the military enemy to serving the fight against the genetic enemy. Jews who could have helped Germany beat the United States in the race to develop an atomic bomb were gassed, shot or escaped. Carrying out the Nazi genocide – an entirely separate and often incompatible goal – was as important as victory on the battlefield. When Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide, they knew they had lost the military war, but they also knew they had won a significant victory in their war against the Jewish “race”.
Now let us compare this genocide – the very term coined to describe Hitler’s intention to exterminate all Jews on the planet – with Vladimir Putin’s horrific war against Ukraine, and the criminal tactics that he and his generals employ. Let’s start with Putin’s war goals, his goals in invading Ukraine. Its main goals were to replace the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a pro-Russian regime to rule over the Ukrainian people. Another goal was to annex eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and build a land bridge between Russia and Crimea. His means included waging a fierce war against what he believed to be a militarily weak Ukrainian army and demoralizing the civilian population by causing a huge number of civilian deaths, including many children. Both the end and the means constitute war crimes, but neither constitutes the very different crime of genocide.
Genocide requires a plan to exterminate a racial, religious, tribal, ethnic or genetic group. It’s different in kind from what Putin did. Ukrainians are similar in all of the above respects to ethnic Russians. They are Slavs, mostly Eastern Orthodox. They speak similar languages, and many Ukrainians are fluent in Russian. They eat the same food, enjoy the same music, and share a common history and heritage. There are differences, of course, and Ukraine is a distinct nation with a high degree of nationalism, as recent events show. But whatever else you can say about Putin’s war crimes – and much can and should be said about them – they simply don’t fit the definition of genocide.
A truly genocidal policy, such as that employed by the Nazis, would not have allowed more than four million Ukrainians to escape. He would not have exchanged prisoners. He would have tried to exempt the millions of ethnic and linguistic Russians who live in eastern Ukraine and who have suffered the most horrific brutalities.
It is important to separate genocide as a war crime from the serious crimes of waging war of aggression, targeting civilians, etc. The memory of the Holocaust and the handful of other genocides that took place in the 20th century, including those against Armenians and ethnic groups in Africa, should not be diluted by labeling other serious crimes as “genocide”. “.
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