Otto Ohlendorf testifies at the Einsatzgruppen trial, in which he justified the Einsatzgruppen murders

Genocide justification is the claim that a genocide is morally excusable or necessary, in contrast to genocide denial, which rejects that genocide occurred. Perpetrators often claim that the genocide victims presented a serious threat, meaning that their killing was legitimate self-defense of a nation or state. According to modern international criminal law, there can be no excuse for genocide.[1][2]

Genocide is often camouflaged as military activity against combatants, and the distinction between denial and justification is often blurred.[3]

Examples of genocide justification include Turkish nationalists' claims in regard to the Armenian genocide, the Nazis' justifications behind the Holocaust, anti-Tutsi propaganda during the Rwandan genocide,[4] Serbian nationalists' justifications for the Srebrenica massacre, and the Myanmar government's claims about the Rohingya genocide.


Several laws against genocide denial also forbid the justification of genocide. In addition, some countries have laws against genocide justification but not genocide denial. For example, in Spain, a law criminalizing genocide denial was struck down as unconstitutional by the Spanish Supreme Court.[5]

Justification of genocide during ongoing killings may constitute incitement to genocide, which is criminalized under international criminal law.[6][7]

In general

According to W. Michael Reisman, "in many of the most hideous international crimes, many of the individuals who are directly responsible operate within a cultural universe that inverts our morality and elevates their actions to the highest form of group, tribe, or national defense".[6][7] Bettina Arnold observed, "It is one of the terrible ironies of the systematic extermination of one people by another that its justification is considered necessary." She also argued that archaeology and ancient history was sometimes used to justify genocide.[8] Robert Zajonc wrote, "I was not able to find any accounts of massacres not viewed by their perpetrators as right and necessary."[9] Rationalizing genocide helps perpetrators accept their actions and role in the genocide, preserving their self-image.[10]

According to the Encyclopedia of Genocide, eugenics advocate Francis Galton bordered on the justification of genocide when he stated, "There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race."[11]


1804 Haiti massacre

According to the historian Philippe R. Girard, the genocide of French Creoles after the Haitian Revolution was justified by its perpetrators based on the following rationales:

  1. The ideals of the French Revolution justified the massacre.
  2. Atrocities committed by French troops in Haiti permitted revenge.
  3. Radical measures were necessary to secure victory in the war and emancipate the slaves.
  4. Whites were not human.
  5. Black leaders hoped to take over plantations previously owned by whites.

Girard notes that after the massacre, the man who ordered it, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, stated, "We answered these cannibals’ war with war, crime with crime, outrage with outrage." For Dessalines, Girard writes, "genocide merely amounted to vengeance, even justice".[12] Historian C. L. R. James wrote that massacre was only a tragedy for its perpetrators because of the brutal practices of slaveholding.[2]

Adam Jones and Nicholas Robinson have classified this as a subaltern genocide, meaning a "genocide by the oppressed", and that it contains "morally plausible" elements of retribution or revenge. Jones points out that this type of genocide is less likely to be condemned and may even be welcomed.[2]

Armenian genocide

See also: Armenian genocide denial

The defense of Van is a crucial element in works that seek to justify the genocide.[13]

Justification and rationalization are common with regard to the Armenian genocide, as the perpetrators portrayed the killings as legitimate defense against Armenians, who were perceived as traitors and colluding with Russia during a time of war.[2][14] Both at the time and later, it has been claimed that the deportation of Armenians was justified by military necessity.[15] Historian Hans-Lukas Kieser states: "To justify genocide, Talaat framed a whole discourse and set of arguments, so that the self-righteous justification for murder and destruction remained entrenched in later memoirs, politics, and historiography."[16] Interviewed by Berliner Tageblatt in May 1915, Talaat stated: "We have been blamed for not making a distinction between guilty and innocent Armenians. [To do so] was impossible. Because of the nature of things, one who was still innocent today could be guilty tomorrow. The concern for the safety of Turkey simply had to silence all other concerns. Our actions were determined by national and historical necessity."[17] During the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, several German newspapers such as the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, the Frankfurter Zeitung or the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger published articles and essays which justified the annihilation of the Armenian people.[18]

In 1919, Mustafa Kemal stated:

Whatever has befallen the non-Muslim elements living in our country, is the result of the policies of separatism they pursued in a savage manner, when they allowed themselves to be made tools of foreign intrigues and abused their privileges. There are probably many reasons and excuses for the undesired events that have taken place in Turkey. And I want definitely to say that these events are on a level far removed from the many forms of oppression which are committed in the states of Europe without any excuse.[19]

Historian Erik Jan Zürcher comments, "All the classic elements in the defense of violent aggression are here: they asked for it, it was not really so bad and anyway, others have done the same and worse."[19]

In 1920, parliamentarian Hasan Fehmi stated:

This deportation business, as you know, has put the whole world in an uproar, and has branded us all as murderers. We knew even before this was done that the Christian world would not stand for it, and that they would turn their fury and hatred on us because of it. But why should we call ourselves murderers? These things that were done were to secure the future of our homeland, which we hold more sacred and dear than our very lives.[20]

According to Fatma Müge Göçek, "The sentiments of the Turkish state and populace toward these CUP leaders are best captured in one memoir that noted:"

There were no Armenians left in east, central Anatolia and to a certain degree in the western regions. If this cleaning had not been carried out, getting the independence struggle to succeed could have been much more difficult and could have cost us much more. May God be merciful and compassionate toward Enver and Talat Pashas who actualized this [cleaning]. Their foresight has saved the Turkish nation.[21]

In the interwar era, many Germans believed that the Armenian genocide was justified. Author Stefan Ihrig argues that, in the early 1920s, the Germans who had denied the Armenian genocide switched to justifying it after accepting the historicity of the events.[3]

The Holocaust

Further information: Jewish war conspiracy theory and Secondary antisemitism

The Nazis preferred to justify the killing of Jews rather than deny it entirely.[22][23] Hitler's prophecy was used to justify the Holocaust.[24] Another example of Nazi justification is the 1943 Posen speeches, in which SS chief Heinrich Himmler argued that the systematic mass murder of Jews was necessary and justified, although an unpleasant task for individual SS men.[25][26][27]

During the Einsatzgruppen trial, Otto Ohlendorf, responsible for the deaths of 90,000 Jews, did not deny that the crimes occurred or that he was responsible for them. Instead, he justified the systematic murder as anticipatory self-defense against the mortal threat supposedly posed by Jews, Romani people, Communists, and others. Ohlendorf argued that the killing of Jewish children was necessary because, knowing how their parents died, they would grow up to hate Germany.[28][29] Ohlendorf's claims were not accepted by the court and he was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.[28]

Since the end of World War II, cases of justifying the Holocaust have also been observed in Iran, the Arab world, and Eastern Europe, in which the alleged behavior of Jews is claimed to cause antisemitism and justify the killing of Jews.[30][31][32][33][34][35] In 1946 Ahmad Shukeiri (who was fighting for Hitler[36]) and Jamal Husseini have both justified the Holocaust, reiterating Goebbels' propaganda.[37][38] Some Moldovan historians have claimed that the Holocaust in Romania was justified by the lack of loyalty shown by Jews to the interwar Romanian state.[39][40] In 2018, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas apologized after receiving widespread condemnation for remarks that the Jews killed in the Holocaust were killed because of their conduct, not because of anti-Semitism.[41][42]

Rwandan genocide

The Rwandan genocide was justified by its perpetrators as a legitimate response to the military campaign of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, including by its mastermind, Théoneste Bagosora, who repeated these arguments at the trial which resulted in his conviction for genocide.[43]

Bosnian genocide

See also: Nož, žica, Srebrenica

The Srebrenica massacre is justified by Serbian nationalists who argue that it was necessary to defend against the "Muslim threat", or as a justified revenge for the 1993 Kravica attack. However, Serbian nationalists do not acknowledge that genocide occurred in Bosnia despite the ICTY verdict, and argue that the Bosnian death toll is substantially lower than historians and the ICTY have concluded.[44][45] Conducting interviews with Serbs in Bosnia, Janine Natalya Clark found that many interviewees endorsed the idea "that those killed in Srebrenica were combatants and therefore legitimate military targets", alongside beliefs that the massacre was exaggerated.[46]

Rohingya genocide

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the military's actions during what has been described as the Rohingya genocide, however she denies that genocide has taken place in Myanmar.[47][48] Already in 2017, The Intercept reported that she was "an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape".[49] Following her December 2019 remarks in the International Court of Justice, American political scientist William Felice writes that she uses "the same arguments that organizers of genocide and ethnic cleansing deployed throughout the 20th century to validate mass murder".[50] Physicians for Human Rights states that Myanmar "continues to justify their mass extermination [of Rohingya] as a reasonable response to 'terrorist activities.'"[51] Refugees International said that she was "defending the most indefensible of crimes"—genocide.[52]

See also


  1. ^ Scarre, Geoffrey (December 2005). "Excusing the Inexcusable? Moral Responsibility and Ideologically Motivated Wrongdoing". Journal of Social Philosophy. 36 (4): 457–472. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.2005.00288.x.
  2. ^ a b c d Jones, Adam (2006). "Is genocide ever justified?". Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge. pp. 28–30. ISBN 978-1-134-25981-6.
  3. ^ a b Ihrig (2016), pp. 12–13.
  4. ^ Lower, Matthew; Hauschildt, Thomas (2014-05-09). "The Media as a Tool of War: Propaganda in the Rwandan Genocide". Human Security Centre. Retrieved 2021-03-16.
  5. ^ Elósegui, María (2017). "Denial or Justification of Genocide as a Criminal Offence in European Law". Racial Justice, Policies and Courts' Legal Reasoning in Europe. Springer International Publishing. pp. 49–90. ISBN 978-3-319-53580-7.
  6. ^ a b Gordon, Gregory S. (2017). Atrocity Speech Law: Foundation, Fragmentation, Fruition. Oxford University Press. p. 289. ISBN 978-0-19-061270-2.
  7. ^ a b Benesch, Susan (2008). "Vile Crime or Inalienable Right: Defining Incitement to Genocide". Virginia Journal of International Law. 48 (3): 506. SSRN 1121926.
  8. ^ Arnold, Bettina (2002). "Justifying Genocide: Archaeology and the Construction of Difference". In Hinton, Alexander Laban (ed.). Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23029-3.
  9. ^ Zajonc, R. B. (2002). "The Zoomorphism of Human Collective Violence". Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust. Oxford University Press. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-19-984795-2.
  10. ^ Anderson, Kjell (2017). "Rationalizing killing". Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account. Routledge. p. 229. ISBN 978-1-317-23438-8.
  11. ^ Charny, Israel W.; Adalian, Rouben Paul; Jacobs, Steven L.; Markusen, Eric; Sherman, Marc I. (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide: A-H. ABC-CLIO. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-87436-928-1.
  12. ^ Girard, Philippe R. (June 2005). "Caribbean genocide: racial war in Haiti, 1802–4". Patterns of Prejudice. 39 (2): 138–161. doi:10.1080/00313220500106196. S2CID 145204936.
  13. ^ Ihrig 2016, p. 109.
  14. ^ Hovannisian, Richard G. (1998). "Denial of the Armenian Genocide in Comparison with Holocaust Denial". Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide. Wayne State University Press. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-8143-2777-7.
  15. ^ Hull, Isabel V. (2004). "The Armenian genocide". Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-4258-2.
  16. ^ Kieser, Hans-Lukas (2018). Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide. Princeton University Press. p. 294. ISBN 978-1-4008-8963-1.
  17. ^ Ihrig (2016), pp. 162–163.
  18. ^ Ihrig (2016), pp. 271–273.
  19. ^ a b Zürcher, Erik Jan (2011). "Renewal and Silence: Postwar Unionist and Kemalist Rhetoric on the Armenian Genocide". In Suny, Ronald Grigor; Göçek, Fatma Müge; Naimark, Norman M. (eds.). A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press. pp. 306–316 [312]. ISBN 978-0-19-979276-4.
  20. ^ Akçam 2012, p. xi.
  21. ^ Göçek, Fatma Müge (2015). Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence Against the Armenians, 1789–2009. Oxford University Press. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-19-933420-9.
  22. ^ Bytwerk, Randall L. (February 2005). "The Argument for Genocide in Nazi Propaganda". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 91 (1): 37–62. doi:10.1080/00335630500157516. S2CID 144116639.
  23. ^ Weikart, Richard (2009). "Justifying Murder and Genocide". Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress. Palgrave Macmillan US. pp. 179–195. ISBN 978-0-230-62398-9.
  24. ^ Confino, Alon (2014). A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Yale University Press. p. 226. ISBN 978-0-300-19046-5.
  25. ^ Cesarani, David; Kavanaugh, Sarah (2004). Holocaust: Hitler, Nazism and the "racial state". Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-27510-1.
  26. ^ Midlarsky, Manus I. (2005). The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-521-81545-1.
  27. ^ Totten, Samuel; Feinberg, Stephen (2016). Essentials of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches. Routledge. p. 120. ISBN 978-1-317-64808-6.
  28. ^ a b Wolfe, Robert (1980). "Putative Threat to National Security as a Nuremberg Defense for Genocide". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 450: 46–67. doi:10.1177/000271628045000106. ISSN 0002-7162. JSTOR 1042558. S2CID 146521956. Ohlendorf stated, 'I believe that it is very simple to explain if one starts from the fact that [the Führer] order not only tried to achieve security, but permanent security, lest the children grow up and inevitably, being the children of parents who had been killed, they would constitute a danger no smaller than that of the parents.'
  29. ^ Ferencz, Benjamin (24 October 2019). "Mass Murderers Seek to Justify Genocide". Benjamin B. Ferencz. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  30. ^ Gerstenfeld, Manfred (September 22, 2009). "Justifying the Holocaust and Promoting a Second One". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  31. ^ Litvak, Meir; Webman, Esther (2011). From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust. Hurst. ISBN 978-1-84904-155-3.
  32. ^ Lobont, Florin (2004). "Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Post-Communist Eastern Europe". The Historiography of the Holocaust. Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 440–468. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-48866-0_9. ISBN 978-0-230-52450-7.
  33. ^ Litvak, Meir; Webman, Esther (January 2004). "The Representation of the Holocaust in the Arab World". Journal of Israeli History. 23 (1): 100–115. doi:10.1080/1353104042000241947. S2CID 162351680.
  34. ^ Litvak, Meir (2017). "Iranian Antisemitism and the Holocaust". Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust: Altered Contexts and Recent Perspectives. Springer International Publishing. pp. 205–229. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-48866-0_9. ISBN 978-3-319-48866-0.
  35. ^ Göran Larsson, "Fact Or Fraud?: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", (1994), p. 44. During the Second World War there were frequent contacts between the Nazis and several Arab leaders, the most notorious being the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin Al-Husseini, well-known for his collaboration with Hitler and the Nazi leadership. After the war, Hitler's extermination of the Jews has often been justified in Arab countries, and some Nazi war criminals have found a safe haven there to continue their antisemitic activities. Not surprisingly, The Protocols have been translated into Arabic and have become a bestseller in the Arab world. Antisemitic organisations have often used Arab countries as the base for distribution of antisemitic material...
  36. ^ Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the ..., Volume 107, Part 24, United States Congress 1961, p.5735
  37. ^ Bernard Lerner, "Behind Britain's Zion Conspiracy". The Detroit Jewish News July 12, 1946 Page 2 Out in Jerusalem, in an office situated ironically on Bethlehem Road, where, according to Jewish legend Mother Rachel weeps at midnight over the plight of her children, the people of Israel, I met Achmed Shukeiri, chief of the Arab Office, who reiterated in his conversation the words of Goebbels justified the murder of six million Jews of Europe "because Hitler could not have been all wrong," and warned that his side was ready to "play along with Moscow." They always play along, the Husseini-Shukeiri mob. Outside the Young Men's Christian Association building in Jerusalem, where the hearings of the Anglo-American Inquiry Committee were being held at the time, I met Jamal el Husseini; he issued the same warning as Shukeiri (he being Shukeiri's chief) of playing along with Moscow, and reiterated his justification of the mass murder of six million Jews "for Hitler couldn't be all wrong... you have got to see both sides of a question, my man, both sides of a question..." Jamal Husseini saw both sides so well that he joined in igniting, at a time most critical for the Allies, the Iraq coup d'etat to gauleiter the Middle East for Hitler.
  38. ^ "Behind the British Actions in Palestine", B. Lerner, ‘’The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle’’, 12 July 1946, page 7
  39. ^ Tartakovsky, Dmitry (August 2008). "Conflicting Holocaust narratives in Moldovan nationalist historical discourse". East European Jewish Affairs. 38 (2): 211–229. doi:10.1080/13501670802184090. S2CID 144672487.
  40. ^ Solonari, Vladimir (20 November 2018). "From Silence to Justification?: Moldovan Historians on the Holocaust of Bessarabian and Transnistrian Jews". Nationalities Papers. 30 (3): 435–457. doi:10.1080/0090599022000011705. S2CID 162214245.
  41. ^ "Palestinian leader Abbas apologizes for speech condemned as anti-Semitic". NBC News. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  42. ^ "Palestinian leader Abbas apologises for Holocaust remarks". BBC News. May 4, 2018. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  43. ^ Krivushin, Ivan (2018). "History as a Justification for Genocide: the Interpretation of Rwanda's Past by Théoneste Bagosora". Istoriya. 9 (5). doi:10.18254/S0002306-5-1.
  44. ^ Robiou, Marcia (29 March 2019). "What is Genocide? The Ultimate Crime, Explained". FRONTLINE. Retrieved 31 July 2020. The Serbs' skepticism surrounding the Srebrenica genocide is not a denial that mass killings occurred: the dominant narrative among nationalist Serbs is that war crimes were justified to defend against the Muslims.
  45. ^ Nettelfield, Lara J.; Wagner, Sarah E. (2013). "Pushing Back: Denial". Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139034968.
  46. ^ Clark, Janine Natalya (March 2012). "The 'crime of crimes': genocide, criminal trials and reconciliation". Journal of Genocide Research. 14 (1): 55–77. doi:10.1080/14623528.2012.649895. S2CID 73350853.
  47. ^ "Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar against genocide claims in UN court". Financial Times. 11 December 2019. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  48. ^ "Aung San Suu Kyi: Democracy icon who fell from grace". BBC News. 23 January 2020. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  49. ^ Hasan, Mehdi (13 April 2017). "Burmese Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi Has Turned Into an Apologist for Genocide Against Muslims". The Intercept. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  50. ^ Felice, William (25 December 2019). "A Nobel laureate justifies genocide and ethnic cleansing". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  51. ^ Kine, Phelim (December 13, 2019). "'The Lady' is a Liar: Suu Kyi's Genocide Whitewash". Physicians for Human Rights. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  52. ^ Sullivan, Daniel (14 December 2019). "Aung San Suu Kyi's Defense of Genocide". Fair Observer. Retrieved 1 August 2020.