Berel Lang, Genocide: The Act as Idea (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). 210 pp.

Reviewed by: Guy Lancaster (Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture)

The metanarrative of Western history marks several points where there have occurred revolutions of human thought, instances in which an idea took hold and forever altered how we perceive our reality—a phenomenon that science historian James Burke described with the title of his 1985 documentary series and book, The Day the Universe Changed. For example, the inauguration of the heliocentric model of our solar system not only changed our cosmology but also challenged our notions of authority, while germ theory not only answered certain scientific conundrums but also shaped our most intimate habits of hygiene. Such developments so fundamentally altered the lives of individuals as to render in stark relief the truth of L. P. Hartley’s now proverbial line, “[t]he past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (1953, 1).

Genocide Convention Approved by General Assembly of United Nations. photo credit: UN Photo/MB.

However, no revolution goes uncontested, especially revolutions in law and philosophy, where the immediate utility of certain concepts cannot be judged according to scientific standards of proof. Thus, some revolutions escape recognition even years after they first dawned on this world. For Berel Lang, one such philosophical revolution is the concept of genocide. The concept was originally developed by Raphael Lemkin – in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe – and later added into international law by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. According to Lang, the development of the concept of genocide marks “a notable advance in the history of moral and legal thought—progress impelled by the need to catch up with the ‘progress’ in human imagination and conduct that produced the acts of genocide themselves” (4). But not everyone accepts the concept of genocide as revolutionary; even scholars disagree on the utility of the term or on its applicability to the phenomenon it purports to describe. Instead of labelling events as genocide, some scholars prefer to employ such categories as “crimes against humanity” to describe atrocities of this type. Lang’s latest book, Genocide: The Act as Idea, constitutes an attempt to reveal what is truly revolutionary about Lemkin’s concept and to defend it from its detractors, whether they be well-meaning scholars or outright denialists.

Lang opens the book by asking: what is the specific evil in genocide? After all, mass murder does not necessarily equal genocide. In fact, genocide does not have to entail murder at all—the Genocide Convention encompasses the prevention of birth or the transfer of children away from one group to another under the label of genocide. Instead, the evil of genocide lies not in the deaths of numerous individuals, but in “the destruction of the group-identity without which the individuals would not have been, and could not be, the individuals they were or would be” (32). The specific identities outlined in the Genocide Convention—racial, ethnic, national, or religious—are those which tend to be less voluntary, even if defection is possible in some circumstances (such as converting religion). In fact, the targets of genocidal violence “are killed not for choices they have made or acts they have committed, but for alleged dispositions beyond their control” (36). Because genocide is a crime against specific groups and not just against the individuals that display the undesirable traits, the perpetrators, according to Lang, must be conscious of the evil they are committing.

Lang devotes two chapters to dismantle arguments challenging the concept of genocide by the likes of Marc Nichanian, Larry May, and Paul Boghossian, who, among others, have proposed that genocide was an unneeded concept that could be replaced by other categorical frameworks. Lang easily dismisses some of the most common objections made by the critics. To those who complain that it is difficult to prove a perpetrator’s intention when it comes to genocide, Lang notes that such difficulties are inherent in any judicial proceeding. To those who object to the label of genocide as the “worst” crime, Lang counters by observing that the Genocide Convention never ranks its subject as worse than any other. Lang also challenges assertions of individuals who, like May, believe that the real crime of genocide is not the death of groups, which have no definable reality, but of the individuals who make up those groups. Lang counters this assertion by stating that, “if individual identity is even minimally dependent on group relations, the latter would have a measure of reality that the individual alone does not,” for the fact is that “‘the self’ (any human self) is a social self, with the individual at least as dependent on the group as the group is on the individual” (79). To those who would subsume genocide under the category of “crimes against humanity,” Lang responds that “crimes against humanity” are subject to a similar criticism as is the concept of genocide (103). Lang proposes that both have become a catch-all for various atrocities, “with the additional liability of obscuring the particular violation on which the concept of genocide focuses” (103).

The man who coined the concept of genocide, Raphael Lemkin, has become the subject of growing scholarly appreciation in recent years. Lang’s book is a testament to this. He suggests that Lemkin presented the world with a term that has produced a stunning revision of our collective history, having identified “a historical occurrence that, beyond its name, had not been recognized in its distinctive legal, political, ethical, or cultural character” (127). Indeed, once the term was unleashed, historians could trace the phenomenon back to some of humankind’s earliest written records. Furthermore, by acknowledging that the violence could be directed not only against individuals but also against groups, Lemkin gave a place to group rights in international law. These group rights shift us away from the primacy of individualism in Western philosophy and dissuade us from the exclusive focus upon the individual in human rights discourse. Some would argue that group rights constitute a problematic category, automatically producing conflict between group and individual rights. However, according to Lang, “[w]hat Lemkin set in motion through the concept of genocide was a procedure for addressing urgent and recurrent political and social issues in the particular setting of groups in a way intended to preserve a basic means of both cultural and individual expression, cultural and individual self-realization” (147–148).

Croatia: United Nations Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES). photo credit: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

The penultimate chapter of Genocide: The Act as Idea defends the evil of the genocide from the idea of “the banality of evil” as popularized by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. After all, if “thoughtlessness” can contribute to the murder of millions, then attributions of responsibility, both individual and collective, become problematic. Where Arendt emphasizes the failure of Eichmann’s “moral imagination,” Lang turns to the “immoral imagination” of those who carried out the Final Solution to exterminate the Jewish people. In doing so, Lang argues for a “‘progressive’ theory of the history of evildoing parallel to the common claims of a progression in moral enlightenment,” so that purported failures of moral imagination are countered by the very imaginative cruelty on exhibit in the death camps (160). In his final chapter, Lang analyzes the denial of genocide, of the sort perpetrated by David Irving and others, concluding that the “varieties in the expression and scope of historical denial suggest a need for a conceptual ‘anatomy’ on Denial to sort through the tissue of Denial motives, means, and uses” (178). In other words, genocide denial needs to be countered by not only evidence and argument but also by the sort of intense theoretical examination that underlies the study of genocide itself.

The field of genocide studies has been populated with so many competing definitions of the phenomenon—as well as assertions as to the inapplicability of the category—that it proves quite refreshing to read such a full-throated defense of the work carried out decades ago by Raphael Lemkin and the United Nations. Lang’s Genocide: The Act as Idea is more than just a bibliographic novelty. It convincingly accomplishes its goals with reasoned argumentation and consistent references going back to the original documents that set out to define genocide. By revisiting these sources, Lang breathes new life and greater moral clarity into the concept, which in his hands becomes not just the term for a crime but a judgment in favor of the rights of collectives across the world.


Hartley, Leslie Poles. The Go-Between. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1953, p. 1.