Evenings with Wikipedia – Lemkin, Let-Downs and Life Lessons

By: | Posted on: 14.10.2014

 “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information” –Michael Scott, The Office

For those who aren’t familiar with the television show The Office, Michael Scott is the naïve and incompetent district manager of the show. He is being serious, which makes it that much more funny to watch.

Wikipedia is off-limits as a source for academic papers, since the very nature of the website, which Michael believes makes it an excellent reference, makes it easy to cast doubt on the degree of accuracy in its articles.

Ignoring the fact that it can never measure up to traditional academic sources, I enjoy Wikipedia. I like to learn new things and Wikipedia is good at answering the random questions that pop in my head. What is the full story of the Civil War of Lebanon? What is the life expectancy rankings based on country? Where exactly do one Ocean end and the other begin? Which film won the most Academy Awards in 1998?

It hasn’t failed me yet.

During one night of ‘wiki-hopping’ from one article to the next, I began reading about World War II and quickly gained a much deeper understanding of the multiple dimensions of the war: The build up to the conflict, the many battles that took place on the eastern and western fronts and the eventual collapse of the Axis powers. I went down the rabbit hole of this intense period of history and kept opening new articles until I finally landed on the page of man named Raphael Lemkin.

Most Armenians are familiar with the name Lemkin. He, of course, is the man who first coined the term ‘genocide’. His name and legacy often comes up when countering the common arguments of the deniers of the Armenian Genocide.

How can anyone say that the Armenian Genocide was just part of a conflict, call is a mistake or even label it as a conspiracy by the all-powerful diasporan -Armenian lobbies, when Lemkin had this to say:

“I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians and after the Armenians Hitler took action.”

These famous words from a 1949 CBS interview are now available to watch for all online.

I had heard Lemkin’s name several times over the years; in my high school Hai Tad class, at the agoump and at countless different gatherings and reading regarding the subject. But when I scrolled through his page and got to the end, I read something that I had not heard before – Lemkin’s funeral was attended by only seven people.

My brows furrowed. This man spoke at the United Nations, was featured on CBS News, was obviously well respected and even had his own Wikipedia article. This must have been a factual error that fell through the cracks of Wikipedia’s open editing system that purists dismiss as the ‘nightmare of academia…’

Alas, my momentary distrust in Wikipedia was premature and unnecessary. It was true. There were indeed only seven people present at a Jewish cemetery in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, as Raphael Lemkin was laid to rest; a penniless man with barely any possessions to his name.

***

Lemkin was a learned man. He took up studies in France, Italy and finally Germany, earning a doctorate in Theology. He worked as a lawyer and professor at various points of his life. A polyglot – he could speak nine languages and read fourteen.

He started his career in Warsaw at the Court of Appeals as a public prosecutor. He quickly rose through the ranks to prominence for his brilliance in breaking down, interpreting and applying the law. During this time, he started reading about the terrible massacre of the Armenians during the First World War at the hands of the Ottomans. From then, he sought to deter and prevent ‘the crime without a name.’

He attended lectures and conferences and spoke to the likes of Emil Stanisław Rappaport about his work and theories. He believed peace can be maintained and protected through criminal prosecution. Why shouldn’t those who cause hell on earth be brought to justice and deter the other threats to the world?

In 1933, Lemkin presented his proposal to the League of Nations to create a legal framework to protect minorities from those who indiscriminately threaten them. This international document was never passed. The League did not want to rattle too many cages and get other nations, namely Germany, up in arms over the strong language used denouncing and punishing these crimes. Poland was keen to stay on Hitler’s good side, so the correct political move was to strip Lemkin of his title. He continued in the field of law in the private sector.

History views the League of Nations as a failure, due to their policy of using appeasement to deescalate and avoid another world war (they had one job…and failed!). The rejection of Lemkin’s proposal was the cherry on top of the lopsided, poorly-propped, multi-tier cake that was this international body.

Lemkin knew of Hitler’s aspirations and tried to stop them. Instead he was ignored and Germany took Europe by surprise. Peace was not on Hitler’s mind and his army was soon invading Warsaw, Lemkin’s hometown. He was forced to flee and hide in the forest for six months before fleeing to the United States. Three-million Polish Jews were not as lucky. He later learned at the Nuremburg Trials that this figure included forty-nine members of his own family.

***

Lemkin’s life in the United States saw further advancement in his academic career and in international law. At this point of the Wikipedia article, I still wonder how the end of Lemkin’s life was met with little acknowledgement.

He taught international law in various prestigious schools, but continued researching and advocating for the recognition of the new word. As the Nazi horrors unfolding before the world’s eyes, he was persistent and ever more determined to ensure that the crime of genocide was properly identified as distinct from acts of war and its perpetrators were justly punished.

In 1944 he released his most important work entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book stated the term ‘genocide’ and outlined the multiple methods and indicators of the crime. This time around, with the Nazi horrors in front of their eyes, the international community accepted Lemkin’s work and sought its enforcement. He became an advisor to the Nuremberg trial chief, where he was able to get genocide added in the list of indictments against the architects of the massacres. The criminals met justice in the end, but genocide was not a punishable offence in international law and Lemkin was only further resolved on his quest to prevent new genocides.

***

From 1946-1948, Lemkin’s figure, a man with a tattered briefcase, often with last week’s paper under his arm, was seen daily in the halls and various offices of the United Nations. He was relentless: grabbing delegates, secretaries, advisors in efforts to have a convention passed preventing and punishing acts of genocide (the proposed text was rolled in the old newspaper for quick access). He would plan for weeks to “accidently” bump into ambassadors. He would work his way past security; they didn’t seem to mind after a while. He had no money, nor any assistance or an office to work from. No one was paying him to do this. He was doing it for the greater good of society: “Only man has law. Law must be built, do you understand me? You must build the law!”

Finally, in 1948, fifteen years after his failure at the League of Nations, after his extended family and millions of others in Europe had senselessly been massacred, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally presented and adopted by the United Nations. Reporters searched for Lemkin on the day it was adopted; he was found in the empty Assembly Hall, quietly in tears, where he asked for privacy.

The next three years were spent with further lobbying to have the treaty signed by twenty countries and have it ratified, which eventually took place in 1951. Lemkin took on quiet academic positions soon after and eventually drifted into obscurity. He died in 1959, by which time he had been forgotten by most.

***

He was an activist. He did not carry signs or hand out pamphlets on the street or hold a megaphone. He was dedicated to the greater good even when he was standing alone. He faced innumerable setbacks and tragedies with increased resilience and resolve.

There is much to be learned from Lemkin’s character for our own personal lives, but also our lives as Armenian activists.

We are often faced with failures and difficulties in life. We work to overcome them simply for the reason that we must. Whether it has to do with our education or professional careers, we are expected to soldier on. You can only be deemed a failure when you give up…

The same applies when it comes to activism for the Armenian Cause. Often times we are the Davids in a constant battle with bigger Goliaths. The factors and chances are stacked against us, but we soldier on. We make sacrifices. Some big, some small, but we soldier on. We can’t expect any less from ourselves when we are working for what is right.

Lemkin was on his own. He faced much more powerful forces. All he had was an idea of what he knew to be true and did not falter until his vision was realized. In the meantime, he lost his home, his family, his wealth and possessions. But in the end, he was right and his vision was realized. He took his last breath knowing that he had done all that he could.

Armenians have similarly lost countless others dedicated to the cause. Many did not see an independent Armenia, or get to step foot in their own motherland. Many more are still waiting for justice to be done for our ancestors from a century ago. We all make sacrifices in our communities. We may lose or sacrifice the little things, but with our individual contributions, we can aim for the highest level of success. We do not look for attention or recognition or instant gratification. Instances of success and satisfaction are way too few and far in between. We relish in our successes only to express pride in our collective strength.

In the end, we must stay content with the knowledge that we give our full dedication to what we believe in.  I can only hope that I can use my dedication to the fullest extent as Lemkin did and thus make the world a better place.

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