By Jakob Sergei Weitz
In the past few years, the Islamic State has destroyed over 15 sites of immense cultural and historical significance, ranging from their detonation of the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baal in Palmyra, Syria, to the destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh outside of Mosul. What purpose was served by IS destroying these icons of their own people’s legacy?
The Destruction of Memory, a film by documentarian Tim Slade, is being screened at the Anthology Film Archive in the Bowery district of New York City through July 21st. The film centers on the idea and practice of cultural genocide, the oft-forgotten half of the original definition of the term.
In 1944, in response to the actions of Nazis during World War II, Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. This book, with its recommendation that the Nazis’ crimes be prosecuted as offenses against international law, would become the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials. In 1948, Lemkin would propose the Genocide Convention, a U.N. commission to define “genocide” in legal terms.
The resulting definition of genocide was different than Lemkin had intended—or rather, incomplete. Lemkin’s original definition of the term had been twofold: it included the deliberate killing of a certain group and the deliberate destruction of a certain culture. Together, these two aspects, which he referred to respectively as “barbarism” for violence and “vandalism” for cultural destruction, made up the full definition of “genocide.” The destruction of a certain group’s culture, Lemkin thought, should qualify as just as much of a violation of international law as the massacre of that group’s people. The U.N. did not agree. Much to Lemkin’s chagrin, they removed the cultural clause from the legal definition.
Though the U.N.’s attitude persists today, cultural genocide has been used throughout that time, and is being used currently, as a tactic with devastating potential. The Destruction of Memory explores how different belligerent actors—including the United States—have attacked and destroyed symbols, along with people, for strategic gain. But why? What does using empty Armenian churches for target practice, smashing ancient artifacts, or firebombing an artist colony actually achieve?
The answer, as the film explains, is two-pronged. According to Lemkin, barbarism is used to wipe out a people, vandalism to wipe out a culture, but both are forms of genocide. What, after all, distinguishes a group besides its people and its culture? People can be killed, but culture allows their legacy to live on, and their communities to grow back. This is why Lemkin was such a fervent advocate for the recognition of genocide’s cultural dimension: destroying the symbols, cultures, and texts of a group can be just as devastating as, and potentially more irreversible than, overt violence against individual members of that group.
The first goal of cultural genocide is destroying the morale in the group a belligerent actor is trying to erase. Having to witness their cultural heritage burned and destroyed causes just as much harm to the spirit of a people as violence causes to their bodies. With symbols to rally behind, traditions to teach their children, and culture to bind them together, a besieged religious or ethnic group can find strength, hope, and most importantly, resilience in the physical manifestations of their culture. These icons of group pride are exactly the things that cultural genocide aims to break down, targeting the hearts of victims rather than their bodies.
The second target of cultural genocide is visibility. An aggressor, by destroying heritage sites, burning books, slashing artwork, or otherwise erasing a targeted group’s history, makes it clear to the group in question that they are powerless, vulnerable, and unwelcome. Combining violence to the body and the spirit, cultural genocide strangles a group from within and without.
The destructive power of cultural genocide does not rely upon visibility so much as invisibility. The destruction of the art, writing, language, and culture of a certain group renders them no longer visible, whether to the rest of the world or to potential new members of that group. Worse still, they can be forcibly deleted or forgotten from history books, so that both the record of terrible violence against them and the richness of their culture fades away with the passage of time. For ethnic and religious groups, their shared culture and history form the backbone that supports the flesh and blood of their everyday existence. Without one or the other, they both die.
It was to this truth that Lemkin, and The Destruction of Memory, spoke. When we think of violence, or of genocide, we think of people. But we don’t think of symbols. We don’t think that there can be a massacre of churches, a bloodbath of ideas, a genocide of culture—but we should. The eradication of a culture goes hand-in-hand with the extermination of a people, and its effects are also terrible, destructive, and violent. We need to keep our eyes open for potential cultural genocides, as well as physical genocides, and work to stop both on a global scale. A death is a death, whether it's a culture or a person.
Jakob Sergei Weitz is an editorial assistant for The World Policy Journal.
[Photo Courtesy of USAAF. Image design by Jakob Sergei Weitz.]