Do numbers matter? Learn about genocide, and often the first fact you’ll learn about is the number of victims. Six million Jews perished during the Holocaust. A million and a half Cambodians were killed during their genocide, eight hundred thousand Tutsis in Rwanda. While the UN Genocide Convention does not include a numerical threshold for genocide in its definition, we often equate the number of victims so closely with an act of genocide that the number itself seems to define the crime. Without such a threshold, does genocide occur? 

It is a question that graduate students on the Politics of Numbers in Genocide Studies and Memory Debates panel grappled with earlier this month at the Mass Violence and Human Rights (MVHR) graduate student workshop. MVHR (formerly the Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence) is an interdisciplinary working group of graduate students from across the university interested in sharing and collaborating on genocide and mass violence research. In the first panel of its kind, the MVHR students from Sociology, History, and French & Italian Studies from both the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University weighed in on the problems associated with numbers when examining the crime of genocide. 

The panel began with a discussion of the genocide of Native Americans in North America and the challenge of recognizing a genocide without numbers. Unlike other episodes of genocide, the genocide of Indigenous people does not have a definitive beginning and endpoint. The vague timeline of the genocide is coupled with the Federal government’s policies that targeted specific tribes while not being a blanket policy toward all tribes, meaning tribes experience genocide at a different time and in different ways at different periods. Can the genocide of Indigenous people be thought of as a single genocide toward a target people or a series of smaller genocides over a longer period of time? And without precise numbers, how do we commemorate the genocide or genocides?

Next was the debate through an analysis of Rwanda – where the dominant Tutsi population of Rwanda today has come to dominate how the state remembers and commemorates the genocide, at the expense of the Hutu victims who were killed during the fighting. This raises an important challenge in genocide studies – that the group with the largest number of victims gets to claim victimhood preeminence over other groups, inevitably altering how the genocide itself is framed. In the case of Rwanda, this has led to a strict narrative of genocide rather than the events in the context of a wider civil war. 

Similarly, they examined the wars in the former Yugoslavia, an area now broken up into seven different countries following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Within a confined region, there are seven different memories of the region’s mass violence, each conflicting with one another. In addition to these differing memories of past violence, there are competing actors vying for victimhood position, attempting to discredit the experience and memory of groups in the region. In the case of the Balkans, victims statistics are the currency for competing positions of victimhood, with each state continually revising its own number of victims. Beyond the impact this has on interstate relationships between former adversaries, this has the effect of impeding reconciliation efforts between neighbors, where perpetrators and victims still live in close proximity to one another. 

Finally, the panel was concluded by an exploration of Holodomor. The case of the Holodomor was explored through two lenses: in comparison with the Holocaust and its position as Soviet & post-Soviet propaganda. To the first point, the Holodomor, historically, has been overshadowed by the Holocaust, both in recognition and scope. It’s something that can be found in other episodes of genocide. It’s the idea that genocide is the crime of all crimes, and genocide, with its intent to destroy in whole or in part, is worse than other forms of mass violence — even if resulting in more deaths.

In addition, the Holodomor has been the victim of politicization for decades, both during the height of the USSR and finally in the 1990s when Ukraine gained its independence. Because of this, the victim numbers of the Holodomor have expanded and shrunk depending on the need at a particular moment and which body was doing the calculating. Because of this, the number of victims of the famine has expanded and shrunk significantly over the decades. Holodomor casualties, and victimhood itself, has been a pawn to meet particular narratives at given moments. 

With the highest attendance of any MVHR workshop this semester, the panel prompted a lively conversation regarding the politics of numbers and naming. Students and faculty grappled with the questions posed by the panelists, and some posed their own. For example, participants discussed the difficulty researchers face when recognizing other kinds of victims during mass violence, such as victims of the wars in Yugoslavia that were not genocide victims or Hutu victims of the Rwanda civil war — also not to be mistaken for genocide victims. These efforts to name and recognize other victims and victim groups can be misinterpreted as unsympathetic, or worse, genocide denial. 

We look forward to exploring these cases and questions in the weeks to come with authored posts from each of the panelists.