8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About

Stephanie Schoppert - March 4, 2017

Genocides are considered to be the worst atrocity a state or world leader can commit. They are condemned by every international body, and the scars of some of history’s worst genocides continue to be felt the world over. There are some genocides that do not get the attention of others, some that are hidden by the countries who wish to hide their past, and some that simply did not catch the world’s attention until it was too late.

While the Jewish Holocaust, the Ukrainian Famine, and the Rwandan genocide have since become rallying cries for those who proclaim “never again,” genocides continue to happen again and again. Here are some 20th century genocides that are not as well known as others, but continue to echo throughout the countries they affected.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Srebrenica Genocide Memorial. Wikipedia

Bosnian Genocide

In the 1970s, the Republic of Yugoslavia was a liberal communist regime that was led by the dictator Josip Broz Tito. He maintained tight control over the various ethnic groups within the country and promoted a “greater Yugoslavia.” This maintained peace throughout the country during his 35 years as leader. After his death in 1980, there was a power vacuum that instantly pitted the ethnic groups against each other as they vied for control. Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia rose to power in 1987 and promoted the idea of Serb-dominated state that worried the other 6 regions of Yugoslavia.

Tensions between the different ethnic groups, Serbs, Croats, and others, were too great to simply be resolved peacefully. War broke out throughout the Yugoslavian regions. Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the most ethnically heterogeneous of the regions, was the location of the worst warfare and ethnic cleansing. The Serb-dominated government sought to remove the Bosniak and Croat presence from what they believed was Serbian territory. The Serbians followed a devastating plan of attack in city after city as they moved through Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Serbs would first urge any Serbian residents to leave and then they would commence bombing the city with artillery. Next the leaders of the town would be executed. Afterward the elderly, women, and children would be separated from the men and older boys. The men and older boys would be executed while the rest would be sent to brutal concentration camps.

The UN responded to the crisis by setting up safety zones such as Srebrenica. Since the UN forces were not allowed to fire back unless in self-defense and they were poorly armed, their “protection” did very little. This was proved when Serbian forces murdered 7,000 men and boys in Sreberenica in the largest massacre in Europe since World War II. Eventually the genocide ended when Bosniaks and Croats joined forces against the Serbs. Estimates for the genocide put the death toll at over 100,000, with millions displaced.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Cross of Remembrance. 107 children and 70 women massacred in Rio Negro as part of the Guatemalan genocide. Chrmaria1.wordpress.com

Guatemalan Genocide

For decades prior to 1980, the Guatemalan government had used terror and violence to combat guerrilla insurgents who threatened the stability of the regime. People would often disappear if they spoke out against the regime and thousands were killed or disappeared every year. In 1980, the focus of the death squads and Guatemalan military turned toward the Mayans. It was believed that the isolated villages of the Mayans were good places for the insurgent guerrilla troops to hide.

626 villages were targeted by the military and their private death squads over the next three years. Men were tortured and killed. Women were raped and killed. Children were brutally murdered in front of their parents. Killing large portions of a village was not enough for the squads as they also practiced a “scorched earth” policy. Buildings and crops were burned and destroyed, water sources were fouled, and livestock was killed. Sacred places, relics, and symbols were also destroyed.

Anyone who stood up against the atrocities, spoke about them or tried to increase awareness faced the same fate. Many Catholics were killed for speaking in support of the Mayans. Most Western governments turned a blind eye to the atrocities in Guatemala in order to keep Guatemala from becoming a communist country. The U.S. government directly supported Guatemala while the massacres were occurring. After 36 years of fighting, and 8 years of atrocities against the Mayans from 1978 to 1986, the conflict ended in 1996.

Human rights studies have since uncovered numerous mass graves and started reporting the stories. Estimates on the low side put the death toll from the genocide at 170,000. The Guatemalan people continue to seek justice for the genocide as very few members of the death squads, Guatemalan military, and the former government have faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Serbs told that their lives would be spared are instead marched to concentration camps or execution sites. Theremustbejustice.wordpress.com

Genocide by the Ustaše

During World War II, the Holocaust was a devastating genocide that took the lives of millions at the hands of Nazi Germany. At the same time, there was another genocide occurring in Croatia that mirrored that of the Nazis but on a smaller scale. Yugoslavia fell to the Axis powers in April of 1941 and the Independent State of Croatia was created. The extremist political group the Ustaše, which had been in existence since 1930 and after seeking help from a number of countries, adopted Nazi ideals to get the Nazis to help them come into power.

The Ustaše regime believed in ultranationalism and they believed in a “greater Yugoslavia.” The Ustaše outlawed all other political parties and all public and private activities were subject to the will of the state. In May of 1941, the Ustaše Organization announced three goals that would led to a stronger and purer Croatia. First, a third of the Serbian population would be forced to convert to Catholicism. Second, a third of the Serbian population was to be deported. Lastly, a third of the Serbian population was to be killed.

Just one month later, the Croatian military committed their first mass murder near Gudovac. In May the killing continued as thousands Serbs in Velgun and Glina were massacred. Concentration camps were built between 1941 and 1942 and showed just how much the Ustaše were emulating the Nazis. These camps held anywhere from 100,000 to 700,000 Serbian and Jewish prisoners. Most of the camps were short-lived, closing by the end of 1942. But the largest, Jasenovac, continued to operate.

The killings of thousands of Serbs were brutally conducted. Elderly, women, and children were burned. Bone marrow fat was boiled to make soap and in some cases prisoners were simply thrown into boiling water. Some were drowned and thousands had their throats slashed. Rebel groups were able to fight back toward the end of World War II and freed the country from the Ustaše regime.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Photo of Greeks being forced to the interior, called by many as the March of Death. Orthodoxheritage.org

Greek Genocide

The Committee for the Union of Progress (CUP) took power over the Anatolia of the Ottoman Empire with a coup d’etat in 1913. After they took power there was a diplomatic agreement to move Greeks from Asia Minor and send them to Greece while sending Turks in Greece to the CUP. The CUP feared that the Greeks, who were not Turks, would threaten a modern Turkish state.

The outbreak of World War I prevented the exchange of populations and since the Turks believed that there was a chance the Greeks in Asia Minor might work against them, they came up with their own plan to solve the “Greek Problem.” Even through there was nowhere for them to go, Special Organization units emptied Greek villages of their populations. Lucky ones were able to flee to Greece, the unlucky were killed or sent to work camps.

The Special Organization in the summer of 1914 began conscripting all Greek men of military age. They were forced to work as slaves in deplorable conditions as part of what the Turks called Labor Battalions. Greek children were taken from their homes and families and forced to assimilate into Turkish society. Those that were left were forced to move to the interior on long marches. Many of them died of exposure during the forced moves.

Even after the Greeks, aided by the Great Powers, invaded Anatolia in order to save the Greek population, the massacres and deportations continued. The Greeks took Smyrna but it was retaken by the Turks in 1922. Once they had control again the Turks began a huge anti-Greek pogrom. A fire broke out on September 13, and took the lives of over 10,000 Greeks as it spread uncontrollably for two weeks. A peace treaty recognizing the Turkish state was signed in 1923, finally putting an end to the killings. It is unclear how many died from massacre or exposure, but some estimates put the number as high as 1.5 million.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Soldiers standing over skulls of victims from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan in the Mush valley in 1915. Ibtimes.co.uk

Armenian Genocide

At the end of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The crumbling Muslim empire was failing and both the leaders and the Muslim population sought someone to blame. The Armenians were Christians that had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, and, despite being unfairly treated by the Ottoman Empire (higher taxes, fewer legal rights and political freedoms), they flourished. The Muslim leadership feared that this Christian population would side more with other Christian nations than with the Turks and therefore viewed them as the enemy.

In the late 19th century a pogrom was started against the Armenians, villages were ransacked and hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred. In 1908 a new government came into power in Turkey and this gave the Armenians hope that their persecution would be over. Instead the new government sought Turkish purity and therefore believed that the non-Turkish, non-Muslim Armenians were a threat to the state.

On April 14, 1915, a new genocide against the Armenians began. Special organization squads were formed made up of murderers and ex-convicts. They were given the sole duty of eliminating the Christian presence in the country. Armenian children were taken and given to Turkish families after being converted. Women were forced to join Turkish harems. Muslim families took over the homes and belongings of murdered and deported Armenians. Armenians were burned, drowned, crucified, thrown off cliffs, and forced on endless death marches to be “deported.”

In 1922 when the killing finally ceased there were only 388,000 Armenians left in the Ottoman Empire. Most estimates put the number killed at around 1.5 million. To this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the genocide that occurred against the Armenians. The Turkish government continues to refer to the events of 1915 as deportations, not genocide.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Biafran children suffering from starvation due to the blockade. Ezeluchie.blogspot.com

Biafra Genocide

Nigeria in 1965 was made up of 250 ethnic groups, with the north primarily inhabited by the Hausa tribe which was Muslim, the south-west by the Yoruba tribe that was half-Muslim and half-Christian, and the south-east by the Igbo tribe that was Christian. Until 1965 the tribes were relatively peaceful, but that year oil was discovered in the region inhabited by the Igbo. Following political upheaval and violence in Nigeria, an Igbo colonel declared the region inhabited by the Igbo to be the independent state of Biafra in May 1967.

The Nigerian army was sent in to suppress the independence movement in Biafra, but the first three attacks on the region failed. Unable to suppress the rebellion militarily, the Nigerian government went with another tactic. On May 9, 1968, the Nigerian army took control of Port Harcourt. This was the most important port in Biafra and it allowed the Nigerian government to implement a land and sea blockade of the region.

The goal of the blockade was to completely starve the residents of the region. The army bombed farms and destroyed any method of generating food. Famine set in and the military forces in Biafra suffered. With the military of Biafra deteriorating, the Nigerian Federal Military Government just waited until the right moment to strike. On December 23, 1969, the military moved in and divided the region in two. One by one, cities fell to the Nigerian forces.

The final city fell on January 13, 1970, the leader of Biafra fled, and his deputy signed the surrender. Estimates put the death toll from disease and starvation at 2 million, with most of the dead being women, children, and the elderly, those who had nothing to do with the fighting. The surviving Igbo had all their money in Nigerian banks taken and were given only 20 pounds in return. Their cities were taken and given to other tribes. Even today, the Igbo face discrimination and violence.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
A woman stands among a graveyard for just a few of the victims of the Kurdish Genocide. Worldbulletin.net

Kurdish Genocide

In 1970 the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani reached an agreement for the autonomy of Kurdistan and political representation within the Baghdad government. While the agreement seemed like a positive end to nearly a decade of violence, by 1974 many parts of the agreement were still not fulfilled. Hostilities once again broke out and by the end of the 1970s, 600 Kurdish villages were completely destroyed, and 200,000 Kurds were forced to move to other areas of Iraq.

With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians began providing support to Kurdish guerrilla forces in their fight for independence. The Iranians hoped that a stronger Kurdish force would divide the Iraqi military. The Kurdish rebellion was easily suppressed by the Iraqi military, but the Kurds joined with the Iranians in order to keep fighting against the Iraqis.

Unfortunately for the Kurdish people, the reprisal was a terrifying campaign named the Al-Anfal campaign. The Iraqi military conducted ground attacks and aerial bombings in order to destroy Kurdish villages. Concentration camps were built to house and exterminate captured Kurds. There were mass executions of men who were of military age and chemical warfare that killed entire villages.

One of the worst attacks occurred in 1988 when Iranian troops and Kurdish guerrillas took control of an Iraqi military base in Halabja. The Iraqi Air Force retaliated by firing rockets and napalm into the residential areas. This was followed by a poison gas attack which killed as many as 5,000 civilians, most of which were women and children. 10,000 more were severely injured, making it the worst poison gas attack since World War I, when the practice was outlawed.

The Al-Anfal campaign finally came to an end in 1988 when both sides agreed to amnesty. The end of hostilities came as a surprise to the Kurds, but was likely a result of Baghdad believing the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) was defeated. Throughout the entire campaign, an estimated 182,000 Kurds perished and 2,000 villages were destroyed.

8 Genocides of the 20th Century That You Might Not Know About
Soldiers posing with the severed heads of Chinese civilians in Nanking. Beijingshots.com

Rape of Nanking

While not widely described as a genocide, the Rape of Nanking was a massacre of epic proportions that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese. In December of 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese war was in full swing and the Japanese were furious that the war was dragging on, as they had bragged they would conquer all of China in just three months. 50,000 angry Japanese soldiers marched into Nanking where the Chinese forces were ill-prepared for the Japanese assault. It took just 4 days of fighting for the Japanese to overtake the substantially larger Chinese force, and they entered the city on December 13.

Once they entered the city, the Japanese troops were given a simple order; “Kill all captives.” The Japanese troops first went for the 90,000 Chinese soldiers who had surrendered. The POWs were trucked to the outskirts of the city where they were tortured and executed. Once all of the captured soldiers were dead the Japanese returned to the city and moved on to the women. Women and girls of all ages were gang-raped and then killed by the soldiers. Anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 women suffered this fate.

The Japanese soldiers turned the city into a sadistic playground. Torturing anyone they pleased, forcing families to commit sex acts on each other, locking people inside burning buildings, and firing machine guns into crowds. For six weeks, the Japanese soldiers were left unchecked to kill, rape, torture, steal, and destroy whatever they wished. At times the soldiers would amuse themselves with killing contests to see who could decapitate the most people before throwing the corpses into mass graves.

As many as 300,000 died in the massacre. Those that survived did so because 20 Westerners, armed with little more than Red Cross flags, secured a 2.5-mile square in the center of the city. They declared the space the International Safety Zone and refused to allow the Japanese to enter. Only those Chinese who made it to the safety zone lived.