I.In late autumn 1939, the Russian historian of Jewish history, Simon Dubnow, received the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his house in Kaiserwald – a district of the Latvian Riga. Lemkin had fled from Warsaw occupied by the Wehrmacht, had sought refuge temporarily in Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania and immediately went to Sweden. In 1941 it reached the United States via the Soviet Union and Japan. There he coined the term “genocide” in 1944 and made a decisive contribution to anchoring it in the convention against genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of 1948. Dubnow was murdered by the Germans and their Latvian helpers when the Riga ghetto was “cleared” at the end of 1941.
The conversation between the historian and the lawyer in Kaiserwald revolved around the question of how it could be that mass crimes against national, ethnic, racially or religiously marked collectives went unpunished, while individual homicides were generally prosecuted. Despite all the progress that international criminal law took from “Nuremberg” to finally become practical with the establishment of an International Criminal Court more than twenty years ago, this question is unlikely to have been adequately answered. It is of little help to blame this shortcoming on the term genocide, which is not so clearly defined in legal terms as a result of political compromise. Rather, this is due to deep-seated, anthropologically justifiable legal difficulties – such as the difficulty in distinguishing between different collective forms of killing.