When is Genocide Genocide? A Christian Historian’s View

When is Genocide Genocide? A Christian Historian’s View

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This essay seeks to clarify the word “genocide” which is much overused, and is currently being used against Israel in reference to its war against Hamas. The Marien-Webster dictionary gives a fair and brief definition of the genocide as: the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”

The clearest example of genocide in modern history was the Nazi massacre of European Jews. That effort was almost totally successful. Less successful and less well known, but also genocide was the Nazi’s attempt to eliminate the Gypsies (Roma people). Historians generally term the Turkish massacres of the Armenians during World War I as genocide. But in the past decade the word genocide has been extended and used by groups which are unhappy of the killing of civilians, and misappropriate the word for political gain. Recall the crisis of 2020, when several police shootings and the murder of George Floyd produced angry claims that the police were committing genocide against African Americans.

The debate on the issue of Israel committing genocide in Gaza would be more enlightened if the classic Christian work on war and the waging of was by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) Moral Man and Immoral Society were better known.[1] Niebuhr was professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York during the 1940s and was the most widely read and influential Protestant theologian of his generation. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued against pacifism and for the necessity of the state to use force to limit injustice, conquest and tyranny. His arguments were a revision and elaboration of Christian Just War theology. For Niebuhr, war was a tragic necessity and never completely successful. Man’s sin nature would ensure that mistakes would be made in the course of the war or in the peace process. In fact, nothing would be definitively just until the Second Coming. Yet inaction and pious pacifism would lead to catastrophe. Niebuhr’s view on war and the use of force were contested strongly by other theologians when it first came out in 1933, as many were disillusioned with the failure of World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” – an unrealistic goal. But as Nazi and Japanese aggression developed in the 1940s most Christians came to agree with his position.

From a historical viewpoint it is important to distinguish genocide from the killing of large numbers of civilians during wartime. The latter is tragic, and may be a war crime, but it is not necessarily united to a desire to eliminate a group of people. History has provided many instances of mass killings of civilians that were not genocide. For instance, when Genghis Khan (1162-1227) began his invasions of Asia and Europe, he gave the cities under his attack the choice of surrendering and becoming part of his empire, or resisting with the consequence of the total annihilation when his army broke into the city. That, in today’s parlance, was a war crime, but not genocide, as the Khan’s intention was to increase the population of his empire, with future tax revenue, etc. The mass killings after the siege were intended to be a warning and terror event to be noticed by cities next on his plan of conquest.

Another example of the many examples that might be cited along this line of major civilian killings that was not genocide was the way Ivan the Terrible, Czar of Russia (1530-1584) handled rebellious subject and cities. After his army had destroyed the rebel army, the prisoners and the civilians of the area or city were killed in fiendishly cruel ways, including impaling on wooden stakes. Again, a war atrocity but not genocide. Czar Ivan was not interested in eliminating whole populations or people groups, only in making an example of those who had rebelled against him.

It was after World War II that the term genocide came into common use. That war sadly provided many instances of mass civilian killings, both Allied and Axis. World War II began (1939) with the Germans bombing Polish, Belgium and Dutch cities to force those governments into immediate surrender – it worked in the case of the Dutch. The bombing of cities continued in the Nazi air “Blitz” over the United Kingdom. This was not genocide but rather terror bombing to force surrender.

British investigating teams examining the bomb damage on their cities learned that losing a home or family member was very demoralizing, and could paralyze and confuse the war industry work done by the survivors. When the British built up their own bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, they purposely bombed residential neighborhoods to do similarly and break German morale. They were systematic about this: the first wave of bombers dropped high explosive bombs which blew off the roofs of buildings, the second wave dropped incendiaries which started fires with the furniture and other flammable materials inside the houses.[2]

There is evidence that Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Brittain, intended these bombings to be a punishment to the German people for choosing Hitler. He had lived through World War I, where German bombers bombed London, and was frustrated by the rebirth of German militarism and the Nazi regime. He did not want a “tripeat” and wanted to make sure the German public became averse to another war.[3] It worked. The combination of Allied bombing, huge war casualties in their armed forces, the Soviet occupation and rape of German women, plus the revelations of Nazi genocide (which the German public was unaware during the war) all shocked the German public towards a pacifist orientation.[4]

In fact, the British carpet bombing of German cities came closer to winning the war than most people know. In 1943, the industrial and port city of Hamburg was attacked by both British and American bombers. Hamburg was important to German war production and was where the fearsome Tiger tank, the best in the world, was being manufactured. This bombing caused a firestorm with hurricane force winds that spread and consumed the city. Perhaps 40,000 persons, almost all civilians, died in the attack. The Nazi leadership was thrown into temporary disarray and Hitler commented to his inner group that if other firestorms came to major German cities he would have to sue for peace. A firestorm of that scale was not caused again, though the British tried many times and suffered heavy air crew losses in the process.[5] Although Berlin never experienced a firestorm such as Hamburg, by the end of the war it was transformed into rubble by multiple British, American, and Soviet bomber raids and artillery.

The Royal Air Force was responsible for most of German civilian casualties of the war. Total German civilian deaths caused by the Allied air campaign have been estimated at approximately 600,000. Surprisingly to most people, this is about 100,000 more than the total for Japan, which was produced by the American Air Corps, including the casualties caused by both Atom Bombs.[6] In Europe, the American Air Corp in Europe first attempted to avoid bombing civilian areas directly and tried, with its famous Norden bomb sight, to target war production facilities or railheads. But the bomb sights were very difficult to use properly. Europe’s weather included many cloudy and overcast days, and the American bombing campaign resulted in many unintended civilian deaths, but far fewer than the British.[7]

A very difficult choice was made in the planning and execution of the “D-Day” – the invasion at Normandy. Hitler had built an impressive line of defenses (concrete artillery positions, etc.) from Norway to the Spanish border. To successfully invade, this line had to be disabled by bombing with heavy bombers as well destroying as the French railroad system along the coast, including railroad marshalling yards that were set in or around cities. It was by rail that the Germans would send reinforcements to the Normandy area. When the Allied plans were drawn, they estimated that the bombing campaign would result in as many as 50,000 innocent French civilians dead as collateral damage. Churchill was appalled and wanted a new plan drawn up, Eisenhour, reluctantly agreed but deferred to General De Gaulle, head of the Free French forces. De Gaulle (later president of France) agreed with the plan and considered the civilian loses as the cost of liberation. No genocide here, just the necessity and tragedy of war.

These example of modern history are cited to point out the difference between high civilian casualties and genocide. Neither the British nor the Americans has genocidal intent. When the war ended the bombing ended. Germans were treated decently in the British and American sectors of the Allied occupation.[8] Similarly, when Japan surrendered the bombing of its cities was stopped, and the American occupation of Japan goes down in history as being enlightened, generous, and to the benefit of the Japanese people.

Now to the Israel-Hamas war. TV news is filled daily with Palestinian parents crying over their dead children – a tragedy indeed. South Africa has brought charges of war crimes against Israel. Various news sources and writes have also charged Israel with genocide, or at the very least with the intention of totally removing the Palestinians from Gaza.[9] Some Israelis may in fact favor the latter course, but there is no evidence that the is the Government’s intention or policy. The said intention of to have a Palestine governed Gaza without Hamas, and with the Israeli Army as a permanent presence to ensure that Hamas does not reoccupy and rearm in Gaza – a reasonable intention which echoes what Churchill wished about Germany.

What we do have in the Israeli-Hama war is yet another instance of high civilian casualties as collateral damage. This is the product of having to destroy the elaborate Hamas tunnel structure which were purposely dug in and around the civilian infrastructure. News coverage shows the immediate result in videos of bomb craters in the midst of a Gazan city or refugee camp. Yet relatively little is said about the deliberate plan of Hamas to design their tunnels so that tremendous force would be needed to destroy and disarm them.  For Hamas, the more civilian casualties the better as a way of discrediting Israel and separating it from its allies and supporters. This is confirmed by the radical Islamists theology which understands these civilian casualties as “martyrs” and worthy of heaven. We have seen this before, as for instance in the 9/11 attacks where the conspirators dismissed any remorse about the innocent civilians on the planes, including a group of African American children on a trip to Washington, which slammed into the Pentagon.

So, if the bombing and clearing of Gaza is not genocide, can it be called a war crime? This is a difficult question, and perhaps reference to Churchille’s bombing campaign against Germany and America’s experience in the Cold Waw “hot wars” of Korea and Vietnam can give us a wider respective. All these conflicts generated similar dilemmas between combat and causing civilian casualties.

At the beginning of the Korean War, North Korean troops were overwhelming the South Korean and American forces, thousands of Korean refugees clogged the roads as they also fled the North Korean Army. These civilian columns were systematically infiltrated by North Koren soldiers in civilian garb who would then ambush the American forces from behind. This was on some occasions countered by shooting into the civilian crowds causing many casualties.[10] This was not genocide. Like Churchill’s area bombing of German cities, a war crime – maybe, maybe not, and perhaps a war necessity. Persons who have not had positions of responsibility tend to judge quickly on these matters with statements like, “Of course they were war crimes, only a fiend would have done so.” But persons who have been in war are not so quick to judge. Business executives often have similar dilemmas, as in having to lay off some very able and loyal employees during a recession.

In the Vietnam War the American high command attempted to limit civilian causalities to the minimum. The generals understood that in a guerrilla war one had to win over the “hearts and minds” of the population. Reducing civilian casualties was mostly done through “rules of engagement.” That is, in order for American troops to fire their weapons, they had to see the target and see that it was a hostile foe. This would prevent the type of incidents that took place at the beginning of the Korean War. This was a major step forward in attempting to have a moral face in war.[11]

In the first years of American direct combat these rules were largely effective. Morale was high, and our soldiers had a sense of the anti-Communist purpose of the war. There was also a sense of having to live up to the military valor and achievements of the WWII generation who were their fathers and uncles. Many times, American soldiers did not fire when responding to attacks if it would harm civilians, and at times suffered casualties for their restraint. Viet Cong troops understood this and purposely used civilians as shields, as the North Koreans had done decades before.

This has not been documented sufficiently. I received some firsthand information on this from Major Russell Ramsey (later mayor of Gainesville, Florida) when he was a graduate student at the University of Florida where we took several classes together. In 1967, he had returned from deployment with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) as a company commander. He described several heart-rending stories of the Viet Cong purposely using civilians as shields. Currently, in Afghanistan, the Taliban also understand all too well the American rules of engagement and use them similarly. Of course, Communist government crackdowns do not show such restraint. For instance, the Chinese suppression of the Tibetan revolt was utterly ruthless with many massacres perpetrated, and no news about them permitted to escape.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, morale was undermined by the anti-war movement in the United States. As cynicism towards the war grew, fire discipline began to break down among the ground forces. Surviving a year’s tour in this “crazy Asian war” (one of the phrases of a popular song) was the highest priority of the average soldier, not winning the hearts and minds of the population. At the village of My Lai, a platoon of the Americal Division, which had repeatedly experienced sniper and bobby trap casualties, massacred the entire village population. Ironically, at the same time, China was on a campaign in Tibet which used massacres as a policy — but denying it and enforcing a press blackout. The Left in America and Western Europe ignored this slaughter of perhaps 1.2 million Tibetans as they vociferously protested the Vietnam War.

So now to the chase. Is the bombing policy of the Israeli Armed forces a war crime or not. The answer I believe lies in the gray area of morality. Is there another possible way for Israel to root out Hamas and destroy its infrastructure? Perhaps not. My sense is this is a case similar to the Allied bombing the French railroad marshaling yards. But the casualties are very high in Gaza and certainly there is room for a reasonable person to come to a more negative judgement.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932). It is still in print, but also available online as a free PDF download.


[2] See the Wikipedia article, “dehousing.”

[3] See an insiders’ view of how Churchill managed the British bombardment of German cities in C. P. Snow’s Science and Government (New York; Oxford University Press, 1961).


[4]Even now, almost 80 years after the war, the German armed forces are second rate, with basically good equipment but insufficient spare parts, and low morale.  The German public has not wanted to pay the price for a first-rate armed forces. This is dangerous in view of the potential threat from an expansionist Russia.


[5] German night fighters became extremely effective, and even towards the end of the war were inflicting up to 25% shoot down rate on British night bomber formations. See Johnen Wilhelm, Battling the Bombers (New York: Ace, 1958).


[6]George Cotkin, Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania, 2010), Chapter 2, “The Sky That Never Cared.” 48-49.


[7] An infamous case was the bombing raid on the Erla Motor Works in the town of Mortsel, Belgium. The factory was producing engines for the German war machine, but from the 24 bombers attacking, only two bombs landed on target and the rest missed and demolished the adjacent neighborhood killing almost 1,000 civilians.


[8] I have suggested in an essay that the terrible destruction brought on to Nazi Germany was a manifestation of the wrath of God for Germany’s militarism and racism. See: William De Arteaga, “The Wrath of God in Modern History,” in: Marvels and Signs (Lee’s Summit: Christos, 2022).


[9]The Economist, “How the term “genocide” is misused in the Israeli-Hamas war,” (Jan. 9, 2024).  https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2023/11/10/how-the-term-genocide-is-misused-in-the-israel-hamas-war?utm_campaign=a.the-economist-today&utm_medium=email.internal-newsletter.np&utm_source=salesforce-marketing-cloud&utm_term=1/17/2024&utm_id=1844586


[10] This was dramatized in the film, “One Minute to Zero” (1953) starring Robert Mitchum. In one scene an American officer is forced to call in artillery on a civilian group that was infiltrated with North Korean soldiers.

[11] Note the rules of war in Deuteronomy 20.

William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.

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