“Genocide” is the systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group of people. Most genocides erupt from racial animosity, but poverty plays a significant role in many of the biggest genocides in history, either as a precursor to or result of the violence.
According to Peter Joseph, director of the documentary “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward,” poverty has caused more deaths worldwide than all of history’s biggest genocides and continues to do so.
“Structural violence [poverty]is also the main cause of behavioral violence,” said Joseph in his documentary. A historical synopsis will reveal poverty’s role in history’s biggest genocides.
1. The Holocaust
By far the most well-known of the biggest genocides in world history, the Holocaust culminated in the deaths of roughly five million Jews. Such a feat wouldn’t have been possible if poverty had not been ravaging Germany at the time.
After WWI, the Allies forced Germany to pay large reparations. Warfare had already drained its economy, and the added debt left families further impoverished. Meanwhile, many Jewish businesses flourished, leading to high racial tension exacerbated by Nazi extremist groups. Ensuing anti-Semitism enabled several German households to condone, and even participate in, the destruction of Jewish businesses and mass deportation of Jewish families.
2. The Cambodian Genocide
Rich with natural resources, Cambodia was once a great empire. However, in 1970, the Vietnamese War threw the country into chaos. A new communist party arose, the Khmer Rouge. Its leader, Pol Pot, envisioned a Cambodia without war or poverty, comprised of peasant farmers. He ordered the extinction of the “educated” class. Historians estimate as many as three million doctors, teachers and other well-learned individuals died–nearly 25 percent of the population.
Decades later, Cambodia still suffers from the loss of its educated workers. With almost 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line, it’s the third poorest country in Asia. Malnutrition, poor hygiene and a lack of education are rampant, even in urban areas.
3. The Rwandan Genocide
On April 6, 1994, fear and distrust in Rwanda between the Hutu and the Tutsi spiked when President Habyarimana, a Hutu, died in a mysterious plane crash. Within a few weeks, Hutu extremists massacred 800,000 Tutsis. The violence only stopped when international leaders protested.
The mass killings and subsequent deportations devastated the economy. Today, 14 percent of the rural population is landless and less than six percent of rural children attend secondary school.
4. The Greek, Armenian and Assyrian Genocides
Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire witnessed the extermination of 75 percent of the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian population. In an attempt to transform the Ottoman Empire into a homo-religious country, the Young Turks—the reigning political party—targeted the Christian minority.
Due to a long series of repressive rulers, most Turks were illiterate and vulnerable to blind obedience. Christians, while significantly more educated, were second-class citizens, and most lived below the poverty line. They lacked the power to defy the Turkish military, and nearly three million were slaughtered.
For many years, political leaders wouldn’t legitimize one of history’s biggest genocides because the approximated four million deaths were a direct result of famine. However, the famine occurred when Joseph Stalin coerced Soviet Ukraine to surrender its farmland to agricultural collectivization. Stalin hoped large-scale farming would feed industrial workers and fund his political campaign, but Ukrainian farmers refused to relinquish their traditional agriculture. In response, Stalin deported the most successful farmers to Siberia, appropriated their land and restricted the transportation of crops to surrounding areas. Within three years, 30,000 Ukrainians perished each day.
Stalin denied any accounts of famine until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2006, the Parliament of Ukraine officially declared Holodomor to be a genocide.
– Sarah Prellwitz
Sources: “Holodomor”, Rutgers University, Rural Poverty Portal, The Holocaust Explained, United Human Rights 1, United Human Rights 2, World Food Prize, Youtube