Stalin, Hitler, Putin. Children as victims of genocide: historical parallels

3 June 2024

Violence against children and their forced assimilation are well-known but often underestimated elements of the crime of genocide. Dictators Stalin and Hitler resorted to them in the 20th century, and Putin, the leader of the aggressor country of the Russian Federation, resorts to them today. It is crucial that Raphael Lemkin, the author of the term “genocide”, also considered crimes against children to be an integral part of the genocidal policy of the Third Reich. It is through the prism of Lemkin’s work that we examined the manifestations of the genocide of Ukrainian children already in our time.

The definition of the crime of genocide accepted in international law is recorded in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. According to it, genocide is an act to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial, ethnic, national or religious group as such.

However, this definition was a compromise result of long discussions and significantly differed from the way the concept of “genocide” was explained by its author, Raphael Lemkin, an American lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin. Back in 1944, his book The Axis Rule in Occupied Europe was published in Washington, where he outlined a completely new at that time concept of this “crime of crimes.”

Lemkin understood genocide much more broadly — not only as acts of violence. He singled out, in particular, the political, social, cultural and economic manifestations of this crime, which were not included in the Convention. These are, for instance, the imposition of a certain type of government, the destruction of the intelligentsia as a class that can organise resistance, the banning of the native language in schools and book publishing, the destruction of cultural heritage and the lowering of the standard of living of the subjugated group, etc.

When it comes to children as an object of genocide, Lemkin paid little attention to this problem. All references to children as victims of genocide can be reduced to two ways of influencing them — conventionally “physical” (murder, violence, etc.) and “cultural” (assimilation, “re-education”).

In particular, Lemkin wrote about the physical destruction of children and the creation of unfavourable conditions for their development and physical health. Such conditions can manifest themselves in reduced food standards or limited access to heating in the cold season, which leads to health problem

Examples of mass extermination of children are also known in the history of Ukraine. In the early 1930s, the Stalinist regime starved no less than 1.7 million children under the age of 14.

Undoubtedly, even during the modern genocidal war, which has been unleashed by Russia since 2014, children suffer from the crimes of the occupiers. According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, as of May 13, 2024, 546 children died in Ukraine, and another 1,337 were injured — and this without fully considering information from places where active hostilities are ongoing. The real numbers can be much higher.

Additionally, the health of children and adults is affected by the seizure and purposeful destruction of infrastructure facilities that provide basic life needs, such as power plants, water pipes, etc.

As already discussed above, the second aspect of the genocidal policy towards children, which Lemkin mentioned, is their assimilation. This manifestation of genocide was included in the UN Convention of 1948: Article II refers to the forcible transfer of children from one human group to another. In essence, this method of genocide is delayed, depriving the victim group of a future.

Analysing the rule of the Third Reich in the occupied countries, Lemkin separately paid attention to the policy regarding children in Luxembourg, which had been occupied by the Nazis since 1940. The occupation administration passed laws that would contribute to the Germanization of children. They were encouraged to depart from Christian traditions, which at that time were part of the Luxembourgish identity so that the worldview associated with Catholicism did not become an alternative to the ideology of the Third Reich. All this was accompanied by the encouragement of young Luxembourgers to join youth Nazi organisations.

In 1941, a resolution was issued according to which boys and girls from the age of 17 in Luxembourg had to join the labour service of the Third Reich. Initially, they worked on the territory of the Moselland district in western Germany (the main city is Koblenz), an administrative-territorial unit of the Third Reich, to which Luxembourg was added in 1941. Later, these young men and women were sent to work in other regions of Germany. In the end, Hitler tried to Germanize Luxembourg changing the educational program, the Germanization of surnames, etc.

The above-mentioned elements of genocide are also important for modern Ukraine. In the occupied territories, the Russian Federation is turning Ukrainian children into cogs of the system, on which the occupation administration could rely in the future. For example, the Russian children’s military organization Yunarmiya, whose roots can be traced back to the USSR, is actively working at TOT.

Separately, it is worth mentioning the forced deportation (abduction) of children from the occupied territories to Russia, where their Ukrainian identity is permanently erased. On charges of this war crime, on March 23, 2023, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. Also, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recognized the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied territories and their Russification as genocide.

Stalin pursued a similar policy during the Holodomor: orphaned children who ended up in shelters were subjected to ideological influence, and those who survived were either silent for decades or could talk about their experiences only in the closest circle.

As we can see, the Russian dictator Putin, committing crimes against Ukrainian children, is treading the path blazed by Stalin and Hitler. The genocide of Ukrainians through the extermination of children is a method very similar to those described by Rafal Lemkin using the example of Nazi Germany. That is why evil must be punished, in particular, in court, as was the case after World War II.

Mykhailo KOSTIV,

Head of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes

Research Department,

National Museum of the Holodomor-genocide

Source – NV

In the photo – Children from Putin’s Yunarmiya military organisation in Khartsyzk, Donetsk region, May 9, 2024 / Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko.