Instytut Pileckiego

The contribution of Polish legal and scientific thought to the shaping of the concept of genocide. Rafał Lemkin and the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Polish experience of occupation by National Socialist Germany

The objective of the project is to examine and popularize Polish achievements in the field of international law, as well as the achievements of the Polish legal thought in the 20th century, among others by presenting the work of Polish intellectuals, with Rafał Lemkin first and foremost among them. We also aim to show that their activities inspired the discussion on the new paradigms of sovereignty, human rights, and the international legal order after the catastrophe of the Second World War – a conflict which itself was the result of an agreement reached by two totalitarian regimes.

The 20th century, and in particular the period of the Second World War, brought with it the greatest number of civilian victims in history, countable in the tens of millions. The instruments of terror were aimed against groups, communities, and entire nations, all of which were consigned to annihilation on the basis of political decisions grounded in totalitarian ideology. But it was earlier experiences – the First World War, the Armenian Massacre, the pogroms of Jews in the Russian Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the vociferous reaction against the Treaty of Versailles that had confirmed the independence of once-enslaved nations following the demise of four established European empires – that provided the fundamental backdrop to the tragedy which unfolded as the immediate consequence of Nazi and Soviet efforts aimed at achieving dominance in Europe through armed force and terror. During the first half of the 20th century, attempts were made to organize a response to these emanations of violence, thus helping foster the gradual development of international law and the idea of ensuring effective protection for peace and, crucially, rights – not only those of the individual, but also of whole communities and groups.

One of the singularly significant elements of this process was the pioneering conceptual work of Rafał Lemkin, the author of the notion of “genocide”. It is worth noting here that the issue of organized mass killings, viewed from a historical and legal perspective, had focused his attention since the early 1930s.

The international legal milieu of the inter-war period, of which Polish scholars and judicial practitioners constituted an important part, gave birth to new, pivotal concepts of law. As part of the project, we popularize the legal and political trends of the interbellum, the underlying concepts and ideas of the epoch, actions undertaken by specific individuals, and, finally, the efforts made during the Second World War to extirpate and universally stigmatize genocide. We also wish to present the work of lawyers, diplomats and politicians – not only Poles, but also people of other nationalities – who sought to help the victims of a total war waged against the civilian populace of Europe and the whole world, as well as to introduce to the international sphere the legal and political mechanisms that would effectively protect the right to life of both individuals and entire nations.


The project is financed under the “Szlakami Polski Niepodległej” Program of the Ministry of

Science and Higher Education for the years 2018–2023, project no. 01SPN1705318, amount of funding: 985,110 PLN.