Be cautious with words like ‘genocide’

Charlemagne vs Saxons

Yesterday, in discussion about the previous night’s Charlemagne commemorative lecture, someone said that her main impression of Charlemagne was of him being ‘genocidal.’ I think we should be careful with the word genocide, and I don’t think it applies to Charlemagne’s activities.

The important follow-up to that statement is that Charlemagne not being genocidal doesn’t exonerate him from the things he did do. It, rather, helps us define his activity more precisely, while also preserving the word genocide for actual genocides, and, as a result, not cheapening it.

Genocide is the attempt by a government or group of people to kill off (Latin suffix, -cidium, -cida), either actively or through conscious inattention, another group of people (genus, although possibly Greek genos, which works a bit better) — thus, from the Latin/Greek roots, genocide; just as homicide is the killing of a human (homo), suicide the killing of oneself (se/suus/suo-), fratricide the killing one’s brother (frater), pesticide the killing of a pest (pestis), verbicide the killing of a word (verbum), and so forth.

Presumably, one may consider Charlemagne guilty of genocide because of his dealings with the Saxons. During his repeated wars against this people in which he was seeking to subjugate them to his rule and forcibly convert them to Christianity, a significant number of them rebelled against him. As a result, Charlemagne took 4500 prisoners and executed them for treason at Verden.*

We could use many words to describe this activity: butchery, slaughter, mass execution, and so forth.

But genocide is not one of them.

The complete extermination of the Saxons as a people was never Charlemagne’s goal; he wanted to conquer them and incorporate them into the Frankish state. However terrible we wish our verdict on Verden to be, genocide is simply inaccurate.

I stress again, however: to exonerate Charlemagne of genocide is not to exonerate him of the actual bad things he did. Not even his contemporaries did; Alcuin was not overfond of his policy towards the Saxons, urging him to use softer forms of evangelism when he defeated the pagan Avars, instead.

The reason I think this is important is because genocide, sadly, is very real. Immediately most minds turn to the Holocaust during the Nazi rule of Germany. However, let us not forget the mutual genocidal action in Rwanda and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans in the 1990s. Or perhaps the Armenian Genocide of the early twentieth century. These are real genocides because they were real attempted exterminations of entire people groups.

Other things, such as the Canadian government’s attempts at forced assimilation of the First Nations, are also bad and sorrowful. But they are not genocide.

Let us save that terrible word for what it denotes.

*500 years later, Dante puts traitors in the lowest circle of Hell with Brutus and Judas Iscariot; the mediaeval mind took oaths seriously. This doesn’t justify Charlemagne, it’s just a bit of nuance.


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