Visual Representation of the Stages of Genocide


Genocide is performed in a systematic and structural process, often shown through distinct phases or stages.  Genocides throughout history, though different, reveal this pattern.  These stages go beyond the highly known mass killings and executions, but start long before that.  Adam Jones discusses the plan of genocide in his book, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, “It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” [i]  One can see the similarities between genocides and the use of these stages by analyzing different research and visual images of different genocides.  In this paper, I will show images from different genocides throughout history, in order the show the similarities of how these steps are utilized, I will focus on five of the eight steps; classification, symbolization, dehumanization, preparation, and extermination.


Before showing images, I will first explain the general steps that will be my guideline for the remainder of my paper.  There are major steps that genocidaires follow in order to commit genocide.  Genocide Watch, an organization that works to prevent genocide, has created a model of eight steps that compromise genocide;[ii]

  1. Classification
  2. Symbolization
  3. Dehumanization
  4. Organization
  5. Polarization
  6. Preparation
  7. Extermination
  8. Denial

These steps were created by Gregory Stanton, the president of the organization, and presented to the United States Department of State following the Rwandan genocide in order to explain why genocide happens and ultimately how to prevent it.  Furthermore, these steps can be executed in a different order than the one shown above and some steps may be more apparent than others.


The first step deals with the “us” versus “them” mentality that genocide usually begins with.  There must be an enemy, a group that does not belong.  From a legal standpoint, The United Nations Convention defined genocide as, “Genocide means…acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”[i]  Meaning classifying can be done on a basis on many different cultural identities.  This step defines the group in question and identifies them as the other group.  This is done through many different ways, one being by using people’s physical appearance.  In both the Holocaust and Rwanda, measuring facial features became a way to determine their race and ethnicity.  The following photos are of the tools that were used to make these measurements.

In Nazi Germany during World War II, Nazi authorities started using different measurements of people’s physical features in order to determine if they fit the “master” or Aryan race.  This “racial science” was implemented in schools; Nazi teachers would observe the students physical traits in order to determine their status.  They would take measurements of their nose and skull length and would record their hair, skin, and eye color.[iii]  The photograph to the left is one of many of people being measured by “racial hygienists” in order to establish true racial descent.  If measurements failed to comply with the Aryan standards, one would be labeled as “inferior” and possibly even forcibly sterilized.  In addition to classifying people by measuring their features, widely known stereotypes were also used to single out the Jews.

Similar to the methods employed by Jews, Rwandans also used physical characteristics in order to distinguish Hutus from Tutsis.  Though these two groups are very similar, they share the same country, religion, and language, the Hutus and Tutsis have some mild physical traits that are different.  Tutsis are said to be taller and leaner, while Hutus are known to be shorter and bigger.  These physical descriptions go along with the stereotypes of the taller Tutsis being the dominant ones and the Hutus being the serving ones.[i]  Facial measuring was also utilized as technique in order to classify someone.


Symbolization is the next step in the genocidal process.  Following identity this step is used to label or mark people of the targeted groups.  This usually begins with giving them a title or label, such as in the Holocaust, Jewish people were now “Jews” and in Rwanda distinguishing the Hutus and Tutsis.ii]   Through this symbolization, people can see the “enemy” and then associate them with harm or hate. A common method employed at this stage are use of identification cards.

Identification cards were used as a tool to recognize Jews for Nazis in the beginning of their reign of terror.  As part of the series of anti-Semitic legislation imposed by the Nazi government, in 1938 they ordered Jews to carry with them at all times an identity card.  The card indicated their Jewish heritage or affiliation.  As part of this legislation, Jews that did not have Jewish names were forced to add “Israel” for men and “Sarah” to their names to make it easier to categorize them as Jews.  Finally, Jews’ passports were marked with a large red “J.”[iii]  After this, the Nazis employed an even more extreme method by requiring Jews to display a yellow Star of David on their clothing to continue their alienation from society.

In the Rwandan genocide identity cards were used to distinguish Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas.  This was started by the Belgians in order to establish a racially segregated country, where Tutsis were the dominant people.  But during the genocide the Hutus made these cards a death sentence of sorts, when at a roadblock a Tutsi would be automatically killed upon showing their ID.  In the chaos of the genocide, perpetrators would not even check identity cards, if someone even looked like a Tutsi they would be killed.  This resulted in the killing of Hutus who looked like Tutsis.[i]

The two pictures above are examples of identification cards used in the previously mentioned genocides.  What is striking about both of them is how prominent the label of their ethnicity or race is.  One the Rwandan ID, your ethnicity is even before your name.  It also is the only piece of information not written by the person, but indicated by slashed through the other ethnicity.  One the Jewish ID the most noticeable thing is the large “J” indicating the woman being Jewish.  Also the middle name is Sara which is also a sign of the woman being Jewish.  The similar looking cards both make ethnicity the most easily recognizable feature on the cards.  An identification card is intended to display who someone is, these cards were used to identify the targeted group in order to persecute them and eventually exterminate them.


Following symbolizing the target of genocide, hateful propaganda usually begins to surface to further the victims’ humiliation and isolation.  The goal of this is to present the target as subhuman and to continue to make society fear and resent them.  It also distances the rest of society with the targeted group causing them to not see them as a person anymore but as an evil.  Jones mentions the phenomenon, “It produces one of the most prevalent features in genocidal discourse: ‘a theme of creeping contagion, corruption, and contamination of both the individual and the societal organism.’”[i]  In both the Holocaust and Rwanda hate propaganda was used by the perpetrators in order influence society.   The Nazis  used posters, pamphlets, and even children’s books extensively as a platform to degrade Jews.  They were portrayed as vermin, cockroaches, parasites, greedy, and blood thirsty.  In Rwanda, the Hutus launched a massive campaign against the Tutsis to incite hatred and violence.  The most common representation of the Tutsi was of a cockroach or inyenzi.[i]  The two images below are examples of these types of propaganda.

First looking at these illustrations, one could believe that they are from the same time or from the same conflict.  The second image is from a Hutu magazine called Kangura that was published in 1991.  This was the cover of the issue with the vertical caption on the left reading, “What Weapon Shall We Use to Conquer Cockroaches One and For All?”  The caption is next to the machete, which became the symbol of the Rwandan genocide, because of the brutal killings it was used for.[i]  The first image is a poster that the Nazis put up in Poland which shows a bug going after an ugly face, possibly a Jew.  The text on the poster says, “Jews are lice, they cause typhus.” [iii] Both of these images describe the enemy as something disgusting or vile.  Images produced fifty years apart and still the same message, destroying the enemy.


The following photos represent stage six in genocide, preparation, which is the preparing for extermination.  This stage includes physically separating the group from the rest of society.  The most common example of this is when the Nazis deported Jews to ghettos and eventually moved them to concentration camps.  In the ghettos the Jews were sent to hundreds of thousands died and this was before they were sent to the camps designed to kill them.[i] The picture of the children was taken in 1944 at Auschwitz while waiting to be sent back to Germany after they were declared fit to be “re-Germanized,” which was a technique used by the Nazis to children that they believed were racially desirable.[iii]  While these children were safe from the killing that was happening at the death camp they stand in, they were separated from their parents and safety.  The other photo of the men behind fence was taken in 1992 during the Bosnian genocide, at the Manjaca concentration camp in Bosnia.[15]  Muslims were targeted in the area by the Serb forces and Bosnian Muslims were taken from their home and put in concentration camps, similarly to the Nazis with Jews.[i]  Another aspect of the use of separation in Bosnia was separating the men and women. Men were often taken to concentration camps to be brutally beaten and killed; the photo shows this considering the lack of women shown in this picture.[i]  Women were taken to other areas and were continually sexually assaulted.

These pictures both show people after just arriving at a concentration camp behind barbed wire.  While the images are from different genocides and one is from children and the other of men, they both have the same facial expression.  Confusion, hopelessness, and fear are common in both the children and the men.  A child would be expected to be feeling all those emotions after arriving at a place like Auschwitz, but a man conveying the same emotion really shows how terrifying the process of arriving at a concentration camp was.  The children and men also seem to be looking a photographer for help; most of the people are staring right into the lens.  Though the photographers of both photos are unknown, it would kind of seem that they were not perpetrators.  I believe this because they both crowed around looking at the camera as if someone that did not look familiar was taking the pictures.  Another interesting element of the photo taken at Auschwitz is that the children are not crying.  The children look around three or four years old and the information about the picture says the just children were sent there, meaning that they did not travel with parents.  Usually young children separated from familiar people cry these children do not even look like they had been crying.  The last element of these pictures that is represented in most pictures of concentration camps is barbed wire.  Barbed wire was become infamous with concentration camps.  Now a violent symbol of what went on in the camps, in these pictures it is seen as a barrier between horror and freedom.


Extermination, the next stage, the mass killing of innocent people; young children, the elderly, males, females, all victims.  Some of the most commonly seen pictures from genocide are of corpses, people’s bodies being thrown away.  Whether the perpetrators use guns, gas ovens, machetes, or simply the withholding of basic physiological needs, all ended in lost lives.  Images from areas post-genocide are usually of carnage, skulls, bones, decomposing bodies, and various human parts, that are being disposed of.  These photographs were taken from different genocides, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia, but they all depict human remains being taken care of.  The pictures have a common theme as the remains look like garbage being taken out.  A pile of corpses in what looks like dumpster in Rwanda, bones that look like top a landfill in Cambodia, bodies in garbage bags in a grave in Bosnia, and dead bodies being hauled away in Germany.  The senseless killing of the victims in genocide is followed by inhumane way of disposing their bodies.  In genocide so many people are killed that dead bodies are so abundant that they get thrown away like trash.  A question is raised in the mass amounts of these pictures, why is this what people want pictures of?  And why is it such a consistent image in genocide? Maybe it is because it is probably the most gruesome picture one can imagine, and that is the closest an observer can get to the terror that happened there.



The ultimate goal for perpetrators carrying out genocide is to eliminate a group they deem undesirable; for the Nazis it was the Jews, for the Hutus it was the Tutsis, and for the Serbs it was the Muslims.  To achieve this goal, they all

followed the pattern of the stages of genocide.  The images displayed above visually represent the stages and show how similar genocides look and are photographed.  Something interesting is that all the photos shown have a common theme of making the targeted group of people not human; whether it is representing in the media as vile creatures or systematically killing them, the livelihood is taken.  In the final images of my paper, I showed the remains of the people that were killed in different genocides; the perpetrators succeed in their goal to make them non-human by essentially making them garbage, debris, a mess to be cleaned up.

Works Cited

[i] Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

[ii] Stanton, Gregory. Genocide Watch: The International Alliance to End Genocide. 1998. (accessed April 2012).

[iii] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. (accessed April 2012).