The first stage of genocide is classification, which involves dividing people into “us versus them” categories. This separation often occurs along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. Those in power will assign people to these categories based on their actual or perceived identity, marking them as part of the “in group” or the “out group.” Often, the division is made to appear innate or beyond anyone’s control. However, these categories are constructed by those seeking to gain or maintain power. Once groups have been classified in this way, those in authority treat those classified as “them” or outsiders as less deserving of basic human rights or protections.
Dividing society is an intentional act meant to strengthen the “us” group’s identity and justify poor treatment of the “them” group. When people begin to think in terms of “us versus them,” it becomes easier to deny the humanity of those considered outsiders and turn a blind eye to their maltreatment. Classification lays the groundwork for increasingly destructive acts against the group identified as “other.”
The second stage of genocide is symbolization, which involves assigning symbols or colors to members of the victim group in order to classify and distinguish them from society. This enables the dominant group to identify members of the victim group based on visual markers, often leading to isolation, separation, and a sense of otherness. Common examples of symbolization throughout history include forcing members of a victim group to wear identifying badges, armbands, or other markings. This was seen during the Holocaust when Jewish people were made to wear a yellow Star of David badge. Signs and symbols also served to mark businesses, places of residence, and public facilities used by targeted groups.
Beyond physical markings, the use of derogatory language, renaming places using slurs, and propaganda depicting caricatures or stereotypes all serve to symbolize the victim group as different, inferior, and sub-human. This symbolic classification through words, images, and visual markers is a key step in dividing society between “us” and “them”, and provides the foundation for more overt discrimination and dehumanization to follow. The end goal of symbolization is to single out the victim group as worthy of persecution, and to normalize this separation in the minds of both the dominant and victim groups. It enables the later stages of genocide by beginning the process of classification, stigmatization, and isolation that will escalate.
Discrimination is a key component of the stages leading to genocide. At this stage, those in power systematically deny certain groups basic rights, privileges, and freedoms that are afforded to other groups. This denial of rights often begins subtly through policies or social norms. For example, certain groups may be banned from certain types of employment, prevented from attending certain schools, or denied the right to vote, own property, or hold public office. Intergroup marriage may also be outlawed.
Over time, the legal restrictions and accepted societal practices become more overt and severe. The targeted group is seen as inferior and unworthy of basic human rights. They are frequently referred to with derogatory names and labels as part of the dehumanization process. Segregation and physical separation from the rest of society is also common at the discrimination stage. The targeted group may be forced to live in certain designated areas, neighborhoods, or ghettos. Ultimately, the discrimination aims to isolate and control the group while laying the groundwork for more extreme actions against them. It serves to formalize their second-class status and further entrench divisions between the “superior” and “inferior” groups. This separation is a key requirement for making extermination more psychologically acceptable in the later stages.
Refers to the denial of full humanness to the targeted group. Members of the victim group are equated with animals or other nonhuman entities, vermin, insects or diseases. This may involve depicting them as subhuman, demonic, evil. They are often associated with garbage, sewage, of other revolting phenomena. Scholars should not use this phase as an example of humanizing any group of people, but rather be mindful to humanize all people. Dehumanization can lead to the idea that the target group must be eradicated as one might exterminate pests. The rights and humanity of the targeted group are denied. They are treated as though their lives are worth far less than the lives of those committing or supporting the genocide. The journey to genocide frequently begins with the words “they are less than human” and history provides many examples of violence following such dehumanization. However, we must acknowledge we all share one humanity and seek peaceful coexistence.
Killing members of a dehumanized group becomes morally acceptable, and is even seen as a moral obligation. Self-defined ‘civilized societies’ justify their violence based on the perceived savagery of the target group. However the seeds of violence exist within each of us, underscoring the need for moral courage and compassion. As fellow human beings we can understand even those seemingly unlike us, and in doing so, embrace our shared dignity.
Organization refers to the planning and coordination required by governments and military forces to carry out mass killings. This involves identifying and separating target groups, often through registration programs and gathering of personal data. Governments may reorganize society, issue propaganda against target groups, recruit militias and death squads, and develop technocratic systems to efficiently commit mass murder. Trains, buses, telephones, and radios are used to disseminate genocidal objectives and coordinate killings across large territories.
Weapons, troops, and resources are mobilized through military build-up. Target groups may be concentrated into camps, ghettos, or facilities to facilitate their management and elimination. Specialized killing squads are trained. The bureaucracy and infrastructure required for mass murder is methodically assembled by the state.
Polarization is the seventh stage of genocide, according to the 10 Stages of Genocide framework. This stage involves extremist propaganda and agitation tactics designed to drive different groups of people further apart. Those carrying out the genocide often use media and messaging to emphasize the “us versus them” dynamic between groups. They may circulate hateful caricatures or slurs about the target group. Conspiracy theories and fake news stories help foster distrust and resentment. The goal is to create an environment where violence and aggression seem justified. People start viewing the target group as dangerous enemies rather than fellow citizens.
Leaders seeking genocide try to remove moderates or bridge-builders between communities. Anyone attempting reconciliation is accused of betraying their own group. Propagandists prey on feelings of victimization and past grievances between groups. Hate speech and incitements to violence spread rapidly. Extremist views move from the fringe into the mainstream. This systematic polarization ensures that when the actual killing begins, the population is too divided and full of mutual fear and suspicion to come together to stop the atrocities. Neighbors who had once lived together peacefully are now ready to turn against each other. The path to genocide relies heavily on the human capacity for hatred and the power of dangerous propaganda. Promoting unity, human rights, and reconciliation is crucial to counteract polarization.
The preparation stage of genocide involves isolating and gathering the target group. This is often done subtly at first, with laws and policies that sound reasonable but are really designed to separate the target group from the rest of society. Governments may require the target group to wear identifying symbols, live in certain areas, or register their names and property with authorities. Intermarriage between groups may be prohibited. Leaders often use propaganda to sow distrust and resentment against the target group. They portray the target group as dangerous, disloyal, criminal, or subhuman.
As preparation escalates, authorities often seize the property and wealth of the target group. They may impose martial law or begin mass arrests and executions. The stage is set for escalating human rights abuses. The goal is to make people see the target group as less than human, dangerous outsiders who threaten society. This mindset helps remove moral barriers against horrific acts to come. It also isolates the target group, both physically and psychologically, which prevents others from coming to their aid.
Once dehumanization has occurred, dominant groups often begin openly attacking the target group. At this stage, apprehension and violence against the target group increase. Targeted individuals may be detained, tortured, and killed. Leaders of the target group in particular become victims of persecution as the dominant group seeks to eliminate influential voices. Terror and violence against the target group escalate as genocidal ideologies take hold. The group in power may force members of the target group to identify themselves, facilitating roundups and detentions. Individuals perceived as posing a threat are most likely to be eliminated at this stage through imprisonment, torture, and murder.
As the dominant group enacts increasingly repressive and deadly policies, the target group becomes more isolated and vulnerable. Few people outside the situation are willing or able to provide substantive aid, as the risk of intervention grows. Without intervention, the target group finds itself largely helpless against systemic oppression and brutality.
This stage refers to the systematic elimination of the victim group. Methods of extermination include:
Mass killings: Victims are exterminated together in large numbers, usually through shootings, asphyxiation in gas chambers, etc. This stage is marked by killing centers and death camps.
Starvation: Victims are denied food and essential resources, causing widespread death through starvation and disease.
Forced or coerced suicide: Victims are forced to kill themselves through coercion, blackmail, threats, etc.
Deprivation of shelter, hygiene and medical services: Victims are denied basic survival necessities like shelter, sanitation, medicine, etc leading to mass casualties from exposure, disease, untreated illness, etc.
Deportation: Victims are deported or forcibly transferred from their homes to inhospitable environments or conditions where they are likely to perish.
Forced labor: Victims are forced to work until death under brutal, life-threatening conditions with inadequate food, shelter and rest.
The perpetrators carry out mass killings rapidly and efficiently, with military-style operations. There is a sharp increase in the death toll during this stage. The perpetrators often try to conceal evidence of the killings.
The final stage of genocide is denial. After the killing ends, the perpetrators will attempt to cover up and deny the atrocities that occurred. This includes tactics like destroying evidence, blocking investigations, intimidating witnesses, and blaming victims. Perpetrators will claim the killings were justified or never happened at all. They may try to rewrite history and deny aspects like intent, scale, organization, and singling out of groups. Minimizing the number of people killed is common. Overall the goal is to evade responsibility and accountability.
With denial, the victims’ suffering continues as the truth about what happened to them is suppressed. Denial is among the surest indicators of future genocidal violence as it permits ideologies which led to the genocide to persist. That’s why acknowledgement and historical truth are so critical following mass violence. Only by facing the reality of the genocide openly and honestly can societies begin to heal and ensure history does not repeat itself.