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Genocide Backfire

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"You can't get them all, here today. Doctor, you say you can hunt the rest down. I doubt it. They're too smart. They'll find ways to evade us we haven't even thought of. You won't kill them all. But they'll remember you tried."
Joshua Valiente, The Long Mars

A villain annihilates an entire people and their culture to achieve some goal, but only has incomplete success and the resulting incompleteness comes back to bite them in the ass in the form of the one guy or small group of individuals who survived the massacre.

It often involves a prophecy, and this is the villains' attempt to "Screw Destiny." For all the good it does them.

This typically means murdering hundreds of people to kill a single child, who will inevitably escape — see Nice Job Breaking It, Herod. Sometimes, the evil overlord might live out his life successfully, but his descendants pay the price.

Expect the survivor to benefit from Uniqueness Value, using his heritage and tragedy to fuel the coming Roaring Rampage of Revenge (or the even more tragic Cycle of Revenge).

It is sometimes called the "Dandelion of Doom" or "Dandelion effect," per the expression: "If you kick a dandelion, you spread its seeds." Just as this is an ineffective way to remove weeds from a lawn, it is an ineffective measure to remove potential threats to one's rule.

Sister Trope to Nice Job Breaking It, Herod, with which it can overlap. The primary difference is that this trope only requires the villain to wipe out a group of people to achieve some goal, with the survivors subsequently trying to get revenge on him. The Herod approach requires foreknowledge on the villain's part (through prophecy, time travel or the like) that someone will one day oppose them and they try to circumvent it by killing the hero before he can grow up.

A type of Villain Ball, and subtrope of Laser-Guided Karma.


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    Films — Animated 
  • Occurs in Kung Fu Panda 2, overlapping with Nice Job Breaking It, Herod; Lord Shen is told a prophecy that he will be defeated by a "warrior of black and white", and decides that the correct way to respond to this is to commit panda genocide. Of course, Shen is later defeated by Po and his village is avenged. The trope is subverted when Shen first meets Po, and is a little surprised to find that said panda has no idea what he'd done due to him being a baby when it happened. Further played with at the very end where the audience learns that the survivors re-settled elsewhere, so it didn't just backfire — it straight-up failed. Nonetheless, Shen's actions were what facilitated his defeat, as it would eventually cause the baby Po to end up in the Valley of Peace, which would allow him to get the training he would need to defeat Shen.
  • In Titan A.E., the Drej destroy the Earth, reducing humanity to a few thousand scattered survivors because they believed us a threat. In the end the Drej are used to power the Titan and create a new homeworld for the human race.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers tries to wipe out the Furyan race, due to a prophecy that a Furyan would kill him. He misses (at least) two of them; the titular Riddick is one of them. Funny thing is, Riddick doesn't give a shit about any prophecy and only wants revenge for himself and a few others he might call friends.
  • The Dark Crystal:
    • There's a prophecy that a Gelfling will undo the damage to the Dark Crystal, ending the reign of the Skeksis, so of course they go off on a Gelfling killing spree. One of the Skeksis himself, (pretending to be friendly) says "Prophecy! Prophecy caused all this trouble!"
    • In a double invoking of the trope, the male Gelfling Jen is saved by one of the old Mystics and raised among them; on his deathbed, the eldest Mystic sets Jen on his course to defeating the Skeksis. Meanwhile, the female Gelfling Kira is hidden by her mother just before the Garthim take her, and is found and raised by the Podlings. The Skeksis-serving Garthim still raid the Podling villages, to boot.
  • District 9: It's speculated in the epilogue that this will happen if CJ comes back.
  • The Godfather Part II The local ganglord kills Vito Andolini's father, then his brother when the brother tries to get revenge, then his mother when she tries to protect Vito ('because he's slow'). Vito then has to leave Sicily for America, where he becomes Vito Corleone. He then returns to Sicily to off the ganglord.
  • Parodied in Kung Pow! Enter the Fist when Master Pain kills The Chosen One's entire family before attempting to kill him. However, even as an infant The Chosen One is too strong to take on in a straight fight so Master Pain just burns the house down. The Chosen One, of course, survives and grows into adulthood and eventually defeats Master Pa-, Betty.
  • In The Scorpion King, the titular protagonist was one of the few survivors of Memnon's genocide of the Akkadian people. Shortly after the beginning of the film, he ends up being the sole remaining member of his people. Turns out, he is the one who was prophesized to take Memnon down.
  • Star Wars:
    • The Sith didn't kill Anakin and Padmé's children (though that one was probably them assuming they did). Nor did they kill Obi-Wan. Or Yoda. They didn't even kill Leia when they killed all the other Alderaanians. This did not work out well for Palpatine.
      Leia: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.
    • The Expanded Universe shows that the Alderaan Survivors (those off world when the Death Star came by) almost universally enlisted in the Rebellion after that point. Many other systems began to more openly rebel after the fate of Alderaan came to light. Considering the Emperor wanted to use it to enforce policy on rebellious worlds, the ship was an abysmal failure.
    • Star Wars Legends canon plays a horrifying game of ping pong with this. A never-ending, cyclic religious war between the Sith and the Jedi (with their Empire and Republic as proxies) has been going on for 7,000 years with one side hunting the other down to a handful of survivors, who regroup, fight like cornered rats, and do the same to their enemies, who go into hiding, rebuild, and attack again...while the Force seems quite indifferent to (or maybe even encourages) the cycle of revenge and bloodshed.
  • In TRON: Legacy, Clu kills off all the ISOs, emergent programs that Kevin sees as a miracle but Clu sees as "imperfect". By the end of the movie, Clu wants to exit the Grid in the worst way, but he gets re-merged with Kevin while Quorra, the last ISO, rescued by Kevin, escapes the grid to the real world with Kevin's son Sam. Not quite a genocide backfire since Quorra didn't land the fatal blow, but Quorra got to leave the Grid while Clu did not.
  • Skynet in the Terminator series wipes out most of humanity, but the survivors come together to fight back. However this becomes a Zigzagged Trope in Terminator Genisys, where from Skynet's perspective, the humans are the ones trying to wipe it out before it's born, leading to Skynet's desire to destroy humanity.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • Arthurian Legend:
    • King Arthur learned that he would be destroyed by a child born in a certain month, he had all the babies from that month gathered together, put on a ship and sent to die. The ship crashes and kills every one of them... except for one: Mordred. This is one of the newer versions of the much-revised legend, however. Earlier versions of the story have Mordred as his nephew, there is no such genocide.
    • In anoter version, a cunning King Arthur knows how a Genocide Backfire works and instead conscripts all the boys of that age group and makes them squires. All of them but one love him. The one? Mordred.
  • The Kalevala: Untamo kills his brother Kalervo and his clan over petty neighborhood squabbles, leaving only a pregnant woman alive. The woman in time gives birth to Kullervo, who later kills Untamo - and wipes out his clan, for good measure.

  • The Bible provides some examples:
    • In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh commanded that all male Hebrew babies must be put to death. The lone escapee, Moses, became the freer of the Hebrews. Worst of all, the Egyptians got the infanticide reversed on them when the tenth plague struck down all their firstborn.
    • Jesus Christ. Herod could not kill all the Jewish boys who had been born under the star of Bethlehem because Jesus was in Egypt. And John the Baptist was in hiding in the wilderness with his mother. However, neither Jesus nor John ever actually did anything to Herod; he just died of old age a couple of years later, while they were still small children. (Specifically, he died of chronic kidney disease and Fournier gangrene, the latter of which is often interpreted as Jesus' dad invoking this trope.) Though his grandson, Herod, got killed by an angel for persecuting the early church a couple of decades later.
    • In the Books of Samuel we get the story of the Amalekites, who were commanded to be destroyed utterly by God. King Saul spared the lives of Agag, the King of the Amalekites. The story continues in the Book of Esther, where we have Haman, who descended from that family line and nearly succeeds in getting his revenge on the Jews.
    • Books of Kings: Queen Grandmother Athaliah of Judah attempted to extirpate the whole David family line. One boy, Joash, survived...

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the BattleTech universe, during the Clan invasion, Clan Smoke Jaguar WarShips powered up their weapons and glassed a Draconis Combine city in an attempt to break the back of the stubborn Combine resistance. Not only did this serve to alienate their allies, drive the Combine to even greater heights of stubborn defense, but, when a defector revealed the Exodus road, the closely guarded secret route to the Clan homeworlds, the battle cry (and mission) of the armada of the Restored Star League Defense Force was "Clan Smoke Jaguar Must Die!"
    • Similarly, the Kentares Massacre during the First Succession War had this effect. The deliberate murdering of 90% of Kentares IV's population in revenge for the assassination of the Draconis Combine's Coordinator not only put new resolve into a near-defeated Federated Suns (leading to the Suns' Roaring Rampage of Revenge that took back all the territory lost to them), but also caused mutinies, desertions and suicides among the Draconis Combine's military and also lost the DCMS the services of one of the most elite mercenary units of the time.
    • In a case of learning exactly nothing from history, one Jade Falcon Star Colonel Riss tries this in the Dark Age, butchering civilians by the thousands on the Kell Hound homeworld of Arc-Royal to force them into submission. It backfires on him spectacularly when Callandre Kell, leader of the Kell Hounds and Duchess of the world, decides to respond in her usual manner, which is to say, sending a message via escalation. Her plan involves stealing a Drop Ship from the Falcons and then giving it back to them by crashing it onto Riss' unit, wiping out most of the Falcons in one fell swoop and giving her a chance to face Riss in a Duel to the Death. Kell wins when her humble Hover Tank handily cuts Riss' fearsome Hunchback IIC apart, a defeat so complete and stunning that the handful of surviving shell-shocked Falcons signal their surrender and flee offworld, resulting in a grave loss of face for a Proud Warrior Race.
  • In Rokugan, the setting of Legend of the Five Rings, the Scorpion Clan serve as the Emperor's Underhand. They protect the Empire from hidden or subversive threats, the sort that can't be met with force of arms. Rokugan's CIA, basically. Sounds good, right? Well, the leader of the Scorpion Clan, Bayushi Shoju, discovers some hidden prophecies that foretell the return of the dark god Fu Leng ... at the hands of the last of the imperial Hantei line. So, Shoju does what any well-meaning defender of his homeland would do. He unseals the Bloodsword "Ambition" and uses it to kill the Emperor and his family, while his army seizes the Imperial City in what would later be known as the Scorpion Clan Coup. Of course, the Emperor's weak, borderline-retarded son manages to survive, and when the Coup is inevitably foiled he is installed on the throne with Shoju's widow as his wife, where she proceeds to poison and corrupt him for years until he's so weak that bad things start to happen.
  • Magic: The Gathering features Garruk, who was forced to join the army as a child. His father hid him instead, and he came back and killed the lord.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • Inverted here of all places. When the Imperium first encountered the Tau, they were a race of non-technological primitives living on one world. They were scheduled for routine genocide (it's that kind of universe), but the paperwork got lost somewhere and a Warp storm cut off the Tau system from the rest of the galaxy. A thousand years or so later, and the Tau are the fastest-growing alien empire on the Eastern Fringe, and a major thorn in the Imperium's side. Keep in mind the Tau never realized the Imperium even existed, much less had them slated for death (and the Tau are kept carefully ignorant how just how much bigger the Imperium is compared to them).
    • The Orks have a built-in version where their corpses release spores that eventually grow into orks, and the knowledge of how to make guns, vehicles and starships is hard-coded into their DNA. The only thing to slow them down somewhat is burning the corpses, but even that isn't enough.
    • During the Great Crusade, the obliteration of Monarchia (one of the Word Bearers' favourite cities) by the Emperor's direct order, leaving only a few survivors, as an incredibly brutal object lesson about not worshipping him, ended up motivating the World Bearers to seek new gods who would accept their devotion, essentially making it the spark that ignited the powder keg of the Horus Heresy. As a direct consequence of which the Imperium was doomed to a ten thousand year decline and the Emperor himself was doomed to spend ten thousand years with his half-dead ass nailed to a very fancy chair.

  • The Trojan War Will Not Take Place: Hector claims that the nation he fought was the most barbaric one, so there will no longer be wars because the Trojans killed every child. Except one. Andromache answers that this child will have uncountable descendants, so in some centuries the world will be at total war.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Ace Attorney Investigations 2, a Fake King, a Dirty Cop, and an Amoral Attorney once teamed up to form an international conspiracy that would Leave No Witnesses. Unfortunately, one little boy managed to escape, and after they spent over a decade trying to hunt him down, he finally snapped, Took a Level in Badass, and decided to strike back at them, ultimately growing up to become the game's Big Bad and Final Boss.
  • In the backstory of Hatoful Boyfriend a version of the bird flu becomes so virulent that in two years seventy percent of humanity dies and there's no sign of stopping. In desperation humans created a virus of their own, an "avian annihilation" virus that would kill all birds. It kills many, but in the resistant ones there is another effect and the birds become uplifted, and immediately go to war on humanity. Thirty years later less than five percent of the human population remains and signs a treaty of surrender, and the world belongs to birds.

  • A few centuries into the back story of Errant Story, the Elves discovered that some Half-Elves may go crazy and spontaneously develop inexplicable talent in destructive magic. The Elves forbade crossbreeding with Humans and organized a branch of the military to hunt down Half-Elves. They haven't been exterminated — there are at least enough Half-Elves to populate a hidden village — and no prophecy is involved, but one Half-Elf has absorbed a comatose Elven deity and is leading an army of the descendants of the Elves' Human bodyguards to wipe out the last surviving Elven city.
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: During the Universal War, the Demiurge Yemmod attacked and conquered the world of Rayuba, tearing it down stone by stone, burning what was left to the ground, salting the earth and even destroying the world's sun for good measure. He was hunted down and slain by a lone survivor of the massacre, a nameless man who would later become the Demiurge Solomon David.
  • In the The Order of the Stick prequel comic Start of Darkness, crusading paladins go and wipe out multiple villages of goblins while seeking the high priest, whose God has a plan that threatens the very fabric of creation itself. In the process, they killed every man, woman and child they could find, but missed two — Redcloak and his brother. In the current story arc, Azure City, the home of the paladins, has been conquered by Redcloak and his armies, and is running the human population into the ground.
  • Roomies!, It's Walky!, Joyce and Walky!: Linda, brainwashed by the government, actually the Britjas under a false flag, all from It's Walky!, killed all the so-called "Martians" in The '70s. "So-called" because Mars was just an outpost of an intergalactic empire of Cthulhu-like creatures who'd been leaving around all that sufficiently advanced Imported Alien Phlebotinum that drove half the comic's plots. This goes about as well as you'd expect.
  • Sometime during the Dominion War in Terinu's past, the human rebels attempted to destroy the Varn Dominion's main power source. Said source consisting of childlike sentient beings known as the Ferin. The Terran Federation trying to both finish the job, and keeping the secret from their allied races is a major plot point.

    Web Original 
  • In the reddit series Chrysalis (Beaver Fur), the Xunvir Republic, back when it was still the Xunvir Empire, completely wiped out all life on Earth because a legal tax loophole meant it'd be more profitable than enslaving humanity. Every Human is killed, but a single sentient Von Neumann machine with a massive nuclear arsenal is left behind to return the favor.
  • In Stellaris Invicta, Earth was almost wiped clean of human life by alien invaders. In the recovery period, the Greater Terran Union rose to power, with the single-minded goal of ensuring humanity's survival. When, after centuries, the GTU locates the invaders, a Hive Minded race known as the Tyrum, they use a Planet Cracker to destroy the Tyrum homeworld. The loss of the overmind causes the Tyrum drones living on their colonies to go beserk and massacre eachother. The rest of the galaxy reacts with absolute horror, and the GTU loses what few allies it had left, and is nearly annihilated by a coordinated attack from all other empires. It's not until the War in Heaven starts that the GTU manages to regain some trust.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • Fire Lord Sozin knew that after he left Roku to die, the Avatar would reincarnate amongst the Air Nomads. So, the Fire Nation managed to kill off the Air Nomads... except for the one kid they were aiming for. Aang ends up stopping the Fire Nation later (though they did screw up the rest of world and their own cultural morality pretty badly in those 100 years he was gone).
    • Another complicated invocation of the trope is the Fire Nation tradition of hunting and killing dragons to prove one's mettle as a firebender (again started by Fire Lord Sozin) which apparently pushed the species into extinction in less than 100 years, with Sozin's grandson, Iroh, acclaimed for killing the last pair. When Zuko, Sozin's great-grandson and Iroh's nephew, needs to find the original method of firebending, before it became corrupted by relying on anger, guess who the original firebenders who might have been able to help him were? He ends up finding the last pair, whom Iroh had lied about killing to protect, and is judged worthy of the knowledge he seeks. Not to mention the extermination of the dragons likely made the war effort that much more difficult, because they wiped out their own flying, fire-breathing assets.
    • The Fire Nation had, through a lengthy process, eliminated all but two of the Southern Water Tribe's waterbenders. One managed to escape the Fire Nation's POW Camp, and used the technique she learned to kidnap Fire Nation civilians and lock them in a cave. The other evaded capture because her nonbender mother took her place, and becomes a member of the heroes' Five-Man Band.
  • Subverted in Drawn Together, where the last survivor of genocide meekly submits to the killer.
  • Invincible (2021): Allen the Alien's people are so determined to stop the Empire because the Empire destroyed their homeworld rather than lose it to their opposition.
  • Steven Universe: When making their last attack on Earth and the Crystal Gems, the Diamonds release a blast that corrupts every Gem left on the planet except for...
    • Rose Quartz uses her shield to protect herself, Garnet, and Pearl from the blast. We later find out she was powerful enough to do this because she was actually the presumed-dead Pink Diamond in disguise. Rose, Garnet, and Pearl continue to do what they can to help the Earth thrive. Even once Rose gives up her physical form to become Steven, Garnet and Pearl fight back against the Diamond's remounted invasion of Earth, with Steven now taking his mother's place as the leader.
    • Amethyst survived because she cooked too long in the ground and only emerged around 500 years after the war ended. She is later found by the remaining Crystal Gems and joins their group.
    • Lapis Lazuli survived because she had been mistaken for a Crystal Gem by a Homeworld soldier and trapped in a mirror sometime before the Diamond's final attack. After initially remaining loyal to Homeworld once freed, Lapis eventually realizes the Crystal Gems are better True Companions and joins their side.
    • Bismuth survives because she was poofed and bubbled by Rose before the war ended because of a fight she had with Rose over the ethics of intentionally shattering Homeworld gems. Once Bismuth is freed by Steven, she is raring to defeat the Diamonds once and for all.
  • In the third season of Transformers: Prime, the Decepticons begin cloning an army of Predacons. But when the prototype reveals intelligence and abilities beyond what was planned, Megatron quickly decides that allowing that Predacon (who now goes by the name Predaking) to have his army would be as much a danger to the Decepticons as to their enemies. He knew, however, that this was a risk, and manipulated his foes into doing his dirty work for him. This kept Predaking's attention where Megatron wanted... Until the truth got out. While Megatron himself survived the resulting violence, many who served him were not so fortunate.