Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity

Apocalyptic theories about the massacres of the past century obscure the root causes of conflict.

The 20th century was perhaps the most bloodthirsty in history. The largest numbers were not killed in wars between states, as might be supposed. They were killed by members of their own societies, often by people who had been their neighbours. In ethnic cleansing, in civil conflicts and with the industrialisation of killing in totalitarian states, human beings turned on each other and surpassed all records for savagery.

It is difficult and painful to understand this sanguinary history. Who can diagnose a common disorder in affectless bureaucrats, machete-wielding tribesmen and the countless ordinary citizens who have accepted or supported mass killing? And who can find a cure for this pandemic of violence? However necessary, the task threatens to overwhelm the imagination. Fortunately we are not helpless. Daniel Goldhagen is at hand, with a simple explanation and an infallible remedy.

In Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), Goldhagen argued that Germans were largely active supporters of Nazi "eliminationism" - an ideology that justified the extermination of minorities, above all Jews, as necessary and right. Goldhagen's claim that many, if not most Germans enthusiastically endorsed Hitler's genocidal policies was predictably controversial and brought him worldwide recognition. His argument that Germany had nurtured a uniquely virulent, "eliminationist" type of anti-Semitism over generations has been forcefully disputed by historians for conflating the hatreds of the interwar era with German culture as a whole (and for neglecting eliminationist anti-Semitism in other countries). But Goldhagen, who rarely refers to other scholars except to dismiss them, is unfazed by these objections. Instead, he has upped the stakes and extended his analysis to cover virtually every kind of mass killing perpetrated in recent times.

According to Goldhagen, not only genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, but Harry S Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the British use of concentration camps in the Boer war and against the Mau Mau in Kenya, the death marches of Auschwitz, mass rape in Darfur and jihadist suicide bombing are all instances of eliminationism, which Goldhagen estimates killed about 150 million people in the course of the 20th century. As to what can be done to deal with this hydra-headed monster, he is confident he has the answer - "in principle, it should not be difficult", he tells us.

So, what is the solution? Well, first of all we must abolish the UN, which failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, and replace it with "the United Democratic Nations", with "wealthy and powerful" democracies, "united against tyranny, genocide and all eliminationist politics, and united for the world's people". When eliminationist policies are under way or being mooted, "the country concerned should be bombarded with radio broadcasts, leaflets dropped from airplanes and internet postings". If - improbably - these measures fail, put bounties on the heads of the eliminationists: "$10m for killing or delivering the perpetrating regime's leader or top leaders, $1m for every cabinet minister, military or police general staff member, $100,000 for their assistants". Above all, what is needed is "a devoted inter­national push for democratising more countries to remove the institutional and political and cultural bias for political leaders to even see eliminationist politics as an option". (The italics are in the original.)

Goldhagen seems genuinely to believe that he has come up with a new paradigm that renders everything thought and written before him on the subject of genocide redundant or positively misleading. Actually he has constructed his paradigm by indiscriminately lumping together types of mass killing that are historically and morally quite different. Colonial massacres, tribal conflicts, revolutionary purges and pogroms are only a few of the ways in which people have attempted to eliminate other categories of people. Each has a distinctive pathology, but Goldhagen is determined to view mass killings of every kind as instances of a single evil.

In the very first sentence of the book, he declares: "Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was a mass murderer." With its mix of coat-trailing hyperbole and hare-brained logic, it is a claim that encapsulates Goldhagen's style of argument. No matter how indefensible Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been, it is ludicrous to place him in the same category as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Seemingly aware of this absurdity, Goldhagen distinguishes between how mass murder is defined and how it is explained and morally evaluated. As he sees it, these distinctions do nothing to alter the crime: "None suggests that the nature of Truman's acts and those of the other four are different."

As so often in his analysis, Goldhagen's bold assertions defy moral common sense. Acts of mass killing do belong in different categories, depending on their moral attributes and the reasons why they were committed. Truman ordered the attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo - which was firebombed with greater casualties than the cities that were hit with nuclear weapons - because he believed the war could thereby be shortened. Mistaken or inadequate as his reasoning might have been, what Truman did was of an entirely different order from Hitler's campaign of extermination against the Jews.

When they are not outlandish - as with his enthusiasm for bounty-hunting - Goldhagen's proposals for preventing mass killing are embarrassingly unrealistic. He urges a global campaign of democratisation, but aside from the laboriousness of such an enterprise - illustrated every day in Afghanistan and Iraq - there is the awkward factor of democracies having been complicit in some of the worst kinds of mass killing. As Goldhagen correctly notes, "During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of American client states practising mass-murderous policies exceeded those of the Soviets."

In the early 1980s, in the course of waging a US-sponsored counter-insurgency campaign, the right-wing regime of Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala killed about 200,000 people. Goldhagen might object that Montt was a dictator, and argue that if Guatemala had been a democracy the genocide would not have occurred. He may have a point, but it does not follow that the spread of democracy would lessen mass killing. Democracy has a number of advantages, but it is not a panacea for mass murder.

Mass killings have many varying causes, and there is no single remedy against them. Lumping these disparate kinds of collective violence into the all-encompassing category of elimi­nationism, Goldhagen joins the discredited prophets of the "war against terror", who turn a ragbag of assorted insurgents and violent jihadists, often themselves enemies, into a single global threat. The reality is less apocalyptic, and more intractable.

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Little, Brown, 672pp, £25

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His latest book, "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings", is published in paperback
in March (Penguin, £10.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street