The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

Eliminationism Negated

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s new book is too much of a good thing.

Published on March 1, 2010


Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity?
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
PublicAffairs, 2009, 658 pp., $29.95

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, then an assistant professor of political science at Harvard, published in 1996 a remarkably successful book that created a sensation in Holocaust studies, and indeed in the larger world of the understanding of the Holocaust. The title alone suggested the reason for the sensation: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Ordinary Germans, not only Nazis and SS-troopers, were necessary to carry out the Holocaust, Goldhagen argued. As against more subtle and complex explanations of the Holocaust, Goldhagen’s was simple and direct: Germans were anti-Semitic, apparently more so than other Europeans; this went way back in German history; and when Hitler gave them the opportunity to express their anti-Semitism, many were willing to do so even to the point of murdering Jewish children or burning great numbers of Jews to death in synagogues.

Among the great number of analysts of the Holocaust, Goldhagen was one of the few to label the killers “Germans” rather than SS men or Nazis, which itself was startling. He attacked common efforts aimed one way or another at the exculpation of these crimes, such as that Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship forced people to participate in killing Jews to avoid being severely punished or killed themselves. No one, he pointed out, was ever punished for refusing to participate in the killing of Jews. One important study of a German police unit on the Eastern Front, he noted, showed that those who preferred not to be involved were simply given other tasks.

Goldhagen was not kind to other interpreters of the Holocaust, even some of the best known. He dismissed Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, which reduced the perpetrators to clerks carrying out their bureaucratic duty, something one stereotypically expects from Germans. No, the perpetrators enjoyed their work, were gleeful, took pride in it, snapped photographs for the relatives at home, went beyond their killing duty to mock and dehumanize their victims.

The impact of the book was greater in Germany—where it appeared in translation the year of its publication (it was translated into all major European languages very rapidly)—than in the United States. Originally roundly criticized by leading German scholars of the Holocaust (as it was by some American and Israeli scholarly authorities) and in the German press, opinion rapidly turned around when the German translation arrived. Goldhagen himself appeared in Germany at major public events with critical German scholars. Thousands attended, and they seemed more sympathetic to Goldhagen than to the established scholars. At a meeting in Berlin, one observer reported,


it became clear that the harder Goldhagen is attacked by German historians, the more forcefully the public takes his side. With his insistence on the perpetrators’ individual responsibility, Goldhagen addresses people’s feelings better than [Hans] Mommsen [the doyen of German Holocaust research] and [Jürgen] Kocka [of the Free University of Berlin], who ask about complex structures and systemic requirements, and he uses a language that . . . focuses on the victims [and, I would add, the perpetrators].

The writer reported “loud protest when Mommsen claims that many perpetrators were unclear about their motives.”

Goldhagen went on to examine and excoriate the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust in A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (2002), and now, with Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Onslaught on Humanity, a big book of 658 pages, he goes further, subsuming the Holocaust into a larger category of mass murders and related crimes against humanity that he prefers to call not “genocide” but “eliminationism.”

Goldhagen coined the term eliminationism in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, where he dubbed German anti-Semitism “eliminationist”: Germans wanted to get rid of Jews and were willing to consider various means, such as forced emigration or resettlement in distant lands, before coming to and concluding with mass murder. But with the expansion of the category of genocide into something larger, a good deal of clarity has been lost. It is one thing to subsume the Holocaust into the larger general category of genocide, which itself raises some important questions about whether the mass murder of the Jews is really the same kind of phenomenon as what happened to the Armenians in Turkey, or the Tutsi in Rwanda, or is happening now to the Darfuris in Sudan. That argument has been played out a number of times on a number of occasions, as in the disputes over whether other cases of mass murder should be included in Holocaust museums, or whether what is happening in Darfur can be called a genocide. When one goes further to subsume genocide into the even more extended category of eliminationism, as Goldhagen does, the specific character of the Holocaust, its distinctive meaning, is further diffused as it becomes part of a more general category.

Goldhagen prefers eliminationism in part because he thinks the legal concept of genocide, defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is too narrow. In the Convention genocide means acts “committed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” But this definition, argues Goldhagen, “does not admit groups defined politically, such as the communist Indonesias [sic] slaughtered in 1965, or economically, such as the kulaks . . . slaughtered by the Soviets.” In his gallery of criminals guilty of the mass slaughter of eliminationism, he would include Mao and other Communist leaders.

He also wants to include in eliminationism some famines, as those of the Great Leap Forward in Communist China: “Famine has been used as a purposeful method of mass murder during our time, so in many instances death through famine cannot be distinguished from mass murder.” He lists as perpetrators of such famine “the Soviets, the Germans, communist Chinese, the British in Kenya, the Hausa against the Ibo in Nigeria, Khmer Rouge, communist North Koreans, Ethiopians in Eritrea, Zimbabwe against regions of political opposition, the Political Islamists in Southern Sudan and now Darfur, and elsewhere.” One would think there was a good deal of difference among these famines in their degree of purposefulness in getting rid of some defined group. But the difference dissolves in the murk of Goldhagen’s expansive category.

Moreover, mass murder, in Goldhagen’s presentation of the concept of eliminationism, is not the only test of its presence: Eliminationism moves through a series of five increasingly severe forms of denial of group identity, from “transformation”, that is, forcible assimilation, “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities”; to “repression”, “reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others”; to “expulsion”; then to “prevention of reproduction”; and finally to “extermination.”

As one might divine from the surprising inclusion of the British in Kenya among those guilty of eliminationism through famine, Goldhagen is at pains to note that eliminationism is not only a disease of totalitarian and third-world dictatorships: Western imperialism was as guilty of eliminationism as the criminal regimes of our time, though, like me, most readers will be unclear about what the British did in Kenya to suppress the Mau Mau that warrants their inclusion in a list along with Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the others. But offering some relief to the British, Goldhagen does insist that democracy, which is now best and most distinctively rooted in the former imperialist European countries, is incompatible with eliminationism, and among the most effective means, he argues, to combat eliminationism would be the expansion of democracy.

Goldhagen’s evenhandedness, however, goes beyond the denunciation of Western imperial practices in Africa. He surprisingly begins his book by placing a wartime President of the United States in the dock: “Harry Truman, the twenty-third president of the United States, was a mass murderer. He twice ordered nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese cities.” By the same token, Winston Churchill and all those involved in the mass bombing of German cities, at least from the time when these were directed at creating firestorms to incinerate thousands, would also qualify. Without entering into the endlessly disputed question of whether Truman was justified in using the atom bomb—Goldhagen clearly believes he was not and finds his support in statements by Admiral Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, and General Eisenhower—one wonders how helpful this particular exercise is in dealing with the phenomenon of genocide or eliminationism. Goldhagen tries to escape placing Truman in the same category as “Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot” by distinguishing between “defining an act, explaining it, and morally judging it.” Truman perhaps gets off the hook when we explain his actions and morally judge them: “Nevertheless, that Truman should have found himself before a court to answer for his actions seem clear.”

Truman pretty much disappears from the book after this initial appearance, but this startling decision about how to begin Worse Than War does illustrate a more general problem with the book, and with Goldhagen’s passion to bring to greater attention the issue of mass murder as a distinctive phenomenon of our times: There is an overreaching, both in sweeping up the phenomena to be explained and then in proposing what should or can be done about it.

Goldhagen is right that something new has happened that is a distinctive product of our times. Along with what most of us consider the spread of enlightenment in the world, we have seen the expansion of a kind of barbarism in conflict that one would think should be instead reduced in a more enlightened world. Goldhagen at one point introduces us to some surprising and depressing statistics on the relationship between casualties to armed forces and to civilians in the successive conflicts of the 20th century. In World War I, the ratio was ten military casualties to one civilian; in World War II, the ratio was one to one. “Since 1945, in more than two hundred civil wars—most wars have been fought within countries— . . . civilian deaths and injuries now outstrip military ones, by more than nine to one.”

Even if we accept the broad reach Goldhagen gives to eliminationism, and even if we limit its definition to its most extreme form—mass murder intended to eliminate or radically reduce the numbers and presence of some defined group—it still begs the question of what is to be done about it. Worse Than War is a book of more than description, definition and analysis; it also wants to make practical suggestions. Goldhagen believes that a re-jiggered international community can address the problem by finding ways to prevent and, insofar as prevention fails, to punish the worst forms of eliminationism. It is not clear, however, that Goldhagen’s solution matches his diagnosis.

Goldhagen emphasizes again and again that eliminationism begins as a political act, with a leader who has the power to call for and implement eliminationist measures. Otherwise those attitudes of hostility, distrust, disdain or whatever it is that one group holds for another need never overflow into eliminationism. Feelings must be given a legitimacy and an outlet to become actionable. That initial political act must itself be fought with the means of politics. But what countermeasures are available against essentially political thoughts and acts, and from what kind of international community?

In dealing with this issue in the last hundred pages of his book, Goldhagen has principally in mind recent cases of genocide or mass murder in which the international community, its institutions and individual countries with the power to act did not do so: the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, and related cases of mass murder there and in neighboring countries; the case of Serbia in the break-up of Yugoslavia, and in particular the mass murder of Muslims in Srebrenica and the brutal expulsion of Kosovars from Kosovo. These were on the international agenda to one degree or another, and from Goldhagen’s point of view the international community behaved abominably. He has no faith in the United Nations, its forms of action, it peacekeeping forces or its failed efforts at sanctions and punishment:

Democratic leaders . . . should stop perpetuating [the] legal, institutional, and political fiction, most glaringly at the United Nations, that tyrannical regimes and leaders represent anything aside from their own criminal, warmaking, and eliminationist interests. . . . Democratic leaders and people should replace the United Nations with a New United Democratic Nations that admits only democracies.

He credits John McCain with the idea.

Further, argues Goldhagen, “democracies should similarly make membership in other international political and economic organizations open only to democracies. . . . They should place prohibitions on their companies doing business in non-democratic countries. There will be short-term costs . . . ” That is a sample of Goldhagen’s proposals.

But one problem Goldhagen doesn’t confront is the contradiction between democracies and democratic government and the measures he wishes to see pursued to prevent or punish eliminationism. This book is associated with a feature-length documentary of the same title being prepared for PBS, which has given Goldhagen the opportunity to visit Rwanda, Bosnia and Serbia, Guatemala, Cambodia and other countries to interview victims and perpetrators alike in order to gain depth on the issues he discusses in the book. Clearly, his conversations have deeply influenced him, and one sees this influence throughout the book. But as a practical matter, how does democracy help prevent mass murder?

Consider: The most unambiguous case of genocide in recent decades has been the mass slaughter of Tutsi by Hutus in Rwanda over a period of months. Goldhagen condemns the international community and democratic countries for not intervening. “At the height of the Hutu’s mass butchery, U.S. U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright . . . infamously declared that ‘without a sound plan of operations’ intervention would be ‘folly.’” To Goldhagen, this is “transparent cynicism”, and he bemoans the fact that it was “deemed plausibly correct and adequate by elites and publics alike.” But it was plausibly correct, and America as a democratic polity affirmed it so. How could any American President have justified intervention in a country in deepest Africa that few Americans had ever heard of, to try to stop the slaughter of people of one ethnic group by people of another, neither one of which were recognizable to any Americans aside from a tiny group of specialists?

A second problem is the inevitable delay in the action of any international community, even an improved one consisting of democracies. Goldhagen condemns the International Criminal Court for taking “five years to get to recommending an arrest warrant for [Omar Hassan] al-Bashir”, the President of Sudan. About the same time that Worse Than War appeared, Carla Del Ponte, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, published a book on her experiences in which she expresses positions broadly compatible with Goldhagen’s.1 Lawrence R. Douglas, reviewing the book for the November 27, 2009 Times Literary Supplement, wrote of the arrest warrant for al-Bashir that “the ink had barely dried . . . before the predictable laments and attacks began. . . . The Court’s move would only further destabilize the region and frustrate efforts at a negotiated settlement of the continuing crisis in Darfur.” And so it was: Al-Bashir dug in, ratcheted up the level of violence just to spite the Court, and rather than being more isolated, he found himself welcome despite the Court’s travel ban in many a fellow Arab country.

This is not the kind of argument, and these are not the sorts of facts, that would move Del Ponte, the reviewer writes—or Goldhagen. But that does not make it false. As Douglas explained, as if he had been reviewing Goldhagen as well as Del Ponte, “In Del Ponte’s lexicon, statesmen and diplomats who speak of the need to relax the application of law in the interests of reconcilability, stability, or peace are nothing more than fools, liars, cowards, mercenaries or criminals.” It took the International Criminal Court five years to even get to the arrest warrant, and it will take years more to find out if it was any help at all, or even a source of harm, for the tortured and abused people of Darfur. How practical is that as a solution for mass murder?

Goldhagen made good sense on the Holocaust. He made his numerous readers, not to mention many specialists, aware of aspects of the Holocaust that had simply not been given much recognition—or that had been muted over time by some combination of cognitive dissonance, academic interpretation and the spread of the therapeutic metaphor into the realm of moral and political judgment. Broadening his scope and moving on to the subject of “what can be done”, the power of his argument has weakened considerably. He has been drawn into a mass of unlikely proposals that cannot be realized and hardly advance the discussion of what existing international institutions can do, or what may be expected from new ones.

I would not go so far as to characterize this outcome as a sorrow and a pity. I would merely point out that the distance between the scholarly moralist to the one side, and those who must act in an eternally ambiguous world to the other, remains about as great as ever. Goldhagen has not reduced it by inflating the concept of eliminationism beyond its original capacity.

1Del Ponte, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity (Other Press, 2009).

Nathan Glazer is professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard University, and the author of books on ethnicity, race relations and related issues.