Review of Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, for International Affairs, 2010

Posted: December 12, 2009 in genocide reviews, Israel / Palestine

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, New York: Little Brown, 2009, 658 pp. ISBN 978-1-58648 -769-0

After a rush of major texts in the last few years, another massive tome on genocide needs a distinctive take if it is to find an audience. Daniel Goldhagen‘s new book starts radically, by linking US President Harry Truman, who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, with more familiar twentieth century mass killers such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. Yet the tension is quickly defused as we learn that while the latter’s killings were ‘organic expressions’ of their long-standing views and aspirations, Truman’s was ‘accidental, owing to a confluence of circumstances that he would have preferred never came about.’ (p.7) This book never really recovers from the unpromising beginning of this superficial analysis. Before long we are reminded of Goldhagen’s controversial earlier book on German complicity in the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, when he argues that ‘we must consider what it is about societies and their cultures that contribute to the circumstances that produce exterminist conditions, or put difficulty, that make mass extermination plausible as a group or national project …’ . (p.13) Yet there is no sense here that Goldhagen has engaged with the widespread criticism of the earlier volume, and produced a stronger version of his argument. Instead his previous position is simply cited as though it were an accepted interpretation. Indeed Goldhagen boasts of his determination ‘not to engage in debates with writer X or writer Y about what he or she has said on point A or point B.’ (pp. 633-34).

Worse Than War is a curious mix of academic study and popular text, which leads at times to outright polemic. Goldhagen offers a new conceptual framework: ‘the desire to eliminate peoples or groups should be understood as the overarching category and the core act, and should therefore be the focus of our study.’ (p.14) The need for an ‘overarching category’ for the various forms of anti-population violence is a proposition advanced sixty-five years ago by Raphael Lemkin, when he proposed his concept, ‘genocide’; it has been echoed in recent years by scholars as diverse of Michael Mann, who made ‘ethnic cleansing’ his master-category, and Rudi Rummel, with his idea of ‘democide’. All these scholars have seen that it is analytically helpful to have a common framework within which explore the links between different types of violence; yet why should we prefer Goldhagen’s concept to the others? Because of his determination to avoid normal academic debate, he gives us little to go on.

Although in principle Goldhagen distinguishes ‘eliminationism’ from genocide, at many points in this lengthy narrative the distinction is lost. And although his delineation of five principal forms of eliminationism – transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, extermination – blurs the distinction between the destruction of peoples, historically seen as the core of genocide, and repression which leaves oppressed peoples in place, mostly he falls back on something close to a more traditional genocide idea. The book ranges widely but erratically, lacking clear anchors, although tending towards an ideological interpretation: ‘mass murder begins in the minds of men’. (p.485) The dangers of this approach are revealed most fully in the final section, ambitiously entitled ‘Changing the Future’. Goldhagen argues that traditional ‘imperial’ and ‘grand communist’ eliminationisms ‘are over’, while ‘regional’ eliminationism is constrained by global integration. This leaves the field clear for him to recognise a new ideology as the prime source of contemporary genocidal threats. In Goldhagen’s view, ‘Political Islam is many things: totalitarian, aggressive, conquering, cocksure about its superiority and destiny to rule, intolerant, bristling with resentement, only tenuously in touch with aspects of reality.’ These are the ‘hallmark features of past and present eliminationist regimes’, and make Political Islamists ‘persistent threats to practice eliminationist politics.’ (p. 492) Goldhagen makes no real distinctions between al-Qaida, Hamas and the Iranian regime, all of which (in his view) show explicit ‘exterminationist and eliminationist discourse’ toward Israel and Jews, matched only by the Nazis. (pp. 503-05)  Even the Sudanese government, guilty of ‘mass annihilation and expulsion of Darfurians’, is just another manifestation of genocidal Political Islam. (p.526)

In this lightly referenced work, Goldhagen presents an intuitive synthesis, rather than a scholarly apparatus. While this undoubtedly produces some insights, it allows the author to paint his picture too loosely over a broad canvas, begging many questions that others have argued more carefully about. It allows his analysis to be taken over by a tendentious political argument, which suggests that powerful Israel, backed by the United States, is more at risk of ‘elimination’ than vulnerable poor people in, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sri Lanka. It leads, in the end, to the naive proposal that promoting democracy will overcome genocide: where it has been tried in Europe, Goldhagen says, ‘it has worked brilliantly.’ (p.596, emphasis in the original) Clearly he has never thought about the role democratisation played in genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union (and indeed Rwanda). Overall Worse Than War left this reviewer at best unsatisfied and at worst exasperated. It will do little to convert the many critics of Goldhagen’s work.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

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