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

Piotr A. Cieplak understands the outrage but takes exception to the author's neglect of the evidence

March 18, 2010

Genocide and mass murder have in many ways defined and continue to define the world we live in. They do so as historical and political events, but also as instances where notions of common humanity, morality, guilt and justice are questioned and challenged. The amount of literature written on the subject across many academic disciplines and literary genres is vast, and the quality of work on the topic is correspondingly varied. Unfortunately, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's new book represents the lower end of the scale.

Goldhagen is a controversial figure in the world of the academy and popular historical writing. His 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust - which claimed to prove ordinary Germans' eager acceptance of, and participation in, Hitler's Holocaust of the European Jews as a consequence of their historically rooted anti-Semitism - earned him as much condemnation as praise.

Some commended his attempt to draw back the shroud of collective guilt and put names and faces to the killers. Others challenged his methodology and interpretation of archival material while pointing out the flaws in his argument. I do not think Worse Than War will cause a similar stir, as it is simply not a good enough book to warrant such attention.

Here, Goldhagen extends some of his ideas from Hitler's Willing Executioners to other genocides and instances of mass murder that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries. His overall focus remains on the idea of the perpetrators' personal choice to persecute, torment and kill their victims, almost completely disregarding notions of coercion, socio-historical background, societal mechanisms and, most importantly, the different circumstances affecting particular political and geographical locations.

Goldhagen writes, with a superfluous sensationalism typical of the book's style, that perpetrators "slaughter people, slaughter children, often face-to-face, by shooting them at point-blank range, or by hacking or beating them to death, bespattering themselves with their victims' blood, bone and brain matter".

The idea that general notions of killing frenzy, lunacy and societal pressures or intimidations are sometimes used to extricate individual killers from responsibility and subsequent punishment is an interesting and reasonable one. As is, in principle, Goldhagen's call to end the tradition of impunity among individual world players and the United Nations, which have often stood by doing nothing while tragedies such as the recent ones in Rwanda and Darfur unfolded before their eyes.

However, this is where Worse Than War's virtues end. Beyond that, Goldhagen offers much poorly argued and repetitive writing, heavily influenced by his subjective and often ideologically problematic opinions represented as universal historical truths.

The book's general premise is to do away with the term "genocide", which Goldhagen sees as little more than a "mind-numbing word", substituting it with "eliminationism".

There are some advantages to broadening the inquiry to encompass events that do not fall into the often restrictive definition of genocide. And Goldhagen's scope is indeed impressive: from mass killings in China to the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Argentina, Kenya, Sudan and even the events of 11 September 2001, to name just a few. These events are, however, almost always positioned vis-a-vis the Holocaust and a few other mass murders discussed in more detail, most often those in Soviet Russia and Rwanda.

Moreover, the effect of this "opening-up" of the discourse has disastrous consequences. Part of this results from the sheer impossibility of sensibly dealing with such vast material in one book without resorting to generalisations.

But things are not made any better by Goldhagen's substitution of one set of stereotypes, which he claims to challenge, with yet another, which seems to be rooted in the author's often tenuous rhetoric rather than the presentation of historical evidence.

On top of the description and analyses of different mass murders, Worse Than War makes a point of suggesting how such events should be prevented and dealt with in the future. Again, the general idea is commendable. The international community should ensure that the protection of vulnerable groups is a priority and strive to mend its appalling record in this field.

However, Goldhagen's suggestions are either a rehashing of issues that are already being debated elsewhere, or verge on the more extreme and frankly unfeasible, such as the introduction of the death penalty at the International Criminal Tribunal and the dissolution of the UN.

Worse Than War is a difficult book. It is impossible to criticise its outrage at the impunity of those who commit mass murder, or its suggestion that more decisive steps should be taken to punish them and prevent future atrocities. But such outrage should be more than a set of reductive generalisations that offer very little in terms of understanding or informative research.

Although Goldhagen aims at a broader public rather than an academic audience, it is doubtful that reading this hefty tome will enhance anyone's understanding of the important, pressing and universal issues that it claims to address.

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

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Little, Brown

672pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780316861298

Published 21 January 2010

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