Thirteen years ago, the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen caused an international sensation with his book about the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The title alone gives a good sense of why Goldhagen’s thesis was so provocative, especially in Germany, where it sparked a nationwide debate. The mystery of why so many ordinary German citizens proved ready to participate or collude in genocide had confounded thinkers since 1945; philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and historians had done their best to answer it. Goldhagen cut through this Gordian knot by simply asserting that the people who tried to annihilate the Jews did so because they wanted to annihilate the Jews. As he writes, they were “willing because they were antisemites who believed that exterminating Jews was right and necessary.”
The major attraction of this idea is that it restores clarity to the matter of guilt and blame. If the Holocaust is an expression of radical human evil, or the product of a bureaucratized society, or the work of authoritarian personalities—to name just a few of the most famous interpretations—then every society and even every individual is potentially just as guilty. Instead of anger, we must feel fear—the fear that what the Germans did in the 1940s could happen again anywhere, anytime. But if we can say that the Germans were guilty simply because they chose evil—Nazism and its corollary anti-Semitism—then we, who reject such evils, are secure against guilt, and our anger can remain righteous.
It would seem to be a strong argument against Goldhagen’s approach—which its critics accused of being reductionist and “monocausal”—that genocide has become a horribly durable feature of our world. The Nazi Holocaust remains the supreme example, but it has rivals in murderousness: the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians during World War I, Stalin’s and Mao’s assaults on their own peoples, the Khmer Rouge’s remaking of Cambodia at the cost of 20 percent of its population, the Serb war on Bosnian Muslims, the Hutu butchery of the Tutsi, and most recently, the genocide in Darfur. If Goldhagen is right, and the Holocaust can be explained primarily by the evil ideas and choices of ordinary Germans, then it seems that each one of these countries and peoples has also been consciously, deliberately evil.
That is, in fact, the premise of Goldhagen’s new book, Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. In this passionate, informed, and often frustrating book, Goldhagen essentially turns the monocausal explanation of Hitler’s Willing Executioners into a universal model. Each time we find a genocide—or, as he prefers to call it, “eliminationist” violence, a term that avoids the technical limitations of genocide—we will find something like what prevailed in Nazi Germany: a people, under the sway of an ideologically extreme leadership, which out of fear and hatred decides to annihilate a group of perceived enemies. “The problem is extreme, even life-threatening,” as Goldhagen summarizes this mindset. “The enemy is an identifiable group of people, demarcated by skin color, ethnicity, religion, class, or political allegiance. The solution to defang said enemies must in some way be ‘final.’ Hence eliminationism.”
Most of this long book (about 600 pages, excluding notes) is devoted to elaborating this basic idea with reference to the well-known atrocities listed above (and a few others: Guatemala’s massacre of Mayans and Indonesia’s campaign against communists are recurrent subjects). The sheer volume of facts and stories about genocide that Goldhagen relates is enough to make Worse than War a powerful and extremely depressing book. “The number of people who have been mass murdered [in the 20th century] is, conservatively estimated, 83 million,” he writes early on. “When purposeful famine is included, the number becomes 127 million, and if the higher estimates are correct the total number of victims of mass murder may be 175 million or more.” This means than between 2 and 4 percent of all deaths in the last century were due to genocidal violence—and that is not including deaths in “ordinary” warfare.
But such figures are notoriously impossible to grasp. What genocide really means can be understood simply by reading pages 175-180 of Worse than War, in which Goldhagen offers anecdotes of horror from around the world—Turkey, Germany, Bangladesh, Bosnia, and on and on. It is Dante’s Inferno in miniature, except that it is all real and, indeed, brutally matter-of-fact, as in this episode from Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge: “At that instant, the edge of the ax cut open the man’s chest. Blood spurted and I heard a roaring groan, loud enough to startle the animals…. After the cadre had opened up the man’s chest, he took out the liver. One man exclaimed, ‘One man’s liver is another man’s food.’ Then a second man quickly placed the liver on an old stump where he sliced it horizontally and fried it in a pan with pig grease.” Anyone with a tendency to become sentimental about the human race should keep this book at hand as an antidote.
Worse than War is energized by moral passion but it is also disorganized. Goldhagen frequently returns to the same events, adding new details out of sheer indignation. Discussing, for instance, the power of language and images to dehumanize victims, Goldhagen proceeds to give examples:
Herero are baboons and swine. Jews are bacilli or rats, or Bolsheviks or devils. Poles are subhumans. Kikuyu are vermin, animals, and barbarians. Bangladeshis are devils. Putatively impure Khmer are ‘diseased elements.’ Maya are animals, pigs, and dogs. Tutsi are cockroats, dogs, snakes, or zeros. Indonesian communists are infidels, as are Americans and many others. Darfurians are slaves.
This catalog is representative of Goldhagen’s style: it inspires outrage and conveys a broad historical picture, but it is too rapid and repetitive to add much to our understanding.
What’s more, the point Goldhagen is making here is actually an obvious one: people demonize their enemies. Elaboration, in this case, does not mean deepening or complication, and the same is true of Worse than War in general. The bulk of the book consists of a number of taxonomies of genocide, in which Goldhagen classifies events with the help of rudimentary charts and matrices. We read about “state-centered perspectives,” “society-centered perspectives,” and “individual-centered perspectives”; “four kinds of eliminationist assaults,” with four “noneliminationist outcomes; dehumanization versus demonization of victims; eliminationist worlds, communal worlds, camp worlds, and actual worlds; and many more.”
What all these rubrics have in common is that they describe without explaining. In the end, the reader is left with basically the same understanding of eliminationist violence Goldhagen offered at the beginning: people commit genocide out of fear and hatred. And as in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, this conclusion is oddly satisfying, because the reader can be quite sure that she does not feel such hatred and would never commit such crimes. Indeed, Goldhagen says this explicitly, in a passage that represents the emotional core of the book:
Think of the difficulty you may have, and that so many people do have, in reading this book’s descriptions of perpetrators torturing or killing innocent men, women, or children…. Think of how much harder—ten, a hundred, a thousand, an infinite number of times harder—it would be for you to be killing, slaughtering, butchering a man with a machete. Or a woman. Or a child. You cut him. Then cut him again. Then cut him again and again. Think of listening to the person you are about to murder begging, crying for mercy, for her life.
To such rhetorical manipulation, the reader can only respond—of course, you’re right, I could never do such a thing. Yet even if this is true of the 500,000 or so people whom Goldhagen is addressing—the potential readership for Worse than War, people who have thought enough about genocide to want to read a book about it—the fact remains that, in any given population, there are a more than sufficient number who would be willing to commit such crimes. As history shows, it has never been a problem for a murderous government to find enough killers among its people, or to obtain the acquiescence or support of many more. (Nor should the enlightened be too sure of themselves—every genocide has its idealists and its intellectuals.)
It would be nice to think that this is not true of all countries at all times—that there are not, in the United States, a hundred thousand people who could be recruited to commit genocide by a regime intent on doing so. But I think there can be no doubt that such people do exist. (The people who were guilty of Abu Ghraib could easily have been guilty of much worse, and indeed some of them are.) The problem is that these people are impossible to identify in advance. They are ordinary citizens and soldiers, wives and husbands, just as most of the people who committed the Holocaust were before 1933. That is the real mystery of evil, which Goldhagen has not so much solved as declined to contemplate.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.