Book Review: Daniel Goldhagen’s Worse Than War

Renowned scholar Daniel Goldhagen proposes radical measures to combat human rights violations

Goldhagen (back right) and Director Mike DeWitt at work on Worse Than War – The Film, a documentary on the phenomenon of genocide throughout the twentieth century | Photo courtesy of CIAL.org

A Cure For Genocide?

Inviting guests over for dinner to discuss genocide is not likely to result in many takers. The unsettling topic did not draw droves of attendees to the Bruno Kreisky Forum on Oct. 28 to hear a lecture about it either. Nonetheless, a room full of open ears entertained the topic as distinguished scholar Daniel Goldhagen presented his latest book, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity.

The sensitive nature of mass murder is in fact implicit in the problem: people don’t want to talk about it.

“We need to speak plainly about what is radical. It is not an overwhelming phenomenon beyond our understanding. We can understand it just like any other aspects of conventional politics.”

To do this, Goldhagen points out two basic truths about genocide to help elucidate our understanding. On a small scale, the act of killing is so often a personal act. In a documentary film that accompanies the book, Goldhagen interviews Hutu prisoners in a Rwandan prison camp who were involved in the 1994 massacre of 800,000 Tutsis. One of them describes chopping Tutsis is like chopping trees, except that the bark is hard and the flesh is soft. Goldhagen wants us to see that they are humans who make decisions.

This truism was the basis for his seminal work Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which ignited a scholarly wildfire in 1996 and sparked the so-called “Goldhagen Debate.” He suggested that it was not only the Nazi elite who perpetrated the murder of Jews, but that common citizens were also complicit in the acts. This trend can be observed in genocides like those in former Yugoslavia, Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and the massacre of Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s.

On a larger-scale, the second truth concerns the systematic nature of genocide.

“Over 100 million have been slaughtered by mass murderers during conventional military operations during war,” Goldhagen explains. “There is not a time on our planet during which there has not been mass murder or genocide.”

Simply put, genocide is a form of eliminationalist politics. Many have asked if the situation in Darfur is a genocide. For Goldhagen, the international community is wasting time on that question. The point is to recognize that it is an eliminationalist assault.

Given that it is ingrained into the global political structure, any attempt to stop genocide cannot be ad hoc, but must also be systematic. In Goldhagen’s view, the international community is set up to do nothing.

“In spite of the great good it does in this world, the UN is more an enabler of genocide than a hinderer. It’s a simple truth that must be told.” Goldhagen proposes the UN’s dissolution and the creation of a United Democratic Nations. He also suggests that heads of state must agree to an international bounty system, according to which leaders would be hunted down and executed if they perpetrate genocide.

“By changing the cost-benefit calculation, leaders will never participate in a losing enterprise, if they know they will be the losers.”

Goldhagen, like his book, certainly does not shy away from controversy. In addition to the brow-raising notion of the UN’s dissolution, he views Harry S. Truman as a mass murderer for the bombing of Hiroshima and that suicide bombers should be renamed “genocide bombers.”

Although many of his propositions are hard pills to swallow, prevention of radical forms of killing do perhaps require radical reforms of the political structure.

Worse Than War: Genocide, Elimination, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity
by Daniel Goldhagen
Public Affairs (2009)
pp. 672

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