SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: 'Mass Slaughter Is a Systemic Problem of the Modern World'
The political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has never been one to shy away from controversy. In his new book, he argues that state leaders who propagate genocide should be killed outright. SPIEGEL spoke with him about the political tool of mass murder, Germany's reaction to his first book about the Holocaust, and the bankruptcy of international law.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Goldhagen, do all nations have the potential to become perpetrators of genocide?
Goldhagen: Not every genocide that could have happened, not every massacre that could have happened, actually has happened. Prejudices and hatreds -- ideas about other people which make them seem different in a way that is dangerous or potentially deleterious to you -- are generally widespread. There are groups of people around the world in country after country who, in principle, could be mobilized to attack other groups of people and do so willingly.
SPIEGEL: What element must be added to the mix?
SPIEGEL: Are some states more at risk than others?
Goldhagen: You mean forms of government? In dictatorships, which are always threatened from below in one way or another because they do not respect the rights of the people, there is a much greater danger that the political leadership will opt for some kind of eliminationist solution to the problems that they perceive. Whatever prejudices exist today in the United States, in Germany, in Italy, in Japan, in many other countries, it is extraordinarily unlikely that they will, in the foreseeable future, erupt into mass murder.
SPIEGEL: Even in democracies though, problems such as racism, xenophobia and hatred of minorities exist.
Goldhagen: Yes, but in such countries, no leader would ever even consider doing such a thing. It is completely off the table as an option.
SPIEGEL: The title of your book is "Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity." What could be worse than war?
Goldhagen: That depends on our moral perspective and on the analytical question of how we want to measure badness. If we measure it by the most fundamental measure, which is how many people are killed, the perpetrators of mass slaughter have killed more people since the beginning of the 20th century - more than 100 million -- than have died as a consequence of conventional military operations. This should be one of the central political facts of our age. Yet it is known by virtually no one.
SPIEGEL: Humanity, in other words, is not marching ever further down the path of enlightenment, but rather has created a world full of mass slaughter?
Goldhagen: Mass slaughter is a systemic problem of the modern world.
SPIEGEL: Why have you chosen this issue to address? Until now, you have focussed on the conditions that made the Holocaust possible. This time though, you look at the broader issue of genocide. Is this just another effort to explain how the German slaughter could have happened?
Goldhagen: Whenever we study genocides or, for that matter, any social or political phenomenon, we're always looking for similarities and differences. It was the logical next step after looking at the Holocaust.
SPIEGEL: Why have you chosen to use the word "eliminationism" instead of the term "genocide" in your book?
Goldhagen: Because genocide, or large-scale mass slaughter, is but one tool that states and political leaders use to carry out political programs aimed at eliminating populations that are considered unwanted or dangerous. Thus, the fundamental phenomenon is eliminationism, with the mixture of means chosen being but a pragmatic decision to further the political goal. There are five principal means: repression, forced transformation, expulsion, preventing reproduction, such as sterilization, and extermination.
SPIEGEL: Your book begins with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why are these two events not generally considered to be mass murder?
Goldhagen: Because the victors write the history. It was mass murder. The people in these cities were overwhelmingly non-combatants. The bombings were not necessary for ending the war. The Japanese were ready to surrender and President Harry Truman knew it.
SPIEGEL: Do people in the West tend to believe that we don't commit genocide, only the others do?
Goldhagen: People in the US, no more or less so than in other countries, don't want to look with clear eyes upon the transgressions or crimes that their own countrymen have perpetrated on others. There is a denial movement in virtually every country whose people have undertaken eliminationist assaults. You know: "We didn't do it," or "we had to do it."
SPIEGEL: Does genocide always begin with language?
Goldhagen: Most of what people know about the world is imparted to them through speech -- through language of all different kinds. One of the striking things about genocide is that the people doing the killing view large groups of people as being subhuman or dangerous. They use language to either dehumanize or demonize them.
SPIEGEL: Language mobilizes people to commit mass slaughter?
Goldhagen: Yes. Language is the bearer of hatred. Germans didn't know the Jews of Poland. Many Turks didn't know Armenians. Individual Hutu knew nothing about most Tutsi. How could they? And yet in each case they set out to kill vast numbers of people about whom they knew only what they had heard. Language transmits prejudices and descriptions of others that lead some to believe that the other must be eliminated. This is a critical factor in understanding the generation of mass slaughter, which is often not seen to be important. People say "it's just talk." but it's talk that is the soil from which these genocidal assaults eventually grow.
SPIEGEL: Do you not see a need to correct yourself? Thirteen years ago you wrote that there has never been a genocide comparable to the Holocaust. Now, you are comparing various genocides from history and the Holocaust is included as one of them.
Goldhagen: Yes, to look for similarities and differences. There have been many other mass slaughters in history and also in our time.
SPIEGEL: But your thesis remains true?
- Part 1: 'Mass Slaughter Is a Systemic Problem of the Modern World'
- Part 2: 'The Past Is Far Less Threatening in Germany Today'
- Part 3: 'Eliminationism Has Become an Integral Part of the Political Repertoire of the Modern World'
- Part 4: 'International Law on the Issue of Mass Slaughter Is Utterly Bankrupt'
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Goldhagen's first book became an immediate bestseller, partly because of its controversial argument that the Holocaust would not have been possible without the widespread support and participation of common Germans.