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?
Goldhagen: The nature of the political regime -- the nature of the leaders themselves -- is absolutely critical for whether this potential will be turned into an actual genocide.
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?
'The Past Is Far Less Threatening in Germany Today'
Goldhagen: Absolutely. The Holocaust retains certain distinctive qualities that make it singular among genocides. It doesn't make it necessarily worse or more morally horrific. It's simply a matter of fact that it had distinctive qualities. It is the only time when a state with a large number of supporters set out to exterminate the members of another group, not just in their own country, but, if they had won the war, in all of Europe, and then in the whole world with no exception. Every man, woman and child. Furthermore, there's a second quality to it that makes it distinctive. It actually was perpetrated by an international genocidal coalition in which peoples of different countries, and also different governments, participated in this genocidal enterprise.
SPIEGEL: When you published "Hitler's Willing Executioners" in 1996, you became world famous, but you were also strongly criticized.
Goldhagen: The world today looks so different, including Germany. The past is far less threatening in Germany today even than it was in 1996. I think it has more or less passed into history now. At that time, it was a shock for so many Germans to learn how ordinary Germans wilfully perpetrated mass slaughter. I think this is widely accepted in Germany now. SPIEGEL itself recently had a sober cover story on the topic.
SPIEGEL: You always use the term "the Germans" to describe the perpetrators. Is that not a mistake?
Goldhagen: This was, of course, one of the critical features of the debate after "Hitler's Willing Executioners" was published. "How can you say 'Germans' instead of 'Nazis'?" Do you want to revisit that discussion?
SPIEGEL: No. But in your new book, you make a plea for the precise use of language when talking about victims and perpetrators -- in order not to protect the perpetrators or to make the victims anonymous. Why not refer to "the Nazis" or "the German murderers" instead of simply "the Germans?"
Goldhagen: Well, they were Germans. We speak of the Americans in Vietnam and the French in Algeria. We should be able to say the Germans in Poland and so on.
SPIEGEL: But it's not true. The "Americans" in Vietnam were primarily soldiers sent there to fight a war. The same is true for the "French" in Algeria. But by using the word "the" before "Germans," you transform an entire people into perpetrators.
Goldhagen: No. I have often said, in my books too, that many, but not all Germans took part. Why can't you generalize about the Germans? We generalize all the time. Here's a generalization: In the late 1930s many Germans supported Nazism and supported Hitler, and indeed, many Germans supported the eliminationist assault upon the Jews. Here's another generalization: Most Germans today support democratic institutions. It's not the generalization per se, but the empirical foundation on which the generalization is based that's important.
SPIEGEL: There is a difference between saying "the" Germans and "many" Germans.
Goldhagen: When I speak about things that the Nazi leadership in particular was doing, I use the term "the Nazis." When we're speaking about the general eliminationist or genocidal attacks on Jews and on others, I use "Germans." There is a linguistic problem. In English, the indefinite plural "Germans" makes it clear that you are talking about a lot of people who are German, but not about the collectivity.
SPIEGEL: Why do you react so brusquely when confronted by historians who do not share your viewpoint?
Goldhagen: What do you mean?
SPIEGEL: You have in the past attacked other Holocaust researchers and even said of some works that they are "complete nonsense." You have in the past gone after such well-respected scholars as Hannah Arendt and Christopher Browning. Why are you so ruthless?
Goldhagen: Anyone who knows what actually happened knows that it was I who was personally and vehemently attacked.
SPIEGEL: Still, do your attacks not, in the end, only harm you?
Goldhagen: I was completely taken by surprise by all that happened and the extent of the reaction. I am at heart an educator and I prefer discussions with people rather than polemics.
SPIEGEL: Too much vehemence can indeed seem suspect.
Goldhagen: I'm not going to stop speaking the truth because I'm worried about how people are going to react. You're either a scholar or a politician. I learned a lot from my father...
SPIEGEL: ... a political scientist who survived the Holocaust.
Goldhagen: I learned an orientation towards life and the world -- that we always need to tell the truth. We don't tailor what we say about the world because it's either personally or politically expedient. My father is absolutely a straight shooter about all manner of things. And this is what I learned from him.
SPIEGEL: The fundamental difference between you and most other historians or political scientists is that they say that World War II made the Holocaust possible. You, on the other hand, say that anti-Semitism in Germany provided the foundation that was then mobilized and organized by Hitler.
Goldhagen: Well, in the most prosaic sense the war was necessary because without the conquest of Europe, Germany would not have been able to get its hands on the Jews and have the freedom to slaughter them.
SPIEGEL: They could have started at home.
Goldhagen: There were practical reasons why they didn't. The war aims of Hitler were multiple and intertwined -- to secure Germany from a variety of putative enemies, to expand Germany geographically and to exterminate those whom he believed threatened the German people. Those enterprises included the extermination of the Jews.
SPIEGEL: But there were no concrete plans for the Holocaust by the time World War II began.
Goldhagen: This is where we have to start talking about eliminationism instead of genocide. The elimination of the Jews was always their policy. It started in Germany in 1933 with different kinds of laws and measures excluding Jews from German society. At that point they were trying to get as many Jews out of Germany as possible. Once they began to conquer countries, they immediately began to take other eliminationist measures against the Jews, such as ghettoization -- measures which were temporary until a more "final" solution could be initiated. So, to say that the eliminationist assault upon the Jews was a consequence of the war is simply not factually correct. There was always this eliminationist orientation and a variety of means used at different times until the program of total extermination began in 1941, coinciding with the assault on the Soviet Union.
SPIEGEL: Your colleague Christopher Browning argues that many of the murders perpetrated by the Nazis can be explained by peer pressure. This too is an idea that seems to make you angry.
'Eliminationism Has Become an Integral Part of the Political Repertoire of the Modern World'
Goldhagen: No, but it's wrong. I bring to bear a vast amount of evidence that shows that the killers often do a great deal more than they are ordered to do. Often the people doing the killing were not even being supervised. Is it possible for someone to slaughter children and not have a view about whether it's right or wrong? It seems to me the answer is no. It's not possible. When you see, in mass murder after mass murder, how they treated children with great brutality, it becomes clearer and clearer that the perpetrators actually believed it was right. It wasn't peer pressure that moved them. It was ideology.
SPIEGEL: You write that a half a million Germans participated in the mass murder and that almost all Germans knew it was going on. Neither statement is true.
Goldhagen: Excuse me? If you look at the things that the regime was organizing, the extermination of the Jews, the use of millions of slave laborers, the slaughter of Russians, Poles, Roma and Sinti, the so-called euthanasia program -- all these things which Germans today would consider to be criminal -- it is clear that Germans during the Nazi period had knowledge of the vast criminality of the regime.
SPIEGEL: The crimes committed in Germany were certainly impossible to overlook. But very few knew what was happening in the death camps in Poland -- in Treblinka, Auschwitz and the others.
Goldhagen: The evidence is overwhelming that the knowledge that Germans were killing Jews on a large scale was extremely widespread in Germany. Though the program as such was a secret.
SPIEGEL: Did the Nazis keep it secret out of shame?
Goldhagen: No. The regime wasn't ashamed of it. It controlled the media at the time and had rules about what should or should not be said. The Nazis were concerned that it could be used as propaganda against Germany. It probably wasn't known by many people that there was a formal program of total extermination. But on the Soviet front, where there were millions of German soldiers, the mass killing of Jews was done in full view of the army. The army was often participating and providing logistical support.
SPIEGEL: Most of the soldiers say they didn't know anything.
Goldhagen: If you ask the perpetrators, as the Federal Republic's legal authorities did, whether they shot anybody, you'll find out that virtually nobody in these units actually shot anybody. They all deny it. You would then have to conclude that, in fact, nobody died because nobody will admit to having pulled the trigger.
SPIEGEL: Would you call all those who say they didn't participate liars?
Goldhagen: I'm not saying all soldiers must have known. We're talking here about one of the greatest crimes in all of human history. Even just knowing about it is an uncomfortable thing for many people to tell others about.
SPIEGEL: Are modern-day mass murders of a greater dimension than in centuries past because of the advance of technology?
Goldhagen: Most gargantuan slaughters that have taken place in the modern world -- as in Rwanda for example -- have been perpetrated with technical means that were invented before the twentieth century. It is the will that is the decisive factor. Eliminationism has become an integral part of the political repertoire of the modern world.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you warn of the dangers of political Islam. Why?
Goldhagen: "Political Islam" is the appropriate term to describe political movements that are grounded in an understanding of Islam and seek to assert control -- often totalitarian control -- over their societies and other societies which they think should be Islamic. These movements often use violence and often with a genocidal or eliminationist attempt.
SPIEGEL: What should the international community do?
Goldhagen: There is something fundamentally wrong with the current situation. Everybody in the West is opposed to mass slaughter. And they look upon a world where relatively weak and poor countries with few resources engage in mass slaughter. And this just continues and you ask how can this be? If these powerful and wealthy countries were really determined to put an end to eliminationist assaults, you would think they could probably do it. President Barack Obama, who people expected would be much better on these issues, has done nothing. He should create a no-fly zone over Darfur; he should bomb Sudanese military installations until there is a total cessation of activities. But the nation-state is an egoistic entity -- the leaders of the country are calculating national interest and it has not been perceived to be in the national interest of any of the powerful countries to do much of anything.
SPIEGEL: Because they take place so far away.
Goldhagen: It is our moral duty. How many African lives equals one European life or one American life? Contemporary communications mean that we know immediately when things are happening now. So it is a problem of sympathy or empathy. The current situation is that leaders and regimes that decide to undertake eliminationist assaults have very little to fear. They are almost always successful and they do it with impunity.
SPIEGEL: International tribunals...
Goldhagen: ... The establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 was a very good development. But as it currently functions, it is so slow and so ineffective. It was basically a low cost way for the countries of the world to pretend they were doing something. We must create an international environment where those leaders that might contemplate eliminationist assaults would think, it's probably not a good idea because I'll either lose power or I could lose my life.
SPIEGEL: That sounds a bit naïve.
'International Law on the Issue of Mass Slaughter Is Utterly Bankrupt'
Goldhagen: Does it? Any regime that has been declared to be undertaking eliminationist assaults should be suspended immediately from all international institutions. It should be declared that the leaders of these countries, the top political leadership and all high level subordinates, are outlaws and are subject to being killed.
SPIEGEL: You think murder is the answer?
Goldhagen: The perpetrators conceive of it as a war. They're making war on an identifiable part of humanity, which is like making war on humanity as a whole. And if they are making war, the rules of war apply. We should encourage those who can to kill them. This may sound radical, but it is a far more effective, less-costly and, believe or not, likely solution than sending in a UN or some other rapid reaction force.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't sovereignty present a problem, and international law? Who should have the power to determine when such a measure should be taken?
Goldhagen: I'm not worried that this is going to lead to a rash of invasions of other countries. The problem is not over-eagerness. The problem is the absence of practically any will or any action to save the lives of people being exterminated. And the problem is that there is no provision in international law that allows for countries to violate the sovereignty of another. International law allows for leaders to slaughter their own people unless the UN calls it genocide, which is not going to happen. International law on this issue is utterly bankrupt.
SPIEGEL: The US marched into Iraq under the guise of protecting human rights.
Goldhagen: ... which wasn't really the reason for the invasion.
SPIEGEL: They toppled the regime and hanged Saddam Hussein. And if you ask around at the United Nations and others involved in international politics, you will hear them say that this invasion was harmful to the global community. Trust in the rules that should apply to all has been violated as has the will to act together.
Goldhagen: You are right. I'd be happy with functioning international law. The problem is that it won't come about any time soon. I asked the Justice Minister of Rwanda, Tharcisse Karugarama, whether the genocide would have been prevented had bounties been placed on the heads of the political leaders and they knew it. He said, "Definitely, definitely, definitely, definitely, many times definitely.... If people knew that at the end of the day they'll be the losers, they never invest in losing an enterprise."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Goldhagen, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.