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Understanding Genocides

From the book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009. For more information, please visit Public Affairs

The existence of eliminationist beliefs and desires, conversations and ideologies, and acts and policies has been a central feature of all eras of human history and all sorts of societies. Nevertheless, the many facets of eliminationist beliefs and deeds have not been conceptualized as belonging to a common phenomenon: eliminationism. Even if elim­inationism’s many forms are better known by their particular and spec­tacularly horrible consequences and names, such as genocide, the desire to eliminate peoples or groups should be understood to be the overar­ching category and the core act, and should therefore be the focus of our study.

Political and social conflicts among groups exist in all human soci­eties, and often between societies or countries. When unwilling to come to some modus vivendi, groups, people, and polities (usually the dom­inant groups within them) deal with populations they have conflict with or see as a danger that must be neutralized by seeking to eliminate them or to destroy their capacity to inflict putative harm. To do this, they employ any of the five principal forms of elimination: transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, or extermination.

Transformation is the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ al­leged noxious qualities. (Eliminationist transformation—which is often accompanied by violence or its threat—differs from the ordinary processes of education or acculturation because it is directed at sup­pressing others rather than giving them new skills or expanding their possibilities.) Groups’ real or alleged features or practices—religious, ethnic, or cultural, among others—that putatively set them off from the dominant culture or group have been transformative projects’ main target. Historically, conquerors and empires have commonly sought to assimilate conquered peoples and areas by destroying their distinctive identities and loyalties. It has also been frequently done in our age. The Turks have at various times suppressed spoken and written Kurdish. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese, having colonized Korea, tried to destroy an independent Korean identity, including by forbidding the use of Korean. The Germans during the Nazi period, the Soviets, the communist Chinese, and many others have also sought to forcibly transform victim peoples. Many eliminationist projects an­imated by religion have compelled people of other religions to convert, sometimes on the pain of death. Historically, Christianity and Islam had this project at their core. Christianity focused its most fervent elim­inationist project of two thousand years, the one against the Jews, on transformation through conversion, often threatening or using violence against those who would resist. Our time has seen many such forced conversions. Today, powerful strains of Political Islam maintain this transformative orientation as a high priority.

Repression entails keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others. Such repression has been a regular feature of human societies. Its most extreme form is enslavement, which does have sources besides the desire to reduce a threat. Though few do today, most human societies have had slavery. Other violent forms are at least as common. Apartheid—a legal system of domination, political disenfranchisement, economic exploitation, and physical separation of a subordinate group—existed until recently in South Africa and, under the name of segregation, not so much longer ago in the American South. Political and legal segregation and ghet­toization are by definition forms of eliminationist repression. Repres­sion, including the ongoing threat of violence and its occasional or frequent use, exists against many groups—peasants, workers, ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups, and more—in many coun­tries today.

Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or com­pelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerors, have been common. In the ancient world, victors routinely killed many among their vanquished enemies and ex­pelled others, often into slavery. The Assyrians routinely deported con­quered peoples. The Romans expelled and enslaved enemies who had rebelled or who excessively resisted them, including the Carthaginians at the end of the Third Punic War. Spaniards expelled their Muslim mi­nority in 1502 and then again from 1609 to 1614. The English de­ported 100,000 Irish to North America and the West Indies from 1641 to 1652. The English, French, and others banished Romas (called Gyp­sies) in the sixteenth century. Americans drove Native Americans from their lands—perhaps most infamously the 1838 Cherokee Trail of Tears, an eight hundred–mile winter trek that killed perhaps four thou­sand Cherokee—and forced them onto remote reservations during the nineteenth century. During World War II, the Soviets undertook inter­nal expulsions, forcing eight different ethnic groups, including the Crimean Tatars, from their homes in the Soviet Union’s western part, scattering them hundreds or thousands of miles into the interior. Ger­mans during World War II expelled Poles and others from various re­gions, and then, after the war, Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles took their turn driving out ethnic Germans. During the period of Israel’s estab­lishment in 1948, the Jews partly created the Palestinian diaspora by expelling Palestinians from their homeland. This coincided with many Arab countries expelling Jews beginning in 1948. In 1972, Ugandans expelled their ethnic Indians. In 1974–1975, Greek Cypriots and Turk­ish Cypriots expelled each other from their respective parts of Cyprus. From 1988 to 1991, Saddam depopulated entire areas of Iraq of Kurds, destroying their villages and their agricultural base and depositing many into camps, and then in 1991–1992 expelled the Shia Marsh peo­ple from their region of southern Iraq, in each instance as part of a broader exterminatory and eliminationist campaign. During Yu­goslavia’s breakup, ethnic expulsion was a constituent part of the con­flicts, including the Serbs’ massive expulsion of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, also known as Kosovars, in 1999. Today, we witness the ongoing mass murder and expulsions of Darfurians by Sudan’s Politi­cal Islamic government. The unfortunate term ethnic cleansing (the per­petrators’ euphemism for deeds opposite of the beneficent act of cleansing) became during Yugoslavia’s breakup a standard of the in­ternational lexicon to characterize expulsions, particularly when ac­companied by mass slaughters or smaller terror killings.*

The most frequent victims of expulsions have been Jews. During an­cient times, Babylonians drove them from ancient Israel, and during medieval times the peoples of one city, region, and country of Europe after another expelled them. Every part of Europe expelled Jews at some time. England expelled its Jews in 1290, France in 1306. Most German regions expelled their Jews during the fourteenth century. Many Arab countries did the same starting in 1948. As late as 1968, Europe saw another expulsion of Jews, this time from communist Poland, which forced out approximately twenty thousand in a sup­posed anti-Zionist campaign. The best-known such expulsion remains the Inquisition-inspired one from Spain in 1492. The Spaniards and the transnational Catholic Church’s eliminationist campaign against the Jews is particularly noteworthy because its perpetrators employed four of the eliminationist means: transformation (forced conversion), re­pression, expulsion, and selective killing.

Prevention of reproduction is a fourth eliminationist act. It is the least frequently used, and when employed, it is usually in conjunction with oth­ers. For varying reasons, those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biologi­cal reproduction. They prevent its members from becoming pregnant or giving birth. They sterilize them. They systematically rape women so men will not want to marry or father children with them, or in order to themselves impregnate them so they bear children not “purely” of their group, thereby weakening the group biologically and socially. Pre­venting reproduction is an eliminationist act with the longer time horizon of future generations, while the perpetrators simultaneously employ different eliminationist means for those currently living, or sometimes none at all. The Nazis forcibly sterilized many Germans suffering from real or imagined congenital afflictions, without other­wise eliminating them, and considered sterilizing Jews as an alternative to killing them. The Serbs systematically raped Bosniaks and Kosovars, while murdering many others and expelling many more.

Extermination is the fifth eliminationist act. Radical as it is, killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mor­tal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a prob­able, but a “final solution” to the putative problem. The most notorious “final solution,” giving this infamous euphemism worldwide currency, was the Germans’ mass murder of the Jews. Hitler and those following him first employed a variety of lesser eliminationist measures against the Jews, until circumstances arose that permitted them to fi­nally implement a program for their total extermination. Already in 1920, Hitler in the speech “Why Are We Antisemites” publicly declared the general eliminationist intent “the removal of the Jews from our Volk” and specified his preferred exterminationist solution, which he hoped the German people would “one day” implement. Hitler ex­plained: “We are animated with an inexorable resolve to seize the Evil [the Jews] by the roots and to exterminate it root and branch. To attain our aim we should stop at nothing.” This is an utterly clear and care­fully formulated statement of an eliminationist, in this case extermina­tionist, ideal: According to Hitler, (1) the Jews are so evil and dangerous that (2) they must be exterminated—root and branch—that is, totally, and (3) the need to do so is so acute that Germans should let nothing stay their hand. To make it unmistakable that this was no frivolous statement either about the extent of the putative danger or the utter emergency of eliminating it, Hitler continued his declaration “we should stop at nothing” by concluding, “even if we must join forces with the Devil.”10 The devil is less to be feared than the Jews.

Extermination has also been a staple of all eras and parts of the world, though historical accounts are often so sketchy we cannot be sure that certain slaughters occurred or of the number of victims. In ancient times peoples often slew those they conquered, in some places such as ancient Greece so commonly that the discussion of the mass annihilation was an unremarkable topic. In the celebratory Iliad, Homer has Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces arrayed against Troy, speaking to his brother Menelaus about the Trojans, and through him to his assembled troops and all Greeks for all time: “They’ve ground the truce under their heals . . . they’ll pay for their misdeed in lives, in wives and children! For this I know well in my heart and soul: the day must come when holy Ilion [Troy] is given to fire and word, and Priam [the Trojan king] perishes, good lance though he was, with all his people.”11 In the Jewish Bible, God instructs the ancient Jews to slaughter the peoples living in the “promised” land of ancient Israel. In the medieval world, mass murders were common, which the perpetrators often consecrated by invoking God. In the name of their Lord, Christian Crusaders slaughtered Jews, Muslims, and others in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This age’s greatest butchers were probably Genghis Khan and the Mongols, who killed peoples over vast terrain in Asia and Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century. In early modern and modern times imperial European peoples slaughtered many less technologically advanced peoples of other continents. In our time virtually all manner of peoples have perpetrated mass murder against virtually all kinds of victims.

Identifying these five eliminationist means of transformation, repres­sion, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, and extermination suggests something fundamental that has escaped notice: from the perpetrators’ viewpoint these eliminationist means are (rough) functional equivalents. They are different technical solutions to the perceived problem of dealing with unwanted or putatively threatening groups, to fulfilling the most fundamental desire of somehow getting rid of such groups, which Ger­mans emblematically expressed in one of the most frequent rallying cries before and during the Nazi period: “Juden raus” (Jews out). As radically different as the various measures are for the victims, for the perpetrators the solutions logically follow their eliminationist beliefs, are substitutes for one another, and can be employed interchangeably.

Conceptualizing these forms of violence as variations of the same phenomenon of eliminationism itself suggests that when perpetrators embark on an eliminationist program they might use several of them simultaneously—just as the Spaniards during the Inquisition in the late fifteenth century used four of the eliminationist means at once against the Jews. Alisa MuratOauš, president of the Association of Concentration Camp Torture Survivors in Sarajevo, explains that the Serbs “aimed to eliminate all Bosnian people.” Yet they used a variety of means: “Some people will be expelled to another country, a Western country. Some people would be killed. Some people will be [kept] alive for maybe their [the Serbs] personal needs. Who knows? Maybe like slavery.”12 Indeed, when people adopt one eliminationist measure, they frequently also em­ploy other ones in a subsidiary or complementary manner. The Turkish leaders codified in 1915 the use of a plurality of such instruments in a preparatory document for the eliminationist assault on the Armenians. They called for extermination (“all males under 50,” among others), expulsion (“carry away the families of all those who succeed in escap­ing”), and transformation (“girls and children to be Islamized”).13 When perpetrators use mass expulsion as the principal eliminationist policy, they typically complement it with selective killing, sometimes on a large scale. The peoples of different European countries, regions, and cities not only expelled Jews from their midst during medieval times. They also episodically slaughtered them, ghettoized them, and compelled them to convert as part of a centuries-long Church-inspired orientation to eliminate Jews from their midst.14 And if, as with the Soviets, the ex­pulsions do not deposit the victims outside the country, then repression, usually severe, follows to ensure the victims do not return home or rebel.

This unrecognized, yet startlingly intimate relationship among the various eliminationist means of transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, and annihilation is crucial to acknowledge and explore. Several questions present themselves.

Regarding mass slaughter: Is it so distinct from other eliminationist forms that it is a singular phenomenon unrelated to the others? Or is it on an eliminationist continuum of increasing violence, related to the other forms but qualitatively different? Or is it a rough functional equivalent of the others, meaning the different eliminationist options emanate from the same source so the perpetrators see them as effec­tively achieving the same ends, and their choice of which to use de­pends on tactics, practicality, expediency, and (perhaps) the perpetrators’ moral restraints?

Regarding eliminationist policies’ genesis: Where do eliminationist beliefs come from? Is there something distinctive about the ones of our age? How do eliminationist beliefs, or even an eliminationist ideology, get translated into eliminationist action? Put differently, what has to happen for beliefs to move people to act?

Regarding eliminationist policy’s character: Whatever those mecha­nisms may be, why do eliminationist beliefs sometimes lie dormant and sometimes get translated into action? When such beliefs produce action, why do they sometimes lead to one eliminationist policy, transforma­tion, sometimes a second, repression, sometimes a third, expulsion, sometimes a fourth, prevention of reproduction, and sometimes a fifth, mass slaughter, and at other times some combination of them? And if it is relatively easy for the politics of one eliminationist kind to slide and morph along the continuum into another, should we treat a regime’s vi­olent repression of peoples or groups as inherently prone to extermina­tionism, or proto-exterminationist?

Eliminationist beliefs have been commonly held by ordinary people throughout history. Yet such beliefs have not always led to action be­cause alone they do not generate mass slaughter or elimination. Exter­mination and elimination programs are not inevitable. Eliminationist beliefs, though all but a necessary cause, are not in themselves a suffi­cient cause of mass murder or elimination. This was true, as I have shown elsewhere, even for the Holocaust. Eliminationist antisemitism among Germans was enormously widespread, deeply rooted, and po­tent in its demonology but lay dormant until Hitler and the state he led initiated, organized, and oversaw the Jews’ mass murder.15 To under­stand why exterminationist and eliminationist assaults occur in some places and times and not in others where eliminationist beliefs are also widespread, it is critical not just for the Holocaust but in all other in­stances to always look to the political arena, to political leaders, to, in our time, by and large, the state.

*Actual resettlement (as opposed to expulsions euphemistically called resettlement) dif­fers from expulsion in two respects: The people being resettled are seen by their gov­ernment, the broader society, and themselves as members of the larger national community, and second, the government attempts to create new and some semblance of decent lives for them (even if the attempt falls short). Resettlement may occur because of economic projects, such as building dams, or because of geostrategic necessities, such as resettling Israelis from settlements in Gaza to Israel proper.

10. Eberhard Jäckel, ed., Hitler: Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905–1924 (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1980), pp. 119–120.

11. Homer, The Iliad, trans. by Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book IV, p. 93.

12. Alisa MuratOauš, author interview, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzego vina, July 12, 2008.

13. Vahakn N. Dadrian, “The Secret Young-Turk Ittihadist Conference and the Decision for the World War I Genocide of the Armenians,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Fall 1993): 173–175.

14. For a partial historical inventory of expulsions, ghettoizations, and mass murders of Jews, see Paul E. Grosser and Edwin G. Halperin, Anti-Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1979); and Martin Gilbert, The Dent Atlas of Jewish History, 5th ed. (London: JM Dent, 1993).

15. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “Foreword to the German Edition,” Hitlers Willige Vollstrecker: Ganz gewöhnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust (Berlin: Siedler, 1996), reprinted in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage, 1997), p. 480

  • David Cornsilk

    After watching the program “Worse Than War” and hearing the theory of eliminationism, I came to the realization that the seeds of genocide exist right here in the U.S. Over the past six years the Cherokee Nation has been struggling with and expelling an ethnic minority known as the Freedmen. They are descendants of our former slaves and most have Cherokee Indian blood ancestry as well. The systematic assault on their rights has all of the hallmarks of eliminationism, but without the murder. It appears to me that had this happened in isolation, mass murder would have been the next step. I hope everyone who reads this will do a net search on the words “Cherokee Freedmen” and familiarize yourselves with this horrific homegrown precursor to genocide. I also hope that Mr. Goldhagen will contact me so that he can study this and gain insights he might not be able to elsewhere.

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