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Understanding Genocides
How Eliminationist Assaults End

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 discussion of the international environment regarding elimina­tionist politics, and the essential immorality of those acting within it, provides the necessary context for investigating why individual mass murders and eliminations have ended, and why they did so when they did, and not earlier. Understanding political leaders’ failure to inter­vene to stop the world’s greatest horrors explains why eliminationist as­saults have ended: not because of world outrage, not because of mobilization against mass murder, but because of internal develop­ments among the perpetrators or external happenstance.

The Germans’ annihilation of the Herero proceeded apace without external pressure or serious internal condemnation, ending only when the Germans had killed enough, about 80 percent, to solve their “Herero problem.” It was then that German Chancellor von Bülow pressured the kaiser, for presumptive reputational reasons, to stop the wanton mass murder. The Germans had more or less finished the job and in any case, after the mass murder’s formal cessation, continued to assault the Herero with other brutal, though mainly nonlethal, elim­inationist means. The Belgians stopped their gargantuan annihilation of Congo’s people in 1908 on their own accord. The Turks’ annihilation of the Armenians similarly did not falter until they had depopulated Anatolia of Armenians and accomplished their eliminationist goal. With the Russian czar’s overthrow, the Turks seized the opportunity to restart their annihilationist assault in 1918 to slaughter Armenians who had fled Turkey to Transcaucasia, known as Russian Armenia, as well as Armenians already living there. The Indonesians stopped slaughter­ing communists because they decided the job was finished. The Pak­istanis ceased killing Bengalis only upon being militarily defeated by the Indians, who fought the Pakistanis for their own geostrategic rea­sons. Assad stopped slaughtering Hama’s people when the destruction was sufficiently horrific to deter other Syrians from challenging his dic­tatorship. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had to be defeated by the Viet­namese, who fought the war not as anti-eliminationists (they, after all, had their own gulag), but because the Khmer Rouge attacked Vietnam. And the many mass murderers of indigenous peoples around the world, all but ignored by the international community, have killed and ex­pelled these internationally invisible peoples and then stopped, accord­ing to their own rhythms and self-conceived needs.

Annihilationist and eliminationist regimes targeting several groups often end the various assaults in their own ways. The Soviets’ elimina­tionist policies went through different phases, which individually came to an end when Joseph Stalin deemed the job completed or when it seemed prudent to desist, such as during the war with Germany. After the war, Stalin resumed purges, although on a smaller scale, which ceased only with the regime’s change upon his death in 1953. The Com­munist Party continued to rule the Soviet Union. Yet its new leaders de­cided to break with Stalin’s eliminationist politics, so only days after he died, they began to end the regime’s terror and close down the gulag. Similarly, Saddam stopped the murderous assault upon the Kurds, the Marsh people, and the rebellious Shia when he was satisfied the job was well enough done. Yet his general murderousness ended only when the Americans and British deposed him for geostrategic reasons having nothing to do with his domestic slaughters and eliminations.

An accounting of the cessation of the Germans’ mass murdering of the Jews, and then of other targeted groups and peoples, differs by country and group. For the Jews, the Germans’ and their collaborators’ mass murdering in a country or region, such as in Lithuania, ended— except for the hunting down of those in hiding—when they succeeded in annihilating the country’s Jews or deporting them for extermination elsewhere. For other targeted groups, such as the Polish elite, whose members the Germans partly targeted in 1939 and 1940, the Germans stopped their concerted campaign upon achieving their temporary goal. But their general mass murdering ended in a country or region, and then completely, only with military rollback and then defeat by the Al­lies, who themselves were fighting not because of the Germans’ elimi­nationist assaults per se, but because they needed to destroy the regime waging an apocalyptic war of continental conquest. Had the Germans not been defeated, they might never have stopped, because their blue­print for the world, mandating the master race’s subjugation and ex­ploitation of all “lesser” races, would have required an unprecedented scale of destruction and ongoing use of all eliminationist means—re­pression, expulsion, transformation, prevention of reproduction, and extermination—to keep the “lesser” races dragooned and sufficiently diminished as to be controllable. The Germans’ allies in mass murder, in Vichy France and Yugoslavia, in Slovakia, stopped their elimina­tionist programs as the job was reaching completion or the Germans’ fortunes waned and occupation ended. The end of the Japanese mass murdering resembled the Germans’, with the crescendo having been Americans’ militarily unnecessary twin counterslaughters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Our age’s other gargantuan mass-murder regime, in communist China, also had ebbs and flows in its eliminationist policies and targets, which Mao, ideologically driven, turned on and off according to the in­tersection of his political goals and his read of changing conditions. He stopped the colossally murderous Great Leap Forward, for example, al­most overnight in 1961. As with the Soviets, the general extermination­ist policies ended through internal regime change, finally stopped for good, at least on an epic scale, by Mao’s death in 1976. Yet the Chinese continue their imperialist eliminationist program in Tibet.

No matter where on the globe, or when in our time, one looks, the basic findings do not change. With few exceptions, eliminationist and exterminationist programs have ended because (1) the perpetrators reached their goals, (2) there was internal change owing to a leader’s death, the perpetrating regime took a new direction, or it was over­thrown, or (3) the states lost wars that were waged against them not to stop mass murders and eliminations but for other reasons. Outside in­tervention with the explicit intent to stop mass murder or eliminations— such as NATO’s late interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo and the United Nations’ insertion of peacekeepers in East Timor in 1999—has almost never happened. Even serious and effective sanctions expressly targeted to stop mass-murdering regimes from slaughtering more people have al­most never been imposed. And those regimes that stopped their mass killing for their own reasons, not because of military defeat, often con­tinue to assault the same groups and peoples, using other eliminationist means, including camps. As much as political leaders have learned they can slaughter with impunity, they know even better that lesser elimina­tionist measures, including expulsion, incarceration in camps, and the destruction of towns and homes, are in themselves that much less likely to produce a concerted international effort to thwart them.

Could these and other mass murders and eliminations have been stopped earlier? In so many instances the answer is obviously yes, or the international community or powerful countries could have at least made serious attempts offering a reasonable probability of success.

In Burundi, the Tutsi’s wanton butchery of Hutu, targeting the Hutu elite and middle class, lasted from May to July 1972. The personalized killing, face to face with machetes, was an inverted precursor to the Rwandan mass murder two and a half decades later. The world’s po­litical leaders knew of the Burundian killing, on a scale that at least re­sembled genocide, while it was under way. Only the Belgians, the region’s former colonials, made even token noises to stop the killing. The secretary general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), then African countries’ major international political organization, visited Burundi’s capital during the height of the slaughter and formally de­clared: “The OAU, being essentially an organization based on solidar­ity, my presence here signifies the total solidarity of the Secretariat with the President of Burundi, with the government and the fraternal people of Burundi.” UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was only slightly less craven in his public enabling of the mass murder. He conveyed his “fervent hopes that peace, harmony and stability can be brought about successfully and speedily, that Burundi will thereby achieve the goals of social progress, better standards of living and other ideals and prin­ciples set forth in the UN Charter.” This was the United Nations’ offi­cial response to a frenzy of killing that led the U.S. embassy’s chief of mission to cable the State Department: “No respite, no letup. What ap­parently is a genocide continues. Arrests going on around the clock.”10 Yet American President Richard Nixon did nothing. The U.S. Congress never discussed the matter. No economic pressure, which would have been virtually cost-free to the United States, was put on this desper­ately poor country. Intervention to save Africans’ lives in an all but mil­itarily defenseless country did not take place. The possibility seems never to have occurred to anyone. The four other instances of Tutsi perpetrating substantial slaughters of Hutu in Burundi elicited effec­tively no response from the international community.

Similarly, in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Latin America where U.S. influence with their rightist governments was vast, the Americans had enormous power and could have halted the mass murders and eliminations at little cost. In some instances, it may have taken but a few words. But as we know, in some instances the United States actively or tacitly encouraged the slaughters. As Clinton has now conceded about the Guatemalan regime’s murder of 200,000 people in its eliminationist campaign, mainly aimed at Maya: “It is important that I state clearly that [American] support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong.” Indeed, it was not just “support” for such forces and it was not just “violent and widespread repression,” as bad as that would be. It was much worse. The United States set the contours of the national security policy that informed the Guatemalan (and other) regimes, and helped train the Guatemalan security forces in the counterinsurgency tactics they would use against Maya communi­ties. The violent repression included widespread mass slaughter and ex­pulsion. The Guatemalans’ exterminationist and eliminationist assault against the Maya came to an end when the Guatemalan leadership that deposed Ríos Montt decided the eliminationist task had been sufficiently completed as to render their self-conceived Mayan problem solved.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush’s American administration first encouraged southern Iraq’s Marsh peo­ple to rebel against Saddam and then forsook them. Although the Americans had just pulverized the now defenseless Saddam’s military capacity, he and his armed forces proceeded to wage a lethal elimina­tionist campaign against the Marsh people, systematically exterminat­ing them and laying waste to their villages and region, killing perhaps forty thousand, and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes forever. During the 1992 assault, British Member of Parliament Emma Nicholson reported:

Saddam has stepped up his onslaught in the marshes themselves. . . . I traveled through marshes smoking from ground-launched bom­bardments . . . reed-built villages have been razed, their small rice plots burned. . . . I reached the heart of the marshes, one mile from Saddam’s front line. There I found people starving, desperate peo­ple, drinking filthy water and eating contaminated fish. They had fled villages under assault by Saddam’s forces. . . . Many refugees like these have made the dash across the border into Iran. But to make the crossing, they must brave mined waters and a line of Sad-dam’s soldiers.11

Nicholson knew about it. The British government knew about it. The Americans knew about it. Everyone knew about it, including the coali­tion of more than thirty countries whose troops had just defeated the Iraqi army and ended Saddam’s imperial conquest of Kuwait. Yet they did nothing because geopolitical considerations—wanting to maintain Iraq as a countervailing force against Iran, not wanting to alienate the Americans’ Arab coalition allies by invading an Arab country—took precedence. If ever an instance existed for the absolute necessity of American intervention to stop mass murder and elimination, this was it: The Americans had encouraged the rebellion that catalyzed Saddam’s murderous eliminationist campaign; the mass murderer had just pro­voked a war with the United States, which soundly defeated him; and overpowering American military force was at hand. Nevertheless, Bush let the slaughter proceed unimpeded.

The eliminationist assaults in the former Yugoslavia by Serbs, first against Bosnians and Croats, then Kosovars, and by Croats against Serbs are more instances of how little political leaders are willing to do to stop mass murder, even at their doorstep. European nations, their political and media elites alike, often present themselves as paragons of moral conscience in contrast to the avaricious American colossus. Yet European governments individually and collectively stood by and watched systematic mass murder return, after less than a half century’s absence, to their continent. Some European voices urged intervention, but these were relatively weak and ineffectual. The major and minor countries’ political leaders and political classes did all they could to look the other way, explain away the problem as not being genocidal or as being intractable, fail to act forcefully, and drag their feet. In some instances, such as the Germans’ premature recognition of Slovenian in­dependence in violation of European Union policy, they actually helped precipitate the various stages of the crisis. All in all, the Europeans did nothing discernable to brake the killings and expulsions. Neither did the United States under Bush and during the Clinton administration’s first three years, even though the first Bush administration knew about the Serbs’ mass-murderous and eliminationist designs on Bosnia before the assault began, and immediately understood the assault for what it was once it did begin. Had Bush or Clinton decided to meet Slobodan Milosevic with a credible threat of the actual force Clinton eventually did effectively apply—just serious bombing—the Serbs would not have slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims, brutally expelled hundreds of thousands, or raped enormous numbers of women, and a more just cultural and political settlement would have emerged from Yugoslavia’s breakup. Only when Clinton, much too late, used American airpower in Kosovo in what was formally, as it had also been in Bosnia, a NATO intervention was MiloševiN’s eliminationist rampage in the West Euro­peans’ backyard finally halted.

The story in Rwanda is even more sordid. The French, serving as the Francophone Hutu’s guardians, and UN leaders possessed explicit ad­vance knowledge that the Hutu leadership intended to embark upon a colossal mass murder of the Tutsi. The French had even armed and trained the eventual murderers. Did French President François Mitter­rand or the head of the UN peacekeeping force, Kofi Annan (later re­warded with a promotion to UN secretary-general!), warn the Tutsi or the world? No. Did they tell the Hutu political leadership that the in­ternational community would intervene to stop them and would treat them as criminals if they proceeded with the mass murder? No. Did they seek to mobilize troops to intervene, or even just to make a cred­ible threat that might give the regime pause? No. What did they do? First, when General Romeo Dallaire, the military commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, informed Annan of the Hutu’s plan to exterminate Tutsi leaders and Belgian peacekeepers to get the United Nations to withdraw its peacekeepers, Annan forbade Dallaire from intervening to protect the Tutsi, an order Annan never rescinded. Annan and Mitterrand kept quiet about the plans, providing cover for the mass murderers. Once the killing began, the United Nations with­drew its troops, abandoning the Tutsi and giving the Hutu the green light to slaughter them. The French did eventually send soldiers, which they have had no compunction to do in Africa to serve their interests, though here it was not to stop but effectively facilitate the butchery by protecting the Hutu regime. The rest of the world mobilized very late in the killing process to send some troops, in order to create a few safe havens but not to stop the mass murdering more generally—although halting the poorly armed and -trained perpetrators would have been easy. The killing continued until a Tutsi army, invading Rwanda from Uganda, defeated the Hutu militarily.

The French political leaders were at the helm of a democratic coun­try that, like other democracies, is generally supportive of human rights. Why then did they collaborate in a mass murder that was of an intensity (number killed per month) that exceeded the Germans’ slaugh­ter of European Jews? Because the Hutu are Francophones and the Tutsi from Uganda who threatened the Hutu’s tyrannical rule are not. The French, engaged in a virtually magical realist struggle to maintain their waning cultural importance around the world, decided that their self-image trumped the lives of 800,000 men, women, and children. Why did Annan permit the mass annihilation to proceed unimpeded? Anyone might assume that someone authorizing such intervention and going against the international community’s status quo hands-off policies would make a mortal enemy of France, a UN Security Council perma­nent member with veto power over who becomes secretary-general.

In Rwanda, the world failed to work to stop the colossal slaugh­ter taking place in full view, which it easily could have done at any of several stages, including before its inception. Some of its leading members also made the bloodbath possible, or at least far more likely and more deadly.

The far more formidable Taliban ruling Afghanistan, home to the genocidal bin Laden and Al Qaeda, was toppled easily by a mainly American campaign aided by an international expeditionary force. It took the American and allied forces only two weeks after inserting troops (following bombing) to rout the regime. (Subsequent strategic and tactical blunders have allowed a powerful insurgency to grow.) Un­usual for a Western power, the United States was highly motivated to act against this mass-murdering regime for the obvious reason that it was the haven and staging ground for Al Qaeda, which had destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11, damaged the Pen­tagon, killed three thousand people, and stunned and mobilized the American people. Would the motivation have been there had the Tal­iban or bin Laden slaughtered three thousand Afghanis? Or ten thou­sand? Or even 100,000? Of course not. Each of the many other instances of large domestic killing repeatedly answers this question for the United States and the powerful countries in the negative. Dislodg­ing the Hutu genocidal regime in geographically small Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, would have been easy and not very costly. But 800,000 Tutsi’s lives are evidently less valuable than 3,000 American lives.

These instances show how little the world, the United Nations, the major powers, the political decision-makers have done even when it would have been relatively easy to stop mass murder. The world’s political heavyweights do not act to save innocent lives, because the nation-state is egoistic and its leaders are self-interested, and because the lives of people who are deemed to be unlike those living in the pow­erful countries are devalued. As Dallaire in 2004 said about the Hutu’s slaughter of the Tutsi, “I still believe that if an organization decided to wipe out the 320 mountain gorillas there would be still more of a re­action by the international community to curtail or to stop that than there would be still today in attempting to protect thousands of human beings being slaughtered in the same country.”12

Once the mechanisms that have stopped mass murder and elimina­tions are known, the question as to why eliminations do not end earlier than they do mainly answers itself. In almost all of our time’s mass slaughters and eliminations, the leaders of the powerful international institutions and states, the effective agents capable of stopping a dedi­cated eliminationist regime, have not acted at all. So, obviously, they were never going to intervene early, to stop, let alone prevent, the ca­tastrophes, while tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved.

Intervention can take place. The horrible record of countries and their leaders need not be reproduced forever. To bring about effective change, we need to consider how we can transform the international environment regarding eliminationist politics, including the incentive structure that potential mass murderers and eliminationists confront, and how to promote right and necessary action among the world’s powerful political actors.


10. Quoted in René Lemarchand, “Burundi,” Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005), pp. 133–134.

11. Quoted in Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, “The Human Rights of the Sukan Al-ahwar (Marsh Arabs of Iraq),” speech delivered at the Mesopotamian Marshes Conference, October 30, 2004, Harvard University, www.cceia.org/resources/transcripts/5135.html.

12. Reported by BBC News, March 26, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3573229.stm.

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