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Understanding Genocides
Our Age of Suffering

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

On October 2, 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, governor of the German colony of South-West Africa (today’s Namibia) and commander of its troops, issued a public proclamation announcing his intent to annihilate the Herero people:

I, the Great General of the German Soldiers, address this letter to the Herero people. The Herero are no longer considered German subjects. They have murdered, stolen, cut off ears, noses and other parts from wounded soldiers, and now refuse to fight on out of cow­ardice. I have this to say to them: Whoever turns over one of the captains to one of my garrisons as a prisoner will receive 1,000 Marks and he who hands over Samuel Maharero will be entitled to a reward of 5,000 Marks. The Herero people will have to leave the country. Otherwise I shall force them to do so by means of guns. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, whether found armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women and children. I shall drive them back to their people— otherwise I shall order shots to be fired at them. These are my words to the Herero people.1

So began the twentieth century, a century of mass slaughter, with “the Great General of the Mighty Kaiser, von Trotha” declaring un­abashedly a policy that has since been so frequently enacted elsewhere, though rarely proclaimed openly: a program of violent elimination, in­cluding mass slaughter. The Germans’ aim here was total elimination, for which they deemed expulsion and wholesale killing to be equally good solutions to the “Herero problem.” Their ensuing campaign of destruction’s comprehensiveness and viciousness rivals any of our age, yet it remains little known. The location, the survivors’ political impo­tence, and the West’s continuing racism often render the deaths of non­whites invisible, thus de facto of little broader social and political consequence. Adolf Hitler’s musing thirty-five years later, on the eve of launching his annihilationist war with the assault on Poland, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” would have been still more apposite had he, echoing von Trotha (see below), asked, Who now has even heard of the Herero people?2

Herero returning starved from the desert; two women are unable to stand.

Herero returning starved from the desert; two women are unable to stand.

Von Trotha’s and the Germans’ unabashed exterminationist procla­mation and deeds caused no real uproar in Germany or internation­ally. Presaging Hitler, von Trotha responded to the subsequent rebellion of the Nama people similarly, declaiming on April 22, 1905: “The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in the Ger­man area will be shot, until all are exterminated. Those who, at the start of the rebellion, committed murder against whites or have com­manded that whites be murdered have, by law, forfeited their lives. As for the few not defeated, it will fare with them as it fared with the Herero, who in their blindness also believed that they could make suc­cessful war against the powerful German Emperor and the great Ger­man people. I ask you, where are the Herero today?” The Germans slaughtered about half the twenty thousand Nama and incarcerated most of the rest in concentration camps, effectively eliminating them from the German colony. Even though the Berg Damara had not even rebelled, the Germans killed about one-third of them merely because they had trouble distinguishing them from the Herero.3

As is true of almost all mass murders, these annihilations’ essential facts are straightforward. The best known one, though still barely known, is the Germans’ obliteration of the Herero. In 1903 the Ger­man colonizers adopted an eliminationist policy of forcing the Herero into reservations as the 4,500 German settlers gobbled up the Herero’s land for cattle farming. The Herero, ever more dispossessed and vic­timized by the Germans since their arrival in 1892, rebelled in January 1904. From the outset of the armed conflict, the vastly stronger Ger­mans exterminated the Herero—massacring them, driving them into the desert, poisoning their water holes. Jan Kubas, a Griqua, accom­panied the Germans:

The Germans took no prisoners. They killed thousands and thou­sands of women and children along the roadsides. They bayoneted them and hit them to death with the butt ends of their guns. Words cannot be found to relate what happened; it was too terrible. They were lying exhausted and harmless along the roads, and as the sol­diers passed they simply slaughtered them in cold blood. Mothers holding babies at their breasts, little boys and little girls; old people too old to fight and old grandmothers, none received mercy; they were killed, all of them, and left to lie and rot on the veld for the vultures and wild animals to eat. They slaughtered until there were no more Hereros left to kill. I saw this every day; I was with them.4

Von Trotha’s infamous “Extermination Order” came after the Herero, already defeated, were suing for peace. He wanted to finish them off. Seven years later, the Germans had annihilated 80 percent of the eighty thousand Herero. Having decided that the “Herero cease to exist as a tribe,” the Germans appropriated the Herero’s land and cattle, and subjected surviving Herero to a kind of apartheid.

The Germans offered themselves various justifications for why 4,500 Germans’ economic well-being and the German empire’s glory war­ranted the elimination of two peoples, twenty times more numerous than the small German colony. Perpetrators are always convinced that they have good reasons for killing their victims, typically the heartfelt fiction that their victims are criminals, miscreants, or impediments of such enormity as to deserve the death penalty.

Our Age’s Slaughters

This mass annihilation that inaugurated our time’s eliminationist cam­paigns was characteristic of earlier times: imperialist Europeans acting without moral restraint to secure non-Europeans’ lands. As a rule, pre­vious centuries’ colonizers—Americans as they spanned their continent, Belgians in Congo, British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish in Asia, Africa, and the Americas—despoiled, enslaved, or killed people of color who resisted or were deemed obstacles to Europeans’ occupation or exploitation of their lands. Europeans regularly employed murderous methods against non-European peoples that they did not use against their conventional European enemies. Racism and impunity explain the difference.

The Germans’ annihilation campaign is, in a different sense, a quin­tessential phenomenon of our era: One group, in the name of a national or ideological project, self-consciously attempts to eliminate another unwanted or putatively threatening group, and methodically works to do so for years. The French, Portuguese, and others, also racists, were wantonly murderous in Africa during the first part of the twentieth cen­tury, killing or working to death hundreds of thousands or millions in their African colonies, yet they did not set out, as national policy, to systematically exterminate targeted peoples in whole or in large part. But since the twentieth century’s beginning, states, supported by sig­nificant percentages of their people, have done just that.

Unlike colonial predations in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries—which include the colossally murderous trans-Atlantic African slave trade that took 15 million to 20 million Africans’ lives, more than the roughly 10 million who survived to become slaves—most of our age’s mass murders and eliminations have not been perpetrated by colonial or conquering powers. They have been wholly or principally within the country the perpetrators and victims both inhabit.

In this sense the Turks’ mass annihilation of the Armenians during World War I—commonly if wrongly understood to be the twentieth cen­tury’s first mass extermination—is typical. Under war’s cover, the Turk­ish leaders decided to eliminate their “Armenian problem” because they considered Armenians an irredeemably non-Turkish element posing a se­cessionist threat. With the transparently false accusation that during World War I the Armenians had revolted against Turkey to abet the Russian enemy, the Turks “relocated” them, which meant rounding them up and quickly slaughtering the military-age men before or shortly after they sent the Armenians marching away. In a contemporary report, the American consul in Kharpert explains what relocation was known to mean and how the Turks disposed of the Armenian men: “If it were sim­ply a matter of being obliged to leave here to go somewhere else, it would not be so bad, but everybody knows that it is a case of going to one’s death. . . . The system that is being followed seems to be to have bands of Kurds awaiting them on the road, to kill the men especially, and, in­cidentally, some of the others. The entire movement seems to be the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has ever seen.”5 One Armenian survivor relates what happened on her death march:

They asked all the men and boys to separate from the women. There were some teen boys who were dressed like girls and disguised. They remained behind. But my father had to go. He was a grown man with a mustache. As soon as they separated the men, a group of armed men came from the other side of the hill and killed all the men right in front of our eyes. They killed them with bayonets at the end of their rifles, sticking them in their stomachs. Many of the women could not take it, and they threw themselves in the River Euphrates, and they, too, died. They did this killing right in front of us. I saw my father being killed.6

The Turks forced the women and children (and the remaining men) to walk for months, with no shoes, little food, no shelter, often no blankets at night. Barely living Armenians populated Turkey’s byways: “At the first station, we saw a lot of Armenians who had gotten there much ear­lier than us, and they had turned into skeletons. We were surrounded with skeletons so much that it felt like we were in hell. They were all hungry and thirsty, and they would look for familiar faces to help them. We became terribly discouraged, so hopeless that it is hard to explain exactly how we felt.”7 Their destination was the desert where they per­ished in colossal numbers, and at the end of the marching, the Turks slaughtered perhaps 200,000 of those still alive. The Turks eliminated almost all of the 2 million Armenians living in Turkey, exterminating 1.2 million, expelling most of the rest. Employing a wide range of elimina­tionist policies, they also converted, forced into slavery, or kidnapped and raised as Turks between 100,000 and 200,000 Armenian women and children.8 The Turks left Armenians in Constantinople, today’s Is­tanbul, alive because eliminating them was unnecessary for solving the problem as the Turks understood it, and extending their eliminationist project to their capital city would have further exposed their predations to the world. With the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian armies’ col­lapse, the Turks extended the annihilationist campaign to Transcauca­sia, known as Russian Armenia, which they occupied in 1918, and where 300,000 Armenians had fled. They killed perhaps 200,000.9

Like this mass elimination, many of our era’s enormous domestic mass murders have resulted from the perpetrators’ calculations that mass killing is a sensible way to destroy political opposition, to forestall secession, or to safeguard their power or their existence. Such Machi­avellians have often been satisfied to kill enough of the victim people to stave off the putative danger, and then to cease. Or they have killed some significant portion of their chosen victims and disposed of the rest in some other way, such as expulsion.

Machiavellians, such as von Trotha and the Turkish leaders, have not initiated most of our age’s enormous slaughters. Our time’s most lethal killers—Hitler in Europe, Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il in North Korea, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong in China and Tibet—have acted from beliefs calling for their societies’ or the world’s thorough transformation. Several fea­tures were common to these mass murderers’ eliminationist enterprises. The destruction was enormous. Hitler killed perhaps 20 million people, Stalin 8 million or more, Mao perhaps 50 million, the dynastic Kims perhaps more than 4 million, and Pol Pot the highest percentage of the inhabitants of any country, more than 20 percent of the Cambodians, totaling 1.7 million. They each set up a new political institution, the camp system, as an infrastructure of domination, violence, and death, and a partly autonomous, if integral, system within each one’s society. Hitler built the concentration camps, Stalin the gulag, Mao the Laogai (“reform through labor”), Pol Pot the cooperatives, and the Kims the Kwanliso (“special control institutions”). They killed the bulk of their victims not in a quick assault, but spanning most of their time in power, as they knew they were not subject to opposition, intervention, or pun­ishment. And they made slaughtering people a constitutive feature of their civilizations, because their ideologies, as varied as they were, un­ceasingly summoned them to eliminate others to preserve the present and create a radically new future.

In the Soviet Union, mass annihilation was the midwife of the com­munist paradise waiting to be born. Since the birth was expected to be difficult (and was in reality impossible), mass murder became state pol­icy’s semipermanent feature, beginning shortly after the Russian Revo­lution of 1917 and extending until Stalin’s death in 1953. The gulag was one of the largest camp systems ever constructed, with thousands of in­stallations in which the Soviets imprisoned probably more than 28 mil­lion people over the years. The Soviets dealt with real and imagined political problems by killing people outright or, more frequently, con­signing them to the gulag, where the regimen and conditions guaranteed a steady death toll. The great famine in Ukraine in 1933—whether Stalin willfully manufactured it, as some believe, or it resulted from the disas­trous and brutally callous communist economic policies, as others hold— augmented the gulag’s death toll by 5 million or more. Throughout his rule and especially during World War II, Stalin deported many ethnic groups in whole or in large part, including Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Karachai, and Volga Germans. Deeming these peoples disloyal or trea­sonous, he deported more than 6 million of them into the country’s in­terior, including Siberia. In the process, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more of them, died. The impunity with which Stalin could act al­lowed him to kill a vast array of victims: Ukrainians; so-called class en­emies, Kulaks, who were (in relative terms only) prosperous peasants; various real or alleged uncooperative ethnic groups; repatriated Soviet nationals after World War II; and political opposition, real or imagined, of any kind. The Soviets’ mass murdering spanned more time, over thirty-five years, than any but that of the communist Chinese, with the regime’s policies taking the lives of at least 8 million people, with many estimates placing the toll at many millions more.

In addition to the Soviets’ mass murders and eliminations, World War II saw such predations by the Japanese in China, Korea, and else­where in Asia; by the Germans from one end of Europe to the other; by other Europeans, such as the Croats’ exterminating of Serbs and others; and by the Americans in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These constitute a spate, geographic scope, and variety of mass annihilation unequaled during our or any other time.

War can facilitate the mass extermination and elimination of hated or unwanted people. In various ways war makes people more likely to consider eliminationist initiatives. It encourages people to see violent and lethal measures as appropriate for dealing with real or imagined problems that had or would have been previously managed differently. War predisposes people to magnify threats, to believe tales of enemy crimes, and to lash out in fear or in self-righteous retribution. It pro­vides readily believed justifications for mass slaughter, such as an enemy’s insurrection or the needs of national security. War also creates new practical opportunities to act on eliminationist desires, by giving perpetrators better access to the potential victims, and by lessening the perceived cost of committing mass murder (one is, after all, already at war). It makes secrecy from the outside world easier, as operational areas become closed to media, and communication among victims to facilitate defense or evasion becomes more difficult.

Japan’s mass eliminations became possible because they sought a vast empire in Asia and decided to make war to gain it. The Japanese committed mass murder at the end of the nineteenth century in Korea, a precursor of their more extensive, brutal, and deadly eliminationist subjugation of their country starting in 1910. The Japanese’s murder­ousness increased exponentially with their invasion of China in 1937, and then during World War II. The Japanese, like the Germans in East­ern Europe, were wanton, murderous conquerors, doing anything to subjugate peoples they deemed racial inferiors. The Japanese’s racism, paralleling the Germans’, produced similar, vast imperial aspirations and eliminationist practices.

War can incubate existing eliminationist hatreds and provide a context for people to act upon them. But, with rare exceptions, war does not itself create the eliminationist animus that becomes the impetus for extermi­nating people. By whatever mechanism war itself is supposed to produce the mass annihilation of civilians—whether it is simply being at war, a real threat of being annihilated, the agony of defeat, or the euphoria of victory—each one fails to account for mass murder’s basic facts.

If warfare somehow created the eliminationist mindset characteriz­ing mass murderers, then mass murder would be still far more common. Every war, or at least most wars, would produce an annihilationist cam­paign paralleling the military campaign. Indeed, in all or most wars two such campaigns, one from each combatant, would occur. Yet in the overwhelming majority of wars it did not, and no evidence shows that the combatants even contemplated annihilationist campaigns. If, in­stead, suffering is supposed to produce the desire to annihilate the source of one’s pain, then the Germans, twice, after each World War, and the Japanese after World War II, would have been destroyed by their conquerors. Overwhelmingly, mass murder’s perpetrators have not been defeated people who suffered enormously during war.

The people slaughtering large civilian populations under war’s cover have usually been the military aggressors, who furthermore have either exterminated peoples other than those against whom they fought or began their mass murdering before suffering major military defeats. This was true of the Turks’ annihilation of the Armenians during World War I, of the Germans and Japanese during World War II, and of many others, including the Pakistanis in Bangladesh in 1971, where they killed be­tween 1 million and 3 million people, and the Indonesians in defenseless East Timor, which started with the Indonesians’ unprovoked imperial invasion in 1975 and continued with a murderous occupation that lasted until 1999 and that, all told, killed perhaps 200,000 people.

Perpetrators have slaughtered noncombatants not in reaction to wartime hardship, but as an integral part of their strategic political goals. As a high-ranking German Embassy official reported one of the Turks’ eliminationist assault’s masterminds, Interior Minister Mehmet Talât, explaining to him, Turkey “wanted to take advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal enemies (the indigenous Christians), without being disturbed by foreign diplomatic interven­tion.”10 Talât and War Minister Ismail Enver explained in a telegram to Turkey’s ally Germany that “the work that is to be done must be done now; after the war it will be too late.”11 In the 1930s, Hitler was looking forward to war as an opportunity to carry out his eliminationist proj­ects, including the Jews’ extermination. Regarding his mass-murderous project, euphemistically called “euthanasia,” to kill mentally ill people and other Germans deemed biologically unworthy of life, he told the Reich doctors’ leader in 1935 that “in the event of a war he would take up the question of euthanasia and enforce it” because “he was of the opinion that such a problem could be more easily solved in war-time, since opposition which could be expected from the churches would not play so significant a role in the context of war as at other times.” Hitler understood that war would provide the cover “to solve the problem of the asylums in a radical way.”12

Mass murder and elimination are also not the stepchildren of the eu­phoria of military victory. If vanquishing an opponent creates a sense of omnipotence and a desire (not previously existing) to annihilate entire populations, then all or certainly many more victors would annihilate their enemies. In 1940 the Germans would have exterminated their bitter enemies, the French, against whom they had fought three major wars in seventy years, and would have planned to kill the British. The Israelis would have annihilated several neighboring peoples after their victories.

Our era’s differing landscapes of war and of mass murder belie the common belief that war itself causes annihilationist programs. War has provided the occasion for would-be mass murderers to finally act and has therefore been an arena for mass murder. But that is different from war itself producing it.

Many mass slaughters have had little or nothing to do with war. Stalin’s mass murdering long predated, and was most intensive before, World War II. Though Stalin deported eight national groups to the So­viet Union’s interior during the war, the Soviets’ general domestic elim­inationist drive markedly abated. Mao’s killing took its greatest toll long after the communists had an iron grip on China. This is also true of the Chinese’s killing of more than half a million and perhaps as many as 1.2 million Tibetans since their imperial occupation of Tibet in 1950.

The Indonesian military’s slaughter of perhaps half a million Indone­sian communists in 1965 occurred during peacetime. The Tutsi slaugh­ter of at least 100,000 Hutu in Burundi in 1972, and smaller numbers three other times, had nothing to do with war (a fifth, the most recent, in 1993, occurred in response to a Hutu uprising in which Hutu slaugh­tered perhaps twenty-five thousand Tutsi). Many mass killings in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s—by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the military junta in Argentina, José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, and elsewhere—occurred during peacetime, even if their tyrannical regimes confronted resistance (including some armed resistance).

Slaughtering foreign civilians during war has been a common fea­ture of our age, but mass murder’s principal locus has shifted from in­ternational to domestic terrain. The impetus to annihilate populations has been less the correlate of conquest or colonization, as it had been in earlier centuries, and more the desire to alter power relations within or to remake one’s own society. Seldom has war created in the perpetra­tors novel desires they had not previously had, to slaughter large num­bers of unarmed men, women, and children, or to expel them from their homes and countries. But it has often been the converse. Leaders’ and their followers’ common desires to eliminate or annihilate other peoples, such as the Germans’ desire to create a new empire in Eastern Europe, the Japanese’s wish to create an empire in Asia, and the Serbs’ wish to secure theirs in Bosnia and Kosovo, have frequently produced the idea to initiate military conflicts, which they then use as an occasion to enact previously laid murderous plans. The evidence suggests the re­lationship between war and eliminationist assaults on targeted groups of people is the reverse of what is commonly held. People harboring mass-murderous and eliminationist aspirations often initiate or broaden military conflicts for those purposes, or see others’ violent elimination as integral to the conquest or colonization of foreign territory.


1. Quoted in Horst Drechsler, “Let Us Die Fighting”: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama Against German Imperialism (1884–1915) (London: Zed, 1980), pp. 156–157. By saying “shots to be fired at them,” von Trotha had informed his troops that they should fire over the heads of the women and children so they would flee. He was explicit that no male prisoners should be taken, but it should not “give rise to atrocities committed on women and children.” He admonished his soldiers to “always bear in mind the good reputation that the German soldier has acquired.” But this was clearly salve for their consciences (or a deliberate falsehood entered into the historical record), as the Germans had been mercilessly slaughtering Herero women and children all along—which they continued to do after this order’s promulgation. Even if they had not themselves slaughtered the women and children, their formal order was to drive them into the desert where the Herero would all but surely die.

2. Kevork B. Bardakjian, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide (Cambridge, MA: The Zoryan Institute, 1985), p. 1.

3. Drechsler, “Let Us Die Fighting,” pp. 215–216.

4. Report on the Natives of South-West Africa and Their Treatment byGermany, presented to both houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty, August 1918 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1918), p. 65.

5. James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–1916. Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Falloden by Viscount Bryce (Princeton, NJ: Gomidas Institute, 2000), Account 65, pp. 290–291.

6. Quoted in Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 80.

7. Ibid., p. 84.

8. Matthias Bjørnlund, “‘A Fate Worse Than Dying’: Sexual Violence during the Armenian Genocide,” in Dagmar Herzog, ed., Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 34.

9. Vahakn N. Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus, 3rd rev. ed. (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1997), pp. 347–361.

10. Johannes Lepsius, ed., Deutschland und Armenien, 1914–1918: Sammlung Diplomatischer Aktenstücke (Bremen, Germany: Donat & Temmen, 1986), p. 84.

11. Ulrich Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914–1918 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 127; and Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide, p. 207.

12. Cited in Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Nazism: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, vol. 2 (New York: Schocken, 1988), p. 1004.

  • JB Katjiua

    (They killed thousands and thou­sands of women and children along the roadsides. They bayoneted them and hit them to death with the butt ends of their guns. Words cannot be found to relate what happened; it was too terrible. They were lying exhausted and harmless along the roads, and as the sol­diers passed they simply slaughtered them in cold blood. Mothers holding babies at their breasts, little boys and little girls; old people too old to fight and old grandmothers, none received mercy; they were killed, all of them, and left to lie and rot on the veld for the vultures and wild animals to eat. They slaughtered until there were no more Hereros left to kill. I saw this every day; I was with them.)

    The atrocities of the Germans (can never be imagined in any way as has been committed in the most inhamane way ever defined in any existing words of any langauage. As a decedant of the Ovaherero people, and knowing how the Germans have behaved towards us in our quest for compansation makes to have no choice than to hate the German nation its entirety. When I remember the disgusting behavior of the Grrman Minister recently at the collection of the 20 skulls in Germany and when I read the cruel reaities how our people were killed even the little helpless children, the preganat women and elderly with such gross cruelty. I cant otherwise than to even think they too do not deserve to be alive at all!! I hate them, i hate them and I hate them!!

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