Understanding Genocides
Transformative Politics, Transformative Results

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

Eliminationist assaults are strategic political acts embedded in larger political contexts, practices, and goals. Perpetrators therefore do things to their victims that, strictly speaking, go beyond their immediate tasks of annihilating, expelling, or incarcerating them, and their acts have political, social, economic, and cultural consequences beyond the al­ready momentous facts that people lose their homes, families, and lives. What follows is a preparatory sketch about these themes that subse­quent chapters elaborate upon.

Politically, the perpetrators with their eliminationist programs re­move or at least severely weaken people who would contest their power. In Burundi, Tutsi slaughtered Hutu in a more targeted fashion, and in Rwanda, Hutu slaughtered Tutsi comprehensively, each to fore­stall a lessening of their power. Liisa Malkki quotes Burundian Hutu survivors describing the Tutsi’s systematic decapitation of the Hutu by slaughtering their elite:

They wanted to kill my clan because my clan was educated. The clans which were educated, cultivated, they were killed. In my clan there were school teachers, medical assistants, agronomists . . . some evangelists—not yet priests—and two who were in the army. . . . All have been exterminated. Among those [kin] who were educated, it is I alone who remain. . . . There are many persons who leave Burundi to-day because one kills every day. The pupils, the students . . . It is because these are intellectuals. . . . One killed many Hutu university people.

The government workers . . . They were arrested when they were in their offices working. The others also in their places—for example, an agronomist, when he was walking in the fields where he works, he was arrested. There were medical technicians, professors. . . . Or the artisans in the garage, or those who worked in printing houses or in the ateliers where furniture is made. They were killed there, on the spot.

Be you a student, this is a cause; be you a rich [person], that is a cause; be you a man who dares to say a valid word to the population, that is a cause. In short, it is a racial hate.39

The Indonesian government, with the army and nonmilitary anticom­munists, removed its opponents from contesting political power by an­nihilating the critical mass of a popular communist party, putting many other communists in camps, and forcing still others to convert to ei­ther Islam or Christianity. The Pakistanis targeted the Bengalis’ politi­cal, communal, and intellectual elite, most intensively when the Indians were about to defeat them, which is when they began during a three-day period to systematically slaughter the leadership of the soon-to-be rival country. In many Latin American countries, including Argentina and El Salvador, rightist tyrannies victimized people challenging power from the Left. In Chile the Right’s mass murdering and removal of the Left started with its overthrow of a democratically elected Marxist gov­ernment. In Germany the Nazis killed or incarcerated leading German communists and socialists to consolidate their power in 1933. And after conquering Poland, they slaughtered members of the Polish elite to re­duce resistance to the Germans’ occupation and transformative plans. Hans Frank, the German governor of Poland, in a planning meeting for the “extraordinary pacification” of Poland, reported that Hitler had told him that (these are Frank’s words) “what we have now identified as the leadership elements in Poland is what is to be liquidated.”40 The Germans’ assault on the Poles combined the qualities of a nineteenth-century imperial land grab with the purposeful murder of significant elements of the population and brutal suppression and exploitation of those left alive. Similarly in the Soviet Union, the Germans sought out and killed the communist elites. But the Germans did not kill Jews for reasons of power, because Germany’s Jews did not contest power and had nothing that the Germans wanted. This is also true of other countries’ Jews, who were no more dangerous to Germany than their countrymen. After consolidating their rule, the Soviets, the Chinese communists, and other communist regimes also faced no contestation of power, so it was not an actual factor in their mass eliminations. Re­moving political rivals or those who might foment resistance increases the perpetrators’ security and power and, once eliminationist assaults are decided upon and begun, the perpetrators facilitate their eliminationist and political projects’ further execution by initially killing the targeted people’s elites. Targeting elites was also part of the eliminationist pro­grams of the Turks, British in Kenya, Indonesians, Guatemalans, Serbs, Hutu, and many more.

Socially and economically, perpetrators expropriate targeted peoples sometimes of territory and always of homes, belongings, and social and economic positions (though individual perpetrators often do not per­sonally benefit). While the victims’ personal losses are almost always in­cidental to mass annihilations and eliminations’ larger political goals, their territorial losses have often been integral to them. This was the case for the Germans in South-West Africa, for the Belgians in Congo, for the Turks’ slaughter of the Armenians, for the Germans’ push into Eastern Europe, where they sought Lebensraum, imperial living space, for the Poles’ expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland after World War II, for the British in Kenya, for the Chinese eliminationist cam­paign in Tibet, for the Serbs’ onslaughts in Bosnia and Kosovo, and many others. But it was not the case for the Germans’ slaughter of the Jews, Sinti, and Roma, the communists’ decades-long slaughters in China proper, or the Khmer Rouge’s mass murders. Serbs killed and expelled their Bosnian Muslim neighbors not only to Serbify the terri­tory. Some also took the victims’ homes, belongings, and places in the social and economic order. While the Khmer Rouge removed their vic­tims from their homes and belongings, they, unlike the Serbs, had no designs upon such possessions.

Economically, the perpetrators can also exploit the victims’ labor— even if they do so irrationally and, according to ordinary standards, unproductively. They put victims to work for prior ideological and ex­pressive reasons, as the Germans did to the Jews or the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodians. They also do so as a practical and almost inciden­tal accoutrement to the fundamental eliminationist enterprise itself.

Eliminationist perpetrators alter their societies’ social composition and structure. Their societies’ faces are irrevocably changed, and the social structures are mangled and shuffled. The obvious losers are the victims. The winners, those assuming improved places in the social array, are variable. Sometimes the perpetrators themselves gain new positions—victims’ homes, valuables, and goods. But it is usually by­standers, or selected groups or individuals among them, who take over the victims’ social positions.

Culturally, the perpetrators spread their dominance by annihilating completely or partially (and then suppressing) competing forms and practices. Eliminationist assaults almost always substantially homoge­nize a country, not only politically and socially but also in this way. The perpetrators often destroy and expel people precisely because they bear despised or rival cultural ideas and practices. This is particularly evident when religion is the impetus for one leadership and group to slaughter or eliminate another. Religious leaders’ support of mass mur­derers and their eliminationist goals often shocks, though it should not. German Catholic and Protestant clergy supported, often tangibly, the Jews’ elimination from German society, and some even justified, pro­moted, or tacitly supported the mass annihilation itself. The Slovakian Catholic Church was itself deeply complicit in the mass murder of the country’s Jews, issuing an avowedly antisemitic pastoral letter to be read in every church explaining and justifying the Jews’ deportation (to Auschwitz). Catholic bishops and priests supported the Croats’ mur­derous onslaught against Jews and Orthodox Serbs during World War II. Orthodox leaders supported the Serbs’ eliminationist assaults against Muslims during the 1990s, even opening their churches to the perpetrators for planning and organizing local eliminationist cam­paigns. The Orthodox Bishop Vasilije of Tuzla-Zvornik in Bosnia, an area of intensive killings and other brutalities, was one of Arkan’s more impassioned supporters. Several Orthodox bishops from Croatia and Bosnia presided over Arkan’s wedding in 1994, two years after he ini­tiated the eliminationist assaults in Bosnia. During the fully mytholo­gized event, celebrating Arkan’s exploits symbolically, Arkan clothed himself as a Serbian hero and his bride was the Maiden of Kosovo, a Mary Magdalene figure.41 In Turkey, Japan, Indonesia, and elsewhere, Islamic, Buddhist, Christian, and other religious leaders have sup­ported, blessed, and sometimes participated in mass murder and elim­inations. In Rwanda, many Catholic clergy tangibly assisted the mass murderers, lending themselves and their authority to organizational meetings, delivering Tutsi to the executioners, ferreting out hiding parishioners, and even participating in the actual killings. A Tutsi woman, a Catholic elementary school teacher, recalls:

The priest, Nyandwe, came to my house. My husband [who is Hutu] was not there. Nyandwe asked my children, “Where is she?” They said that I was sick. He came into the house, entering even into my bedroom. He said, “come! I will hide you, because there is an at­tack.” . . . He said “I’ll take you to the CND [police].” He grabbed me by the arm and took me by force. He dragged me out into the street and we started to go by foot toward the church. But arriving on the path, I saw a huge crowd. There were many people, wearing ba­nana leaves, carrying machetes. I broke free from him and ran. I went to hide in the home of a friend. He wanted to turn me over to the crowd that was preparing to attack the church. It was he who pre­vented people from leaving the church.42

Whether or not the perpetrators understand cultural homogeniza­tion to be an important goal, their eliminationist onslaughts increase it substantially. During World War II the Soviets deported and dispersed different national groups Stalin deemed disloyal and thereby, in addi­tion to substantial human losses, destroyed the infrastructure—schools, newspapers, cultural institutions—necessary for maintaining a thriving ethnic culture. Sometimes an eliminationist onslaught is, or includes, a nonmurderous, transformative cultural (and social) initiative, such as when perpetrators compel victims to convert or renounce their religion, as the Khmer Rouge forced the Muslim Cham to do. The result is a transformed public cultural life, in which previously contested or plu­ral cultural ideas or practices, including historical understandings, dis­appear, initiating the reign of a far more homogenized and diminished field of culture that is more to the perpetrators’ liking.

The perpetrators know that destroying the victims’ cultural institu­tions, objects, and artifacts further undermines them. Serbs purposely shelled the major cultural institutions in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, as they sought not only to eliminate Bosniaks from Bosnia but also to oblit­erate their communal and cultural existence’s foundation. They first destroyed the Oriental Institute, burning the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts in southeastern Europe, then the National Museum, and finally the National Library, incinerating more than one million books, more than 100,000 manuscripts and rare books, and centuries of the country’s historical records. For the artist Aida MušanoviN, and certainly for other Sarajevans, seeing their principal cultural repository engulfed in flames and then having the smoke, ash, and wisps of burnt paper hovering over and raining down on their city, “was the most apocalyptic thing I’d ever seen.”43 Indonesians forced

2.5 million communists to adopt religion and thereby renounce god­less communist atheism. Communists routinely destroyed or appropri­ated for other uses churches, temples, and other buildings belonging to different religions. The Germans destroyed or burned more than 250 synagogues in Germany alone on Kristallnacht, the proto-genocidal as­sault of November 9, 1938, and they destroyed many more across Eu­rope, sometimes, as in Białystok’s main synagogue, using them as figurative and ironic funeral pyres to burn hundreds or thousands of Jews alive. Serbs, as a self-conscious attempt to eradicate all vestiges of and the foundations for Muslim life in the hoped-for greater Serbia, systematically destroyed mosques and entire Bosniak and Kosovar vil­lages, as the Germans before them had destroyed hundreds of Polish areas they wished to Germanify. Croats, in their own eliminationist as­sault on Serbs and Bosniaks, did the same to Orthodox churches and mosques. Perpetrators target not just the victim groups’ religious build­ings and symbols but also their religious leaders. Of the ten thousand Tibetans the Chinese slaughtered in suppressing a rebellion in the cap­ital of Lhasa in 1959, they killed eight hundred Buddhist monks. A novice monk recalls, “The Chinese began closing down monasteries and arresting the high lamas and abbots. Those abbots who had op­posed the Chinese were arrested, subjected to thamzing [a ‘struggle ses­sion’ that often included verbal condemnations and severe beatings] and sent to prison. Many died under torture, others committed sui­cide.” The Chinese used the rebellion as a pretext to stamp out Tibetan Buddhism, destroying most of the country’s monasteries by 1961, and killing, sending to labor camps, or compelling most of the monks to leave the few surviving monasteries.44 In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge methodically destroyed Buddhist temples and shrines, and slaughtered Buddhist monks, so that only seventy of 2,680 monks from eight monasteries were alive when the Khmer Rouge fell after only four years. Extrapolating to the rest of Cambodia, which the evidence sug­gests is warranted, fewer than two thousand of seventy thousand monks may have survived, a 97 percent extermination rate.45 The Ger­mans, having thought out and planned the Jews’ total eradication with an unparalleled purposefulness, precision, and thoroughness, set about to save Jewish books, artifacts, and photographs so that when there were no Jews or Jewishness on the planet, they would have evidence of the putative demonic race that walked the earth until the Germans had extirpated it.

The perpetrators do butcher the political, social, economic, and cul­tural spheres of their society or of other countries, yet their most im­mediate objects of transformation are the individual bodies and psyches of their victims—of those left alive and even often, before striking the lethal blow, those they kill. As in Franz Kafka’s penal colony, they seek to inscribe on their victims’ bodies and souls their own conceptions of them as degraded, worthless, or hated, to be used, maimed, discarded at the perpetrators’ pleasure. Some perpetrators kill their victims, doing little or nothing else to them, and when the perpetrators slaughter or expel their victims by the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands many victims perish without suffering any additional personal act of cruelty or degradation. Yet those eliminating their real or putative en­emies often seek to mark them before snuffing out their lives or ban­ishing them from the land. As one Tibetan explains, “We were forced to see our orderly Buddhist universe collapse into chaos, both in men­tal and physical terms. The Chinese Communists, full of revolutionary zeal and utterly without any human sentiment, deliberately set out to prove to us that what we pathetically believed in was nothing more than a mirage.”46 The perpetrators make their victims hear their ha­tred. They taunt and mock them. They torture them in myriad ways. They physically mark and maim them. A specific torture, understood by the perpetrators but rarely by interpreters to be torture, and which needs separate analysis (see Chapter 9), is rape. Perpetrators use their victims as playthings, forcing them to perform painful, self-denigrating, and, for the perpetrators, amusing acts. They laugh at their victims’ sufferings. They express their domination and vent their passions and aggression against them, all the while conveying the victims’ powerlessness. The murderers and torturers physically and symbolically transcribe the new power and the new social and moral relationships on the victims’ bod­ies and minds. Even though many, in some cases all, of the victims will perish, the perpetrators in varying degrees seek to express their power, have it understood, and thereby legitimize it to themselves as they an­nounce that no political rules, law, or morality apply to the victims save their victimizers’ matrix of suffering, degradation, and death.

Mass murders and eliminations ultimately are far-flung transforma­tive political campaigns that—even if not always so conceived—leave a more thoroughgoing mark on societies and set more profound processes of change in motion than virtually any other kind of politics or individual program. For many societies afflicted by such politics, eliminationist and exterminationist programs are the most profound of any political program that takes place within their extended time pe­riod, rivaling or exceeding even the effects of major economic growth. In many instances, these transformative effects are part of a visionary goal of creating a new society, but even when not linked to calls to transformative arms, they radically transform the societies, often be­yond recognition, albeit in a somewhat different manner, anyway.

39. Quoted in Malkki, Purity and Exile, p. 98.

40. Hans Frank, Das Diensttagebuch des deutschen Generalgouverneurs in Polen, 1939–1945, ed. by Werner Präg and Wolfgang Jacobmeyer (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1975), entry of May 30, 1940, p. 212.

41. See Michael A. Sells, “Kosovo Mythology and the Bosnian Genocide,” in Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack, eds., In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berghahn, 2001), pp. 187–188.

42. Timothy Longman, “Christian Churches and Genocide in Rwanda,” in Bartov and Mack, eds., In God’s Name, p. 156.

43. Michael A. Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 1–2.

44. Mary Craig, Tears of Blood: A Cry for Tibet (London: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 123–124.

45. Kiernan, “The Cambodian Genocide—1975–1979,”, p. 436.

46. Dawa Norbu, Red Star Over Tibet (New Delhi, India: Sterling, 1987), p. 220.

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