Worse Than War offers insight into genocide

Most, if not all, the genocides since World War II could have been prevented if doing so were a significant goal of the United States’ foreign policy. A few have been trimmed short by actions of our government, but always too late, and many genocides proceed unfettered. In his new book, Worse Than War, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen analyzes the causes, implementation, ends, and consequences of genocide, and offers some interesting suggestions for facing the problem.

The book is divided into four sections—an introduction, the analysis of genocide itself, the analysis of modern eliminationist politics, and a section about what should be done. The table of contents thus presents a highly organized argument, but from paragraph to paragraph Worse Than War has little structure. This is an unfortunate side effect of Goldhagen’s admirable tendency to present as much information as possible to back up each claim he makes—were this information presented as data rather than as unwieldy prose, Goldhagen’s reasoning would be much easier to find and understand.

Still, though it is taxing to read Goldhagen’s ubiquitous lists of examples, they do show that his expertise is nearly perfect—he seems to know virtually every significant fact about every genocide of the past few centuries. This comprehensive knowledge allows Goldhagen to identify significant patterns in the history of genocide. For example, in one interesting chapter, Goldhagen describes how the only major reasons that genocides have ended were that the perpetrators achieved their goals, the leaders died or lost power due to internal conflict, or, for reasons unrelated to the genocide, a foreign power invaded.

One interesting pattern noted in Worse Than War is that however many people play a part, genocide has always been made real through the actions of a single person or small group of people. In other words, genocides have masterminds who act as far more than mere catalysts; these people create genocides, rather than merely making them possible. Furthermore, with a few important exceptions, these masterminds almost always used genocide as means rather than an end in their own lives. They use genocide merely to hold on to power, or more generally to secure a luxurious future for themselves.

These two facts serve as a powerful basis for one of Goldhagen’s most useful ideas—that a very good way to combat genocide it to put a price on the head of the masterminds. A multimillion dollar dead-or-alive bounty would mean that the perpetrator would never know peace, that true luxury would be forever beyond his grasp. Were it clear that every architect of genocide would eventually have such a bounty on his head, the ranks of the willing would thin to include only the perfect madmen who would kill for killing’s sake.

Despite his expertise, Goldhagen does make a few serious mistakes. For example, his analysis of the nature of perpetrators is flawed in two ways. First, Goldhagen commits the essentialist fallacy, assuming that among perpetrators the eagerness to carry out genocide reflects a constant and inflexible aspect of their character. The second, more significant mistake is that Goldhagen fails to acknowledge multiple causes into his discussion of genocide. He successfully argues, that there are flaws in the reasoning of Arendt and others who tried to explain the willingness to carry out genocide as an artifact of social conditions. However, instead of integrating the qualities of these arguments into his own, Goldhagen dismisses them entirely, dramatically underestimating their importance. A better argument would have taken into account all of these causes, each of which surely plays a role in reality.

Due to these and other errors, Worse Than War will probably not be a classic in the field. Goldhagen’s presentation of information is too heavy-handed and disorganized, and his mistakes are too serious. However, Worse Than War remains a major contribution to the discourse about genocide, and when a future scholar does finally integrate all of the major arguments about genocide into a single comprehensive theory, Goldhagen’s account will be given a prominent place.