:: Article

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest

By Max Dunbar.


Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Little, Brown 2010

‘I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!’

– Ali Hassan a-Majid (‘Chemical Ali’), announcing the Anfal campaign, quoted in Nick Cohen, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way

Violence has become the weather. It’s reported in the passive voice. People ‘were killed’ in ‘a suicide bomb attack’ and ‘210,000 civilians have been displaced’. The atrocities are related as if they are a natural and unchangeable fact of existence like the tides and the cycles of the moon. The term ‘displacement of civilians’ might as well describe the movement of air particles, and gives the reader no sense of the upheaval and terror in the lives of Pakistani exiles. Reporters working outside Europe’s compound send regular dispatches of the horror and loss in the developing world. But they make little impression on civilians in rich democracies, partly because of the way in which the events are covered, and partly because we are so used to the tragedy of foreign news.

As you’d expect from the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a recurring theme in Goldhagen’s new book is that structural explanations for crimes against humanity cannot be entirely trusted. The enduring fame of the Zimbardo experiment and the popularity of sociological theses for human behaviour has meant that atrocities are increasingly chalked up to peer pressure and the drive to conform. Contemporary genocides in Kosovo and Rwanda were put down to ‘ancient hatreds’, tribal vendettas in which it would be reckless to intervene. Hutu, Tutsi, Serb, Bosnian – why get involved? The rhetoric of the Tory isolationists of the 1990s contained a post-colonial racism: the natives were always restless; Britain had tried to civilise them but couldn’t; let them get on with killing each other. Others went beyond racism to pure misanthropy. Violence in the world proved that humanity was at base vicious and harmful, reverting to murder and mayhem when the leviathan slept.

Closely examining the genocides of the last hundred years or so, Goldhagen argues convincingly that every wholesale slaughter, far from being inevitable and unavoidable, can be traced back to the decisions of a few individuals in a meeting room. He takes the obvious example of the Holocaust. The antisemitism that motivated Hitler had been festering in Europe for centuries. But it was Hitler that codified it into a political programme. Serbian society had its prejudices against Bosnian Muslims. Yet there might have been no Srebrenica if Milosevic had not used this old hatred as a lever to advance his own personal domination.

The Hobbes-Burke argument against human nature falls apart because in free and permissive societies most people, although liberated to some extent, don’t habitually go around killing each other. Dictatorships on the other hand have become breeding grounds for suicide bombers and international terrorists. People aren’t perfect, they have violent impulses and dishonourable thoughts, but it takes a Hitler or a Milosevic to tap into that darkness and make it into a tool. Goldhagen stresses that great men still matter. The time-travel fantasy of killing the ex-soldier and Viennese artist would, if enacted, make the world an immeasurably better place.

Worse than War‘s conclusion is that genocides are not unavoidable and that we can do something about them. At times, Goldhagen sounds like a famine relief promoter. Forget geography, he says. These are your neighbours. No one in Boston or Birmingham would stand by as a crew of maniacs burned down parts of the city, killed the men, raped the women and herded the survivors into death camps. Yet we tolerate it elsewhere, based on a coincidence of space and distance.

Goldhagen knows that this book won’t make him popular. Although it kills far less than genocide, war is seen as the ultimate evil. Imperialism has been dead and discredited for half a century, yet its influence is divined in everything from fast food to human rights laws. The definitive way to stop a genocidal dictator is to invade his country, and this as Goldhagen admits is an act of war and looks too much like imperialism. It’s the twenty-first century yet the consensus hasn’t shifted since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. At the moment, rulers can do pretty much anything they like as long as they keep it within their borders. The UN’s membership is one third dictatorship. Men who carry out acts of indescribable butchery are welcomed back unharmed and given seats in parliaments.

In the final chapter, Goldhagen outlines measures that can be taken short of war. It’s worth looking at these because his recommendations are as inspiring as the prognosis is depressing. For all the intellectual authority we place in it, international law is incapable of stopping genocide and needs reform. The International Criminal Court is a good start but its wheels grind too slowly and its focus is too narrow. Goldhagen makes the case for an international anti-eliminationist organisation, membership of which would be restricted to genuine democracies. He wants to change international law to incorporate an offence of war against humanity: perpetrators of genocide would be classed as combatants in this war and hunted down until their last day with an open bounty on their heads. One of the low-key measures conveys the force of Worse than War’s argument:

When mass murder or mass expulsions are under way, or it becomes obvious such politics may be imminent, the country should be bombarded with radio broadcasts, leaflets dropped from airplanes, and Internet postings of all kinds and email messages informing its people that 1) mass murder and elimination are immoral and illegal assaults against all humanity, 2) the international community condemns them, and 3) anyone participating or abetting these deeds is liable to prosecution when the perpetrating regime falls, WHICH IT WILL.

Worse than War is perhaps the most important political book published this century, and should be required reading for all world leaders. Genocide is not unavoidable, but it can happen anywhere. This book could save your life.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 17th, 2010.