Genocide and the Nation-State

9 April 2010


Recently I’ve been listening to Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. This is a tough and uncompromising book, and I admire it for these qualities even when I disagree with it. Also, the author demonstrates that he is capable of thinking creatively about the big picture. He contextualizes genocide in a continuum of responses on the part of the powers that be to eliminate undesired elements of the population under their political control. Genocide is one expression of what Goldhagen calls eliminationism, which includes 1) transformation, 2) oppression, 3) expulsion, 4) prevention of reproduction, and finally 5) genocide.

While Goldhagen grasps the big picture in which genocide fits and thinks through human eliminationism in an uncompromising way, I am less confident that he is similarly tough-minded and thorough about the social and political context in which human eliminationism occurs. I haven’t finished the book yet, so this judgment is merely provisional, but there are worrying signs early in the book.

In a plea for honesty in the language used to describe mass murder, Goldhagen writes:

For decades, Germans and many writing about the Holocaust obscured the German perpetrators’ identity by using the passive voice or by falsely referring to the perpetrators as “Nazis” (the vast majority of the German perpetrators were not Nazi Party members or any more allegiant to Nazism than Germans in general) and by attacking those calling the perpetrators — as both the German perpetrators and the Jewish victims did at the time — plain and simply “Germans.” (p. 11)

I am sympathetic to Goldhagen’s call for linguistic honesty, but I am troubled by the idea that, in the complex and messy world he inhabit, that the proper way to linguistic honesty is to say things “plain and simply.” This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but my hairsplitting in this case is very much in the spirit of the careful formulations of Goldhagen’s text. The plain and simple Germans involved in mass murder during the Second World War (and in the lead up to the war) had many social and political identities other than being plainly and simply Germans, and some of them were not even ethnically German. The important question here is which social or political identity or identities are most implicated in the eliminationist project.

What is the social and political context in which human eliminationism occurs? In my Political Economy of Globalization I begin with the contemporary nation-state as the fact on ground. This is as true for politics as it is for economics. Today, and ever since the emergence of the nation-state in the early modern period, it is the nation-state that has presided over human eliminationism.

In Political Economy of Globalization I wrote:

…the nation-state is an undeclared anti-tribalism: personal loyalty to chieftain must be abolished so that a territorial loyalty to the nation-state can take its place. Thus the nation-state, far from representing its peoples, makes war on its peoples in order to set itself in place of traditional loyalties. And in so far as the state is a rival to tribalism, it is itself a form of tribalism in contest with others, impersonal loyalty vying with personal loyalty. This is but one of the contradictions of the nation-state, being, as it is, both tribal and anti-tribal at the same time.

One way that the nation-state makes war on its peoples in order to set itself above a tradition that pre-exists the nation-state is through what Goldhagen calls eliminationism.

The more I think about it, the more I see the intrinsic commonality of the ideology of the nation-state and the ideology of human eliminationism. In so far as the territorially defined nation-state identifies itself in terms of nationality, it follows logically that the elimination of any other nationality within its territory is a proper function of a state so conceived. Thus it is the social and political identity the derives from the nation-state that is most profoundly implicated in eliminationism.

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