A Political Theory of Genocide

8 May 2010


I‘ve made a little more progress in working my way through Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (it is a long book, taking up some 21 CDs) and have been interested to find that it is converging upon an essentially political theory of genocide. As I was listening to his exposition of the role of political leaders to fomenting and perpetuating episodes of what he calls eliminationism and annihilationism (two terms not clearly distinguished in the text) I said to myself, “This is the dark underside of the ‘great man’ theory of history,” and shortly after saying this to myself Goldhagen wrote:

Setting eliminationist slaughters in motion is a quintessential act of choice, freely taken, neither determined by abstract forces or structures, nor brought about accidentally by circumstances. In this case, the great man view of history — if “great” means powerful — has enormous credence in the sense that a man who can set the state in motion is necessary. (p.83)

Later, on page 270, he modifies this position in a very reasonable way:

The “great man” view of genocide… is obviously only partially correct. Political leaders are critical for determining whether eliminationist onslaughts take place at all, but they cannot do it or, as seems often to be believed, will it alone. To understand the translation of their will into social and political action on the part of thousands we need to move from analyzing the leader’s and his circle’s individual beliefs, values, and psychology to considering broadly dispersed political and social beliefs and values.

From the implied criticism of “abstract forces or structures” it will be clear that Goldhagen’s approach is not that of structuralism. He does not explain what he means by “abstract forces” but I imagine that he has in mind claims of disembodied properties of the human character as revealed in historical events. Goldhagen is as persistent as Sartre in his rejection of human nature, and especially his rejection of human nature as an explanation for genocide. All of this makes for an interesting if not engrossing treatment of horrific material from recent history, but there are conceptual confusions that creep into a work that obviously tries to set itself apart by its conceptual rigor.

Early in the book, on pages 31 and 32, Goldhagen twice refers to the “natural history” of genocide, and this I would find to be a very interesting approach. One could imagine a history of genocide that takes a form much like William McNeill’s influential Plagues and Peoples (which I recently mentioned in Urban Ecology) or something like what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war in his essay on Clausewiz. One could, in the spirit of natural history, see genocide as a horrible cataclysm that emerges from structural forces within human history contextualized within natural history (what I call integral history). But we have seen that Goldhagen rejects structural forces, at least as a cause of genocide.

Goldhagen’s treatment of genocide, eliminationism, and annihilationism are the antithesis of a natural history of these phenomena. While I am learning a lot from this book, it leaves me with a feeling not unlike Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I found powerful and intellectually stimulating, but ultimately dissatisfying.

Implicit in these critical remarks on Goldhagen is the idea that political history, or, rather, humanistic history, is essentially distinct from natural history, and vice versa. A political theory of genocide is not, and cannot be, an account of genocide that focuses on the natural history of genocide, and an account of the natural history of genocide is not and cannot be a political theory of genocide.

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