Rethinking and Ending Genocide

Much of what we think about genocide must be rethought.

First, the magnitude of the problem is far greater than people realize. During our time—that is, the last hundred years—many more people have died at the hands of genocidal killers than during conventional military operations. The number is more than 100 million people slaughtered, and perhaps far more. This stunning fact, which is unknown to virtually everyone, should become basic knowledge to people across the globe. It should change the way we view the world, international security discussions, and policy making, and it should transform the prevention of genocide from a second or third order problem into what it is—an acute necessity to stop the central problem of lethal violence in the world today.

Second, genocide, as horrific as it is, is not even the core problem. Genocide, or mass extermination, is the manifestation of a more fundamental phenomenon called eliminationism. Eliminationism is an orientation and set of policies that seek to do just what it sounds like: eliminate unwanted or hated groups of people. When an eliminationist assault begins, the perpetrators use a variety of eliminationist means, which include the prevention of a group’s reproduction, violent suppression, incarceration in camps, forced transformation (such as religious conversion), expulsion, and mass killing, to achieve their goals. When seen this way, the problem of eliminationism—which is not even recognized for what it is by the international community—becomes even larger and a more pressing concern than the already gargantuan problem of its exterminationist variant, known as genocide.

Third, mass elimination and extermination occur when two factors come together—a populace that harbors eliminationist beliefs and political leaders who choose to turn eliminationism into the centerpiece of their politics. Eliminationist beliefs are prejudices and hatreds that suggest to people that the targeted group or groups pose an obstacle or threat to their cherished goals or well-being and that they would be better off if they were somehow rid of such groups.

As the historical record shows, such beliefs are a necessary prerequisite for genocidal onslaughts because it is extraordinarily difficult for regimes to mobilize a large number of people to commit and support the mass slaughter of others, especially children, if they view those actions as grave crimes that violate their deepest moral principles, which is how everyone sees these acts if they do not share eliminationist beliefs. When political leaders decide that the time has come to unleash an eliminationist and exterminationist onslaught—with predisposed followers if not their country’s or its dominant group’s general populace supporting such an initiative—they have found that eliminationist policies are easy to implement. This happened for the Holocaust, in 1975 in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, by the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere, in 1994 in Rwanda, and over the last two decades by the Sudanese Political Islamists first in Southern Sudan and then in Darfur.


Fourth, as this implies, eliminationist and exterminationist assaults are not inevitable, and they are not some sort of human volcanic eruption that just happen because of irrepressible so-called “ancient hatreds.” Eliminationism is a form of politics enacted by political leaderships to achieve expressly, if varying, political goals. Indeed, eliminationist assaults are almost always initiated by the decision of one leader or a small leadership. Hitler gave the order to exterminate European Jews and many others. Pol Pot decided to slaughter a huge number of Cambodians and turn much of the country into a vast concentration camp. Théonesta Bagosora and a few others initiated the Hutu’s systematic mass extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Slobodan Miloševic initiated among the Serbs various eliminationist assaults, including the three-year-long assault on the Bosniaks. And Omar al-Bashir has led the two exterminationist assaults in Sudan that have lasted more than two decades. None of these decisions to eliminate and exterminate defenseless men, women, and children had to be made. In every instance, the political leaders could have decided otherwise, and, had they, hundreds of thousands, millions, sometimes, tens of millions of people—including so many children—would not have died brutal and cruel deaths.

Knowing that eliminationist and exterminationist assaults are not inevitable—but are available for discretionary use by political leaders as part of the standard repertoire of dictatorial regimes—suggests that we need no longer throw our hands up in despair, asking what can we do as mass slaughter has visited the world since time immemorial. And we no longer may pretend, as our political leaders have, that we are taken by surprise when eliminationist assaults occur again. They are a widespread and systemically produced form of politics—systematic because the international community, with its hands-off policies, permits instead of inhibits genocide and actively or tacitly promotes it by legitimizing eliminationist regimes. So we need to fashion systemic policies that change the incentive structure political leaders face when contemplating eliminationist politics. Until now, eliminationism has been a successful form of politics. That is why leaders opt for it. We must, by guaranteeing that they themselves will lose power and be put on trial or killed, make them decide that eliminating and exterminating their self-conceived enemies is not worth it, that they will not succeed, and that they must find other, non-eliminationist “solutions” to their self-conceived, and often self-created “problems.”  If the powerful countries of the west wanted to do this, with all their economic, diplomatic, and military might, constructing such a system would not be difficult.

At stake are millions of lives. How can we stand by yet again and watch innocent people—children, women, and men—be slaughtered by the tens or hundreds of thousands?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen ’81 is the author of “Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity,” on which the PBS documentary of the same name is based.


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