The Willing Misinterpreter

The Willing Misinterpreter

Mini Teaser: Despite Goldhagen's extraordinary claims, he himself concedes in his unwittingly revealing afterword that he is not presenting much in the way of original research.

by Author(s): David Rieff

From the November/December issue of The National Interest.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), 672 pp., $29.95.


[amazon 1586487698 full] IT IS hard to believe that the erstwhile-Harvard political scientist turned full-time moralist, pro-Israel polemicist and amateur historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen could have a more devoted admirer than, well, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. In his first book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, he stated baldly that explaining why the Holocaust occurred required a radical revision of "what has until now been written" and that his book was that revision. His next effort, A Moral Reckoning, claimed to expose the malign role of the Catholic Church not only during the Holocaust but pretty much from its inception, since, according to Goldhagen, the Church had been the central locus of Western anti-Semitism almost from its founding.

Having, by his own lights, first single-handedly rebutted what he called the "false paradigm" about the Holocaust, replaced its mendacities with his true rendering, before finally unmasking the Catholic Church and its clergy's enormous "crimes and transgressions," the historical contours of which, he has said, "no one can rightly deny," Goldhagen has now written Worse Than War, a book whose modest goal is to "reconceptualize, understand anew, interpret differently, explain adequately, and to propose workable responses to [the] catastrophic and systematic problem of eliminationism."

And on the seventh day, He rested.


WORSE THAN War is, depending on your point of view, either the logical conclusion of the path Goldhagen has been taking for the past fifteen years or its reductio ad absurdum. Despite Goldhagen's extraordinary claims, he himself concedes in his unwittingly revealing afterword that he is not presenting much in the way of original research. That, however, is just fine with him since, as he puts it, the book "is not meant to be an exhaustive documentation of any individual mass murderer, let alone a history of our time's sweep of mass murders, let alone eliminations."

Why his decision to write books that, to use a self-description he employed at the time of the publication of A Moral Reckoning in 2003, are "primarily about morality, not history," while simultaneously claiming for himself the authority to denounce or condescend to (condescension being a Goldhagen trope) the work of many of the finest historians working today should be just fine with us is another subject matter.

This pattern began with Hitler's Willing Executioners, where, when he wasn't busy laying down the moral law, Goldhagen was largely arguing against the historiographical consensus about the Holocaust (the great Holocaust scholar, Raul Hilberg, drew his particular scorn). If he had an essentialist view of German history from the early nineteenth century to the fall of Berlin in 1945 (that essence, broadly speaking, being what he calls eliminationist anti-Semitism), Goldhagen felt equally confident in his ability to discern and lavishly praise the moral regeneration of the post-Nazi German state and society.

The problem, whether when he was doling out praise or blame, as the historian of Nazism Christopher Browning (Goldhagen's bête noire in Hitler's Willing Executioners) pointed out more than a decade ago, is that Goldhagen has shown a tendency in his work to claim to be blazing new trails in understanding when, in reality, his own views are not so far as he imagines from the conventional wisdom he so excoriates and about which he claims to be writing to correct and reform.

Despite what Goldhagen claimed, few historians before him had denied that "ordinary Germans" participated willingly in the murder of European Jewry. Nor did the scholars who came before him believe that those ordinary Germans killed out of fear of reprisal. In other words, the concept of Hitler's willing executioners was the consensus view of historians long before Goldhagen turned his Harvard dissertation into a global best seller.

His follow-up effort, A Moral Reckoning, was after bigger game than historians. For all intents and purposes, Goldhagen's claim in that book was that the Catholic Church and its clergy had done so much harm over the sweep of centuries-harm culminating in the ideological facilitation of the Holocaust-that collectively their duty was clearly to engage in the most urgent kind of what Goldhagen, echoing the catechism, called "moral repair," based on the history he, Goldhagen, had indisputably established with his book. But had he? Again, Goldhagen took something well-known-the accusations of the Vatican's complicity in the Holocaust-and married it to something far less debatable (and not disputed by most serious Catholic historians): the tragic strain of anti-Semitism in Church history. And, unable to resist an essentialist reading, Goldhagen made the former the exemplification of the latter, which then became the central moral fact of Church history.

Worse Than War has some of this same reinvent-the-wheel quality to it. In fact, while Worse Than War is both long and turgid, it is rather less of an accomplishment than either its length or Goldhagen's claims for the work might lead the reader to assume.


AS WITH his analysis of what he called German eliminationist anti-Semitism in Hitler's Willing Executioners and the Catholic Church's systemic culpability in A Moral Reckoning, in Worse Than War, Goldhagen again makes the sweeping claim that pretty much every government, institution and even most individuals have been unwilling to face the problem of genocide forthrightly and, more crucially, to understand its real nature. Enter Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, explanatory key and, in this case, institutional responses and policy solutions in hand. The man really does give self-love a bad name.

If Goldhagen was grandiose in his earlier books, the terms of reference he lays down in "The Choice," the stentorian title of his preface to Worse Than War, make his previous claims seem paltry by comparison. In its first sentence, he states categorically that "hundreds of millions of people are at risk of becoming the victims of genocide and related violence." Given the fact that he bases this claim not only on the risk in countries where genocide has occurred or where the ongoing threat seems real but also on countries where, as he himself concedes, "no warning signals suggest immediate danger," it is surprising in a way that he doesn't put the number at a billion. After all, given such latitudinarian criteria, there is really no reason he shouldn't choose that higher number or, indeed, one higher still. In reality, at least as stated, the number represents first and foremost an emotion-Goldhagen's, in point of fact: legitimate grief over what has happened in too many places far too often over the past hundred years. It represents too a hyperbolic apprehension over what may happen to people living in countries governed by regimes that have been, or-more problematically-that Goldhagen believes, "are inherently prone to" engaging in mass murder.


THE FIRST nine chapters of Worse Than War, amounting to close to five hundred pages of text, attempt to lay down an interpretive framework for understanding the nature of eliminationism in history and contemporary geopolitics. There are long accounts, some narrative, some comparative, of any number of the great horrors of the twentieth century-the German genocide of the Herero in present-day Namibia at the beginning of the 1900s, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Pol Pot, the slaughter of indigenous Guatemalans in the 1980s by the dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt and the genocide in Rwanda, to name only a handful of the genocidal killings Goldhagen attempts to anatomize. He does so poignantly, but these examples-however much they clearly affect him, and he clearly wants them to outrage and mobilize his readers-are always harnessed to Goldhagen's larger project of trying to build a schema for understanding eliminationism and genocide.

Unsurprisingly, in his own eyes he has succeeded brilliantly. In an afterword entitled "Thoughts and Thanks"-which is part self-promotion, part the conventional contemporary writer's boilerplate (thanks to nearest, dearest publishers, agents and institutions), and part childish score settling with critics and academic specialists with whom he has crossed swords in the past-Goldhagen claims to have "substantially recast our understanding of the phenomenon."

For all Goldhagen's prolixity, his views about how eliminationism is embedded in societies, ideologies, the discourse of rights and the character of political structures seem largely commonsensical. And the views he seeks to rebut seem more straw man-like than anything else. Goldhagen is particularly incensed by two claims. The first is that the actions of people who participate in mass murder are "determined by external forces; that [people] have little say over how they act; that free will is an illusion." The second is that "internal drives impel people to commit mass murder"-what Goldhagen aptly calls "the Caligula that is everyman."

The problem is that neither the vulgar materialism of Goldhagen's first straw man nor the vulgar Freudianism of his second is in fact what most people who know anything about war or mass slaughter believe happened to, say, the Bosnian Muslims, or to the Rwandan Tutsis. To be sure, there had been comparative peace in Bosnia since 1945 (if little comity outside the urban redoubts of Sarajevo and Tuzla), and in the Rwandan countryside, killing was episodic between the expulsion of a part of the Tutsi population in the 1960s and the beginning of renewed fighting at the end of the 1980s. But no one who spoke to the Bosnian Serbs or the Rwandan Hutus while the killing and the mass rape was going on could doubt that many who murdered did so willingly and under no existential threat. By the same token, these crimes were conceived by their perpetrators-this is not speculation; journalists like me who covered both of these horrors, and many of the others that Goldhagen adduces, have the audio tapes to prove it-in political, ethnic, racial and religious terms depending on the place and time.

Essay Types: Book Review