A conservative estimate of the number of victims of mass murder since the beginning of the 20th century is 83 million. Add the victims of deliberate famine and the estimated total rises to between 127 and 175 million. Whatever the correct figure, the numbers are horrific and, well into the second decade of the 21st century, governments and terrorist groups are still hard at it, enthusiastically slaughtering their fellow men, women and children.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is currently leading the way while, in the same region, Iran and its surrogates Hamas and Hizbollah would happily unleash a second Holocaust given half a chance.
You won’t find Assad in Daniel Goldhagen’s meticulous investigation into the phenomenon of modern mass slaughter as Bashar got into his stride only lately but you will encounter his father, Hafez, who had 20,000-40,000 of his compatriots killed in Hama in 1982.
Goldhagen’s list of horror, his term for which is “eliminationism”, starts with Germany’s murder of the native Herero and Nama people in South-West Africa (now Namibia), starting in 1904, and proceeds through the Turkish massacre of the Armenians in 1915, Stalin’s famines and gulags, Japanese atrocities in China, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Rwanda in the 1990s, along with a few that are less well-known: British-ordered mass killings in Kenya in the 1950s, Indonesia’s extermination of communists in the 1960s.
There are many, many more. There is one name, however, which looks out of place: Harry S Truman, who as US President ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Goldhagen, who frequently sounds like a self-hating American, thinks Truman should have been arraigned before an international war crimes tribunal. I doubt if any of the US troops who would probably have faced the Japanese army fighting to the last man would have agreed.
Goldhagen can be prolix and repetitive in arriving at obvious conclusions: for example, the power of a few individuals to persuade an entire nation to carry out their evil commands (as described in his earlier Hitler’s Willing Executioners). He also occasionally lapses into unintelligible acadamese: “Spatially and temporally, the death march is transitory.”
He is at heart a utilitarian utopian who believes that, with good-will and hard work, the world can become a better place in which mass murder will never happen again.
In his concluding chapter, he comes up with some interesting suggestions as to how this might be achieved. The most radical is the dismantling of the UN, which he regards as a disastrous institution that has consistently failed to stop any of the massacres that have disfigured the postwar era. Goldhagen believes it to be hamstrung by its majority of non-democratic members, who have no interest in reining in their barbarous chums.
He proposes instead a new Democratic United Nations, consisting of proper democracies who would take a much tougher line than the UN with murderous tyrants like Assad, setting up an early-warning system to sniff out likely atrocities before they can take place (the signs are usually there well in advance) and taking prompt and decisive action in defence of human life.
This is unlikely to happen any time soon, but the hideous death toll of innocent lives over the past century surely places an obligation on us to make such thinking a priority.