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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99


Robert Kunath
Book Review


In the wake of German reunification, a series of attacks against Turks and other immigrants awakened disturbing echoes of the past, causing some commentators to raise anew the old question of whether Germans are unusually susceptible to radical nationalism. Such fears appealed to a long historiographical tradition of regarding Germany as a nation that deviated from a putatively "normal" Western process of social and political development, with such disastrous consequences as the two world wars and the Holocaust. This conception of a German Sonderweg (a "unique path" of development) has fueled some of the most bitter controversies in German history, above all the famous Historikerstreit of the mid-1980s, and it animates as well the recent furor over Daniel Goldhagen’s book.

The conception of a German Sonderweg has been called into question over the last fifteen years, but Professor Goldhagen is having none of it. He presents one of the most extreme formulations of the Sonderweg thesis ever to appear (419) and in so doing properly rejects the morally suspect calls for an end to the "demonization" of National Socialism that were made (most notoriously by Ernst Nolte) during the Historikerstreit. But the Sonderweg has not been criticized solely by historians seeking to reduce the centrality of Nazism and the Holocaust in German history. Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn have done excellent work in which they call into question the claim that Imperial Germany was a solitary, sinister deviant from a normal western model of a liberal, bourgeois society, and Goldhagen ignores their significant contribution. Why?

The answer appears to be that Goldhagen believes anti-Semitism is the key to German history, and he therefore feels no need to consider alternative conceptions of the German past. According to Goldhagen, German anti-Semitism was unique in both its murderous potential and the extent of its popular acceptance. This conception is plausible when applied to Nazi Germany, but Goldhagen claims that earlier forms of German anti-Semitism were essentially the same as the Nazi form: late nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism, he argues, was "eliminationist," aiming at the elimination of the Jews from the German nation. He sees no significant difference between calls for the disappearance of the Jews through conversion and assimilation and proposals for the physical extermination of the Jews. Goldhagen also asserts that pre-Nazi anti-Semitism was widely popular, and that apparent variations in the acceptance of anti-Semitism in Germany are misleading: anti-Semitism was constant and invariant, but political and social conditions sometimes limited its expression (39).

Goldhagen’s model of German anti-Semitism therefore enables him to explain the Holocaust with singular ease and economy. According to Goldhagen, the Holocaust happened because virtually all Germans shared the intense, murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazis. The Holocaust was not the work of a tiny core of Nazi fanatics but rather "a German national project" (11). And, as his case studies of the Police Battalions, work camps, and death marches seek to demonstrate, Germans who killed Jews were not only untroubled by their murderous jobs but actively enjoyed them. Goldhagen argues that such killers were not unusual sadists. Pointing to the similarity between the occupational breakdown of Police Battalion 101 and the occupational structure of German society, Goldhagen claims that Police Battalion 101 offers a valid statistical sample of German society (207). Police Battalion 101 murdered thousands of Jews in brutal shooting actions and rounded up many thousands of other Jews for deportation to the death camps, and Goldhagen claims virtually any German would have done those things with pleasure.

Goldhagen frequently asserts the originality of his understanding of the Holocaust, and he acknowledges remarkably few debts to other scholars. Indeed, the sharp, ad hominem attacks made against Goldhagen appear more comprehensible (though not excusable) when one reads Goldhagen’s constant—and often rather contemptuous—dismissals of virtually all other attempts to understand the Holocaust. His book is filled with references to the mistaken ideas of "many interpreters" (358) or the deficiencies of "prevailing views" (247), yet he often fails to provide specific references to the sources of the views that he regards as so mistaken (additional examples may be found on pages 30, 74, 95, 171, 264, 267, 390, 422, and 430). Toward the end of the book, Goldhagen analyzes the inadequacy of five "conventional explanations" of the Holocaust (379-85) and manages to offer a reference to a single work that exemplifies one of those explanations. Very attentive readers may recall that Goldhagen offered some examples of those "conventional explanations" in his Introduction (11-12), but those references are far too few and unspecific to do justice to those sources, much less the historiography of the Holocaust. The book is gravely weakened by Goldhagen’s failure to engage responsibly the best work on the Holocaust, and his vaunted originality seems to me to be based all too often on gross caricatures of the views of the scholars whose work he attacks.

For the fact is that much of what Goldhagen has to say is not new. Any attentive reader of Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg will be unsurprised by Goldhagen’s portrayal of widespread German involvement in the Holocaust, and widespread anti-Semitism in Germany (and Goldhagen seriously misstates the views of Hilberg and, especially, Arendt). What is new in Goldhagen’s book is the assertion that all Germans shared Hitler’s insane hatred of the Jews (447) and would have been willing to become mass murderers (9). So extreme a formulation is inherently unprovable, as even Goldhagen recognizes when he admits that it is impossible to know the emotions of the killers in Police Battalion 101 (261), and Goldhagen’s attempts to support his claim by generalizing from his interesting case studies is flawed by his reductionist approach to the evidence.

Goldhagen criticizes scholarly work on the Holocaust for offering one-dimensional portrayals of the perpetrators, and he argues forcefully for the importance of fully understanding the perpetrators as human beings (266-67). Yet Goldhagen’s portrayal of the perpetrators is uniquely one- dimensional: he discards all explanations for participation in mass murder except burning, vicious anti-Semitism. He thus reduces the range of potential attitudes of the perpetrators to two: enthusiastic assent or principled opposition. Since he finds almost no signs of principled opposition, he concludes that the killers must have been willing, enthusiastic participants in the Holocaust. So impoverished a model of human psychology is unlikely to advance our knowledge of the perpetrators of the Holocaust very far. Goldhagen raises some significant questions about Christopher Browning’s study of Police Battalion 101, Ordinary Men, but Browning offers a far more subtle and more nuanced portrait of "ordinary" participants in the Holocaust.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a failure, and this is especially unfortunate because the book is by no means without strengths. Goldhagen’s case studies are interesting and disturbing, and his focus on the gratuitous, voluntary cruelty of grass-roots Holocaust perpetrators has important lessons to teach. But the extreme monocausality of Goldhagen’s argument vitiates his work. People evidently tried to draw Goldhagen’s attention to this weakness, for at one point he claims that his book does not present a monocausal explanation of the Holocaust (416); by the end of the same paragraph, though, Goldhagen asserts that "with regard to the motivational cause of the Holocaust, for the vast majority of perpetrators, a monocausal explanation does suffice." Few serious students of the Holocaust will agree, I think. Goldhagen’s monocausal explanation ruthlessly ignores the subtleties and complexity of human behavior. It is instructive to compare Goldhagen’s book with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a work that almost matches Hitler’s Willing Executioners in its sense of moral outrage and its portrayal of ubiquitous German complicity in the Holocaust. Arendt’s book is a classic, though, because she is attentive to the subtleties and differences in human behavior that Goldhagen ignores. Arendt recognized one of the most important distinctions in her concluding judgment of Eichmann: "[T]here is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done" ([New York: Penguin, 1994] 278). Daniel Goldhagen has tried to deny that abyss.

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