By Michael Zank
Published in Religious Studies Review, vol. 24 no. 3 (July 1998), 231-240 (Note: This online version was revised in Dec. 2007 and Jan. 2008.)
Jonah Goldhagen's Revisionary Account of the Holocaust: The Book and
In the Spring of 1996 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published a book called Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in which he argued that scholarship on the Holocaust needed revision. Most scholars assume that the German all but total elimination of European Jewry was the consequence either of the intentions of a few mad leaders who were able to coerce an otherwise decent people into becoming tools in their vicious schemes, or of a mixture of improvisation, chaos behind the battle lines, and competition among the branches of a polycratic system of government. These, at least, are the respective views of the two major schools of thought on this matter, the so-called "intentionalists" (e.g., Lucy Davidowitz and Eberhard Jäckel) and the "functionalists" (e.g., Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen).
While functionalists and intentionalists have mainly studied the structure of the decision making process and have therefore focused on the level of government and its involvement in mass exterminations, Goldhagen focused instead on the actions of the people at the bottom of the hierarchy of Nazi Germany, i.e., he tried to explain the mindset and motivations of the actual murderers. It was hitherto assumed, says Goldhagen, that most individuals involved in the killings were either coerced, or unwitting cogs in the machinery of an ultramodern governmental apparatus, or that they were mainly recruited from among the members of fanatical organizations such as the SS or the SA. Instead, Goldhagen maintains, they were "ordinary Germans."
In parts II, IV, and V of Hitler's Willing Executioners the author reviews documentary evidence regarding three aspects of the Holocaust that are less widely known but no less appalling than the often described concentration and extermination camps. Among these lesser known aspects of the history of the Holocaust are the involvement of police units (amounting to about 19,000 members) in the kinds of mass executions of Jewish civilians that are usually associated with certain Einsatzgruppen (special units under the supervision of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt), the labor camps, and the "death marches" in which, towards the end of the war, the surviving inmates of labor and concentration camps were marched westward, away from the advancing Soviet armies. In all three situations, as Goldhagen describes in graphic detail, Germans dehumanized and tortured their victims before killing them. Often the killers would document their deeds by taking pictures as souvenirs and boast in letters to their loved ones about the good times they were having.
In support of his thesis, Goldhagen attacks a number of assumptions that are auxilliary to the commonly held scholarly opinions. One such assumption holds that much of the German genocidal activity remained a secret to the German public until after the war. Given that thousands of German policemen and, one should add, thousands of members of the German Wehrmacht were involved in brutal executions of civilians and other atrocities (e.g., the killing of alleged Polish resistance fighters, the murder of kommissars, and the starving to death of approximately one million Soviet prisoners of war), the notion of secrecy seems difficult to uphold.
Similarly Goldhagen contradicts the idea that only a minority of Germans, mostly from the lower classes, approved of the antisemitic measures instituted by their government. If indeed the mass murders were not secret, many more Germans than hitherto assumed must have known about what was going on in enemy territory. Goldhagen concludes that even when they were not themselves actively involved in the executions, most Germans acquiesced in the genocidal policy of the government. If most Germans acquiesced in the elimination and extermination of the Jews (and, one should add, in the enslavement, dehumanization, and the killing of others, including the mentally disabled); if many Germans could be persuaded to participate in such horrors; if it was possible to make it seem desirable to kill defenseless Jewish men, women, and children and permissible to rob and torture them before doing so, then, so Goldhagen, there can be only one conclusion. There is no doubt about the crimes and the identity of the perpetrators; the only question is: why did they do it? Since coercion has not been proved in any case, and since peer pressure apparently favored rather than discouraged such conduct, it follows that many or most Germans wanted to do it. The Germans were Hitler's "willing executioners." According to Goldhagen the Holocaust becomes a question of the intention not of an ideological cadre but of an entire people and its mentality.
Why, then, did the Germans want to kill the Jews? Neither this simplistic question nor the answer advanced by Goldhagen are new. They correspond to the communis opinio held by Western scholars and the public alike that took shape as soon as the full extent of German war crimes became known in 1945. According to this view, Germany had long developed separately from Western democracies and in the course of this Sonderweg had embraced a vicious kind of antisemitism which accounts for their insane near eradication of European Jewry. Goldhagen calls this phenomenon "eliminatory" antisemitism, a term he uses to describe a uniquely German attitude that had begun to pervade German society in the 19th century and led to the popularity of the Nazi measures to eliminate the Jews.
Goldhagen's claim that his explanation of the Holocaust from a combination of a uniquely German antisemitic mentality and a deficient national identity is highly innovative, is somewhat weakened by the fact that it resembles what was first advanced fifty years ago and has been a popular assumption outside of Germany ever since. The book is also weakened by the summary dismissal of much of the research into the complex governmental structure and social psychology of the totalitarian state as irrelevant or secondary. His discussion of other scholarly opinions is often superficial or simply fails to engage it altogether, his quotations are selective and limited to sources supporting his views. The stark simplicity of his thesis, together with the mentioned methodological shortcomings and the exaggerated and extreme claims to originality and profundity, have contributed to the mixed response to his book. Some reviewers hailed it as a milestone in research on the Holocaust. Others were less enthusiastic, among them historians who have spent decades studying the many aspects of the Holocaust which, in their view, colluded to produce what is undeniably the most disastrous collapse of Western morality in the twentieth century. For example, the eminent German historian Eberhard Jäckel dismissed Hitler's Willing Executioners as "simply a bad book" ("einfach ein schlechtes Buch").1 Bad or not, however, as soon as it was published (March 1996) it stimulated a substantive and lively discussion first among scholars in the USA, England, and Germany and then, after the publication of the German translation in August 1996, also among a broader reading public in Germany.
Debating Goldhagen: A Twisted Road to Apotheosis
The German debate on Goldhagen evolved in three phases that differed in the extent to which the public participated in it. The first phase, in April and May of 1996, saw a debate among historians and journalists, triggered by the advance publication of a translation of a few characteristic passages from Goldhagen's book in the liberal weekly Die Zeit. The second phase began in August 1996, when the full German translation appeared and Goldhagen toured Germany for book events and staged debates with the historians who had criticized him during in the first phase. The third phase consisted of a gradual integration of Goldhagen into the landscape of the German media and culminated in the spring of 1997 when he received a prize from the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.
the first phase, German historians joined their colleagues, mainly in the
US, the UK, and Israel, in a debate about the merits of Goldhagen's angry
and polemical essay that attributed the Holocaust to one single basic cause,
antisemitism. While the majority of historians criticized the scholarly pitfalls
and the self-promoting style of the book, few dismissed it as unworthy of
serious criticism. The German Jewish historian Julius Schoeps and others felt
at the time that the international responses to Goldhagen were far more favorable
than those published in Germany.2
The second phase involved three protagonists: Goldhagen himself, the panels of historians pitted against him, and a significant number of German non-speciaists who had read the German translation of the book and also attended the carefully staged face-offs between Goldhagen and his critics. These events attracted up to 5 or 6,000 people at a time. To the surprise of the media professionals, the German public (at least those taking an interest in this issue) strongly sided with Goldhagen.
Once the wave of enthusiasm generated by the young American scholar subsided, Goldhagen's views were no longer a direct topic of debate. Rather, in a third phase, reflection set in about the state of the German republic, a republic Goldhagen had stirred at a sensitive time. The "Goldhagen phenomenon" no longer concerned the past but the present estrangement between the class of professional pundits and the public which had so unpredictably sided with the American's attack on Germany.3 To some, the name Goldhagen now stood for a greater public readiness to engage in moral reflections on the meaning of the German past, while to others (predominantly to the professional historians and journalists) it signified the victory of mythmaking over responsible historiography.4 Goldhagen's star power was such that even a faculty search at Harvard University for an endowed chair in Holocaust Studies evoked sufficient interest to be reported on in detail since Daniel Goldhagen was one of the candidates for the position.5 "Goldhagen" was assimilated into the vocabulary of essays on the German present rather than the German past. Daniel Goldhagen himself adopted this new role when he made himself heard in debates on contemporary German issues, e.g., when he published his opinion on the future of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.6 This last phase took a further unanticipated turn when Goldhagen gave an acceptance speech upon receiving a prestigious prize for his contributions to the development of a democratic culture in Germany. Goldhagen's speech on this occasion left a sour aftertaste among those like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas who had praised him as an important critic of German historiographical complacency. On the other hand, the media that had first attacked Goldhagen for charging Germany with collective guilt for the Holocaust, now praised him for recognizing postwar Germany (i.e. the Federal Republic) as a model of objective and open debate on national history, to be emulated by others. Goldhagen's praise for Germany was an unexpected ironic twist to the whole prolonged affair.
The involvement of several widely distributed newspapers in the first stage of the debate indicated from the beginning the wide echo the book was to have. A debate on Germany's past, especially one concerning the character of "ordinary Germans," had immediate repercussions on the way Germans see themselves and are seen by others, especially at a time when a re-unified Germany was on the verge of shifting from the familiar "Bonn republic" to a "Berlin republic," a prospect which had been evoking mixed feelings in and outside of Germany. Since Goldhagen's book was published at the time of such a profound reorientation, it was not surprising that it would meet with a strong emotional response. Goldhagen had touched a nerve.
Denial to Embrace: How the Holocaust Entered the German Cultural Memory7
In order to understand both the positive and the negative responses to Goldhagen it is useful to consider the historical process by which what Germans like to call their "most recent past" (die jüngste Vergangenheit) has been integrated into contemporary German thinking, a process which stretches across the past half century.8
Accusation of Collective Guilt , Denial, and Self-Pity
The first period, immediately following Germany's unconditional surrender and the liberation of the camps, saw the most natural response to the outrageous acts committed by Germans. One recalls the images of Germans from the neighborhood of Bergen-Belsen forced to file past piles of emaciated bodies discovered upon liberating the camps. While the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial in Nürnberg, the majority of Germans watched speechlessly as their former leaders made faint excuses for what they had recently proudly preached to eager believers. The war was over, yet many men were still detained in the allied POW-camps. Meanwhile women, children, and older men began to piece together their lives. They were sobered after several wartime winters of cold and malnourishment, the experience of cataclysmic bombardment of their cities, often homeless after fleeing westward to escape the advancing Soviet armies, and uncertain about the fate of their loved ones and their own future. The prevailing attitude in Germany after the war was self pity, an attitude which left little if any room for attention to the greater suffering of others. The political void was filled by a resurgence of religion not dissimilar to Russia after the collapse of communism. The churches, partly tainted but adaptable and partly drawing credibility from (moderate) political resistance came forward with vague and general confessions of guilt9 and provided comfort to individuals who had lost faith in the völkisch gospel. Meanwhile, outside Germany whatever suffering the Germans were going through must have seeemed trivial compared to the brutalities they had willingly and gladly brought onto others.
Cold War and Western Germany's Integration Into the Struggle Against Totalitarianism
The victorious powers soon realized that it was difficult to denazify all of Germany and that it was more important to integrate Germany and the Germans into a united front against the Soviet Union, the ally turned adversary. The attitude of moral outrage at, and collective indictment of, the Germans could therefore not be maintained for long. Accordingly, during the early stages of the Cold War, in the 1950s, Germans in the Federal Republic learned to regard their recent past as a consequence of totalitarianism. The atrocities that had been undeniably committed had been perpetrated by the Nazis in the "name of Germany." Historians and political scientists agreed that there were mitigating circumstances that emerged as a result of unprejudiced comparative study. So, for example, the antisemitic attitude of other nations came into focus and the role of the bystanders was more clearly seen as enabling Germany to act as it did without much interference. In addition it became clear that others had tolerated or actively supported the German policy of deporting and murdering Jews and some categories of non-Jews. The German population itself was increasingly understood as a kind of victim of a political system which successfully curtailed civil liberties, manipulated public opinion by total control of media and communication, and controlled the actions of individuals by a mixture of organizational integration (from Reichsarbeitsdienst to SS), appeal to public sentiments (by broadcasting economic successes such as the virtual defeat of unemployment, by remilitarization, and by the first bloodless conquests in defiance of the Versaille treaty), and terror (elimination of political opposition, concentration camps for political prisoners, torture, secret police, denunciation for minor infractions, etc.).
This revision of the historical perspective was accompanied by public acts of retribution. In the early 1960s (prompted by the capture of Eichmann), the administration of the newly prosperous Federal Republic brought some of the erstwhile mid-level functionaries of the Hitler state to trial and agreed to pay millions of Deutschmarks in reparations to victims of Nazi persecution. The government of the Federal Republic did this not because it identified with the Third Reich or because of altruistic concerns but in order to strengthen its claim to represent the legal successor to the Reich by taking responsibility for righting, to the best of its abilities, the crimes committed by its predecessor. At the same time, Germans were allowed to empathize with other victims of totalitarianism, especially those currently oppressed by the remaining totalitarian regime in Europe, i.e., the Soviet Union. The future belonged to the common Western fight against Bolshevism, a fight in which a "liberated" Germany joined the North Atlantic military alliance (NATO). The reason for the popularity of this political worldview was a mixture of longstanding prejudice against the Soviets, whose alleged "Asian" brutality had already been the justification for any number of "preventive measures" taken during WWII, of actual experience of atrocities committed by members of the advancing Soviet armies, of grief over the losses of homes and property incurred by those who fled the eastern provinces of the German Reich, and, most importantly, of resentment that part of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, was still "under Soviet administration." To join NATO meant to be allowed to remilitarize and join the struggle for the liberation of the rest of Germany and eastern Europe. From the Western perspective, Germany's membership in the North Atlantic military alliance, and later also in the UNO, meant that Germany had left behind the last vestiges of its Sonderweg and turned itself into a pillar of the free world.
The first phase in the development of attitudes towards the crimes committed during WWII had been one in which the victors levelled unequivocal charges against a morally apathetic and vanquished Germany which, understandably, responded by denial. Germany was a pariah. The second phase, however, saw the emergence of two Germanys that were both part of alliances that opposed one another. NATO and the Soviet bloc faced one another on German soil. The Western powers supported the Federal Republic as a new and improved version of the Weimar Republic, while the GDR was founded on the myth of antifascism. This ideological division was reflected in powerful argumentative patterns and rigorized modes of public behavior on the part of the two German states, of their political and cultural instutions, etc. The GDR identified itself with the fight against fascism and built a wall "to keep the fascists out," symbolizing complete discontinuity with the German past. Implied in this act was the assumption (accepted also by anti-fascists in the West) that the actions of the German Third Reich emanated from a flawed system rather than from flawed individuals. From the point of view of the East German government, the change of systems ended all need to account for the anti-Jewish policies of the nineteenthirties and forties. This political attitude, which soon merged with the anti-Zionism of the Communist bloc, essentially forestalled all serious attempts of dealing with antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Among West German citizens the general attitude continued to be one of disinterest and denial. When I grew up (in the early sixties) one could still occasionally encounter spontaneous expressions of antisemitism although they enjoyed no public endorsement and rarely, if ever, escalated to physical violence against people. To me it seemed weird, ridiculous, and incomprehensible to hear anti-Jewish statements such as the question, after the pattern of a famous joke, "How many Jews fit into a VW-beetle?" or the curse "They probably forgot to gas you!" or when someone once asked me on account of my nose whether I was Jewish since "we don't like no Jews or Sozis" (viz. socialists). Utterings such as these always took me by surprise and made no sense to me. There were hardly any Jews around and most of my friends and acquaintances never knew that, by Nazi-criteria and Halakha, my mother, my brother, and I were part of this legendary people. More commonly expressed than racial slurs was the sentiment that Germany had paid its dues to the Jews and that reparations had helped to establish the State of Israel. The money paid to the Jews was considered ample Wiedergutmachung. Occasional vandalism of Jewish gravesites and the Stürmer-like headlines of the Deutsche Nationalzeitung aside, the general rule of behavior was mostly indifference to the events of the past and sometimes a romanticizing interest in the glorious feats of the German Wehrmacht (disseminated among marginal young Germans through an illustrated brochure called Landser and, to a wider audience, through the incessant repeat broadcasts of old German black-and-white movies on television). On the level of government, Western Germany indeed payed reparations and also tried to prosecute particular war criminals (often with little success, since reliable eyewitnesses were often difficult to find). On the other hand, the conservative federal and state governments under Adenauer, Erhardt, Kiesinger, Strauss, and Filbinger tolerated former high level Nazis in office without much domestic or Western foreign protest (excepting the Communists).10
Revolution, Anti-Fascism, and the Continuity of the Past
However, during the late sixties and seventies, the younger generation in Germany found it increasingly difficult to continue identifying with the policies and goals of the United States. Given their insular position of safety, it was relatively easy for Americans to engage in anti-Communist rhetoric. In contrast, NATO strategic planning had destined Germany to serve as the battle ground in case of an exchange of short-range missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Both Germanies would have been irreparably destroyed even in the case of such a limited confrontation. At the same time, East- and West-German groups and governments began to work on an incremental alleviation of the human hardships imposed on many families by the deadly border running right through the middle of the country. After decades of Cold War belligerence, it was time to reach some kind of modus vivendi that would at least allow for a more dignified coexistence as long as the separation would last. The division between the capitalist and the communist world was further questioned among the university students in East and West. In the East, following the death of Stalin, and in the West, accompanying the massacres in Vietnam, students fought against their governments in a struggle for civil rights, justice, liberation at home and abroad. After the thaw in the East came to a halt with the crushing of the Prague Spring in '67, students in the West continued to struggle.
In Western Germany and elsewhere in Europe slogans like "USA out of Vietnam" were scrawled all over university campuses and confrontations between students and riot police were the order of the day. Domestically, the student revolt in Germany was fuelled by a temporary "grand coalition" between the larger political parties which gave rise to the APO movement, an "extra-parliamentary opposition." These and other factors contributed to a significant loss in popularity of the conservative party (CDU) which had held a majority in the Bundestag for the first two decades of the FRG, and brought the Social Democrats to the government (first under Brandt, then under Helmut Schmidt).
telling acts of the late-sixties and early seventies were perhaps the death
of the student Benno Ohnesorg and Beate Klarsfeld's slapping of Chancellor
Kiesinger. Ohnesorg was killed by police bullets during a riot on the occasion
of Shah Resa Pahlevi's visit to Berlin. To the left wing student revolutionaries
the Shah's Persia another instance of the US government trying to exert
control over the world at the expense of the right to self-determination
of other peoples. Many on the Left believed that, by killing Ohnesorg, the
German police had shown their true face. They were nothing but the helpers
of the neo-fascist and interventionist politics of the major capitalist
and colonialist power of the time, the United States of America. Ohnesorg
was a martyr in the battle against neo-Fascism; his death was also the beginning
of the more violent forms of confrontation between student protesters and
Beate Klarsfeld is a French Jewish woman who was active, together with her husband Serge, in the pursuit of hidden Nazis. Thus the Klarsfelds, Simon Wiesenthal, and others had, for example, successfully hunted Klaus Barbie, the 'Butcher of Lyon,' and brought him to trial in France. (The story of Barbie and his trial is forcefully narrated in the documentary Hotel Terminus.) Klarsfeld's slapping of then Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger in the face was a public gesture of contempt for the general complacency and cavalier manner in which Germans (and others) tolerated former Nazis even in the highest political offices. Ohnesorg's death and Klarsfeld's slap symbolized what had become the prevailing political worldview of the left wing in Europe, including that of Germany. In this view, both World Wars had resulted from the very same fundamental cause: capitalism and its deterioration into fascism. Capitalists and their interests had defined the policy of war aims both in the First and the Second World War.11 "Ordinary Germans" (to use Goldhagen's phrase) had been systematically deceived and kept in the dark about the master plan behind both wars. They had been lulled into believing that they were fighting a war of defense. This well-documented scenario, which is still widely accepted as accurate, had caused quite a stir when it was first presented by the historian Fritz Fischer in the early 60's. In the mind of left-wing intellectuals it had even further-reaching consequences. US aggression in Vietnam and Western aggressive rhetoric against the Eastern Bloc regimes were perceived as nothing but a thinly veiled politics of expansion based on the economic interests of multinational industries. The Left held that far from the freedom and democracy which allegedly prevailed in the West, consumerism as a corrollary of capitalism generated political complacency and indifference, making it easy for governments to act as they pleased without even imposing fascist dictatorships onto their own societies. In short, if one was serious about learning from the German past one had to resist the first inklings of the neo-fascist politics of the establishment. Radical versions of this type of reasoning became the justification for the left-wing terrorism of the 1970's.
major schools of thought regarding the Nazi past, which regarded it respectively
as totalitarianism and fascism, were of a political nature and associated
with political views on the present. Preference for one or the other of
these interpretations most often translated into one or the other political
allegiance. Depending on which explanation one followed, one was automatically
aligned with one or the other party fighting for the future of Germany,
Europe, and the world. Neither of the schools was primarily concerned with
the Holocaust but rather with the character of a political regime whose
worst manifestation was the enslavement and industrial killing of millions
of civilians, including six million Jews. A possible uniqueness of the Holocaust
would have propelled Nazi Germany into the category of unprecedented evil,
a category which had no place in the struggles for power between the traditional
Left and Right.
Eventually the consensus among political thinkers of all stripes which tried to position reflections on the past in system discussions related to the present was undermined by two factors. The first of these factors is the work of the historians. The second one is the erosion of the traditional allegiance of the masses to the larger parties and their doctrines.
Historiography versus Empathy
Over the past fifty years, many different aspects of German history between 1933 and 1945 have been thoroughly studied and have been made more comprehensible. This includes studies on the prehistory and aftermath of the Nazi period, comparative studies of antisemitism, of wartime behavior, of collaboration, of life under the Nazis in Germany and in occupied countries, studies of bystanders and resistance fighters, etc. Perhaps most significant for our understanding of the Holocaust were the studies that followed the lead of Hannah Arendt's observations on occasion of the Eichmann trial in 1961. Historians, seeking for causes of an unprecedented evil, found those by describing the many detailed aspects of the huge bureaucracy involved in the systematic expropriation and expulsion of the Jews from Germany, and finally their extermination in occupied territory.12
of research was not only a step towards comprehension of the mechanics of an
unprecedented form of collective moral depravation but also a step towards
a depoliticization of the study of the Holocaust and Nazi-Germany. Seemingly
innocuous institutions such as the courts administrating Nazi law, the media
broadcasting Nazi propaganda, or the administration of the Reichsbahn that
supplied the trains and schedules for the transportation of millions of deportees
into concentration and death camps came into focus as those that made the
death of millions of civilians possible. The disturbing impression which
arose from this research was that the Holocaust had been possible because
of a general lack of concern with the consequences of one's actions and a
complete indifference to the criminal goals one was helping to achieve. From
this perspective, the Holocaust was a result of a type of civil servant society
and its concomitant mentality where the perpetrators were efficient and obedient
rather than vicious and evil.
The German public took little notice of the vast and disturbing mass of details unearthed and carefully analyzed by the historians. The scholarly perspective was perhaps too sophisticated to appeal to a mass audience to begin with. Instead, in 1979, it was a televised Hollywood dramatization of the Holocaust that shook the public conscience out of its slumber. Here, instead of being confronted with the grainy black and white images of bulldozed corpses that had appeared in occasional late-night documentaries (e.g., Night and Fog, with a haunting script by Paul Celan) or with the unfathomable number "six million," Germans witnessed the fate of the members of a single family as its members went through a whole sequence of events from systematic discrimination and impoverishment to ghettoization, deportation, and death. The protagonists were sympathetically portrayed and represented the educated and highly "Germanized" middle-class Jews who were in fact the minority among the victims but could be easily identified with by a 70's television audience. Notwithstanding its sentimentality the film achieved (not unlike Schindler's List twenty years later for the next generation) what all responsible German public school education had so far failed to achieve: It forced the Germans, especially the twenty- to forty-year-olds born after the war, to confront the full moral and psychological horror caused by their parents and grandparents. The screening on television was accompanied by call-in programs and discussion panels that from then on became a regular feature on German television and one of the main forums for public discussions. Thus the effect of this artistically trivial but morally and psychologically touching depiction of the Holocaust was to trigger the first real public debate in Germany on what Germans had done to Jews during the Second World War. The Holocaust had for the first time moved to the center of a public debate among Germans on their past and thus on their nation.
e) The Holocaust as the Characterizing Issue of the Third Reich and German Identification with the Victims
Henceforth, the Holocaust and indeed anything Jewish was a popular topic. In 1986, a controversy among historians on the uniqueness of the Holocaust attracted wide attention and was amplified by journals and TV panels. The book market was swamped with autobiographical accounts by victims of the Holocaust, and the Nazi past became a ubiquitous theme on television. The behavioral possibilities of "ordinary Germans" were the subject for major television dramas (e.g. Heimat) and even the shift in attitudes that had take place after 1979 was brilliantly thematized in a film called The Nasty Girl, depicting the resistance of a Bavarian town to its most gifted high school student's effort of researching how her fellow-citizens had acted during the Nazi period. The Catholic and Protestant churches reinvigorated their efforts to reeducate their members towards eradicating traditional anti-Judaism and establishing a new and constructive relation between Christians and Jews.13 Yiddish and Hebrew songs gained popularity in German folklore. Newly written curricula in social studies and new artistic productions produced a steady stream of information about the Jews and other victims as well as considerable information about life in Germany in the 30's and 40's.
this intensity of information was a long overdue attempt to come to terms
with the past, to identify the roots of antisemitism, and to fight for its
complete eradication. Many young Germans identified with the victims to
such a degree that they studied Hebrew, learned Jewish songs and dances,
travelled to Israel, worked in Kibbutzim, and sometimes even converted to
Judaism. Others regarded this kind of identification with the former victims
as a "flight from the past."
Still others, especially members of the youngest generation who had experienced
neither the ethos of the late sixties nor the cathartic effect of the Holocaust
film, a generation that felt the impact of a global recession and diminished
economic perspectives, perceived critical assessments of Germany and the Germans
as masochism on a national level. At a time when the national future began
to seem much more uncertain, when anti-asylum sentiments were hyped everywhere
in Europe (and, incidentally, also in the US), talk of German guilt seemed
unhealthy, undesirable, and unnecessary. Where the older generation was happy
to be democratic, European, and living in peace and prosperity, younger people
also wanted to be proud to be German. I remember a particularly striking incident,
in which a student in my religion class said that if teachers cast any more
aspersions on Germany she would walk out of class. That student was Turkish.
In this case, enlightenment about the Holocaust was no longer perceived as
a necessary part of education but as indoctrination.14
The apex of the public awakening to responsibility for the past was Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker's highly acclaimed speech of May 8, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war. Von Weizsäcker dared to call the victory of the Allies an act of liberation for Germany and expressed the collective shame of a country which had taken forty years to face up to the extent of the suffering it had caused to many millions of people. Von Weizsäcker was the right person to make such statements. As a young lawyer he had defended his father, the erstwhile diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker, during the Nürnberg trials. Coming from a family of highly respected theologians, scientists, and public servants, he represented the elite of Protestant Germans. His personal integrity was beyond doubt and, while he was occasionally considered cold and cerebral, he was accepted as a spokesman by the majority of Germans. Interestingly enough, von Weizsäcker's speech may also have marked the end of a period in which reflections on the Second World War commanded serious attention.15 Only four years later, Glasnost and Perestroyika transformed the Soviet Empire into a crumbling giant, a revolution which affected all of Europe. The ensuing changes were to transform Germany fundamentally.
f) The Current Transformation of Germany and the Return of the German Past
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian tacit agreement to the independence of their former satellites Germans on both sides quickly seized the moment. The Wall came down and the two German states were united in 1992 in a political tour de force accompanied by a wave of popular enthusiasm. Given the notion that the partition of Germany was a punishment for the war, its "reunification" could be regarded as the end of Germany's period of atonement for crimes committed by the Nazis.
The unification of Germany was accomplished not by a merger of the West with the East but rather by an act in which the East German states (with partly redrawn borders) joined the Federal Republic as had the Western states in 1948 when the FRG was first established. In other words, the GDR was eliminated as if it had been a historical accident rather than a sovereign state. The eastern states simply joined the FRG belatedly. While this course of action was not meant to invalidate the forty years of independent existence and experience it conformed to the idea that the separation of Germany had been an historical mishap. Accordingly, if someone was inclined to do so one could read the fall of the Berlin Wall as an end to totalitarian government in Germany. This view, however, implied a parallel between Hitler and Honecker, Gestapo and the Stasi, Auschwitz and political prisons like Bautzen, analogies, in other words, that vilified the GDR while rendering relatively harmless the Nazi regime.
However, this account also found its critics who voiced reservations concerning the accuracy and implications of an analogy between Nazi Germany and the GDR. Among those criticizing this account is Wolfgang Wippermann.16 In his view, this comparison has the dual effect of demonizing the institutions of the former GDR and of exculpating the Nazis. It makes it impossible to look at East German history objectively and at the same time boosts the totalitarianism theory that has long been discredited among scholars. Casting Hitler's Germany as a totalitarian regime means to look at institutional oppression and an ideological leadership as the cause of all atrocities committed "in the German name" while letting individuals and mediating institutions (such as the churches, the professions, the courts, and the administrative bodies) off the hook. The claim that Germans followed orders when they tortured and murdered and the assumption of a totalitarian state belong together. They are the two sides of the same coin, a coin used again very liberally by those who feel strongly that the time had come to settle the past for good.17
In 1996, however, those whose agenda it was to bury the past once and for all were disturbed in their efforts by three media events: the publication of Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, the publication of the multi-volume diaries of Victor Klemperer, and the opening of an exhibition called War of Elimination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, curated by the Hamburg based tobacco heir cum social historian Jan Philipp Reemtsma.
Like Goldhagen's book, the exhibit -- strategically shown first in Munich, the erstwhile "capital of the Nazi-movement," and later in the Frankfurt Paulskirche, the location of the first democratic German parliament (1848/49) -- focused on the role of the German military in the extermination of civil populations and on their treatment of prisoners of war (i.e., willfully starving to death millions of Soviet soldiers who had been captured or who had surrendered). The creators of the exhibition, Jan Philipp Reemtsma and his Institute for Social Research, implicated normal and representative Germans as responsible for the gratuitous cruelties of which they had boasted, which they had documented in photographs, and about which they had spoken to each other and written to their families. Thus, like Goldhagen, Reemtsma emphasized that war crimes were committed by ordinary Germans. The response to Reemtsma could not have been stronger. Neo-Nazi protesters and "anarchist" counter-protesters were ready to fight in the streets of Munich. Violence was prevented only through massive police intervention. Politicians spoke for and against the exhibition, some denouncing it as besmirching the reputation of the German army and calling the scholarly objectivity of the exhibition into question, others hailing it as an important contribution to knowledge about the past and to public education at a sensitive time of transition in Germany. Even the federal parliament adressed the exhibition in a debate widely perceived as unusually soul-searching and intellectually rigorous.
In contrast to Goldhagen's book and Reemtsma's exhibit, Victor Klemperer's diaries exerted a less controversial but no less profound effect.18 Here was the authentic record of a scrupulous chronicler, a trained historian who, classified as Jewish by Nazi law rather than his own volition, experienced a wide spectrum of discrimination, impoverishment and forced labor, ghettoization and terror. This hitherto unknown document opened a window into the day-to-day deterioration of civil society in Germany between the rise of the Nazis in January of 1933 and the end of the war. When comparing Klemperer's diaries with the work of Goldhagen and Reemtsma one must keep in mind that the former testifies to events in a different theater than that described by the two scholars.19 Where Goldhagen and Reemtsma describe gross atrocities committed on foreign territory during the war, Klemperer describes life in Germany from the perspective of a victim whose personal suffering was less drastic than that of those who were removed from the eye of the German public. Klemperer (1881-1960), a scholar of Romance languages and literature and previously known for his study of the propagandistic language of the Third Reich (Lingua Tertii Imperii - The Unmastered Language),20 apparently survived the persecutions somewhat protected by his marriage to a non-Jewish wife. The people around him were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, individuals struggling to survive in an oppressive system. Some were petty, others remarkably virtuous. Some of the victims collapsed physically, psychologically, and morally under the pressures, others held on to real or illusory hope and tried to retain their dignity. Some Germans were generous, unselfish, and helpful, others were indifferent or acted with sadistic brutality. In short, the diaries portray the whole range of human possibilities that one has come to expect from accounts of this kind. Confirming much of what we knew from previous research on life in Hitler's Germany, Klemperer's diaries unwittingly contradict Goldhagen's theory about an extraordinarily vicious antisemitism as the prevailing attitude among the majority of ordinary Germans. Yet the publication of the diaries at this time contributed to the overall attention that Germans gave to reflections on the conduct of their parents and grandparents during the Nazi period. What was Germany like then, what had it become in the meantime, and what should it be in the future?
Gadfly to Historians, Hero to the People?
This attitude of sober reflection on the German past at a time of reorientation prevailed among the thousands of Germans who rushed to buy Goldhagen's book when it first appeared in translation in August 1996. Until this point, the Goldhagen debate had been kept alive somewhat artificially by Die Zeit, which had continued to publish reviews, both friendly and critical, and had also given Goldhagen the opportunity to respond to his critics. When the American author announced his forthcoming tour no one, least of all the author himself, could have predicted the response of the German public. Despite occasional praise, critics had charged Goldhagen with everything from scholarly irrelevance, to grandstanding, to falling below the level of current scholarship. Others were convinced that Goldhagen was pushing the "German Sisyphus" back to a position where he had to defend himself against the charge of collective guilt.21 Rudolf Augstein and others took issue with what they perceived as the moralizing tone of the book, rejecting it on the grounds that it read like a prosecutor's speech or a rationally unconvincing emotional manifesto.22 While many scholars questioned the scholarship of the book in part or as a whole, only few reviewers employed antisemitic rhetoric23 and arguments ad personam.24
When Goldhagen's book finally appeared in German, it immediately sold out and had to be reprinted.25 Goldhagen himself came to Germany in August 1996 to discuss the book on a tour which led him to Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and other large cities. These discussions usually involved a panel of scholars who would speak about the book and then have Goldhagen respond. On some occasions up to two thousand people were present and others followed the discussions on television. The tour was a huge success for Goldhagen. His triumph consisted not only in the fact that he attracted major crowds to discussions of a scholarly work of over seven hundred pages. Rather, Goldhagen himself immediately became the star for those who experienced him personally. People were struck by the youth, intelligence, politeness, and calm superiority of the American scholar. The appealing impression was enhanced by the fact that the scholars pitted against him seemed aging and incomprehensibly subtle apologists for the past. Nothing could have been further from their intention. Yet, similar to the prediction made by Mitchell Ash regarding the discrepancy between scholarly and popular responses to Goldhagen in America, the German public (to the degree that it followed the debate) parted company with historical differentiation and embraced the moral challenge posed by Goldhagen.26
The public sided with Goldhagen's moral outrage over a matter which was not at all in question. No respectable historian, German or other, doubted for a minute that Germans committed heinous crimes that must be condemned by the human community, including Germans. Given the absence of a real disagreement on this main point the media hype and public wave of sympathy for Goldhagen constituted a debate without a real controversy. In essence, the scholarly panels were tools in an advertisement pitch in which Goldhagen was to appear as a kind of crusader for an ugly but unavoidable truth that, until now, had been supressed by arrogant professors and specialists. To the historians debating Goldhagen, on the other hand, it was incomprehensible that something as widely known and basic as the German crimes in WWII needed to be restated in an angry essay of over seven hundred pages. The public, however, had no patience for scholarly nitpicking about who said what when. People responded to the tone of moral urgency which they found in Goldhagen and which they missed in the statements of others. Still, a profound disagreement about the facts and their interpretation was completely absent from this second phase of the debate. For Germans to side with Goldhagen on the issue of German responsibility for the Holocaust was about as controversial as it is for Americans to agree to the claim that most Americans once accepted slavery as a perfectly normal practice or that American GI's were involved in brutal atrocities during the war in Vietnam.
In November '96, Ulrich Greiner described this phenomenon of a debate without controversy, a phenomenon that in his view characterizes contemporary German culture in general. Greiner wrote that few really wanted to contradict Goldhagen, mainly because the opinion he expressed so forcefully is one of the few assumptions about Germany that are commonly shared and that are not changing in this era of tremendous changes.27 Goldhagen enhanced a familiar truth rather than reveal a new one. In other words, according to Greiner, the public response to the book and the author was "an exercise in collective self-assuaging and a moment of escape from the real problems." Greiner calls this kind of debate a "consensus debate" (Konsens Debatte) and sees it as an indication of "collective exhaustion" and a "lack in polemic energy and political wit."
In October '96, in an essay on the GDR and the author Stephan Hermlin, Christoph Diekmann came to a different but no less cynical assessment of the favorable response of so many Germans to Goldhagen and his harsh attack on the German past.28 For Diekmann this identification with Goldhagen's position highlighted a common tendency among German liberals to cast themselves as "antifascists" to make up for the lack of antifascism in the past. Diekmann suspected that this compensatory antifascism merely points to a common desire among many Germans to side with the victims and thus to dissociate themselves from the perpetrators.
A Prize for Goldhagen, and Disenchantment
Diekmann's suspicion was confirmed during the most recent turn in the Goldhagen saga. The Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, a sophisticated politically non aligned monthly journal edited by Günter Gaus, Walter Jens, and others, chose Goldhagen as the recipient of its Democracy Prize in recognition of his contribution to democratic culture in Germany.29 The Blätter, advertising themselves as "an island of sanity in a sea of nonsense" and taking pride in their political independence, had chosen Goldhagen because of what they perceived as his challenge to the complacency of German historiography. The only previous (1990) recipient of this prize was the democracy movement in the GDR. In its explanation, the Blätter emphasized that Goldhagen's book had come at a sensitive time of transition in Germany and had served as a reminder that such transition should not be mistaken as a shortcut to "normality."30 On March 10 1997 Daniel Goldhagen accepted the prize from Jürgen Habermas. This was the first time Habermas spoke in public about Goldhagen, the book, and the debate.
In recent years Jürgen Habermas has achieved the status of philosopher laureate of the Federal Republic of Germany. Influenced by the legendary Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism, Habermas is an internationally acclaimed social, moral, and political philosopher and theorist of social communication. He is also particularly interested in the way in which political culture is constructed through public discourse. In addition to such academic credentials, however, Habermas has actively participated in various formative discourses of German political culture. In this way he acquired the reputation of a critical voice in public debates in which the political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany has been at stake. In 1986 it was an essay by Habermas that made the controversy among historians over the uniqueness of the Holocaust a public affair.31 He was also heard in the years leading up to the decision on the reunification of Germany. In contrast, Habermas was conspicuously absent from the first two phases of the Goldhagen debate. Now, however, the Blätter succeeded in recruiting him to justify the award of its Democracy Prize to the American scholar who had been riding on a wave of public sympathy.
In his speech, Habermas employed the same rhetorical move he had used before when, in a 1986 critique of Ernst Nolte and other revisionist historians of WWII, he entered into a debate on historiography on the Holocaust. He invoked the ignorance of the non-specialist who could not possibly judge the scholarly merits of a book. On the other hand, as a philosopher he could act as one of the lay readers whose opinion is especially valuable in matters of historical orientation. While leaving the judgment of the scholarly shortcomings of Goldhagen's book to others, he addressed instead the important moral questions Goldhagen had raised and which had struck a chord with ordinary readers like himself: Germans who in a time of transition were wondering who they were, where they came from, and where they were going. Habermas skillfully built up the moral and political potential of the book as a strong cautionary tale contributing to a more sophisticated approach to the German future.32 In other words, Habermas, Reemtsma, and the Blätter all agreed that the public phase of the Goldhagen debate had been an important moment of contemplation, an achievement which was unthinkable without the book and its author who, therefore, deserved the Democracy Prize. Goldhagen is praised not as an historian but as someone who has provided an occasion for reflection on the uses and abuses of history and historiography. According to Habermas, Hitler's Willing Executioners in particular unsettled those who believed that the strength of a nation rests on collective adherence to strong, unambiguous, and unbroken traditions. Instead, and this is one of Habermas's favorite defenses of the denationalized democratic culture that he saw as the major characteristic of the Federal Republic before '89, Goldhagen's challenge to Germans to confront the obviousness with which their culture had supported the mass murder of Jews contributed to a more differentiated and stronger embrace of democratic values, values that are always endangered. Habermas takes on those columnists who had charged Goldhagen with renewing a theory of collective guilt. One must distinguish, according to Habermas, between the rhetorics of history, the rhetorics of the judiciary, and the rhetorics of public moral reflection. History tries to establish what happened, the courts seek to identify the guilty and bring them to justice. Public reflection, however, is challenged even where historians and courts might find mitigating circumstances. Moral reflection cannot relativize guilt by pointing to others who are equally bad. When all is said and done, Goldhagen's merit pertains to the last realm. His book regenerated German moral reflection on national identity.
Daniel Goldhagen responded to this praise by praising the Germans in turn for an exceptional and even paradigmatic achievement of objectivity in their dealing with the past. This speech marked another unexpected shift in allegiances between the three main protagonists who had been involved in all three phases of this saga: Goldhagen, the conservatives, and the liberals. The liberal audience present at the prize ceremony left the event with a feeling of unease. It was as if Goldhagen had used an indecent word in polite conversation. The indecent word, as it were, was his emphasis on the profound difference between ordinary Germans then and now. His book focused on the "code," the common antisemitic symbolic communication which prevailed in Germany throughout the nineteenth century and became state supported ideology in the 1930's and 40's. After the war, this antisemitic code and symbolic system was publicly condemned and outlawed by the Allies who used their power to change the nature of German public opinion. Just as antisemitism was no longer acceptable, German historiography benefited from international interference with glorification of the past. Over the last decades Germany developed a culture of caring for what the international community thought of her, national historiography developed in close exchange with historians abroad, and thus a uniquely responsible treatment of the past was generated and became part of the general culture. Once it was branded and banned, antisemitism became insignificant. First through international control and later through a voluntary integration of the international perspective, Germany had become a model of non-chauvinistic historical consciousness for others to emulate.
Goldhagen, perhaps suprised with his success with the German public now seemed to have embraced the very complacency which his book allegedly fought against. In fact, ignorant of the subtleties of the post-war ideological developments in Germany, Goldhagen seemed to champion the Cold War view of history (through international intervention Germans were liberated from the evil influences of the past and had joined "us," the world of the free and the brave) while inadvertendly antagonizing those who still held on to some kind of antifascist liberal theory of history. The fitting response of the conservative media, once Goldhagen's foes, was now to hail Goldhagen for elevating Germany to model status. Praise from Goldhagen, the former "hanging judge," amounted to the most efficient international vindication of those who had claimed all along that Germany was on the right track.
After the dust settled, Jan Philipp Reemtsma came to a conclusion about the disenchantment with Goldhagen similar to the one expressed earlier by Christoph Diekmann.33 Reemtsma felt that Goldhagen had yet again been misread by people who had misunderstood him because of their own desire to appear as fighters against fascism. By attesting to Germany's historiographic achievements Goldhagen seemed to deprive the leftists of an important ally in the maintenance of their own self image. This prevented them from recognizing what Goldhagen may have really meant to say. According to Reemtsma, Goldhagen's praise should have been recognized as a veiled admonition to continue a healthy process which, if neglected, could easily break down. Just as the antisemitic consensus of the past was culturally conditioned rather than an essential characteristic of the earlier Germans, the democratic process and its values embraced by the majority of Germans today are not to be mistaken for inherent and irreversible qualities but as conventions in need of maintenance. Mentalities change, whether they are evil or good. This, so Reemtsma, was Goldhagen consistent message.
Goldhagen's Redemptive Message
If Reemtsma is correct, Goldhagen's argument was of one cloth and woven from political, sociological, and moral fabric imprinted with historical details as a superadded trompe l'oeil. And so it should be since the author is political scientist rather than historian. Hence Goldhagen's readiness in many discussions to concede any number of minor historiographical points without relinquishing his thesis. The moral and political implications of Hitler's Willing Executioners certainly go a long way towards explaining why the book was so enthusiastically read by non-specialists on both sides of the Atlantic.34 Where historiography had depersonalized history and disempowered the common individual as its subject Goldhagen returned responsibility for good and evil to those we know: our grandparents, our fathers and mothers, and to ourselves.
However, if, as most specialists agree, Goldhagen's historical argument is seriously flawed, how can his political argument be sound or, at least, persuasive? Proceeding, as he does, like an anthropologist, Goldhagen takes the phenomenon of a unique German antisemitism that he fallaciously extrapolates from the fact of the Holocaust for an anthropologist's "island in the Pacific," as it were, that is supposed to provide clearcut historical evidence for a sociological theory, in this case a theory on societal discourses and their impact on the behavior of an entire nation. But if the historical construct is undercut what then remains of the persuasiveness of the sociological theory?
Since I am not a sociologist or a political scientist I cannot assess the validity of the argument from the perspective of these disciplines. As a scholar of religion, however, I recognize myths of redemption when I see them. Subscribing to the Enlightenment as he does, Goldhagen shares the idea that human beings and their behavior can be improved if one educates them properly; or, as Goethe rhymed, "Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen." The classic secularized myth of redemption. The alleged difference in German thinking before and after 1945 is meant to prove that profound change can happen if a sufficient effort is made. A murderous deviant society can be turned into a peace loving member of the human family. How we wish that matters were that simple! Vanquish the enemy, then reeducate.
Social and political myths of redemption have been coming and going for the past 250 years but that does not mean that we have become tired of dreaming. Goldhagen's narrative implied that Germans once were evil and now are good, no longer dangerous and paradigmatically democratic, a story tailormade for Germans desiring, however unconsciously, to bury the past by overcoming it. By providing Germans with such a quasi religious perspective on the past Goldhagen's engaging treatise and the ensuing debates paradoxically contributed to a closure of our thinking on the Holocaust rather than to a continued effort to understand the fundamental and critical implications of this event for Western civilization, and civilization in general.35
D. J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Reprinted as Vintage Book Edition, Random House, 1997.
Idem, Hitlers willige Vollstrecker. Ganz gewöhnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust. Transl. by K. Kochmann. Berlin: Siedler, 1996
The German edition differs from the American original. Among the differences are the following. Klaus Kochmann's translation contains a new foreword to the German readers in which Goldhagen emphasizes the moral/ethical character of his approach in contrast to sociological and psychological generalizations (pp. 5 and 8), denies the often raised objection that he charges Germans collectively or casts aspersions on Germans as a "race" or "ethny" (pp. 6-7), and agrees that the Holocaust would have been impossible without the Nationalsocialist leadership or Hitler. He also agrees that "eliminatory" antisemitism probably existed elswhere as well which, as he concedes, explains why so many others were eager to help the Germans in their program of elimination (p. 10). He further admits that the fact that it happened in Germany does not exclude the possibility that it could have happened elsewhere (p. 10), etc. In other words, just as in the many oral debates in which Goldhagen defended his thesis, the written defense of the German version of the book basically accedes to all the critical objections raised by his opponents while still maintaining his overall claims.
In addition, the impression made by the German edition is less harsh since it begins with a personal conciliatory foreword where the author clearly rejects collective guilt accusations and differentiates between German society before and after 1945. In contrast the original edition plunges the reader unpreparedly into the description of unfathomable cruelty and callousness (Introduction) and so generates plausibility for the assertion that Germans, unlike ourselves, were not children of the Enlightenment and should be studied with the tools of an anthropologist (Chapter 1).
K. D. Bredthauer and A. Heinrich (ed.) . Aus der Geschichte lernen. How to Learn from History. Verleihung des Blätter-Demokratiepreises 1997. (= edition blätter 2) Bonn: Blätter Verlag, 1997
Contains speeches by J. Habermas, J.Ph. Reemtsma, and D.J. Goldhagen (in German and English) given when the Blätter gave their democracy prize to Goldhagen, as well as samples from German newspapers reporting and commenting on this event.
Many of the relevant newspaper articles relating to Goldhagen are available on the internet and can be easily found using any of the common search engines. I limited my search to those newspaper archives which, at the time of my research, were accessible free of charge, i.e., the archives of Die Zeit, Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Welt, and Der Stern.
The following two collections of reviews, one in German, the other in English, reflect in their choice of contributions the opposite view points of their respective editors while drawing on a vast array of respected scholars and journalists, including Germans, Americans, Israelis, and other nationals.
F. H. Littell (ed.) (1997). Hyping the Holocaust:Scholars Answer Goldhagen. East Rockaway, NY: Cummings & Hathaway Publ.
Franklin Littell, one of the most widely respected representatives of the current Christian Jewish dialogue and co-founder, with Hubert G, Locke, of the Annual Scholar's Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, advertizes this volume as containing "both a critique of its (viz. Goldhagen's best seller) scholarly deficiencies anda protest against the vulgarization of the Holocaust by commercial sensationalism. The collection includes authors from five countries, Christians and Jews, previously published on the Holocaust, thus generating the impression of a pervasive rejection of Goldhagen's book among responsible scholars. Although the book appeared in 1997, it represents more of the consensus among historians critical towards Goldhagen which quickly emerged in the second quarter of 1996, i.e., in the months after the publication of the English original. The "sensationalism" associated with the book refers to the success it had on the American market and in popular talk-shows (e.g. Christopher Leyden's Connection, produced by WBUR in Boston). The contributors are Yehuda Bauer, G. Jan Colijn, Erich Geldbach, Woldgang Gerlach, Herbert Hirsch, Peter Hoffmann, Eberhard Jäckel, Hubert G. Locke, Hans Mommsen, Jacob Neusner, Richard Pierard, Didier Pollefeyt, and Roger W. Smith. All of these contributors, with the exception of Gerlach who is a Senior Pastor and Pollefeyt who is a research fellow in Moral Theology, are academics.
J. H. Schoeps (ed.) . Ein Volk von Mördern? Die Dokumentation zur Goldhagen-Kontroverse um die Rolle der Deutschen im Holocaust. Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe
Julius Schoeps, German Jewish historian and director of the Moses Mendelssohn Institute in Potsdam and prominently involved in several other academic organizations dedicated to the study of German Jewish cultural history and literature, compiled a number of mostly journalistic responses to Goldhagen in this book with the poignant title A People of Murderers? The book is divided into Anglo-American responses in the first part and German responses in the second.
Included in the first part are texts by Robert Harris, Louis Begley, Paul Johnson, Richard Bernstein, Ellen K. Coughlin, Elie Wiesel, Dinitia Smith, A.M. Rosenthal, V.R. Berghahn, Omer Bartov, Elie Wiesel, and Jerry Adler. The view of Goldhagen among these authors is basically one of approval even where it is paired with cautious criticism
The list of contributors to the German debate ranges from historians such as Norbert Frei whose research at the German Institute for Contemporary History concerns the structure of the authoritarian state (Der Führerstaat. Nationalsozialistische Herrschaft 1933-1945. dtv, 1987) to Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of the popular left of center weekly Der Spiegel, whose initial response to Goldhagen was scathingly negative and who later experienced what was dubbed the "Goldhagen effect," i.e., Augstein became convinced of the merits of the book only after meeting the author personally. Oddly enough, Christopher Browning, Guilie Ne'eman Arad, and Gordon A. Craig also appear in the second part, presumably because the reviews reprinted by Schoeps had previously appeared in German. Browning has been one of the most vociferous critics of Goldhagen in America where, rigorous in argument yet always impecably polite in tone, he has been regarded as the most qualified peer reviewer of the younger author's thesis because both had used much of the same documentary evidence even though they arrived at diametrically opposed conclusions. By listing Browning's scholarly critique of the book and Arad's cultural analysis of its American media success in the second part, Schoeps generates the impression that the German response to Goldhagen was predominantly negative while the Anglo-American world generally reacted with carefully weighed appreciation to a valuable contribution to scholarship.
W. Wippermann, Wessen Schuld? Vom Historikerstreit zur Goldhagenkontroverse. (Series: Antifa Edition, ed. Jens Mecklenburg), Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1997
Professor of Recent History at the Freie Universität Berlin, Wolfgang Wippermnan previously published on the history of fascism, and of Jews, Sinti, and Roma in Germany. Wessen Schuld? locates what I call the first phase of the Goldhagen debate in the context of general revisionist trends among conservative historians in Germany that aim to rehabilitate the assumptions that guided German policy during the two world wars.
Wippermann distinguishes between several apologetic arguments that were made during the historians' debate of 1986 and that reappeared in certain reviews of Goldhagen. Among these argments are the comparison of systems ("'Totalitäre Diktaturen'? Trivialisierung durch Vergleich," pp. 10-33), an emphasis on the geo-political location of Germany ("'Tragische Mittellage'? Entschuldung durch Geographie," pp. 34-58), the justification of World War II by embedding it into a broader narrative on a European Civil War that includes the First World War and ends in 1989 with the collapse of Communism ("'Erzwungener Krieg'? Rechtfertigung durch Aufrechnung," pp. 59-79), a relativization of the evils of the Third Reich by pointing to its achievements ("'Auch gute Seiten'? Relativisierung durch Modernisierung," pp. 80-97), and, the only chapter specific to the Goldhagen debate, by attacking the integrity of the author while maintaining the right of a "self-assured nation" to defend itself ("'Jüdischer Scharfrichter'? Goldhagen und die 'selbstbewußte Nation'," pp. 98-122).
Helpful additions to this essay describing current German historical revisionism are an annotated bibliography ("Kommentierte Literaturhinweise zum Historikerstreit, dem historischen Revisionismus und zur Goldhagen-Kontroverse," pp. 128-136) and an index of names.
[January 2008: For an English translation of the most prominent contributions to the Goldhagen debate see Robert R. Shandley (ed.), Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate, essays translated by Jeremiah Riemer, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.]
1 Eberhard Jäckel, "Einfach ein schlechtes Buch" in: Die Zeit (May 17, 1996), reprinted Schoeps , pp. 187-192. English translation: "Simply Put, A Bad Book" in Littell , pp. 159-164.
2 Schoeps . Schoeps's assessment of the different responses is based on a lack of differentiation between reviews written by specialists on WWII and the Holocaust and those written by other authors without a vested interest in the scholarly debates involved in the study of the Holocaust. It seems, however, as if conservative German media responded with a rather rash and vindictive rejection of Goldhagen's book, often based on a superficial reading. In Die Welt (May 10, 96), for example, the negative opinion of Belgian industrialist A. Leysen on Goldhagen's book was printed although Leysen admitted not to have read it. But cf. the more balanced review by Manfred Rowold in Die Welt (April 17, 96), "Das ganze deutsche Volk als Hitlers williger Scharfrichter?" -- In contrast, American and British columnists were less anxious to defend Germans from a charge which has been part of a common anti-German stereotype since the First World War. In view of the favorable reviews (e.g.. in the New York Times, Richard Bernstein haild the book as a "landmark"), American historians, like their German counterparts, were afraid that their critical assessments of the book would appear as attempts to minimize the Holocaust. So, for example, Mitchell Ash in a response to Norbert Frei on the electronic discussion list H-NET List on German History, posted April 15, 1996. And see my comments on Schoeps  in the bibliography.
3 So in the essays by Diekmann and Greiner, discussed below.
4So, for example, Berthold Seewald, on occasion of the 41. Historikertag in Sept. 96, in Die Welt, Sept. 23, 1996, and again on Dec. 19, 96.
5 Mary Elise Sarotte, "Daniel Goldhagen bewirbt sich für den neuen Lehrstuhl für Holocaust-Studien in Harvard" in: Die Zeit Nr. 2, January 3, 1997.
6 Daniel J. Goldhagen, "Es gibt keine Hierarchie der Opfer" in: Die Zeit Nr. 7, Febr. 7, 1997
7 I borrow the term "cultural memory" from Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (München: Beck, 1992) which, in turn, is based on observations by Maurice Halbwachs on collective memory formation.
8 Brief surveys of the phases in which the Holocaust was assimilated into historical thinking were used by several reviewers of Goldhagen's book. Such surveys usually meant to show that Goldhagen's thesis was turning the clockwork of theories back to its beginning, that it evoked a sense of deja vu, etc.. Cf., for example, Josef Joffe, "Hitlers willfährige Henker, Oder: Die 'gewöhnlichen Deutschen' und der Holocaust" in: Süddeutsche Zeitung (April 13, 1996). In contrast the following survey of the process of assimilation of the Holocaust into German culture aims to explain why the general German public responded favorable to Goldhagen when the specialists did not.
9 E.g., the "Stuttgart Confession of Sin" (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis) of 1945 which was formulated in order to enable the German Protestant Churches to join the Ecumenical Council of Churches.
10 The American adminsistration of the time took the pragmatic stance that anti-communism was the overruling concern. This attitude was expressed, e.g., in the immigration policy of the Cold War period. It was made easy for erstwhile Nazis from Germany to obtain immigration papers while former or present communists or antifascists were kept out. Even the allegation of wartime atrocities or antisemitism played no role in these considerations if an individual was deemed useful. So, e.g., in the temporary sheltering of Klaus Barbie.
11 Fritz Fischer, Der Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961) was the first German historian to make this point. His book was met at first with similar contempt by fellow historians in Germany as was Goldhagen's book in 1996, a point made by Volker Ulrich in "Goldhagen-Debatte: einmütige Verdammung wie bei Fischer: in: Die Zeit Nr. 25 (June 14, 1996)
12 Cf. Hans Mommsen, "Der Antisemitismus war eine notwendige, aber keineswegs hinreichende Bedingung für den Holocaust" in Die Zeit Nr. 36 (Aug 30, 1996), Engl. transl. "Conditions for Carrying Out the Holocaust: Comments on Daniel Goldhagen's Book" in: Littell , pp. 31-43
13 Rolf Rendtorff and Hans Hermann Henrix published over 700 pages worth of documents issued by the churches on their relation to Judaism in the decades between 1945 and 1985. See Die Kirchen und das Judentum. Dokumente von 1945 bis 1985 (Paderborn: Verlag Bonifatius-Druckerei and München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1988; 2nd edition 1989)
14 The diffictuly to assess the political preferences of the younger generation of Germans in conventional terms is thematized in a recent essay by Jochen Buchsteiner, "Die Dreißigjährigen - eine unpolitische Generation?" in: Die Zeit Nr. 9 (Febr. 21, 1997)
15 I uphold this claim despite the fact that several related events occurred later that were equally significant and stirring onto themselves but of a lesser impact on the German collective psyche. What comes to mind here are the 1986 historians debate on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the dismissal of Speaker of the Bundestag, Ernst Jenninger, after his controversial speech in on Nov. 9, 1988, and the events of 1996, discussed below.
16 See Wippermann (1997)
17 Cf. Jürgen Manemann, "An den Grenzen der Moderne. Zu Kulturkampf und Demokratiefeindlichkeit in der gegenwärtigen Gesellschaft" in: idem (ed.), Demokratiefähigkeit (= Jahrbuch Politische Theologie Band 1), Münster: Lit Verlag, 1995, pp. 137-154, esp. pp. 137-141. Both Wippermann (1997) and Manemann interpret the historian's debate of 1986 on the uniqueness or comparibility of the Holocaust on a background of a) a linkage between contemporary German political thought and historiography and b) a correlation between neo-conservative revisions of history and the desire to justify a German claim to greater influence on world politics.
18 Victor Klemperer, Curriculum Vitae. Erinnerungen 1881-1918. Walter Nowojski (ed.) (Aufbau Verlag, 1996), idem, Leben sammeln, nicht fragen wozu und warum. Tagebücher 1918-1932. Walter Nowojski (ed.) unter Mitarbeit von Christian Löser (Aufbau Verlag, 1996), idem, Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten. Tagebücher 1933-1945. Walter Nowojski (ed.) unter Mitarbeit von Hadwig Klemperer (Aufbau Verlag, 1996), idem, Und so ist alles schwankend. Tagebücher Juni bis Dezember 1945. Günther Jäckel (ed.) unter Mitarbeit von Hadwig Klemperer (Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, 1996).
19 Nevertheless, to the degree that Goldhagen makes claims about the attitude towards Jews of ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany, Klemperer's evidence can be used to raise strong objections against Goldhagen's generalizations. So, for example, in Norbert Frei's review of Hitler's Willing Executioners, "Ein Volk von Endlösern?" originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung (13./14. April 1996), reprinted in Schoeps , 93-98, esp. p. 97, and similarly Volker Ulrich, "Die Deutschen - Hitlers willige Mordgesellen" in Die Zeit (Nr. 16/1996).
Notizbuch eines Philologen. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1947. Reprinted Darmstadt: Melzer, 1966, with the title LTI.
Sprache. Aus dem Notizbuch eines Philologen (Third edition: München, Deutscher
Taschenbuch Verlag, 1969)
21 In his editorial in Die Welt of April 16, 1996, Jost Nolte charged Goldhagen with renewing the charge of a collective German guilt, a charge which, since the nineteenfities, was assumed to have been put to rest when the above described theory of totalitarianism came into fashion. According to Jost Nolte, "the pamphletist Daniel Goldhagen unloads a problem at the German doorstep which, unfortunately, has universal human proportions."
22 Cf. Rudolf Augstein, "Der Soziologe als Scharfrichter" ("The Sociologist as Hanging Judge") in: Der Spiegel (April 15, 1996), reprinted in Schoeps , 106-109. Similarly, Franklin H. Littell calls Goldhagen's book a "diatribe in academic format" ("Hype and the Holocaust" in Littell  p. ix). Augstein's ire seemed particularly aroused because of the very favorable reviews Goldhagen's book received in reputable American media, such as The New York Times and Newsweek. Cf. Augstein, op.cit., 108f. In contrast, Andrei S. Markovits ("Störfall im Endlager der Geschichte" in Schoeps , 228-240) reads Augstein's review as an expression of his "anti-Jewish attitude which as been well known for a while" (op. cit., p. 232).
23 E.g., Jost Nolte in "Sisyphos ist Deutscher" in: Die Welt (April 16, 1996) calls Goldhagen a "pamphletist" and speaks of the author's "wrath of old-testament breath" ("Zorn von alttestamentarischem Atem").
24 Goldhagen's biographical background is often mentioned in critical reviews as if to insinuate a personal bias. So at least the assessment of Andrei S. Markovits, op. cit., p. 231. Markovits's essay is a polemical review of what I call here the first phase of the Goldhagen debate in Germany and agrees with Schoeps's general assessment of that debate. (See bibliographical notes below.)
25 On the difference between the editions see the biographical notes, above.
26 It must be added here that the positive response of American non-specialists which occurred simultaneously with the negative response of the specialists was not ultimately of the same kind as the German public response in August '96. Goldhagen's book contains a moral challenge only to Germans, while the American media's and public's siding with Goldhagen constitutes instead a kind of sensationalist voyeurism based on stereotypical thinking.
27 Ulrich Greiner, "Warum erregen sich die deutschen
Schriftsteller in einer Nebensache (Rechtschreibung) und schweigen in der Hauptssache?
Zwischenruf in einer nicht geführten Debatte" in Die Zeit (Nr. 46), Nov.
28 "Das Hirn will Heimat" in Die Zeit Nr. 44/Oct. 25, 96
29 See Aus der Geschichte lernen. How to learn from History. Verleihung des Blätter-Demokratiepreises 1997, Bonn: Blätter Verlag, 1997 (with the speeches by J. Ph. Reemtsma, J. Habermas, and D. Goldhagen)
30 In the original announcement: "Aufgrund der Eindringlichkeit und der moralischen Kraft seiner Darstellung hat Daniel Goldhagen dem öffentlichen Bewu§tsein der Bundesrepublik Deutschland wesentliche Impulse gegeben - und dies in einer den †bergang von der Bonner zur Berliner Republik prägenden Zeit. Er hat so wesentlich dazu beigetragen, die Sensibilität für Hintergründe und Grenzen einer deutschen "Normalisierung" zu schärfen." (Source: Blätter Press Announcement, January 7, 1997)
31 Jürgen Habermas, "Eine Art Schadensabwicklung" in: Die Zeit (11. July 1986), reprinted in: "Historikerstreit". Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung. Zürich/München: Piper, 1987 (6th edition, 1988), pp. 62-76
32 Habermas's speech was first published in Die Zeit Nr.12 (March 14, 97)
33 See Jan Philipp Reemtsma, "Eine ins Lob gekleidete deutliche Mahnung. Daniel Goldhagens 'Modell Bundesrepublik' und das Echo" in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Nr. 6 (1997): 690-695
34 Cf. Robert Leicht, "D.J. Goldhagens Buch ist ein Urteil, kein Gutachten" in: Die Zeit Nr. 37 (Sept. 6, 1996): "Dies ist in erster Linie nicht ein historische, sondern ein moralisches Buch - kein Gutachten, sondern ein Urteil. Moralische Urteile können einseitig, ja ungerecht sein, aber trotzdem treffend, bewegend, verstörend: verletzt und verletzend. Auch nach Abzug aller Fehler, Defizite und Selbstherrlichkeiten bleibt eine Wucht der Wirkung, der man sich nur bei äu§erst kühlem Kopf und kaltem Herzen entziehen kann." ["This is predominantly not a historical but a moral book- not an expertise but a judgment. (...) But even after subtracting all errors, deficiencies, and self-aggrandizements what remains is a momentousness of its effect ...."] Leicht's justification of the sustained attention his paper dedicated to the discussion of Goldhagen was contradicted by his fellow editor, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, in the same issue of Die Zeit. In "Warum D.J. Goldhagens Buch in die Irre führt," Dönhoff espressed the fear that Goldhagen's oversimplification and narrow focus on a poorly proven collective German will to exterminate the Jews would lead to unfavorable responses and a closing of minds to the whole issue.
35 Cf. Ilka Quindeau, "Geschichtswunder" in: Bredthauer and Heinrich , 126-128, first published in Frankfurter Rundschau, April 1, 1997.