Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

Telling Survivors about the Perpetrators

(December 2) In Israel for the Hebrew publication of 'Hitler's Willing Executioners,' Daniel Goldhagen spoke about the controversy over his book

The most striking thing about Daniel Goldhagen up close is the contrast between how young, almost boyish, he looks and how powerful an intellectual presence he has created. Even though he appears serious and intense, it is hard to believe that this slight, baby-faced Harvard assistant professor has triggered a controversy of international proportions and written an academic best-seller that has sold over 600,000 copies.

The 38-year-old Goldhagen arrived in Israel this week to mark the publication of the Hebrew edition of his book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by the Yediot Aharonot publishing company.

Eighteen months after his book was released, he still talked about it with great enthusiasm and eagerly flipped through its pages, seeking passages to illustrate the points he made as he explained his thesis.

"Israel is the country with the largest number of survivors. They are passionately interested in having the truths about what happened be known," said Goldhagen. "I'm pleased the book is finally available to this extremely large community, their families and other Israelis who are deeply interested in this troubled part of the history of the Jewish people."

Hebrew is the 10th language into which Goldhagen's book has been translated. It already appears in English, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek and Czech and is being launched in Spanish simultaneously with the Hebrew. Serbian, Japanese, Chinese, Hungarian and Polish will follow. Since it was first published in March 1996, the book has appeared on the best-selling lists of at least 10 countries. In Germany, where 200,000 copies have been sold in one year, it was a best-seller for 45 weeks, including seven weeks at the top of the list. It also reached the No. 1 spot in seven other countries.

These are incredible figures for an academic book containing 461 pages of densely written text and 125 pages of footnotes on a graphically described, gruesome and extremely painful subject. Furthermore, in contrast to its public popularity, Goldhagen's book has met with severe criticism and even hostility on the part of most of his academic colleagues everywhere - including Israel.

"The book's simplicity - in fact, its oversimplicity - is what has made the public buy it with such vigor," said Dina Porat, head of the Center for the Study of antisemitism at Tel Aviv University.

The reaction and counterreaction have sparked a public debate which has yielded something like 2,000 book reviews and opinion pieces in the daily press, journals and magazines.

After 50 years of Holocaust research and tens of thousands of published books and manuscripts on the subject, what did Goldhagen purport to find that could electrify so many people?

The book is an expansion of the thesis he wrote for his Ph.D., which he received from Harvard in 1992. It was meant to fill a vacuum in research that he came to believe was instrumental to the understanding of the Holocaust. "When I began this study in the mid-1980s, you could have read the entire literature of the Holocaust and you would have learned almost nothing about the people who were the perpetrators," said Goldhagen. "I simply set out to fill a gap in our knowledge.... I wanted to answer the question: When Hitler gave the order to kill European Jewry, why did people carry it out? And quite obviously, until you know a great deal about these people, you can't answer that question," he said.

"What my book does is to shift the focus of attention from where it has been - that is, the abstract structures, the SS, the Nazi Party, the terror apparatus, the bureaucracy (an amorphous abstract concept) - back to the human beings, the perpetrators, the actors."

The book's underlying assumption is that without the perpetrators in the field to carry out the orders of the leadership, there could not have been a Holocaust. Therefore, it is crucial to get to know what the perpetrators did, why, and in what manner.

Goldhagen said that in addition to closely studying the actions and conduct of the perpetrators, he used the testimony of the victims to learn about the perpetrators.

"One of the striking things about the scholarly literature on the Holocaust is that it almost completely ignores the testimony of the survivors. I'm talking about those who write about the German side. This is really quite shocking. Some even say that the testimony has little or no value. But the survivors know a great deal about those who perpetrated violence upon them. If you want to find out whether the killer was eager or reluctant, the survivor can tell you," he asserted.

"If a historian of American slavery were to say the testimony of the slaves was not to be used when writing about the masters, it would seem to be a scandal, an outrage. And yet so many who write about the perpetrators say this or passively take that position with regard to the victims.

"I think the reason people do so is because what survivors have to say simply falsifies the theses they have, because the prevailing feeling until now has been that the perpetrators, the ordinary Germans who killed Jews, did not hate the victims, did not want to do it. The survivors say the opposite, so their testimony has been ignored and denigrated. In my book, I use the testimony of survivors as well as the testimony of the perpetrators."

The book is divided into two sections. The first is a discourse on German antisemitism, tracing the transformation from its medieval Christian roots, which included the possibility of saving and absorbing the Jews into society via conversion, to the racist theories of the late 19th and 20th centuries in which no solution to the "Jewish problem" was possible other than their removal from society by one means or another.

He coined the term "eliminationist antisemitism" to describe this modern, post-Enlightenment type of anti-Jewish sentiment. Through the study of 19th century German texts, he makes the claim that antisemitism remained pervasive and widespread even during the heyday of the Enlightenment, and that by the end of the century, there were almost no German liberals left to champion the emancipation of the Jews.

The second, much longer section of the book, constitutes a case study of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, concentrating on those soldiers and police who represented a cross-section of the German population, usually older men with families, most of them not members of the Nazi party and not of a particularly militarist bent.

Goldhagen studied the actions of the perpetrators in profound detail in several police battalions operating in Poland and the Soviet Union, in work camps and on the death marches at the end of the war. These chapters desanitize the Holocaust and confront the horror head on. They include a breakdown of the cruelty of these perpetrators, the way they killed and the way the killings looked and smelled. He found that the perpetrators, whose numbers he estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000, performed their grisly work with enormous gusto and cruelty far above and beyond the call of their superiors - even though they would not have faced punishment had they declined to participate in the genocide.

"What the book most fundamentally shows is that the perpetrators were not simply robots, they were not terrorized, and they were not blind obeyers of orders," explained Goldhagen. "These are all myths. They had the capacity to make all kinds of choices, and the book unearths the pattern of choices that they made, which was not to do less than was necessary but to do more than was necessary. Specifically to brutalize, beat and torture their victims routinely. These are willful, gratuitous acts."

According to Goldhagen, the "brutality and cruelty of the perpetrators has been absent from Holocaust literature. The cruelty was so widespread and frequent among the perpetrators as to be a constituent element of the Holocaust," proving that "ordinary" Germans were so imbued with antisemitism that they could kill with a deeply ingrained, personal ardor. That ardor had been ignited by the belief that Jews were hopelessly evil and corrupting, a belief which had saturated Germany's political culture for more than a century. Thus the two sections of the book complement and mutually verify each other in a way that is easy to understand - too easy for most scholars.

Goldhagen repeatedly makes the claim to be the one to have found the most important single explanation of the Holocaust. In a heated defense of his book published last year in the New Republic, he wrote: "The questions of why many tens of thousands of ordinary Germans from all walks of life, Nazis and non-Nazis alike, killed, tortured and degraded Jews with zeal and energy, and why only a minuscule number availed themselves of the opportunity to withdraw from the unimaginably gruesome killing, have scarcely been broached by historians. [Yet] most would agree that these are questions of great importance, that no explanation of the Holocaust can be called adequate if it does not contain satisfying answers to them."

The claim has angered many of his colleagues. "This guy thinks a lot of himself," said Porat. "He says that what others have written about the Holocaust before him is unimportant." Porat also argued that Goldhagen ignores the fact that the Nazis massacred not only Jews but also Gypsies, Slavs and 150,000 ailing Germans. The Nazi extermination program involved all four groups, not just the Jews. Its ultimate aim was to "purify" the German race.

Secondly, said Porat, Goldhagen does not deal with the fact that other societies and countries were also virulently antisemitic but did not produce holocausts. Porat added that Goldhagen had not produced any new factual material about the Holocaust but had simply taken published data and fashioned his own thesis from it.

The criticism stung Goldhagen, who replied that "the case study of the death march is the first extensive study of its kind, much of the material on the police battalions is new, the study of the treatment meted out in the work camps is new. It's remarkable to me that someone would say something like this."

One of Goldhagen's local defenders is Yad Vashem chief historian Israel Gutman. Goldhagen's great contribution to the study of the Holocaust has been to turn the spotlight back to antisemitism after a period in which German scholars had been trying to "normalize" it, he said. "These scholars tried to shift attention away from German antisemitism by stressing the universal aspect of genocide, by claiming that mass murder is a characteristic of the modern era. The decisive fact in the Goldhagen controversy is that he has shifted the spotlight back to the antisemitism that fueled Nazi racism."

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the story is the response to Goldhagen in Germany. At first, before the book was translated into German, he was pilloried in the German press. But when he came to promote the German edition last year, he became the public's darling. People who may have come to boo him at his six public debates with German scholars stayed to cheer. One representative of the once-hostile German press chirped: "The avenger has charm."

In January, the Journal for German and International Politics awarded Goldhagen its Democracy Prize, the first time the distinguished prize had been awarded in six years. Goldhagen believes that his overwhelmingly positive reception is one more indication of how Germany has changed since the end of the war. On the one hand, today's Germans are caring enough to want to know the unvarnished truth about the behavior of their forefathers. On the other, they are self-confident enough to know that they are not personally implicated by their forefathers' actions.

"In a country which has changed so much since the war, the majority of the German people look back on the Holocaust with the same horror we do," said Goldhagen. "They simply want to know the truth. The book explodes the myth that Nazis and Germans were beings apart. What people in Germany are finally coming to understand is that a discussion of the Holocaust does not shame Germany today. By discussing it, by focusing on the past, by decrying what happened, they indicate how much they've changed."

Goldhagen is the second generation of Holocaust researchers in his family. His father, Erich, lived through the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and later emigrated to the US where he earned a Ph.D. and specialized in Holocaust studies at Hunter College, Brandeis University and Harvard, from which he recently retired.

Goldhagen said that when he wrote the book, he did not dream it would evoke the international response it has. After its publication, he left Cambridge for a five-week promotional tour of the US and Britain and a short vacation. "I expected to start work on my new book when I got back, on May 1," he said. "Since then, I haven't been able to."

Maybe he shouldn't be in such a rush. His next book is to be a comparative study of genocide in the 20th century.

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