on 14 October 2010
Goldhagen's book is a response to Christopher Browning's book "Ordinary Men". I suggest reading that first, and the afterword in the second edition, where Browning responds to Goldhagen's criticisms. It is a pity that while Godlhagen's book was racked-out on tables in branches of Waterstones, Browning's book is little-read outside academic circles.
Browning's book is a stunning example of how good forensic history writing can have genuine ethical import. Goldhagen's book is an equally stunning example of how not to write a history book.
I would not tell anyone that they ought not to read Goldhagen. However, I would say read Browning first (including the Afterword to the second edition) and then read Goldhagen with a critical eye.
on 9 December 1999
The debate is growing regarding the place of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. From the publication, to critical acclaim, of "Hitler's Willing Executioners - Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" (USA: 1996) (hereinafter "HWE"), Goldhagen has shifted from relative obscurity, to the central figure in what has become known as the Goldhagen Debate. His argument, as the title of the book suggests, is first that the German people share a collective responsibility for the Holocaust, and second, that the death camp systems 'exposes not just Nazism's, but Germany's true face'. For the Holocaust to have happened the Nazis 'had to induce a large number of people to carry out the Killings'. With the premise that this had thus far been ignored in the academic literature, he makes it his focus. The intent of his methodology is to partially dash conventional explanations of the Holocaust, believing that they ignore the willingness of the perpetrators, ordinary German, to make a moral decision regarding mass murder. He advocates the 'eschewing' of convenient labels for the killers, such as Nazis and SS men and their replacement with Germans, going on that some were Nazis and SS men, some were not, but he argues, they 'were overwhelmingly and most importantly Germans [...] this was above all a German enterprise'. To this end, he forms his overarching argument that:
'[T]he perpetrators, "ordinary Germans," were animated by antisemitism by a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die. The perpetrators' belief, their particular brand of antisemitism, though obviously not the sole source, was, I maintain, a most significant and indispensable source of the perpetrators' actions and must be at the center of any explanation of them. Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say "no.'
Goldhagen's arguments have, unsurprisingly, not gone unchallenged. His analysis is critisised for being naive in interpretation, and cynical in the use of sources, both primary and secondary. One of his foremost critics, Finkelstein, problematises the thesis in "A Nation on Trial - The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth" (USA: 1998), because it crosses the previously untransgressed line 'between holocaust scholarship - primarily a branch of European history - and holocaust literature - primarily a branch of Jewish studies', '[s]eeking to reconcile an ideologically loaded thesis with radically incompatible empirical findings'. Considerations of space limit this critique largely to Finkelstein's accusation that "HWE" is a '"Crazy" thesis'. His deconstruction can be schematised into fivefold analysis. First, misrepresentation of facts and data. For example, Goldhagen's implication that erection of anti-Semitic signs such as "Entry Forbidden to Jews" was widespread amongst Germans, and evident of their 'eliminationist intent', However, Finkelstein's referral to the source used by Goldhagen, Gellately's "The Gestapo and German Society", indicates that it was actually coordinated 'by local hotheads in the Nazi movement'. Second, rash assumptions are made throughout "HWE", based largely around Goldhagen's attempt to prove his eliminationist anti-Semitism theory, which is in turn a third criticism: monocausal explanation of the Holocaust. His argument that 'it was only in Germany that an openly and rabidly antisemitic movement came to power [...] that was bent upon turning antisemitic fantasy into state organized genocidal slaughter', is criticised by Finkelstein. He questions why such a force did not come to power elsewhere, rubbishing arguments such as comparative uniqueness in Europe, or the economic depression as providing a satisfactory answer. Fourth, it is observed by Finkelstein that "HWE" is replete with contradictions. For example, Goldhagen appears to be unclear as to whether Hitler was central or peripheral, arguing first that Hitler's role was to 'unleash pent-up anitsemitic passion', but later that were it not for "Hitler's moral authority", the "vast majority of Germans would never have contemplated" Jewish genocide. Fifth, the text contains gross generalisations. Goldhagen argues that 37.4 per cent of the German population, 14m people, cast their vote for Hitler in July 1932, arguing that 'Hitler's virulent, lethal-sounding antisemitism did not at the very least deter Germans from throwing their support to him'. Finkelstein contests that he (a) ignores the rest, who did not vote for Hitler, and (b) if he had promised to unleash their anti-Semitism, they should be voting for him because, not despite of it. Further, Finkelstein argues that "HWE" 'is not intrinsically racist', as has been argued by other critics and refuted by Goldhagen:
'My book never invokes or even hints at any ethnic, racial, or biological notion of Germans; it, in no sense, posits anything about some eternal German "national character", it is, in no sense about any essential, unchangeable psychological dispositions of German. All of these are inventions of critics like Bartov who claim that mine is an essentailist view of Germans and that I maintain that Germans acted as they did because of "what they [were]".
In an Afterword to the 1997 Abacus Edition of "HWE", Goldhagen further refutes criticism:
'[A]rticles by both journalists and academics consisted almost wholly of denunciations and misrepresentations of the book's contents, including that I was charging Germans with "collective guilt," that the book's arguments attributes to Germans an unchanging "national character," that it impermissibly generalizes about Germans of the time, and that it puts forward a monocausal explanation of the Holocaust. The critics presented no serious argument and no evidence to support their contentions on these and other points. They did not do so because such arguments and evidence do not exist'.
The fundamentally important point, over and above whether Goldhagen is right or wrong, is that, however contentious his conclusions, he has regenerated the discussion of one of the most difficult aspects of the contemporary period - due to the mass public consumption of "HWE", it has moved the debate from academia into a joint-venture with 'parlour discussion'. However, a disturbing side effect is that, whereas Goldhagen may indeed have been sensationalising the Holocaust, there are those who appear to be 'jumping on the bandwagon' and using the debate for profit, both commercially and in their (academic) career.
on 18 February 2006
"Barely rises to the comical" is Norman Finkelstien's view of Goldhagen's work,and it's hard to disagree with that verdict.The basic thesis is that Germans,alone of the peoples of Europe,had such an ingrained anti-semitism that they alone were capable of the mass murder of Europe's Jews in the 1940s.
Apart from the racism implicit in this idea(racism somehow is fine when directed at Germans)there are several major issues that undermine this view.Why did any Jews live in Germany before 1933 if they were surrounded on all sides by anti-semites?Why were many of the perpretators of the Holocaust pro- German collaborators,but not themselves Germans?Finally,if the German people were somehow almost genetically anti-semitic,why did anti-semitism virtually disappear from Germany after 1945?Goldhagen has no answers to these questions.
Finally,and bizarrely,Godhagen talks at one point of "philosemitic anti-semites".This seems to mean Germans who supported Jewish assimilation into German culture and so contributed to Jews distancing themselves from their Jewish roots.If you took Goldhagen seriously,you'd believe that Jews themselves had nothing to do with this process,that assimilation was somehow a dastardly anti-semitic plot.
"Abysmal rubbish" is putting it mildly,and it's a pity,as the Holocaust is an imprtant subject that deserves serious study.Try Martin Gilbert's one volume history of the Holocaust if you want a good introduction to the subject.Avoid this,and warn your friends and family against it too.
on 6 August 2010
Well...I was not going to review this book but felt I had to. As the daughter of a German Holocaust survivor I have spent much of my adult life trying to understand how it was allowed to happen.
A friend bought me this book as a present thinking that I would be interested in examining Goldhagen's `it could only have happened in Germany' theory - I was because I had always refuted this idea in any discussion I had with friends or family on the Holocaust - this is exactly the sort of stereotyping which, in my opinion, brought about the Shoah in the first place.
I would like to tell you about my findings and opinion on this book but I have not managed to finish it in the 10 plus years I have had a copy in my possession. I am not a stupid woman and have read some quite challenging works in my time but this... it is so badly written that it is very difficult to get through more than a couple of pages at a time. I could continue to tell you about the writing style, the American Sociologist verbose clap-trap but other reviewers have said it all.
There are many other books more worthy of your attention if the subject is of interest to you - try "Freud, Jews and Other Germans - Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture" Peter Gay (1978)
on 29 September 2009
I once had to write a 5000 word piece for my history degree and this utter tosh was mentioned several times. The topic I was researching was West German memory in the post-war period, looking at how the German public aligned itself with its Nazi past. As part of this I looked at different historians views on how involved "ordinary" Germans actualy were.
Goldhagen's problem is he does not understand the German soceity of the time, it's different groups, attitudes and responsibilities within the regime. The result is he groups "Germans" as one united regime with one opinion and role within the war; much like a fourteen year old would.
Goldhagen thus groups the nation as all involved in the Hollocaust in some way, and thus responsible for it, and should feel guilt within the post-war period.
"Goldhagen implied that the whole nation was involved; phrases such as `the Germans' slaughter of Jews; were left uncontextualised." Taken from Bill Niven's 'Facing The Nazi Past' (p129), which is well worth a read.
This is worth reading if you need an example of how not to be a historian. Otherwise it is misleading and almost racist in its conclusions. If you would like a true insight into the period, then this is a miss. Read the book I have mentioned.
Ironically the German public, perhaps trying to distance itself from its past, liked the book!
on 9 July 2011
This book states what is often stated and only mentions the Jews who were tortured and murdered by the Nazis while completely ignoring the 6 million other people who were also slated for extermination. The author claims the whole thing was based on hatred of Jews without admitting the hatred of gays (who were singled out for the most cruel experiments), gypsies, religious minorities like Jehovah's Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Socialists and Communists (both opposed to Nazism) et al. All of these people were rounded up, tortured, worked to death, experimented on and murdered because of hatred of them by the Nazis. Jews were only one part, albeit the major part, of the mass extermination. Antisemitism was not the only factor in the Holocaust of 12 million, of whom Jews were 1/2 of the whole.
The author erroneously states that this Holocaust was the only one in the 20th century ("There is no comparable event in the 20th century..."), ignoring the victims of other mass slaughters, genocides and 'holocausts' like the Turkish Muslim ethnic cleansing and genocide (holocaust) of Christians (Armenian, Greek and Assyrian) in the early 20th century which sparked the term 'genocide', culminating with Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in the early 1920s, and his obsession with cleansing all non-Muslims from Turkish soil, a land the Ottoman Muslims had taken by force from the Christian Byzantine Empire. Greeks had lived here since 8000BC. Only a handful remain today and are still persecuted. The Christian ethnic cleansing and genocide killed as many as 3 million men, women and children by forced marches, starvation, rape, beheadings, burning and murder over a number of years. This Holocaust/genocide preceded the Nazi's Holocaust of Jews and many others. Germany acknowledges its ugly genocide while the Muslim Turks still deny theirs, despite all the evidence - photos, survivors' testimonies and witness accounts, making this Holocaust/genocide all the more evil. It is still largely ignored and unknown by the world.
Then there is the Holocaust in Rwanda with the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of nearly 1 million people over 100 days in the 1980s which was allowed to happen by world leaders, like US Pres. Clinton, who knew what was happening and refused to intervene. Only a late effort by the French did anything to halt the massacres. To ignore these horrific massacres is to demean their victims.
This theme in this book that the Nazi Holocaust was caused solely by German antisemitism makes it less credible with its one-sided slant, ignoring and therefore demeaning fully half of the others murdered by the Nazis, and the other terrible genocides of the 20th century, all based on hatred of vulnerable minority groups. Because of this I rate this book low for its obvious bias. If the author had written it honestly by stating his bias toward the suffering of Jews alone, then it would have much more authority and interest. As it is, it is a biased and slanted take on this major and tragic time. We must honor and mourn ALL the victims of the Nazi genocide as well as the others. To fail in this is to make all of their deaths anonymous and meaningless which is unaccetable.
Don't bother with this book. There are other books that tell a more complete and honest account of the horrors of all the genocides and their victims - ALL of their victims.
on 19 November 2015
Wow what a book!! Although the author has taken lots of flak over the conclusions made in this book, you should read it because a lot of what he says makes sense and helps to explain german attitudes in the run up go,and during ! WW2.
on 10 June 2009
I haven't really got anything to say on the arguments contained within this book, simply as i can't read it! I can't bear ploughing through books written by someone who takes 2 pages to describe what could be more concisely put into a single paragraph. Is it really necessary to constantly use overly long words just for the sake of it, as Goldhagen does? To sound clever and garner the respect of the academic community?
I don't know, maybe i'm a bit thicker than i gave myself credit for. I studied Nazi Germany at A-Level and have read numerous books on the subject and usually struggle to put them down. This is the first one that fixed my Insomnia!
on 21 November 2011
Anyone who has read this book, and those who haven't, should read Finkelstein's A nation on trial.
This is a splendid critique of Daniel Goldhagen's much-hyped book, Hitler's willing executioners. Goldhagen blamed the Holocaust on Germany's uniquely `extraordinary, lethal political culture'.
Goldhagen absurdly claimed that even the smallest manifestation of anti-Semitism, even philo-Semitism, `tends strongly towards a genocidal `solution'.'
Goldhagen asserted that anti-Semitism `has been a more or less permanent feature of the western world', which is untrue. It also contradicts his main thesis, that Germany was uniquely anti-Semitic. It is odd that he did not accuse the rest of the world of anti-Semitism too, though perhaps by now he is asserting that the whole eastern world is also innately, ineradicably, anti-Semitic.
Germany did not have a single, unchanging monolithic culture. Goldhagen admitted that in the late 19th century German Jews experienced a `meteoric rise from pariah status'. How could they, if Germany was always fanatically committed to anti-Semitism? Nor did all Germans think the same way at any point. Other, more objective, historians have noted that the Social-Democratic party in the 1920s was `a committed opponent of organized anti-Semitism' (Peter Pulzer) and that `all Social Democrats' proved `consistent' in their `advocacy of the civil rights of German and East European Jews' (Donna Harsch).
By demonizing the German people, Goldhagen was promoting the Zionist lie that Jews are only safe in Israel, that they can never be safe in Germany, or by extension in Europe, or even in the whole Western world. Of course, the truth is that nowhere are Jews less safe than in Israel.
He wrote that the Nazis ruled `without massive coercion and violence' and that their regime `was on the whole, consensual'. This is to falsify the historical record and prettify Nazism.
Finkelstein writes, "by proposing a transhistorical explanation for the Nazi holocaust, Goldhagen effectively detaches the most extreme manifestation of anti-Semitism from its historical context. Anti-Semitism becomes a chronic mental aberration `divorced from actual Jews' and it follows that at all times and for no reason, Gentiles harbor homicidal anti-Jewish animus, while Jews always enjoy a priori moral impunity. That ahistorical conception is of evident utility to those who maintain that all critiques of Zionism are simply disguised forms of anti-Semitism. The Jewish state is accordingly immunized from legitimate censure of its policies: all criticism is and must be motivated by fanatical anti-Semitism. Intent as Gentiles always are on murdering Jews, Jews have every right to protect themselves however they see fit; whatever expedient Jews might resort to, even aggression and torture, constitutes legitimate self-defense."
Finkelstein sums up, "Replete with gross misrepresentations of the secondary literature and internal contradictions, Goldhagen's book is worthless as scholarship." Simon Schama proved that he was no expert on German history by foolishly writing of Goldhagen's `phenomenal scholarship and absolute integrity'. Ian Kershaw, a fine historian of Germany and of Nazism, praised Finkelstein and Birn's `devastating critique of Daniel Goldhagen's simplistic and misleading interpretation of the Holocaust'.
on 18 October 2013
Goldhagen's "monocausal explanation" of the Holocaust is inadequate and implausible. He argues that the Holocaust can be explained solely by the Germans' age-old "demonological" antisemitism and that therefore the Nazi regime merely made it possible for this antisemitism to express itself in real acts of murder and mayhem, whereas earlier it had remained at the level of an all-pervasive desire to commit such acts. Goldhagen's theory therefore shifts the blame from Nazism to the German culture and German people which isn't realistic even though there is undoubtedly some truth in it.
Much more balanced books have been written about the subject, for example Browning's excellent "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" which deals with one of the subjects that the Goldhagen book also investigates, but does it infinitely better.
I nonetheless give this book a two star rating (instead of just one) because it is quite comprehensive and not badly written, only seriously one-sided.