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.