HOLOCAUST BOOK SPARKS FRESH CONTROVERSY
From "Mein Kampf" to Auschwitz
Fifty years on, there can be no let up in the struggle against those who deny
the holocaust. At the same time, the debate among historians is becomingly
increasingly heated. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's attempts to silence the most
virulent critics of his best-seller, Hitler's Willing Executioners, have
sparked bitter controversy. Ultimately at stake is the interpretation of the
Jewish genocide, with its historical and universal implications.
by DOMINIQUE VIDAL
The pressure brought to bear on Ruth Bettina Birn and Norman
Finkelstein since the beginning of this year has been described by
Israeli journalist Tom Segev as "bordering on cultural terrorism
(1)". Their crime? A book entitled A Nation on Trial (2). While
highly recommended by such authoritative historians of Nazism as
Raul Hilberg, Ian Kershaw, Arno Mayer and Christopher Browning (3),
it contains some very strong criticism of Daniel Jonah Goldberg's
Hitler's Willing Executioners (4).
In two years, by dint of heavy media promotion, Hitler's Willing
Executioners has sold more than half a million copies in over a
dozen countries. Its explanation of genocide is that the Nazi
regime gave free rein to the "eliminationist antisemitism" of
"ordinary Germans". This simplistic thesis has proved highly
popular with the public but has hardly convinced the specialists.
The foremost Israeli expert, Yehuda Bauer, who is director of Yad
Vashem's research institute in Jerusalem, is quite categorical:
"Goldhagen's book has been praised by journalists and public
figures, but I have yet to read of a single historian who has
publicly expressed agreement. Not one, and that is very rare
unanimity. In my university, this book would never has passed as a
Ph.D. dissertation (5)."
For the young Harvard academic, the straw that broke the camel's
back was an article in the March 1997 issue of the Historical
Journal published by Cambridge University Press. Its author, Ruth
Bettina Birn, is chief historian of the war-crimes division of
Canada's Department of Justice. She is thus very familiar with the
archives kept at Ludwigsburg by the agency which the former West
German government set up to investigate Nazi crimes. It was she who
drew Daniel Goldberg's attention to three files that provided the
material for his thesis. They concern the behaviour of certain
police battalions during the massacres in the East, of labour camp
guards, and of those who guarded the "death marches". In all three
cases, Birn accuses Goldhagen of extrapolating from a small number
of testimonies and of manipulating descriptions of atrocities to
portray the agents of genocide as stereotypes for the vast majority
Goldhagen's response was to threaten his impertinent critic with a
libel action. Birn was outraged. She immediately announced the
publication of a revised article along with a solidly argued piece
by Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science and the son
of concentration camp survivors, who is a longstanding supporter of
the Palestinian cause (6). Faced with what Goldhagen described as
an "anti-Zionist crusade", the pro-Israel lobby mustered its
forces. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation
League, asserted that "the issue is not whether Goldhagen's thesis
is right or wrong, but what is legitimate criticism and what goes
beyond the pale (7)". The Canadian Jewish Congress even complained
to the ministry of justice in the ultimately vain hope of getting
it to take action against Ruth Birn.
"The Jewish establishment," Segev writes, " has embraced Goldhagen
as if he were Mr Holocaust himself... All this is absurd, because
the criticism of Goldhagen is backed up so well." What is at issue,
he argues, is the "Zionist character" of Goldhagen's thesis. Its
logical conclusion is that "not only the Germans, but all the
gentiles hate the Jews. Hence the need for Jewish unity and
solidarity. Hence the need for more and more books about Jewish
hatred, and the simpler and shallower they are, the better."
While Daniel Goldhagen is clearly right to stress the role played
in the lead up to genocide by widespread German antisemitism, he is
just as clearly wrong to equate the one with the other. Especially
as his analysis of antisemitism in Germany is sketchy, to say the
Contrary to Goldhagen's contention, the late 19th and early 20th
centuries were the golden age of Jewish emancipation in Germany. At
the same time, France, which had originally raised the banner of
Jewish emancipation, was in the throes of the Dreyfus affair. And
in Russia, the Tsar's ministers were instigating terrible pogroms
against the Jews. And what can be said of the Baltic countries and
the Ukraine, where the Nazis (as Goldhagen barely mentions)
recruited zealous murderers of Jews? Certainly, the assimilation of
the Jews in Germany aroused virulent nationalist opposition. But
the anti-Jewish nationalists were not particularly successful at
the polls, unlike the labour movement, which supported Jewish
assimilation. As Raul Hilberg points out, the German intellectual
elite had always shown little taste for "propaganda" or "disorder",
and the term "antisemitic" acquired a negative connotation at
certain times for that very reason.
Goldhagen shows similar lack of perspective in relation to the
1930s. He stresses that in 1932 more than 37% of the German
electorate voted for the Nazis, but finds nothing significant in
the fact that nearly 63% failed to do so. Nor does he mention that
as late as 5 March 1933, in the midst of reprisals for the burning
of the Reichstag, the communist and social-democratic left, which
was of course opposed to antisemitism, won almost a third of the
Goldhagen also overestimates the antisemitic significance of the
Nazi vote. Most historians have noted that Hitler gradually
soft-pedalled his hatred for the Jews, which he considered less
appealing to voters than anti-communism. In short, to quote Saul
Friedlander, "Although traditional religious and social
antisemitism was widespread in Germany, in my opinion, hatred of
Jews did not constitute a primary factor capable of explaining the
Nazi rise to power or the participation of ordinary Germans in the
mass murders of the Final Solution (8)." Moreover, if the whole
country was so eager to exterminate the Jews, why was the genocide
perpetrated outside Germany and in the greatest secrecy? And by
what miracle did this age-old anti-Jewish culture suddenly
disappear in post-war Germany, as Goldhagen claims?
Concentrating solely on antisemitism involves a second major error.
It is true that Adolf Eichmann was condemned to death in Jerusalem
in 1962 for "crimes against the Jewish people", rather than "crimes
against humanity" (9). Nevertheless, 250,000 Gypsies (out of
700,000) died in a genocide of the same type. Over 3 million Soviet
prisoners of war were shot, starved to death or, in some cases,
gassed. Poland lost hundreds of thousands of its leaders and
intellectuals. And what of the mentally ill? By the time it was
halted on 24 August 1941, following protests from Church leaders,
the euthanasia programme which the Reich chancellery initiated in
October 1939 had led to the murder of more than a quarter of the
country's 360,000 registered insane, 70,000 of whom were killed in
gassing vans. Those who had devised the killing machines shifted
their activities to the eastern front and went on to develop the
gas chambers used in the extermination camps.
A crusade against the "Judeo-Bolsheviks"
Consideration of the other victims of Nazi ferocity (10) suggests
that genocidal antisemitism was part of a vast plan of conquest,
colonisation and aryanisation of the lebensraum which the Reich was
seeking in the East. Hence the inevitable confrontation with the
"Judeo-Bolsheviks" in power in Russia. On studying Hitler's
antisemitic diatribes, numerous historians - apart from Goldhagen -
have been struck by the fact that hatred of Jews is almost always
coupled with hatred of communism.
Finally, to isolate German antisemitism is to disregard the
combination of other factors that largely explains the success of
the Nazi enterprise. As he subsequently admitted, Goldhagen deals
only fleetingly with the slaughter of 1914-18, the national
humiliation at Versailles, the effects of the economic crisis, the
fragility of the young Weimar Republic, the lack of an alternative
due to suicidal divisions among the parties of the left, and so on.
Nor does he find any significance in the class alliance, headed by
the employers, that was built up around Hitler because he was seen
as the only bulwark against Bolshevism. Whereas Ian Kershaw, for
example, argues that the huge profits made by big business were
certainly no accidental side-effect of Nazism.
Again, how can we ignore the effects of the extraordinary
totalitarian bureaucratic machine which Hitler's henchmen installed
as soon as he became chancellor? The combination of all-pervasive
propaganda and ruthless repression led to the detention of 150,000
communists and social-democrats in concentration camps from 1933 to
1939 (11). And how can we underestimate the effects of the war
itself, from the nationalistic exultation of the initial victories
to the humiliation of the subsequent defeats and allied bombing?
Few historians still see a straight line leading from Mein Kampf to
Auschwitz. True, once in power the Nazis lost no time in attacking
the Jews. From the initial boycott declared on 1 April 1933, which
was a flop, to Kristallnacht in November 1938, and from the
Nuremberg laws of September 1935, via the aryanisation of
businesses in 1937, to the final prohibition of all Jewish
professional activity in 1939, the exclusion of the Jews from
German society was a continuously escalating process. But until the
outbreak of war, the stated objective was the expulsion of Jews to
any countries that would have them. This included emigration to
Palestine, which was the subject of an agreement with the Jewish
Agency in August 1933 (12).
Speaking in the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, the Führer prophesied
that a world war would spell the "annihilation of the Jewish race
in Europe". Seven months later he launched the invasion of Poland,
which brought ten times as many Jews under the Nazi yoke. From that
point on, the regime began concentrating Jews in ghettos and camps,
to which victims from other countries were soon deported. But at
Hitler's request, the Central Emigration Office directed by Adolf
Eichmann continued to work towards the forcible transfer of four
million Jews to Madagascar. It was only upon failure to reach
agreement with London that the Madagascar project was abandoned. In
the view of some historians, the fall-back solution was mass
deportation beyond the Urals. All that remained was to conquer the
Operation "Barbarossa", launched on 22 June 1941, was the great
turning point. The "Rules of Conduct for Soldiers in Russia",
quoted by Arno Mayer, required German troops to attack Bolshevik
agitators, snipers, saboteurs and Jews "energetically and
mercilessly" and to strive unremittingly to eliminate all active
and passive resistance. With this official cover, the Wehrmacht
and, above all, the 3,000 killers of the Einsatzgruppen, assisted
by their local accomplices, committed increasingly horrific mass
murders of civilians. It was the radicalisation of those massacres,
and their extension to the whole of European Jewry, which, in the
opinion of the large majority of historians, led to genocide in the
proper meaning of the word (13). An outstanding historical issue is
the actual date of the decision, and whether it was a written order
or, as Christopher Browning argues, simply " a nod of the head"
from the Führer. Some historians situate it during the period of
preparation for the attack on Russia, others in the summer of 1941,
in the euphoria following the first victories. Yet others think it
was taken in the autumn, when the tide of war turned against
Arno Mayer argues that the era of old-style pogroms had passed and
Nazi Germany had chosen to take the Jews as hostages in its
desperate struggle, to make them the "privileged martyrs" of its
ferocious crusade against Bolshevism, adding that the choice was
now irrevocable. In mid-March 1942, 75% to 80% of the victims of
the Shoah were still alive. A year later, the proportions were
"Delegates of all the victims of history"
According to Hilberg's conservative estimate, 1.3 million Jews were
shot "in the open". A further 3 million, deported from all over
Europe, perished in the camps, and about 800,000 in the ghettos.
The Wannsee Conference, which was convened on 20 January 1942 after
the failure of the final attack on Moscow, made all the Reich's
resources available for extermination. To the concentration camps,
where the vast majority of the inmates died of starvation, illness
and forced labour, there now were added extermination camps (which
Goldhagen does not discuss). Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek
combined both functions, but Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka
were nothing else than death factories where, to paraphrase Pierre
Vidal-Naquet, anonymous executioners gassed equally anonymous
The destruction of European Jewry was unique in human history. "Its
uniqueness," writes Eberhard Jackel, "lies in the fact that never
before had a state decided and proclaimed, under the authority of
its highest leader, that a specific group of human beings was to be
exterminated, if possible in its entirety... a decision which the
state in question carried out with all means at its disposal (14)."
While a paradigm for genocide, it is nevertheless a link in a long
chain of savagery that includes the massacre of Indians in America,
Armenians in Turkey and, more recently, Tutsis in Rwanda. Ian
Kershaw was right to stress that if we are to learn a lesson from
the genocide of the Jews, it is vital to accept - while
acknowledging the uniqueness of the holocaust as an event without
precedent - that our world has not reached the stage where it is
immune from similar atrocities involving peoples other than the
Germans and the Jews. It was, he wrote, no longer a matter of
"explaining" the holocaust by reference to Jewish history or to
relations between Jews and Germans, but of endeavouring to
understand the pathology of modern states and the nature of
Four years before Daniel Goldhagen, Christopher Browning published
his book on the reserve police battalion responsible for shooting
38,000 Jews in the Lublin area and deporting 45,000 others to
Treblinka. His conclusion was radically different: "If the men of
Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers, which group of
human beings could not?"
The powerful formulation of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur
gets right to the heart of the matter: the victims of Auschwitz
were, par excellence, "delegates to our memory of all the victims
of history (15)".
Translated by Barry Smerin
(1) Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 15 May 1998.
(2) Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial :
the Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, Henry Holt & Co., New
(3) Except where otherwise indicated, the quotations from these
authors are taken from the following books: Raul Hilberg, The
Destruction of the European Jews (Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1961);
Ian Kershaw, The Nazi dictatorship : problems and perspectives of
interpretation, E. Arnold, London and New York, 1989; Arno Mayer,
Why did the heavens not darken? : the "final solution in history",
Pantheon Books, New York, 1988; Christopher Browning, Ordinary men
: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland,
Aaron Asher Books, New York, 1992.
(4) Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners :
Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, New York, 1996. In
general, the terms "genocide" or "genocide of the Jews" are to be
preferred to the religious term "holocaust", which denotes a
sacrificial burnt offering.
(5) Quoted in Outlook, Santa Monica, Vol. 36, No. 3, 1 April 1998.
(6) His publications include Image and reality of the
Israel-Palestine conflict, Verso, London and New York, 1995.
(7) Quoted in The New York Times, 10 January 1998.
(8) Haaretz, 5 December 1997. Saul Friedlander is the author of
Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1 The Years of Persecution
1933-1939, Harper Collins, New York, 1997. Vol. 2 has just been
(9) See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem : a report on the
banality of evil, Faber and Faber, London, 1963.
(10) See Jean-Michel Chaumont, La concurrence des victimes :
génocide, identité, reconnaissance, La Découverte, Paris, 1997.
(11) See Martin Broszat, "The Third Reich and the German People,"
in The Challenge of the Third Reich : the Adam von Trott memorial
lectures, edited by Hedley Bull, Clarendon Press, New York, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 1989.
(12) See Yehuda Bauer, Jews for sale? Nazi-Jewish negotiations,
1933-1945, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994. From 1933 to
1939, 52,000 German Jews were thus enabled to emigrate to Palestine
with part of their savings. The total amount of 140 million
reichmarks made up 18% of all private capital imported to
(13) See Philippe Burrin, "L'autre face du génocide", Le Monde
diplomatique, December 1995, and "Le génocide des juifs en débats",
also available in English "Debating the Holocaust", ibid, June
1997. See also his book Hitler and the Jews : the genesis of the
Holocaust, Edward Arnold, London, New York, 1994.
(14) Die Zeit, Hamburg, 3 October 1986.
(15) Paul Ricoeur, Time and narrative, Vol. 3, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
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