Documents on the Auschwitz Controversies

The best, most detailed critique yet on Daniel Goldhagen.


Submitted by: Richard S. Levy 


Quick navigation  

REPORTED recently on Daniel Goldhagen's speaking engagement in a Chicago suburb (May 12, 1996). What follows is what I thought inappropriate to say in that venue but would nonetheless like to get off my chest now. It is a long message. Be forewarned!

I confine my remarks to Part I of Hitler's Willing Executioners - where Goldhagen spells out his notion of a brand of anti-Semitism peculiar to Germany and makes it instrumental in the carrying out of the Final Solution. I do this for two reasons. First, I have worked in the nineteenth-century source material. Second, I believe his faulty understanding of German anti-Semitism before Hitler is crucial to his argument and that the book's many critics have not given enough attention to this aspect of it.

The argument is presented annoyingly. Assertionsnever adequately demonstrated, some of them clearly undemonstrable -- become, in the space of a few pages, axioms upon which unwarranted conclusions can be drawn. One example of such a chain:

"There cannot be any doubt that conservatives and Völkisch nationalists in Germany, who formed the vast majority of the population, were, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, thoroughly anti-Semitic. The evidence for this is overwhelming, as the literature of the period persuasively demonstrates." (p.56)

A few pages later:

"That Germans were fundamentally anti-Semitic is ... less astonishing than was the cultural and political centrality of Jews in their minds and emotions. Perhaps the most striking feature of the discussion of the Jews' place in Germany was the obsessive attention paid to the subject, the avalanche of words devoted to it, the passion expended on it." (p.63)

Finally: "And as discussed above, these accusations were hurled with enormous frequency and obsessiveness throughout German society, and, so widespread were they that they were increasingly held to be true even by those in Germany who had once been the Jews' allies" [whom, incidentally, he scarcely discusses except to "prove" that they, too, were anti-Semites]. (p.68)


The truth of every one of these contentions is highly debatable. Goldhagen regularly assumes what he ought to be proving. When, if ever, did conservatives and Völkisch nationalists compose the vast majority in Germany? I would not know how to go about proving such a claim (and therefore wouldn't make it). Granted, there were many more publications dealing with the Jewish question than one would expect, considering how small and unimportant a part of the population was Jewish in German-speaking Europe. Who wrote them? Who read them? Did workers and peasants -- I would think the clear majority of the populationread Wilhelm Marr or Eugen Duehring? And on what basis can such writing be said to constitute " an avalanche of obsessiveness?" Having convinced himself with repetition, Goldhagen claims that in the last quarter century, the Judenfrage was written about more passionately than the Kulturkampf, the "red menace," Weltpolitik, navalism? How does one measure "passion?"

I remain unconvinced. Jews may have been of more interest than is easily explainable to certain sorts of Germans at certain periods of time (the 1840s, the 1880s and 1890s). But one can make a convincing case that they were of very little interest to most Germans most of the time. Putting them at the centre of German history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a highly unproductive strategy. I can see no justification for doing so.

Goldhagen's use of data is also problematical. He rests huge generalizations on an extraordinarily spindly factual base, and even this is occasionally quite skewed to fit his special purposes. His treatment of anti-Semitism in the Kaiserreich owes much to the unpublished 1963 Heidelberg dissertation by Klemens Felden. Felden's already vague "content analysis" of 51 prominent anti-Semite writers and publications, 1861-1895, is subjected to Goldhagen's own analysis. He finds that twenty-eight of the fifty-one individuals proposed solutions to the Jewish question. Of these, he says, nineteen called for the physical extermination of the Jews. Talk of murdering the Jews was, despite Goldhagen's inferences, rare in the Kaiserreich (far more common in France and Austria). It ought not to be ignored or trivialized because it may well have revealed the real conscious and unconscious desires of anti-Semites. But this is an example of Goldhagen's exaggeration, his drawing important conclusions from dubious facts. I know of no case where genocide was proposed as a systematic solution to the Jewish question before 1914. Rare threats of physical violence came in the form of "jokes" or fantasies or poorly veiled wishes, usually appeared as parenthetical remarks, and in almost every case were subject to denial, disavowal, and wide public disapproval. Goldhagen cites [with erroneous attribution] only one such parenthetical remark in his main text. He also alludes, this time in the footnotes, where he often makes his most insupportable claims, to mad Count Pueckler, a certifiably insane aristocrat who performed murderous charades with imaginary Jews as his victims. Perhaps, this was a portent of the Holocaust, as Goldhagen, citing his father, wants to believe. But what does it tell us of the obsessive, eliminationist, and murderous anti-Semitism that Goldhagen sees already and everywhere in place well before Hitler arrived to turn it loose? Why doesn't he find it worth mentioning that Pueckler was tried, convicted of fomenting hatred (I believe), and rejected as an embarrassment to the serious business of anti-Semitism by almost every anti-Semitic politician and publicist? Instead, the lunatic is taken as bespeaking the true but as yet unrealizable desires on the part of "many Germans" to murder Jews. This is arbitrary and unfounded.

Where the data does not exist or will not bear much weight of generalization, Goldhagen blithely reads minds, emotions, and "cognitive maps." For example, Felden mentions that of his fifty-one subjects, nearly half of them (twenty-three) presented no programmatic solutions to the Jewish problem at all. Goldhagen refuses to register this fact as evidence arguing against pervasive, obsessive, eliminationist anti-Semitism. No, he cites pragmatism, ethical inhibition, limited imagination in the pre-Holocaust era as reasons for the lack of programmatic solutions, but then concludes that many wanted what they "dared not utter." Even the absence of evidence becomes part of the argument.

My biggest difficulty with Hitler's Willing Executioners is not its polemic excesses, wilful lack of balance, many errors of fact, or trashing of illustrious scholars. All these are aggravating lapses, product of an annoying personal style with some sloppy research thrown in. [I'm sure he wouldn't like me that much either.] I find most problematical Goldhagen's floating, infinitely malleable definition of anti-Semitism.

Early in the book, he puts forward a slightly modified version of the Ackermann/Jahoda clinical definition of anti-Semitism:

"...negative beliefs and emotions about Jews qua Jews." (p.34)

Goldhagen laments that the phenomenon has "typically been treated in an undifferentiated manner" and then proceeds to make numerous busy distinctions. He gives the reader three dimensions, two continuums; he assures us that in any 20-50 year period anti-Semitism can be latent or overt, but that it never disappears"neither waxing nor waning." Even when there is no physical evidence of anti-Semitism, it's still there, only waiting for the proper social and political conditions to be unleashed. (p.39) He cautions that "any analytical scheme [of anti-Semitism] must keep the cognitive and action dimensions distinct" (p.485, n.21)a position I have been arguing for many years. This crucial distinction and many others he enjoins us to make he himself soon abandons.

Goldhagen commits the very crime he warns against. He uses "anti-Semitism" in its broadest, most undifferentiated construction, embracing emotions and actions without distinguishing between them, as an indictment of Germans (up to but not after 1945; last Sunday he said they "had cured themselves"). Only if German anti-

Semitism is permanent, all-pervasive in its latent or manifest forms, and anything from a matter of snobbery to genocidal impulses, can one float the sort of charges upon which the book rests. For one by no means critical but nonetheless illustrative example, Goldhagen tells us that the Reichstag of 1893 already had an antisemitic majority. If anti-Semitism is as amorphous and omnipresent a phenomenon as that the Reichstag might well be called antisemitic. But by any less universalist definition of anti-Semitism, there were in the Reichstag of 1893 16 deputies from parties that called themselves antisemitic and perhaps a dozen more fellow-travellers who campaigned antisemitically but then joined with the conservatives; they received perhaps 400,000 votes according to the estimate of Theodor Fritsch, a noted anti-Semite. This comes to about 6% of the seats in the Reichstag and about 5% of the vote.

Operating on such a flexible definition, there is little that Goldhagen cannot "prove" about the depth, breadth, and growing dangerousness of German anti-Semitism. His "conservatively" estimated 100,000 executioners were but stand-ins for millions more of Germans. But such a definition is also self-defeating. Would not nearly everyone in Europe or where the offspring of Europeans to be found qualify as an anti-Semite, if anti-Semitism were simply "negative beliefs and emotions about Jews qua Jews"? Would not, in all honesty, most Jews be covered by this blanket definition? Would French, Romanian, or Hungarian anti-Semitism look very different from the German variety?

It is absolutely essential for Goldhagen to blur the distinction between the willingness to act against Jews and the harbouring of negative attitudes about them. One can concede that Germans who liked, respected and valued Jews were few in number well before the Third Reich sanctioned their persecution. But labelling them anti-Semites, that is, people who wanted to act against what they imagined to be enormously dangerous Jewish power and therefore thought it was right and good to murder Jews unwarranted. Goldhagen must make prejudiced Germans into executioners or would-be executioners in very large numbers. This, too, is self-defeating, if the objective is to understand the Holocaust.

By insisting on the universality of eliminationist anti-Semitism Goldhagen can show that the development to the Final Solution is an ineluctably logical one instead of one of many possibilities. Denying that the variations among anti-Semites and their solutions ( to say nothing of the ubiquity of anti-Semitism among the Germans) counts for anything, means there is no alternative possibility that needs to be considered. The Final Solution takes on the aura of a fatality, no longer the product of human choices. It becomes a mystery of monstrous Germanic evilunavoidable, predictable from an early date, and basically unfathomable.

It is interesting, I think, that the Nazis were far less convinced about the depth of German anti-Semitism than Goldhagen. They, with Hitler in the forefront of the complainers, never ceased whining about the lack of seriousness in ordinary Germans when it came to the Jewish question. They recognized what Goldhagen does not. Prejudice was not enough to "solve" the Jewish question. It did not translate in to the sort of consistent, ideologically-based action that was required for the genocide of the Jews. Doubtless the indifference of the great majority of Germans to the fate of Jews was useful in the Final Solution, and the Nazi leadership correctly reckoned on little popular opposition to their escalating oppression. This is an enormous burden of guilt to bear. I don't see why Goldhagen wishes to add it.

©Focal Point 1999 e-mail:  write to David Irving