The best, most detailed critique yet on Daniel Goldhagen.
Submitted by: Richard S. Levy
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)
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.
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.
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.