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In the wake of news reports that leading American academic Norman Finkelstein is publishing an annihilating attack* on Daniel Goldhagen's money-spinning book on "Hitler's willing executioners," an instant - instant - global best-seller, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published this prominent interview with German-born historian 

Ruth Bettina Birn, 

45, who published in March this year in the Cambridge University Historical Journal a devastating critique of Goldhagen's methods, which was widely repeated by the British newspapers. Since then, reports the news magazine, "attempts are being made by psychological and legal means to stop the respected Nazi-expert, who is employed by the Canadian authorities prosecuting war crimes, from expressing her objections." 

English text.
For original German text click flag

* The book was published by Henry Holt, New York, early in 1998.


  • Do you know Daniel Goldhagen personally? 

RUTH BETTINA BIRN: Yes, for eleven years. When I became a Fellow in Boston after my Ph D somebody introduced me to a young researcher who was planning to work in Germany. I referred him to the Ludwigsburg war crimes centre. He didn't even know the archives existed. 

  • : Your review of his book, which was commissioned originally by the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, was dropped because of possible claims for libel damages. In Britain, Goldhagen's attorneys are threatening you with a libel writ. And now your employer tells you that there have been protests to him about plans to reprint of your critique. Do you feel intimidated?

BIRN: Of course, I feel threatened. 

  • : Did Goldhagen ever make a proper academic response to your criticism of his dubious treatment of sources?

BIRN: not in the same journal, which would have been proper. I hear he has published a response elsewhere accusing me of "barefaced invention and "hateful" rhetoric. 

  • : To outsiders it seems Goldhagen is showing a weakness by this hate-filled polemics, just as with his venomous but ill-substantiated reaction to the critique by Norman Finkelstein. Why the rage? . . . Next March your paper is to be published in New York as a book together with Norman Finkelstein's article. The Jewish newspaper Forward in New York is already attacking the "incriminating book" and comparing it with the case of the Auschwitz-denier David Irving. Is this the start of an attempt to stop the book?

BIRN: Our publisher has mentioned once or twice that he is coming under certain hostile pressures. 

  • : Do you see a strategy at work behind all this?

BIRN: There are two fields: first, the unexampled campaign since 1995 to promote the Goldhagen book. A literary first effort becomes a world sensation, and immediately the newspapers start hinting that there's a Harvard professorship waiting for the views his book propagates. Second, the attempts to stifle the criticisms voiced by me and Finkelstein.. . . You can't take back the Truth, and the pressure on my employer is not going to alter that. The question is, how are we going to deal with each other in future? if Goldhagen gets so hostile even in his book, that cautious, respected researchers suddenly find themselves cast as deniers and revisionists, I find it insulting and disgraceful. And if things go further down the political and legal tracks we see here, it poses a threat to any kind of scientific criticism. 

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