As a graduate student in German history, I have
been watching the scholarly and public debates over
Professor Goldhagen's Hitler's
Willing Executioners closely. The book has
generated a great deal of press interest, with reviews in
the major news magazines, The New Republic, and
the New Yorker among others. Much of the coverage
has been about the reaction of historians to Professor
Goldhagen's thesis that ordinary Germans were
exterminationist anti-Semities who enthusiastically
supported and participated in genocide. More attention is
paid to the fact that Professor Goldhagen has aroused
strong and emotional opposition than to the specific
nature of the criticism. The media coverage of the
controversy can be reduced to two statements:
- A Jewish Professor at Harvard claims the Germans
willingly participated in the Holocaust because of a
national character flaw.
- This has made a lot of historians angry.
Lacking in these accounts is an articulate summary of
objections to Professor Goldhagen's thesis. This is
particularly troubling because members of the general
public generally believe Professor Goldhagen's statement.
Most of my colleagues in the Navy Department are more
surprised at the reaction to
Executioners than to Professor Goldhagen's thesis.
They are not familiar with the bulk of scholarship in the
field which tends to undermine this notion of collective
This raises the troubling question of why the general
public has a dramatically different concept of Nazism and
the Holocaust from historians? It cannot be for lack of
interest. Books and television programs about Nazi
Germany abound. Between A&E and the History Channel,
it is impossible to go for more than a week without a
program about Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. Nearly
every bookstore in America with a history section carries
multiple titles on the subject. Schindler's List
was a critical and commercial success. There are more
opportunities for serious historians to communicate their
views on these subjects than in any other area of
historical scholarship. Why then the disconnect between
historians and the public?
In the introductory note to his book
Inside Nazi Germany, Detlev
Peukert speaks of a two fold dialogue. The first dialogue
is between the historian and his sources. This is the
dialogue at which most historians excel. Working long
hours in various archives, they have achieved a good
understanding of history at it was (to use the Rankean
term, "wie es eigentlich gewesen"). This is,
however, only half the dialogue. The other half, Peukert
described as a public discourse. What the Goldhagen
controversy shows is that historians as a group have
failed in this part of the dialogue.
This failure can be attributed mostly to a lack of
articulation on the part of historians. While the public
is intensely interested in the history of Nazi Germany,
most historians choose to look down on the public as
incapable of understanding what they are doing. Many of
the books in stores and programs of television suffer
from a lack of scholarship. It is interesting to note
that part of the reaction to Professor Goldhagen's book
has been against its popularity, as if writing a book
which sells necessarily compromises the quality of the
scholarship therein. If historians want to explain their
findings to a broad audience, and I would argue that this
is more than half of the role of an historian in society,
they must write for a larger audience and participate in
the making of these television programs.
Secondly, historians must improve the quality of their
writing. Many of the most important pieces of scholarship
in the field are inaccessible to the general public
because of tangled prose, bad grammar, and arcane jargon.
Scholarly should not be a synonym for unreadable.
A final measure of how little interaction there is
between historians and the public is name
The two most
famous historians in the field right now are Daniel
Jonah Goldhagen and David Irving, a.k.a. "that Jewish
Professor from Harvard who says the Germans enjoyed
it" and "the guy who says Hitler didn't do
There are no preeminent names in the field to whom the
public turns for a reaction to Goldhagen's thesis. Those
who have responded have failed to get their message
across. While the goal of historians should not be fame
per se, it is fair to ask if the goal should be to
collect research grants, teach a few undergraduates, and
write obscure and often unreadable texts.
I welcome comments and ideas on these topics.
LT Peter J. Schommer
USN Navy Department
65 S. Main St.
VT 05663 (802) 485-2193 firstname.lastname@example.org
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