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Goldhagen Debate & Role of Historians

Author: H-GERMAN EDITOR Dan Rogers <drogers@jaguar1.usouthal.edu>
Sender: H-NET List on German History <H-GERMAN@MSU.EDU>

Submitted by: Peter Schommer <peters@norwich.edu>

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 Hitler's Willing 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 guilt.

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 recognition.

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 it."

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
Norwich University
65 S. Main St.
VT 05663 (802) 485-2193 peters@norwich.edu


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