The Goldhagen debate Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Rolf Gutte/Freerk Huisken, Alles bewältigt, nichts begriffen! Nationalsozialismus im Unterricht. Eine Kritik der antifaschistischen Erziehung, VSA-Verlag, Hamburg, 2007, p. 281-96.

The Goldhagen debate –
Berlin’s willing executioners

1. D.J. Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners certainly isn’t popular in classrooms in Germany and won’t ever be. For one thing, it’s too thick, and second, it goes too much against the grain for the Germans. But the “Goldhagen debate” has begun to take on a different kind of popularity. Teachers are re-enacting the public debates that took place on several channels via video in their lessons. They are enriching lessons with articles from magazines such as Die Zeit and Spiegel. The first teacher workbooks on the subject are in the works. And textbooks in the future are going to include excerpts from particularly poignant passages, such as the chapters on the death marches. Schools are having public Goldhagen debates with invited guests. The debate there is balanced: As a rule, everyone agrees that, on the one hand, D.J. Goldhagen’s theses can’t be completely dismissed, but on the other hand, the facts are too complex to be reduced to a simple denominator:

2. The reason Goldhagen’s simple theses caused an uproar among academics and the public is that he slaughtered a sacred cow that is not only at the core of fascism studies, but also underlies public efforts to come to terms with the past and to teach anti-fascism. No matter how much Germans accuse themselves of having brought a lot of shame on themselves, they never mean that the majority of Germans under fascism followed the Führer and shared his anti-Semitism as a result of a political decision, i.e. with will and consciousness. It was easy for Germans to acknowledge guilt after 1945 precisely because everyone was convinced they were of course not responsible for their guilt. Actually, they were only guilty in a platonic sense or in the wake of a national kin liability. As Germans, they had to take responsibility for the actions of Germans. The mass murder of the Jews and others is presented as being deliberately committed less by Germans than in the name of Germany.

For around 50 years, diligent academics have come up with a host of false theories to prove that the Germans did not want to do what was done with their participation or acquiescence.[1] A human nature prone to obedience, historically outdated thought patterns, Hitler’s terror and manipulation, the pressure to conform, the alleged secrecy of the Holocaust, etc., all support the finding that the Germans were “at least neutral, if not hostile to anti-Semitism” – and Goldhagen’s theses revolve around this alone. All these “interpretations,” as Goldhagen correctly states, “boil down to the question of how people can be made to (willfully) commit acts which they inwardly disagree with.” (Foreword to German edition, p. 27)

He rejects these “interpretations,” including the absurd question that arises about the genesis of a will that constantly acts against itself: “no reason exists to believe that modern, western, even Christian man is incapable of holding notions which devalue human life, which call for its extinction, notions similar to those held by peoples of many religious, cultural, and political dispensations throughout history, including the crusaders and the inquisitors, to name but two relevant examples from twentieth-century Christian Europe’s forebears. Who doubts that the Argentinian or Chilean murderers of people who opposed the recent authoritarian regimes thought that their victims deserved to die? Who doubts that the Tutsis who slaughtered Hutus in Burundi or the Hutus who slaughtered Tutsis in Rwanda, that one Lebanese militias which slaughtered the civilian supporters of another, that the Serbs who have killed Croats or Bosnian Muslims, did so out of conviction in the justice of their actions? Why do we not believe the same for the German perpetrators?” (American edition, p. 14-5)[2]

This has to be agreed with. Why do German academics, educators and politicians refuse to accept something about the Germans of the Third Reich that they take for granted when dealing with all the other past and present slaughters around the globe, namely that the perpetrators had reasons for their actions? No one who declares the Holocaust to be inexplicable or the product of the darkest instincts and the most unfavorable historical circumstances would doubt that the “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Serbs, Croats or Bosnian Muslims was intended to achieve precisely that; that is, to create racially pure territories on which an ethnically pure state power was to establish itself and rule over an ethnically cleansed people who have allowed themselves to be persuaded that they can no longer live together with the members of a “foreign people” whom they are known to have built Yugoslavia with under Tito.

But this is not supposed to apply to their own German team and their actions over exactly twelve years of their history. With regard to anti-Semitism, the Germans – always with the exception of the narrow leadership group – are not regarded as “responsible actors who were perfectly capable of making their own decisions and who must therefore also be regarded as the perpetrators of their own deeds.” (Vorwort zur Pantheon-Ausgabe, German edition, p. xxvi) The majority of them are regarded as “automatons” or as unwilling participants.

When Goldhagen now combines his first statement that “Germans’ antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust” with a second, according to which “antisemitism moved many thousands of ‘ordinary’ Germans . . . to slaughter Jews,” and thirdly links it to the conclusion that “millions more, had they been appropriately positioned” would not have acted any differently (p. 9, American edition), then this is simply too much for the Germans of today and they will not forgive anyone, certainly not a Jew of German descent, for judging the German people in this way.

According to Goldhagen himself, however, this is not his intention at all. He does not want to judge the German people, but rather to explain the Holocaust. He therefore never tires of emphasizing in debates that the German democrats of today have nothing in common with the anti-Semites of the past:

“One can condemn the anti-Jewish views and actions of many, if not all, Germans during the Nazi era and at the same time recognize the political and cultural achievements of the Federal Republic and its citizens. Isn’t that obvious?” (Dossier, p. 13)

This is pointless because he is not dealing with discussants who just want to explain a part of history in a slightly different way, but with German nationalists who come to the debate disguised as publicists, historians, politicians, and concerned citizens, and they do not want to put up with such judgments about the Germans from “people who really don’t understand anything about it” (Augstein)[3] or from this “American Jew who wasn’t even there” – according to the common sense picked up by TV crews on the street. They only know one topic and only want to discuss one question: What image of the German people is being portrayed here?[4] And because they gather that the book has a theory about the national character of the Germans that is unpalatable to them, they accuse Goldhagen of a racism of his own.[5] If he had painted a nicer picture of the Germans, and even based this on their history and nature, the accusation of racism would never have crossed their lips.

Consequently, the debates are not a dispute about a thesis, but a tribunal. Official Germans who feel accused, but are not really accused, sit opposite a scholar who didn’t want to sue, but now sees himself presented as a plaintiff. This does not prevent the alleged defendants from reversing their assumed role, so that the plaintiff who doesn’t want to be a plaintiff becomes a defendant, which he is then even less able to understand. The prosecution tries to tell the defendant that he got the timing wrong. Because the debate about “whether Auschwitz was a one-off crime . . . (is) settled,” as the Spiegel editor apodictically notes. Incidentally, he is right in that it has been settled in German politics, where it is believed that the Germans have been walking around in sackcloth and ashes for long enough, as Philipp Jenniger once put it. If Goldhagen had gone public with his theses in the 1950s or 60s, the Germans would have looked on guiltily and allowed themselves to be insulted. They would have known what was right for them and yet at the same time would have been convinced that Goldhagen was wrong. However, shouting the latter from the rooftops would not have been opportune at the time. Only Germany’s current position in the world sets the standard for permissible insults about the German character – and this is the only thing that is discovered in the book. And since “we are someone again, we no longer have to put up with such things.” Period! A remarkable retrospective admission that the acknowledgement of guilt and shame and the acceptance of responsibility for Nazi crimes was owed to political expediency and no other point of view!

That’s why the debate is characterized by abdominal punches of the following kind: he was not there at the time, is still so young, a foreign Jew, manipulated by his father who was a Holocaust survivor, doesn’t speak German, unscientific, perfidiously charming, terribly arrogant, not distanced enough, which in turn is typical of young researchers, and so on. The accusations by academics are also remarkable: the field is far too complex to be reduced to this one thesis – which is not true of Goldhagen, because anyone who needs 700 pages to lay out this tautology[6] about people’s willful actions has really not made it too easy, but too difficult. Goldhagen has forgotten many factors – which is not true, because he more or less convincingly rattles off all the “factors” mentioned in the literature. He generalizes – which is true, but not an objection, since he is talking about the Germans as a nation. He is a “super-intentionalist” – which is meant as a criticism, but merely pigeonholes his thesis without any argument and thus declares it unworthy of discussion. He can’t provide exact figures on how many perpetrators there were – when that is not what matters to him. That he didn’t actually tell us anything new, because Christopher Browning had already explained everything before him – which may be true, but then certainly doesn’t explain the uproar. His theses have long since been refuted by the same Christopher Browning – which is not true and makes the outcry in Germany even more incomprehensible. He mystifies German consciousness and plumbs its almost Faustian depths – which is also not true, because he does the opposite: he only insists that the Germans were conscious of their deeds. He confuses demonization with explanation – which is not true, but just indicates that one would like to discover a demonization of the Germans in his explanation. He just wants to provoke – which is also not true, because he argues that German nationalists feel provoked. He wants to revive the collective guilt thesis, which has long been off the table – which is not true, neither in terms of his intention nor his findings. And so on. That’s how the debate goes, enriched by the culture of letters to the editor. It shows one thing: the Germans will put up with anything except the statement claiming that large sections of the people followed the Führer of their own volition. This bothers Goldhagen’s German critics because they think in the same categories of a cross-system national identity that Hitler made the standard of national morality. And anyone who thinks this way immediately gets to the heart of the uproar, which the historian Hans Mommsen formulates in somewhat disguised terms as follows: “The book’s consequences are clear. They aim at the danger to even modern, advanced societies of resorting to an unacknowledged politics of violence and crime.”[7] What this means is that anyone who believes modern societies, including Germany’s, are capable of such things also wants to claim that the Germans of today still represent a danger, wants to deny Germany the right to once again – as Helmut Kohl once put it[8] – “assume a responsibility in the world commensurate with its increased size.” A piece of historical research is used to instigate a debate that reveals with the utmost clarity that the German intellectual elite always allows the seat of government to dictate the standards of its thinking. And so its representatives engage in a theoretical debate with Daniel Goldhagen in which they use an object from the German past to fight for contemporary Germany and its right to intervene in the ongoing competition between states with a newly strengthened national self-confidence.

3. The whole commotion surrounding the book doesn’t do justice to its factual proposition. If students and teachers were to succeed in freeing themselves from the publicly prescribed nationalistic perspective, they would not then be able to gain much insight from the book. Strictly speaking, Goldhagen has only developed one idea and even made a few mistakes in the process:

■ In his central proposition, he insists that the Germans were no different in the period from 1933-1945 than they were in the periods before and after, something that nobody wants to deny: willing executioners of the policies of those state-forming forces that the Germans elected to power in each case and by whom they were then taken into service for national causes. This argument – as mentioned – has an almost tautological character. This can be taken from Goldhagen’s own summary: The book “makes the claim that the will to kill the Jews, both for Hitler and for those who carried out his murderous plans, stemmed essentially from a single common source, namely a virulent anti-Semitism.” (Dossier, p. 12)

When asked why the Germans acted anti-Semitically, Goldhagen’s answer is that they were anti-Semites and had anti-Semitic ideas. According to Goldhagen, the will to commit anti-Semitic acts stems from anti-Semitic thinking.

This tautology only rises to the level of a political scandal in Germany because German fascism research and theory, with its political mission to clean things up, has for decades vehemently and obsessively denied the fact that the majority of Germans wanted the fascist elimination of the Jews. It claims that there can be no question of willing participation because coercion and terror, propaganda, authoritarian behavior and historical socialization, etc., were responsible for their actions.

Goldhagen, on the other hand, “acknowledges the humanity of the perpetrators . . . (He) recognizes that the perpetrators were neither automatons nor puppets, but people who had their convictions and were therefore able to evaluate the government’s policies and base their decisions on them.” (Dossier, p. 10) Of course, this simple statement is correct. Because any action, especially a political one, carries out an intention that was decided beforehand. By its very nature, human action is conscious, deliberate action. This applies just as much to shining shoes and going to the ballot box as it does to military obedience or neo-fascist thuggery. The fact that the considerations that lead to an action sometimes do not follow one’s own interest, but represent the translation of duties into necessities or even inclinations, does not change the finding. After all, it is not uncommon for people to be convinced of the rightness of what they are doing if they are only following their duty. They justify their act of submission – in democracy as well as in fascism – with arguments that make it appear to be well-founded – whether the necessity for the common good is called providence, Germany, and the future or competitiveness, growth, and the future. It is even characteristic of people in bourgeois societies that they are more likely to use their free will to accommodate interests that are legally established by the state by relativizing their concerns rather than using them to question the equation “protected by the state” = “necessary.”

Seen in this light, the question as to why people can act against their own interests or violate the interests of others against all reason and morality is not the statement of a paradox, but rather a wrongly posed question in two respects. On one hand, free will is thought to be so necessarily linked to a moral or rational content that the willfulness of any act that deviates from the valid morality and the prevailing reason is immediately denied. On the other hand, it should be noticed that this is only the case when people serve an “evil system” or refuse to serve a “good system.” However, resistance to the “evil system” and submission to the “good system” are conversely viewed as achievements of completely free will. That’s why scholars ask themselves how it could have been possible for ordinary Germans to become executioners in concentration camps and elsewhere. But the question of how it is possible that Germans today are willing to hunt down foreigners on German borders or forcibly deport them does not interest these scholars.

It is often conceded that the theoretical approval of “evil” is perhaps still comprehensible, but that its execution by normal people defies explanation. Apparently, the citizens’ bad habit of not making their own judgment the standard for action, but of downgrading it to a non-binding opinion, has become such second nature that the self-evident realization of a thought in an action looks like an abnormality. Incidentally, citizens are required to do both: in this country, they are required to separate a concern from its realization if they make an unwanted criticism of politics. If, however, their political leaders give them an order, this must be put into action immediately. As a rule, the citizen makes both his own and very rarely confuses the two. He neither declares laws or rules to be a non-binding opinion of the legislator that can be followed or not, nor does he come up with the idea of insisting on his own reasons and valid standards for his actions, even if it rubs him the wrong way.

■ Goldhagen theoretically encourages the habit of a private separation between political concerns and political deeds by placing the question of the willful execution of anti-Semitism at the center of his investigation. He also theoretically separates the will to act from its content, anti-Semitism, and constructs a will that does not exist – a will without a content. That’s why he never refers to the will when he talks about it, but to something like willingness. As if there were an autonomous source of will without what is willed! And this is the only reason why he is more interested in the circumstances of willful action – all the aspects of coercion and freedom in fascism – than in the content of the will of the perpetrators and accomplices in fascism. This is extremely neglected in his treatment.

Unfortunately, he not only strives to refute all the false theories about the “unwilling accomplices” – successfully, by the way – but also wants to prove the willfulness of people’s actions under fascism. It’s not enough for him to know that people were convinced of the “corrosive power of Judaism.” He uses historical material to prove that the members of a killing squad, Police Battalion 110, did not necessarily have to take part in the shooting of Jews. He quotes from letters in which these policemen talk about this and reports that members of front-line theaters had asked to take part in the shooting of Jews. And on each occasion he “proves” nothing more than that people in fascism were committed to Hitler’s policies and therefore took part in them.[9]

But that’s not enough for Goldhagen. He is less interested in people’s reasons for certain anti-Semitic actions than in the extent to which they could have, for example, refused to participate in a firing squad without endangering life and limb. In his investigation, many cases end up in a meaningless ensemble of possibilities of freedom and coercive measures. It’s sometimes almost macabre when he examines the circumstances of crimes to find out whether people could have refused to commit crimes that they didn’t want to refuse. Instead of criticizing the entire 40-year debate about whether the Germans were victims of coercion, manipulation, and political socialization, or whether they voluntarily served Hitler’s program of extermination of the Jews, instead of proving that the historians’ very question is wrong and owed solely to a need for political purification, he ultimately falls for it. The focus of his work is not on the question of what made sense to the Germans, what brought them to consent and actively participate, and why they were convinced of National Socialism’s goals and which ones. He always loses sight of the actions of citizens under fascism which were determined by their consent to its content. It must therefore be noted that Goldhagen’s assertions and method of proof over long stretches of his work do not capture the specific nature of his subject, German fascism.

■ At the same time, he gets mixed up in another false question posed by German fascism studies, namely the question of guilt. Mommsen and Co. are keenly interested in how many Germans were actually perpetrators, and indeed accountable men of conviction.[10] This debate is so annoying because instead of explaining fascist ideas and actions, it seeks to establish quasi-legal judgments, i.e. to establish facts that can almost be used in court. Not, of course, in order to put a few thousand Germans on trial post festum, but to theoretically exonerate all the other Germans who elected, celebrated, and supported Hitler and willingly fought for his cause as their own on all fronts by referring to the identified number of “real perpetrators.” Goldhagen shares this false viewpoint, but not the findings that have been brought to light by fascism research. In the foreword that he added to the German edition of his book, he acknowledges this in rejecting the accusation that he wants to renew the accusation of collective guilt: “It is not groups but only individuals who can be considered guilty, and guilty of what they have done personally. The concept of guilt should only be used when a person has actually committed a crime. When one speaks of a person’s guilt, the idea of litigable guilt, the guilt of a crime, always resonates. In Germany, as in the USA, people are not found guilty and prosecuted accordingly for having certain thoughts, hating other people or condoning crimes committed by others . . . Even the mere intent or willingness to commit a crime when the opportunity arises is not sufficient for a conviction. This should also apply to Germans who lived during the Nazi era . . . In this book, I provide evidence that complicity was more widespread than many have previously assumed.” (p. 11)

This “litigable concept of guilt,” this epitome of the separation of thought, i.e. premeditation, and deed, is in principle the basis of his entire research subject. Goldhagen wants to collect evidence for “willing execution” that can stand up in any court of law. The chain of evidence should be so watertight that Goldhagen wouldn’t theoretically refute any perpetrator who wants to use terror or peer pressure as an excuse by simply referring to the established relationship between bourgeois rule and a people whose usability for political causes stands or falls with their voluntary consent, but could rather be confronted with hard evidence to the contrary and thus be convicted of making a false statement.

■ The investigation of the political content of anti-Semitism, which – as Goldhagen knows – is by no means resolved in a historically passed down discrimination against Semites, is therefore neglected in his work. Goldhagen knows that National Socialist racism consists of a declaration of enmity based on nationalism, which incidentally was not only aimed at the Jews, but also at “Jewish Bolshevism”[11] and finance capital – he frequently quotes from “Mein Kampf” – without, however, realizing that the reason for fascist anti-Semitism can be determined entirely without the history of anti-Semitism. Goldhagen says little about the fact that Hitler saw Judaism as an existential threat to Germany as a nation state, to German national traditions, and to imperial German claims in the world, that this was made clear to the majority of Germans, that Hitler’s hostility to Jews was not based on historical anti-Semitism at all, but on racist nationalism.[12] He would therefore vehemently deny – probably even along with his German critics – that every German soldier, every German mother, every German boy, teacher, worker, or man of letters who was “convinced of the cause” and served the Führer or the German cause at the front, in the factory, in the Hitler Youth, at school or in childbirth, was one of the men of conviction under fascism, one of the “willing executioners,” even if he himself neither vilified nor persecuted or murdered Jews with their own hands, even if they might have thought the anti-Semitism to be excessive and “only” wanted to see the shame of Versailles erased and the German right to world domination realized.

■ Goldhagen explains fascism by drawing on the history of anti-Semitism, but he himself finds that this is insufficient since fascism has special features – the Holocaust – that do not always characterize historical anti-Semitism. With his concept of “eliminationist antisemitism,” he tries to close the gap in his historical research. His argument is that German fascism differs from the historical precursors of anti-Semitism in that it was “eliminationist.” Goldhagen makes it clear that he is aware of the new political quality. But he misses the target. In order to underline the particular evil of fascist anti-Semitism, he only uses a grammatical form of intensification. He replaces the political classification of the delusional ideology with a superlative.[13] “The most determined, most virulent form of anti-Semitism” (Dossier, p. 12) was needed to make “virulent, eliminationist anti-Semitism” so consistently practical. In other words, his thesis is that an increasingly virulent, eliminationist anti-Semitism requires a special determination in order to become an eliminationist act.

This sorting within anti-Semitism – virulent, more virulent, most virulent = fascism – shows that Goldhagen is unable to specify what the determination to act is based on. Now it is true that the racist core statement is always “virulently eliminationist” in its intellectual content, regardless of whether it is “only” thought by citizens, preached by priests,[14] advocated by scientists, made into a program by “sect leaders,” elevated to a legal principle by a church court, or declared by politicians to be part of their reason of state. What is different in all these cases of anti-Semitism is not their eliminationist content.[15] What differs is how they are dealt with, how they are implemented, whether or how they become a political program. How Jews are dealt with depends on whether anti-Semitism is a matter of opinion, a matter of faith, or a matter of state policy, whereby the transitions between these forms are, firstly, quite fluid and, secondly, always associated with deadly consequences for Jews.

And if Jew-baiting is declared to be a state affair, a distinction must be made as to whether it is sometimes used in the state for a racist depiction of foreign policy, depending on the economic cycle, but then dropped again, or whether it is promoted to a valid political-programmatic explanation for the failure of the nation state. Then the “eliminationist” declaration of enmity has finally become policy, which in fascism is quickly followed by action. The latter is what characterizes German fascism. It can’t be addressed with morally intended comparisons. The Nazis did not discover “usury,” “separatism” or “bad smells” among Jews – also purely racist labels for segregating them. Rather, they claimed that Jews wanted to destroy the foundations of the German state and subvert the German people, i.e. attack what fascists consider the holy of holies.

■ Goldhagen ultimately shares with his German critics the reduction of fascism to anti-Semitism that has been instituted in Germany. He himself says: In fascism, “the most determined, most virulent anti-Semites in human history came to power and decided to make a murderous fantasy the center of state policy.” (Dossier, p. 12) Goldhagen is mistaken here. Hitler was not, and would not have been, elected only to carry out a concept of extermination based on hatred of the Jews. He won votes by promising to overcome the “disgrace of Versailles” and to ward off the “Jewish-Bolshevik danger to Germany,” national goals that the Weimar governments had failed at. For Goldhagen, the whole of fascism is collapsed into a state program of human extermination in which its national content is no longer recognizable.

He even goes so far as to argue the thesis that “Nazi ideology . . . was most fully expressed in the camp world.” (p. 459, American edition) The fact that fascism was initially a bourgeois society with a state and a legal system, with a capitalist economy and a “normal” imperialist foreign policy is overlooked. The fact that fascism justifies foreign policy in a different way than democracy, that it takes a very instrumental position to capitalism, that it sees other enemies besides communists that it wants to eradicate, etc., does not change the fact that it is a variant of nation state imperialism. Goldhagen relegates this to the background. Consequently, he can’t even contextualize anti-Semitism as an element of fascist politics. Although anti-Semitism was – and still is – at the center of the theoretical reappraisal of the Nazi era in post-war research, it was never at the center of National Socialist politics. It consisted rather of a program that first postulated and carried out the absolute unity between people and state, then derived the right to conquest from this unity, discovered in this unity a means for its military assertion and saw Judaism or Bolshevism – according to Hitler, a “Jewish invention” – as obstacles that had to be eliminated in the German people’s ascent to its true destiny. And since this danger was justified by the inferiority of the “Jewish race,” the fascists saw the “Final Solution” as the removal of an obstacle that stood in the way of meeting the actual goals of National Socialist policy.

■ It is only this equation of fascism with anti-Semitism that allows Goldhagen to give – quite restrained, albeit misguided – compliments to post-war German democracy. He dispenses them in order to refute the accusation that he himself is guilty of “racist generalizations.”

No wonder then that he appreciates today’s Germany from a single point of view: How do the Germans and the German state of today view Judaism? He thus joins the chorus of German ideologues who define fascism as the absence of democracy and therefore find it easy to praise democracy for its non-identity with fascism. Goldhagen makes the same point: “Instead of (!) propagating and reinforcing antidemocratic and antisemitic views like the political and social institutions before 1945, the institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany have promoted ideas of politics and humanity that were opposed to the antisemitism of the Nazi era and the time before it and deprived it of legitimacy . . . Young people are taught the general conviction that all people are equal; they are no longer taught that humanity consists of a hierarchy of races . . . (All this has) led to the expected result: to a weakening and also to a fundamental change in antisemitism.” (p. 13, German edition)[16] He does not seem to realize what a devastating verdict he is passing on Germany, which for him is “fundamentally democratic” (p. 12, ibid.). He presents himself too much as a convinced democrat who sees democracy as the bulwark against fascism. Goldhagen does not deny that the German people of today are Adenauer’s, Brandt’s, Schmidt’s, Kohl’s and Schröder’s willing enforcers, but would like to see them classified in a completely different way. For him, they are executioners of a no longer anti-Semitic reason of state, who have learned from history.

And yet D.J. Goldhagen could already infer from the debate about his book what “lessons” the insulted German nationalists are trying to learn from the past today. They say: 50 years of coming to terms with the past is enough! Enough with the anti-fascist confessions of guilt. The German people have been humiliated long enough. All this no longer fits the plans of the new, enlarged Germany in the world.[17] And from this he could have learned some lessons about democracy.

Students should learn from the Goldhagen debate that the time is over when “we Germans” let ourselves be scolded because of the past. This is what the nationalist criticism of him is good for. On the other hand, his book can be positively appreciated as a rich collection of material “against forgetting.” Excerpts will appear in reading books. From this approach to the book, students could learn that such guidelines for lessons “against forgetting” are so that they forget which old standards the new democracy is once again applying to Germans and Germany.

Quotes from

American edition: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1996.

German edition: Hitlers willige Vollstrecker Ganz gewöhnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust, Klaus Kochmann translator, Pantheon, Berlin, 2012.


[1] Although Goldhagen’s book explicitly attacks only Holocaust research, his criticism encompasses many other areas. It is in fact a scientific custom to assume as self-evident in the case of any “deviant behavior,” any disturbance of public order, any violation of morality and duty, any action by people that is declared a crime – whether attacks by neo-fascists on asylum seekers or rioting by hooligans, whether the “chaos days” of punks, schoolchildren armed with weapons or the citizens of the GDR, etc. – that people could not have intended what they have done. As a matter of course, the information provided by the groups under investigation is regarded as negligible material, even if the reasons given by the groups themselves correspond to the deeds. It goes without saying that attacks by skinheads and neo-Nazis on foreigners’ hostels accompanied by the slogan “Germany for the Germans, foreigners get out!” are not seen as nationalist-racist acts, but as a sign of youthful disorientation in an inhospitable time, as a cry of protest against youth unemployment, or as a sign of a deeply rooted fear of foreigners. Goldhagen also attacks this psychologization or social psychologization of scientific thought, but without pushing his attack beyond the criticism inherent in science.

[2] See also Goldhagen’s reply to his critics in the Zeit Dossier of August 2, 1996, p. 14 (cited as Dossier). This detailed critique is a remarkable piece of writing that should be appreciated in its own right, insofar as it vehemently, justifiably, and for long stretches correctly insists on simple rules of scientific argumentation that are of no interest to reviewers in this country. Not only did they all neglect the duties of every reviewer, which include “informing the reader of the author’s intentions, presenting his methods, dealing with his research results, explanations and conclusions,” they preferred “ad hominem” attacks and declared the book “a harmful treatise that should be consigned to an index librorum prohibitorum.” (p. 10) This dignified form of rejection of criticism will not exactly help him be taken seriously by the ruffled experts. On the contrary, it will be interpreted as intolerable arrogance if he states – with good reason – “to this day those who have written about him have presented him incorrectly.” (ibid.) Mommsen, Jäckel, Baring, Frei, Hildebrand and others do not forgive such a thing.

[3] Spiegel 16/1996, p. 32.

[4] For example, Guido Knopp, responsible for a six-part television series on Hitler in 1996 in which he collected all the judgments about fascism criticized in this book, posed the final question as the moderator of a debate with Goldhagen: “What does the book mean for the international image of Germany and the Germans?” And no one pointed out that he had missed the point. Not even Goldhagen himself.

[5] However, Goldhagen must be reproached for not having provided the reason for this accusation, but at least for having provided material. For example, when he sums up his chapter on historical anti-Semitism: It is “no wonder that in light of this evidence, no one has yet been able to demonstrate that the vast majority of Germans, or even important minorities . . . had at any time renounced their cultural heritage (!) of anti-Jewish animus . . .” (p. 79, American ed.). Those who use the “heritage” of the past as an argument for the racism of the present must at least accept the criticism that, in proving the “heritage,” they have forgotten to explain the causes of the continuing virulence.

[6] See below for more.

[7] SZ on June 20, 1996.

[8] Incidentally, this is the same Kohl who, for the purpose of committing the European states to the EU, sometimes comes up with the argument that only European unity can prevent Germany from posing a threat again! Kohl would be the last person to believe in the danger of a resurgence of fascism in Germany. But he thinks that flirting with this old antifa self-incrimination, which has mutated into a threat, is useful in the euro debate.

[9] Of course, not everyone who shared Hitler’s politics killed Jews with their own hands. Of course, there is an aversion to the deed, even when its intention is approved of. There are reasons for this. They may lie in the fact that such a person has conflicting standards in his head that he can’t reconcile, that he advocates different methods for dealing with Jews, or that he is already making private calculations for the post-Hitler period. But Goldhagen’s book does not deal with such doubts, which were always based on judgments about the permissibility, usefulness, or necessity of the practical implementation of the anti-Semitic program. He (almost) only investigates cases in which the perpetrators had no such scruples, i.e. in which the identity of deed and conviction is a fact.

[10] Goldhagen himself raises this question in a very distorted way: “. . . my book does not deal with the question of how guilt and innocence should be judged(!). These topics are not part of the scientific enterprise of explanation.” (Dossier, p. 13) He only wants to clearly establish guilt and innocence, not judge them. But even that is not part of the “scientific enterprise of explanation.”

[11] Goldhagen devotes a page to the connection between Bolshevism and Judaism (p. 393, American ed.), in which he is not concerned with the substance, but with the observation that the German perpetrators had been convinced by the Nazi ideology.

[12] It can therefore also be assumed that, for Goldhagen, world history is reducible to the history of ideas. Why else does he consider proving the historicity of anti-Semitism to be so important? If he had taken seriously his own suggestions about which powerful political or religious-political interest historical anti-Semitism owed its existence to, he would have come up with different questions.

[13] Incidentally, the superlative is reminiscent of the logic of Dimitroff’s definition of fascism. For him, too, a moral abhorrence that becomes a word replaces a theoretical concept.

[14] See Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies which calls for pogroms against the Jews.

[15] See the work of L. Poliakov.

[16] He means “change,” not eradication. However, he does not explain what anti-Semitism in today’s Germany consists of after being “weakened” and “changed.” Another statement he made about Germany is also interesting. In a debate in the USA, he said: “Germany has changed a lot. Since 1949, anti-Semitic statements have been punishable by law. It is difficult for an individual to insist on a point of view that is considered wrong throughout the world.” (In: J.H. Schoeps, Ein Volk von Mörder, Hamburg 1996, p. 52) Did he mean to say that the Germans are actually still anti-Semites, but at the same time opportunists in the face of world opinion? Did he want to praise Germany for coming to grips with anti-Semitism in this way – but then it must still exist? Or did he want to criticize his own theory about the genesis of popular consciousness, did he want to say that it is not history that makes consciousness, but rather that the “ruling ideas are the ideas of the rulers”?

[17] Exceedingly critical people see the current debate surrounding the book to be a confirmation of Goldhagen’s theses. How can this be, when Goldhagen’s subject is German fascism? You can only come to this conclusion if you want to find evidence in the debaters’ arguments that “the Germans” can’t get out of their own skin, that they chronically excuse fascists and insult critics of fascism. However, as shown, Goldhagen did not want to prove this at all. The critical critics therefore take seriously the finding underlying the accusation made by Baring, Mommsen, Augstein and others. They share the historians’ criterion for judging, according to which there is a German ethnic nature that Goldhagen has made “undifferentiated” judgments about. However, they do not reject the “fouling of our own nest” argument, but rather see it confirmed by the debate. They still feel more comfortable in sackcloth and ashes.