Issue 212 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Where Goldhagen goes wrong

Kevin Ovenden interviews Norman Finkelstein

KO: Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners talks of the Holocaust stemming out of what he calls an 'exterminationist anti-Semitism', a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism laid down among the German people during the 19th century. Can you explain what Goldhagen means by that and what is wrong with his argument?

NF: Goldhagen's central claim is that Germans were in thrall to a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism, so much so that for perhaps five centuries, or at any rate since the time of Martin Luther, Germans, according to Goldhagen, were straining at the bit to murder the Jews. And according to his thesis all Hitler did was 'unleash the pent up anti-Semitism of the German people', or in another formulation he says 'unshackled' the German people.

So in his reckoning at least 80 to 90 percent of the Germans were homicidal, sadistic anti-Semites for many centuries and the only thing that restrained them was the German state. With Hitler's coming to power the state now gave the German people the green light to murder the Jews.

The basic problem with this thesis is that there is no evidence for it. I do not think there is anything intrinsically racist or necessarily implausible about Goldhagen's thesis.

I have been doing research on US frontier society, for example. You find that typically in frontier societies many people are homicidally racist. That was plainly true of the American so called pioneers in the West. And it is equally true of many settlers in, say, the West Bank in the Middle East.

For a variety of reasons frontier societies tend to cultivate homicidal racism. What makes Goldhagen's thesis illegitimate is that there is not a scratch of scholarly evidence to support his claims.

KO: What then would be an accurate description of the position of Jews in 19th century Germany and the levels of anti-Semitism and opposition to anti-Semitism?

NF: Well, it is very difficult to make global generalisations because the position of Jews did dramatically change in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. What one can say is that there was anti-Semitism at all levels of German society. There were periods where anti-Semitism was blatant and periods where it was latent. There were periods where political anti-Semitism proved a potent weapon for mobilising large numbers of Germans and there were periods where it ebbed.

What one can say, and this is relevant to Goldhagen's thesis, is that in no period in modern German history do you find significant levels of popular spontaneous anti-Semitic violence. That is the crucial point. If you found such violence, there would be some reason to consider Goldhagen's argument.

What do we discover about German public opinion during the 1930s? At the maximum, Germans during the Nazi period supported the segregation of the Jews, the Nuremberg laws, the expropriation of the Jews. But when it came to violence, that's a threshold that ordinary Germans rarely crossed.

Let's make what should be for an American an obvious comparison - the US South in the 1930s.

The core of the Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of the right to vote and prohibited sexual race mixing.

In the South we effectively had the core of the Nuremberg laws right through to the 1960s. Blacks did not effectively win the right to vote until 1965 and the Supreme Court did not overturn the anti race mixing laws until 1967.

At the level of legal segregation the German record in the 1930s is no worse than that of the US South. When it comes to the question of violence the contrast is even sharper. In the US South between 1890 and 1930 there were roughly 3,000 blacks lynched. Say what you want about popular German anti-Semitism, there is nothing comparable to that on the level of violence during the same period.

Comparatively speaking the record of popular German sentiment is not bad - even through the prewar Nazi period. Of course, it is deplorable what they accepted but you have to consider what everybody else accepted in the world at that time.

The lynchings in the US South were very popular affairs. These were not, by and large, isolated events. And they were remarkably grisly affairs. This is a description from the New York Tribune of a typical lynching in the US South:

'Sam Jose was burned at the stake at a public road one and a half miles from here. Before the torch was applied to the pyre the Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and other portions of his body with surprising fortitude. Before the body was cool it was cut into pieces. The bones were crushed into small bits and even the tree on which the wretch met his fate was torn up and disposed of as souvenirs.'

There is nothing like that in the history of modern Germany. The scholarly consensus is that only a small number of the white community condemned lynching. My point is: say what you will about the mass of ordinary Germans, even during the Nazi period their record in comparison to the US South is not bad.

KO: So what of the role of anti-Semitism in the Nazis' ideology?

NF: There is a remarkable scholarly consensus on this issue. The record shows that up until 1928 the Nazis were not able to garner more than 2.6 percent of the German vote. Here was an easy opportunity for Germans to register their homicidal, sadistic anti-Semitism up until 1928. Yet they didn't vote for Hitler.

After 1928 once Germany was struck by the Depression the Nazi party crossed a threshold. By 1930 it was up to about 18 or 19 percent and by 1933 it was in the mid-30s percent. But as Hitler came closer and closer to gaining the biggest share of the vote he muted his anti-Semitism. Analysis of his speeches shows clearly that anti-Semitism was marginalised between 1931 and 1932. The consensus of all the literature on who voted for Hitler and why concludes that it was fundamentally economic factors that inclined Germans to vote for Hitler, not the anti-Semitism.

KO: You describe the bureaucratic mass murder of the Holocaust and show how it was different from the kind of pogroms unleashed in Russia under the tsars. Why is that so significant?

NF: Everything I have read about the Nazi Holocaust shows that, ideally, Nazi violence prided itself on being rational, methodical, unemotional, scientific, bureaucratic, and so forth.

So when I read Goldhagen's book I was struck by how he got the whole issue of the nature of Nazi violence so completely wrong.

Goldhagen devotes the larger part of his book to chronicling German sadism - the brutal, irrational killing of Jews. For him, as he puts it, 'the how often illuminates the why.' He says the fact that the Germans so brutally, sadistically terrorised the Jews proves they must have been moved by Nazi like anti-Semitism.

The irony is that he got this exactly wrong. The 'ideal' Nazi - say, Himmler - was not sadistic in the sense of getting personal pleasure from inflicting pain.

Goldhagen claims that he, unlike all other historians, is sensitive to the record of the survivors - that is to say he goes back and looks at the survivor literature. But if you look at the classic survivor literature - Primo Levi, Frankl, etc - it shows that in the survivors' recollection most of the concentration camp guards, this is the hard core, not Goldhagen's ordinary German conscripts, apart from say 5 to 10 percent, were not sadists or homicidal anti-Semites. All the accounts underline that they were absolutely ordinary people.

If Goldhagen is right that ordinary Germans were sadistic, homicidal anti-Semites, then ordinary Germans were more perverted - and therefore according to him also more Nazified - than the concentration camp guards.

Let me quote from Primo Levi's last book, The Drowned and the Saved:

'More and more insistently as the time recedes I am asked by the young who our torturers were, of what cloth were they made. The term torturers alludes to our ex-guardians, the SS, and is in my opinion inappropriate.

'It brings to mind twisted individuals illborn, sadists, afflicted by an original flaw. But rather they were made from the same cloth as we. They were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked. Save the exceptions they were not monsters. They had our faces, but they had been reared badly.'

Goldhagen's claim flies in the face of what the survivors have written. And he claims to be the faithful renderer of the survivors' record.

Another comparison I want to make is with what Goldhagen has to say about the Einsatzgruppen, the elite murder squads that operated behind advancing German lines on the eastern front. They comprised the ideological warriors of the Nazi war machine.

Goldhagen says the reason the Nazis established the gas chambers was because the Einsatzgruppen were collapsing under the pressure of killing the Jews. Some were breaking down. Others were becoming barbaric. On the other hand Goldhagen claims ordinary Germans 'easily adjusted' to the killing of the Jews. Once again we are confronted with an absurd contradiction. According to Goldhagen ordinary Germans were more Nazified than the select ideological warriors of the Einsatzgruppen.

Goldhagen's framework is this classical Zionist view that the whole world is divided up between the gentiles and the Jews. His thesis originates in this view that all the gentiles want to kill us. That is why I think the book is not at all about the Germans. I believe the book took off in the US, not because of what he says about German anti-Semitism, but because it was seen as a vindication of the thesis about gentiles - it confirmed a particular world view that all the gentiles want to kill us.

For Goldhagen any gentile who harbours any sentiments about difference between Jews and Germans is potentially a homicidal anti-Semite. For Goldhagen there is this kind of spectrum: if you say Jews are a different culture, or that they tend to engage in underhanded business practices, then you are on the eliminationist anti-Semitic spectrum heading towards engaging in extermination. Now this device is applicable in theory anywhere. It can make almost any gentile into an eliminationist anti-Semite.

That is why Goldhagen got so mired in so many contradictions. He is trying to prove an ideological thesis using scholarship. But there is no scholarly basis for his argument. What constantly happens in the book is that ideology comes crashing up against the thick walls of solid scholarship. When this collision occured he had two options. The first was simply to mangle the scholarly evidence. The second was to riddle his text with all these contradictions which, because he is so ideologically driven, I suspect he did not even see.

Norman Finkelstein's critique of 'Hitler's Willing executioners' by David Goldhagen is in New Left Review no 224. 'Hitler's Willing executioners' was reviewed in Socialist Review 197, May 1997


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