Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review


Core and periphery

Finkelstein's comments about Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners is a mass of sweeping statements and ignores the complexity of the issues. As a historian and a Jew I have wanted to answer the crucial question, 'Why did the Holocaust happen?', although I doubt I have reached further than the answer, 'I don't know'. However, there are a few points which I have considered before I have reached this unprofound conclusion.

1. You cannot systematically murder over six million Jews (and countless other peoples) without involving a significant amount of people who are not 'core' Nazis and so essentially the regime needed the support of 'ordinary people'. This is further highlighted by the fact that under 50 percent of Jews were murdered in the 'unemotional' and 'unscientific' gas chambers. This means that over 50 percent of Jews died as a result of inhumane conditions imposed by the Nazis and 'ordinary people' as well as mass shootings.

One particular incident highlighted by Goldhagen and Browning is that of a police battalion made up of people who were not members of the Nazi Party who were sent to kill a groups of Jews in Eastern Europe via a bullet in the back of their heads. Interestingly they were not forced to kill the Jews but were given a choice and some of the men did not go ahead and kill the Jews. As a result they did not suffer any retribution.

I appreciate this argument is not conclusive that people in the Third Reich had a sense of free will regarding commands but more significantly it also shows that coercion was not the sole reason for why people carried out these orders.

2. To kill millions of people because of the 'theory' of eugenics cannot go unnoticed by the population. Quite clearly if the Germans were not actively involved in the Holocaust they certainly were passively as they most certainly knew that the Jews and others deemed 'inferior' to the Aryan race were being killed.

The argument which tends to be quoted to counteract this is that the combined power of propaganda and fear made sure that people would not speak out. This though, falls when one considers that with one particular film depicting Jews as rats people walked out and the attendance of the film was unusually low.

Furthermore, people did protest about the euthanasia policy and as a result it was stopped, albeit temporarily.

What Goldhagen certainly gets wrong is that the German people were simply waiting for the opportunity to be actively anti-Semitic. It is important to realise that when the Nazis came to power they were not voted in by the whole of the population, only around 30 percent (and if the left had combined it would have been greater than the Nazi vote).

Furthermore, people voted them in owing to the economic crisis and what seemed to be a new and positive path for Germany, rather than their anti-Semitism. Following from this, those who were Nazi supporters in the 1930s had different aspirations and needs than those in the 1940s, and so it was far from inevitable that the Holocaust would occur and occur in Germany because they were racially anti-Semitic.

If one also looks at where geographically the Jews were based prior to the Holocaust and where they were killed, one will find the majority came from Poland, Russia and surrounding areas and proportionally few from Germany. Goldhagen and Finkelstein are trying to find the blame for the Holocaust with one single area ­ Goldhagen with all of the German people and Finkelstein with a few Nazis.

To me the Holocaust is far from a simple cut answer but one involving a multitude of areas involving the Nazi leadership and bureaucracy, ideology, psychology, propaganda and history.

Nicole Gee


A question of guilt

I refer to your feature 'Where Goldhagen goes wrong' (October SR).

Having experienced virulent anti-Semitism in Germany (which I left at the age of 23 years in 1933) I disagree with some of Goldhagen's conclusions but I also disagree with Finkelstein's critique. Anti-Semitism is, of course, much older than Nazism and murderous anti-Semitism was not a German invention. But the Nazis were the only ones endeavouring to exterminate Jewry in all countries occupied by German forces during the Second World War. They nearly succeeded, using industrial means such as forced inhalation of cyanide gas, and by deadly scientific experiments, slave labour or mass starvation. It is a strange observation of Finkelstein's to draw attention to lynchings of blacks in the US in this context. These cannot be compared with the Nazi attempt to achieve a 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question by means of total annihilation.

During the 19th century Poland was the classical country of anti-Semitism and pogroms. In 1914 Polish Jews welcomed German troops as liberators from tsarist oppression. Many Jews became prominent leaders of the great Russian Revolution as Jews were the most downtrodden group under the tsars. The Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919 was led by Jewish socialists (subsequently murdered).

During the Weimar Republic in Germany hateful anti-Semitic propaganda proliferated. I was subject to verbal insults and physical assault at school. My classmates were the sons of the middle class bourgeoisie. When in 1922 Walter Rathenau, the Jewish minister of foreign affairs, was assassinated by reactionary officers the German Federation of Trade Unions proclaimed a general strike, a successful attempt to save the new republic. Many millions of 'ordinary Germans' protested against the elements who had murdered a Jew.

Generally speaking, the working class parties were opposed to the capitalistic class, regardless of the ethnic origin of employers. The Treaty of Versailles and subsequent occupation of the Rhineland by French troops, followed by inflation, were instrumental in the pauperisation of the German middle classes and mass unemployment. These conditions were fertile ground for the growth of the Nazi Party, which never received an absolute majority in the Reichstag.

Finkelstein remarked, 'The core of the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jewry of the right to vote and prohibited sexual race mixing.' That is a vast understatement. One must wonder what was the author's motivation to cite the disenfranchisement of Jewry and the prohibition of mixed marriages only, as if these acts were of minimal importance? Already, on 1 April 1933, the government had decreed an official boycott of all Jewish enterprises. Progressively total de-emancipation took place. The character of the 'Nuremberg Laws' was twofold. There was first the Reich law of citizenship which established two degrees ­ the Reichsbürger who was a subject who had to be of pure German blood and the Staatsangehörige who was a subject and not a citizen. The law for the protection of German blood and honour was complementary for it added the principle that the two should not cohabit together in wedlock or out of it. The new legislation took away the right of citizenship from hundreds of thousands of German born Jews. Until November 1938 (when 'Crystal Night' took place) more and more new decrees were enacted, the most murderous legislative instrument known in European history.

All Jews were entirely expropriated or their enterprises 'Aryanised' by force. No Jew was permitted to own a motor car or even to use a taxi. Jewish burials could only take place at night. Before mass deportations took place, whole families were stuffed into Judenhäuser. To compare these shameful conditions with segregation in the US, as Finkelstein does, is utter nonsense and minimises Nazi bestialities.

In October 1997 a banner headline in Socialist Worker said, 'How most Germans opposed the Nazis' This phrase is misleading. There were brave men and women who opposed the regime but an open fight was impossible. There was no general revolt against the regime. German troops fought to the bitter end. It is therefore safe to say that the German people supported Hitler until all was lost.

Saying that does not mean to allege that all 'ordinary Germans', to use Goldhagen's terminology, supported the Holocaust actively, but their passivity in the face of known facts made them guilty too in an ethical sense. In Bulgaria and in Denmark the local populations prevented extermination of their fellow Jewish citizens. There is no evidence that in Germany sections of the population made similar attempts.

Finkelstein says, 'Everything I have read about the Nazi Holocaust shows that, ideally, Nazi violence prided itself on being rational, methodical, economical, scientific, bureaucratic and so forth.' What kind of books did Finkelstein read? Anybody who ever listened to Hitler's ranting would never call his speeches 'rational'. Were Nazi phenol injections into concentration camp victims 'scientific'?

Anybody who lived through that awful period of the 20th century must regret having to read such an indirect apology for Nazi millionfold barbarities in a socialist journal. One can come to no other conclusion.

Finkelstein even has the audacity to cite Primo Levi in defence of his odd outlook. In my view, Levi's assessment confirms Goldhagen's findings that average, ordinary men served in those SS run death camps. That discovery makes it all the more frightful. It indicates that average man is sadistically inclined. If not, he would not have joined the SS to serve in execution squads.

Bernhard Herzberg

North London

Before and after

I thought the interview with Norman Finkelstein, 'Where Goldhagen goes wrong' (October SR), was fascinating. If we are to stop the Nazis ever rising again it is important to understand the political, social and economic background to Hitler's rise to power. We need to understand how the Nazi regime consolidated its rule and the differences in the treatment of Jews in prewar Germany and the Holocaust which engulfed Eastern European Jewry after 1939.

Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, does not do this and Norman Finkelstein has done a service in systematically exposing its flaws. My own family were refugees from Nazi Germany and as a child I learnt, through their stories, of the fallacy of Goldhagen's thesis that the overwhelming majority of Germans were the carriers of 'exterminationist anti-Semitism'.

We heard about how Jews were well assimilated into German society before the rise of the Nazis and the horror of life as the Nazi regime slowly passed more and more legal restrictions on the Jews.

We also heard of the help and sympathy offered by non-Jews up to the time they were finally able to flee in 1939. I remember too my grandmother's tale of going back to Berlin in the late 1940s and meeting a former colleague who presented her with family heirlooms that had been stored, at great personal risk, throughout the war.

My family talked about the Jews' fear of organised violence from gangs of Blackshirts and of their vulnerability to people bearing a grudge against them, but not of lynch mobs of ordinary Germans. They described how the experience of Jews in Germany under the Nazis varied enormously depending on where they lived and on their employment.

Goldhagen's thesis not only founders on the rocks of thousands of family tales like this, it also disarms those who want to fight the Nazis.

One of the first political fights I had with my father was when I began referring to my bigoted, right wing teachers as Nazis. He was absolutely determined to stop me using Nazi as a general term of political abuse and make me understand what was specific about Hitler's movement.

Mike Simons

East London

Points of view

I was surprised when a friend of mine, no longer an active socialist but someone who still sees himself as very much on the left, praised Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners. For him the book had simply been an interesting read, although clearly he didn't swallow much of the ideology that lies behind it.

Goldhagen's book shows what can happen when the idea that history can mean pretty much anything ­ since all facts are simply 'viewpoints' ­ take hold.

The left urgently needs to defend the theory and practice of history as a grand narrative of events and struggles, which can be empirically proven and to pursue a socialist historical practice which can provide answers.

Keith Flett

North London

Car wars

Seth Harman is to be commended for his article on cars (October SR) because transport is a major component of the capitalist crisis.

But when Seth concludes that there 'are obvious things that could be done very easily', it is important to be clear about what is and is not possible. A serious programme to improve public transport and reduce car use will not and cannot be implemented by a Labour government. Because car production is integral to modern capitalism. Any serious programme to reduce car use means a reduction in car production and car sales.

Making cars means massive profits. And it also means huge numbers of jobs. When we were campaigning against closures at Ford earlier this year we didn't say much about the need to cut car production.

To make the massive transfer of resources and labour from the production of cars to the production of bicycles, trains and moving pavements can only be done with socialist planning under workers control. Any other approach will lead to chaos and worse. The choice is plain: socialism or gridlock.

Ian Birchall


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