To the consternation of his scholarly peers, Daniel Goldhagen's book on the Holocaust has become a bestseller in Germany and the US. Jeffrey Herf says that the book is ahistorical and unoriginalby Jeffrey Herf / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
With its ambitious claim to reconceive the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners was in the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. In August, the German edition was published and within a month it had sold 80,000 copies. Daniel Goldhagen sets out to challenge most of the existing literature on the Holocaust by arguing that its driving force was the “eliminationist” anti-Semitic beliefs of ordinary Germans. To the consternation of his scholarly peers, and apparently to the satisfaction of a large reading public, he offers us a Holocaust without politics.
Goldhagen’s book has received a huge amount of favourable attention in both the English-speaking world and Germany. When the English edition appeared in April, all of the serious press in Germany carried extensive reviews. In August, when the German edition appeared, Die Zeit published a six-page response by the author to the many commentaries. Der Spiegel made the book its cover story (for the second time) and featured an interview between him and Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of the magazine. When Goldhagen visited Germany in September 800 people turned up for a panel discussion in Frankfurt. There were some protests about his portrayal of the average German under Hitler, but the German response to his book has been broadly positive.
Yet the book scarcely deserves such respect. Goldhagen offers a tendentious, if familiar, reading of German history which selectively draws on the existing scholarly literature. He concludes that anti-Semitism was so pervasive in German society and the countervailing currents so feeble that Hitler’s historical significance is merely to have lit the touchpaper to a popular hatred waiting to explode. He claims that the documentary record does not even come close to supporting those who argue that there were powerful countercurrents to anti-Semitism. German liberals were really “philosemitic antisemites” who fought for citizenship rights for Jews in order to convert them. Goldhagen asserts that the vast majority of Germans, including members of the resistance, subscribed to the Nazi view of Jews.
In Ordinary Men (1992), the American historian Christopher Browning showed that police battalions-forces recruited from German police departments-played a more significant role in the murder of the Jews than had been previously appreciated. Goldhagen’s book contains a detailed and original examination of this group of men. They are crucial to his argument about the susceptibility of ordinary Germans to eliminationist anti-Semitism because, unlike the SS, they are not products…