High Concept

Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners

The attack on a scholarly superstar, and how he fights back.

Last year, while browsing at one of those sadly disappearing Upper West Side bookstores, I ran into Norman Finkelstein, a member of the sadly disappearing tribe of left-wing gadflies. Finkelstein said he was working on a book about Harvard Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen, he declared, was a fraud crying out to be unmasked.

This wasn’t surprising. Goldhagen made a lot of people angry with that book. (Click here for a quick refresher on why.) Finkelstein, a political scientist, bills himself a “forensic” scholar. He’s fashioned a career out of demystifying what he deems pseudoscholarly arguments. It also made a kind of poetic sense that Finkelstein would become obsessed with Goldhagen. Like him, Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors and a strident commentator on Jewish affairs. He just comes at them from the opposing side.

Finkelstein’s reputation rests on his refutation of Joan Peters’$2 1984 From Time Immemorial, a book purporting to prove Palestinian Arabs had no claims on the land that is now Israel, having been drawn to it only by reports that Jews were making the desert bloom. Peters’ book was lavishly praised by American Jewish organizations, novelists, and scholars. But when Finkelstein showed that Peters had manipulated Ottoman demographic records to make her case, the book’s supporters attacked him as an anti-Zionist. By 1986, though, Zionist scholars having published articles that bolstered Finkelstein’s case, his version was the conventional wisdom.

Finkelstein told me Goldhagen was just another Peters. That struck me as dubious. After all, Goldhagen’s book wasn’t a hoax. It was a troubling interpretation. But Finkelstein insisted that, whatever the reviewers said, the book had been a megapublishing event, and for one simple reason: It was useful to Zionist Jews who believe that all non-Jews are potential Jew killers and that Jews, therefore, are justified in using whatever means are necessary to defend themselves.

Calling Goldhagen a Zionist propagandist seemed an act of provocation, to say the least, and so it was taken. Last summer, Finkelstein published an article with the lurid title “Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘Crazy’ Thesis” in the British New Left Review. Shortly afterward, it was excerpted in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and in Italy’s Panorama. Goldhagen promptly denounced Finkelstein as a supporter of Hamas, a radical Islamic Palestinian group. Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Holt, decided to publish a revised version of Finkelstein’s essay, along with a no less hotly contested attack on Goldhagen by the German-born historian Ruth Bettina Birn that was first published in the Cambridge Historical Journal.

Several months before the publication of Finkelstein and Birn’s book, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, Finkelstein’s opponents pressured Metropolitan to cancel it. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, got on the phone with his friend Michael Naumann, the publisher of Holt and a German, to express his outrage. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman wrote to Finkelstein’s editor, Sara Bershtel, calling the writer’s views “beyond the pale.”

Finkelstein’s co-author took even worse flak. Goldhagen accused her of having defamed him in her Historical Journal article, then assembled a team of lawyers in Britain to demand a retraction and an apology. In Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress is trying to have Birn removed from the government’s war crimes division (where she helps build cases against Nazi war criminals) on the grounds that, by publishing with Finkelstein, she has demonstrated insensitivity unbecoming a public servant.

The prepublication attack almost worked. István Deák, a Columbia University historian who agreed to write a preface, backed out. He did provide a blurb, as did seven other distinguished academics, including the Holocaust experts Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning, the French Jewish intellectual Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. (Click here to read what some of them say and here to read why they say it.) Now that the book is out, the grand irony is that Goldhagen should consider himself lucky to have Finkelstein as his adversary. Not that it isn’t a good dissection of Goldhagen’s contradictions and distortions. Finkelstein handily refutes Goldhagen’s claim that German anti-Semitism is all that’s required to explain the Holocaust. (Click here to read how he does this.) Checking Goldhagen’s assertions against his citations, Finkelstein demonstrates that the scholar’s use of secondary sources is untrustworthy. (Click here for another telling example.) And yet Finkelstein turns out to be a kind of doppelgänger of Goldhagen’s, equally biased and inflammatory.

First, Finkelstein makes much of the point that the majority of Germans “did not cast their lot for Hitler.” Technically true–but a plurality of Germans did. No party received as many votes in the March 1933 election as the Nazis–43.9 percent. Finkelstein acknowledges the Nazi state was a brutal dictatorship, but he glosses over its disturbingly popular character.

Second, Finkelstein echoes conventional historical thinking when he says Nazism’s main appeal lay in Hitler’s promises to restore order in post-Weimar Germany, end unemployment, and make the country an international power. But anti-Semitism permeated Nazi ideology, and Finkelstein is deaf to its nuances. He writes, “Not the Jews but Marxism and Social Democracy served as the prime scapegoats of Nazi propaganda” during their rise to power. Also technically true. But the Nazis perceived Social Democracy as a Jewish party and Marxism as a Jewish creed; when they rallied against Bolshevik enemies, their audiences did not need to be told that these enemies were, if not actual Jews, then “spiritual Jews.” If Finkelstein were to apply his logic to Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton strategy, he’d have to write, “Not race but crime served as the prime scapegoat of George Bush’s 1988 campaign.”

Third, Finkelstein deduces from some Germans’ disgust at the destruction of Jewish lives and property during Nazi-sponsored pogroms such as Kristallnacht that “Germans overwhelmingly condemned the Nazi anti-Semitic atrocities.” If they did, they gave new meaning to the term “silent majority.” The Germans, he writes, displayed “the callousness toward human life typically attending war. … Hardened and bitter, in search of a scapegoat, they occasionally lashed out at the weak.” The first adverb casually banalizes German brutality; the second diminishes its extent; together, they come dangerously close to apologia.

The most controversial part of Finkelstein’s book, though, is the last chapter, in which he sets out to explain why the Goldhagen book was such a big deal. Finkelstein observes that after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, there was a boom in the kind of Holocaust literature that portrayed the catastrophe as the natural culmination of millennial Jew-hatred. Where some Holocaust experts, such as Hilberg and Martin Broszat, depicted it as a “complex and contingent event,” other writers, such as Lucy Davidowicz, found it more “politically expedient” to focus on anti-Semitism, especially as Israel came under increasing censure. (Click here for Finkelstein’s explanation of why this logic is “expedient.”) According to Finkelstein, Goldhagen’s claim that all forms of anti-Semitism “tend toward a genocidal ‘solution’ ” is expedient in this way, and therefore popular–though Finkelstein says Goldhagen adds no more than a veneer of social science sophistication to this reductionist point of view.

Finkelstein is not breaking new ground here. Israeli intellectuals such as Amos Elon and Tom Segev and the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov have made similar points about the ideological subtext of Holocaust writing. But they also take pains not to dismiss the trauma the Holocaust visited and continues to visit upon Jews. By contrast, Finkelstein adopts an ugly conspiratorial tone when he attributes the book’s popularity in the United States to its Zionist message. This is nonsense. The book owed its commercial success to its soothingly simplistic thesis–and to astute marketing. At times, Finkelstein’s tone even veers toward the jocular, as when he makes fun of Elie Wiesel’s racist remarks about ungrateful black people. One is reminded of Gershom Scholem’s remark to Hannah Arendt at the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem: “This is not the way to approach the scene of that tragedy.”

It’s too bad that the noise about Finkelstein has drowned out his co-writer, Birn. She knows the archives better than anyone, and she has come up with more quietly damning observations. Birn’s experience as a prosecutor gives her a radically different take on the legal testimony Goldhagen bases much of his book on, for the most part confessions of death squad members. “Goldhagen seems to have difficulty comprehending that when perpetrators claim to have been motivated by Nazi propaganda, it need not be sincere,” she writes. (Click here to see how these statements could instead form part of a legal defense.) Birn also shows how Goldhagen’s insistence on German complicity leads him to soft-pedal the anti-Semitism of the Germans’ collaborators, referring obliquely to the “pressures operating on the Ukrainians that did not exist for the Germans.” This is flat-out Eastern European revisionism; you could easily imagine some Ukrainian nationalist writing it.

But the weightiest of Birn’s accusations is that Goldhagen glosses over atrocities in which the victims weren’t Jewish. Goldhagen recounts the tale of a witness who saw a Russian man beaten to death because his name was Abraham; he does not report the same witness’s account, on the next page of testimony, of the “sexually sadistic murder of a young [non-Jewish] girl by one of the officers.” In the end, this may be one of the most compelling condemnations of Goldhagen yet: that his focus on Jewish victims leaves him indifferent to the fate of non-Jews, from that young girl to the millions of Soviet POW’s who were starved and worked to death in the camps. Without minimizing the significance of anti-Semitism, Birn provides an eloquent rejoinder to Goldhagen’s blood-thinking. Her essay radiates a dignified humanism that both Goldhagen and Finkelstein lack.


Note 1: Holocaust historians have traditionally offered a variety of reasons why Germans followed orders to exterminate the Jews. These include anti-Semitism, the culture of German military units, the pressures of totalitarian rule, the hysteria of wartime mobilization, and the effects of Nazi propaganda. Goldhagen, by contrast, offers a single-bullet explanation. He posits a society of ordinary Germans bred, like attack dogs, to despise Jews, and unleashed by a regime that shared their bloodlust. Germany’s uniquely anti-Semitic history had, in his view, made most of them “assenting mass executioners … [who] considered the slaughter to be just.” The book had its defenders, but the reviews were mostly scathing. Hitler’s Willing Executioners was dismissed as fundamentally ahistorical in Commentary, of all places, and as a “bizarre inversion of the Nazi view of the Jews as an insidious, inherently evil nation” in the New Republic. Back

Note 2: This was an unfair characterization of Finkelstein’s views on the Oslo accords. Like Edward Said, who regards the Oslo accords as a Palestinian Versailles, he is opposed to them. That doesn’t make him a Hamas supporter. Back

Note 3: According to Finkelstein’s editor, Sara Bershtel, who was in Naumann’s office at the time and heard Wieseltier on the speaker phone, he said: “Michael, you don’t know who Finkelstein is. He’s poison, he’s a disgusting self-hating Jew, he’s something you find under a rock.” Wieseltier told me he wasn’t trying to silence Finkelstein: “The idea that anyone is trying to suppress the lonely prophet in the wilderness called Finkelstein is comical. Virtually every scholar has attacked [Goldhagen’s] book, including, I might add, our critic in the NewRepublic. Finkelstein is just playing this game of épater les juifs.” Back

Note 4: Deák, who was so impressed by an early draft Finkelstein sent him that he wrote him praising his efforts, now says, “I didn’t read the article very carefully. I made the mistake of giving my consent too early, and then had second thoughts.” Back

Note 5: “All readers of Goldhagen’s controversial book should take note of these much-needed studies, which, in line with serious historians, convincingly and authoritatively dismantle its arguments.”

Eric Hobsbawm, author of The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991

“In this important volume Finkelstein and Birn demonstrate that Daniel Goldhagen’s study of the Judeocide is monocausal, teleological, and severely blinkered. Finkelstein carefully sets forth Goldhagen’s distortion and disregard of the secondary literature; Birn masterfully lays bare his gravely flawed use and interpretation of archival sources. Both authors also raise hard questions about the political reasons for the inordinate promotion and reception of Goldhagen’s book. No serious student of history can afford to ignore these well-reasoned and withering reflections on the perils of pseudo-scholarship.”

Arno Mayer, author of Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The Final Solution in History

“Finkelstein and Birn provide a devastating critique of Daniel Goldhagen’s simplistic and misleading interpretation of the Holocaust. Their contribution to the debate is, in my view, indispensable.”

Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler

“Among the dozens of reviewers of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ruth Bettina Birn and Norman Finkelstein stand out for the seriousness and thoroughness with which they have undertaken their task. Even if I do not embrace every aspect of Finkelstein’s conclusions concerning the politicization of Holocaust historiography, I am grateful for these writers’ courageous, conscientious, and labor-intensive efforts.”

Christopher Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

“Is Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners the definitive work on Hitler’s Judeocide? The authors of this volume express serious doubt, which I share. To reduce a phenomenon of this scale and complexity to the anti-Semitism which permeated German society as it also permeated other societies is to be simplistic and to show contempt for the reader. This book rights the balance.”

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, author of The Jews: History, Memory, and the Present

“Highly recommended to the many readers of Goldhagen’s controversial book, especially those who were mesmerized by its hypotheses. Fortunately, in an open society all scholarship is subject to public scrutiny, and the advance of historical knowledge cannot do without rigorous criticism of the kind provided in this important and courageous collection.”

Volker R. Berghahn, J.P. Birkelund distinguished professor of European history, Brown University

“Birn’s and Finkelstein’s essays constitute a sharp rebuttal provoked by the public’s and the press’s love affair with a book that casually dismisses excellent work done by others; that contains many contradictions; and that upholds dangerous myths regarding the existence of ‘national characteristics.’ “

István Deák, author of Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 Back

Note 6: Christopher Browning told me: “What’s important about Finkelstein’s critique is that he has traced the inconsistencies and contradictions in Goldhagen, and no one else has taken the time to do that. It’s not my style of writing. But I don’t think he’s gone beyond the bounds of polemic in replying to Goldhagen’s polemic.” In interviews, Holocaust scholars sounded grateful that someone had stood up so boldly to Goldhagen, who, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, had dismissed the work of virtually every scholar who came before him. Two of the blurb writers have quite understandable grudges: Goldhagen has, for years, been railing against Browning’s emphasis on peer pressure in explaining why German soldiers participated in genocide; in a NewRepublic review, he accused another endorser, Arno Mayer, of being a Holocaust revisionist. In any event, these blurbs often appear to be more the expressions of well-wishers than of close readers. Hobsbawm is not alone in saying he didn’t read Finkelstein’s essay “line-by-line.” Back

Note 7: Finkelstein notes that anti-Semitism in other countries was often worse; there was, in pre-Hitler Germany, “no equivalent of the riots that attended the Dreyfus Affair in France or the pogroms in Russia.” In the Weimar period, moreover, the Nationalist Socialists found they couldn’t get much mileage out of raw appeals to anti-Jewish prejudice, and often toned down their anti-Semitism around election time. Back

Note 8: Footnoting historian Peter Pulzer’s sober study Jews and the German State, Goldhagen asserts that only the “core of the socialist movement, its intellectuals and leaders” opposed anti-Semitism. In fact, Pulzer says no such thing. He found little evidence of anti-Semitism among Social Democrats, intellectuals or workers. Back

Note 9: “Thus interpreted, the Nazi extermination both justifies the necessity of Israel and accounts for all hostility directed at it: The Jewish state is the only safeguard against the next outbreak of homicidal anti-Semitism and, conversely, homicidal anti-Semitism is behind every attack on, or even defensive maneuver against, the Jewish state. ‘The Holocaust’ is in effect the Zionist account of the Nazi holocaust.” Back

Note 10: Among other things, they warn against the danger of removing the Holocaust from history and turning it into a sort of secular religion, the central symbol of Jewish identity. They also deplore the invocation of the Holocaust as a justification for policies that most Jews would deplore if they were implemented in their own countries. Back

Note 11: Goldhagen asserts the German police battalions knew of the planned destruction of the Jews before entering the Soviet Union, rather than two months after, as most historians believe. He bases this claim on the “conclusive” statement of two former storm troopers. In fact, their statements about extermination orders from above evolved over time, Birn explains, as part of a “defense focused on superior orders as an excuse.” Back