Holocaust book sparks fresh controversy

From ‘Mein Kampf’ to Auschwitz

by Dominique Vidal

LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE, #9/August 18, 1998

Translated by Barry Smerin

Fifty years on, there can be no let up in the struggle against those who deny the holocaust. At the same time, the debate among historians is becomingly increasingly heated. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s attempts to silence the most virulent critics of his best-seller, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, have sparked bitter controversy. Ultimately at stake is the interpretation of the Jewish genocide, with its historical and universal implications.

The pressure brought to bear on Ruth Bettina Birn and Norman Finkelstein since the beginning of this year has been described by Israeli journalist Tom Segev as “bordering on cultural terrorism (1)”. Their crime? A book entitled A Nation on Trial (2). While highly recommended by such authoritative historians of Nazism as Raul Hilberg, Ian Kershaw, Arno Mayer and Christopher Browning (3), it contains some very strong criticism of Daniel Jonah Goldberg’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (4).

In two years, by dint of heavy media promotion, Hitler’s Willing Executioners has sold more than half a million copies in over a dozen countries. Its explanation of genocide is that the Nazi regime gave free rein to the “eliminationist antisemitism” of “ordinary Germans”. This simplistic thesis has proved highly popular with the public but has hardly convinced the specialists. The foremost Israeli expert, Yehuda Bauer, who is director of Yad Vashem’s research institute in Jerusalem, is quite categorical: “Goldhagen’s book has been praised by journalists and public figures, but I have yet to read of a single historian who has publicly expressed agreement. Not one, and that is very rare unanimity. In my university, this book would never has passed as a Ph.D. dissertation (5).”

For the young Harvard academic, the straw that broke the camel’s back was an article in the March 1997 issue of the Historical Journal published by Cambridge University Press. Its author, Ruth Bettina Birn, is chief historian of the War Crimes Division of Canada’s Department of Justice. She is thus very familiar with the archives kept at Ludwigsburg by the agency which the former West German government set up to investigate Nazi crimes.

It was she who drew Daniel Goldberg’s attention to three files that provided the material for his thesis. They concern the behaviour of certain police battalions during the massacres in the East, of labour camp guards, and of those who guarded the “death marches”. In all three cases, Birn accuses Goldhagen of extrapolating from a small number of testimonies and of manipulating descriptions of atrocities to portray the agents of genocide as stereotypes for the vast majority of Germans.

Goldhagen’s response was to threaten his impertinent critic with a libel action. Birn was outraged. She immediately announced the publication of a revised article along with a solidly argued piece by Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science and the son of concentration camp survivors, who is a longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause (6). Faced with what Goldhagen described as an “anti-Zionist crusade”, the pro-Israel lobby mustered its forces. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, asserted that “the issue is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong, but what is legitimate criticism and what goes beyond the pale (7)”. The Canadian Jewish Congress even complained to the Ministry of Justice in the ultimately vain hope of getting it to take action against Ruth Birn.

“The Jewish establishment,” Segev writes, ” has embraced Goldhagen as if he were Mr Holocaust himself… All this is absurd, because the criticism of Goldhagen is backed up so well.” What is at issue, he argues, is the “Zionist character” of Goldhagen’s thesis. Its logical conclusion is that “not only the Germans, but all the gentiles hate the Jews. Hence the need for Jewish unity and solidarity. Hence the need for more and more books about Jewish hatred, and the simpler and shallower they are, the better.”

While Daniel Goldhagen is clearly right to stress the role played in the lead up to genocide by widespread German antisemitism, he is just as clearly wrong to equate the one with the other. Especially as his analysis of antisemitism in Germany is sketchy, to say the least.

Contrary to Goldhagen’s contention, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the golden age of Jewish emancipation in Germany. At the same time, France, which had originally raised the banner of Jewish emancipation, was in the throes of the Dreyfus affair. And in Russia, the Tsar’s ministers were instigating terrible pogroms against the Jews. And what can be said of the Baltic countries and the Ukraine, where the Nazis (as Goldhagen barely mentions) recruited zealous murderers of Jews? Certainly, the assimilation of the Jews in Germany aroused virulent nationalist opposition. But the anti-Jewish nationalists were not particularly successful at the polls, unlike the labour movement, which supported Jewish assimilation. As Raul Hilberg points out, the German intellectual elite had always shown little taste for “propaganda” or “disorder”, and the term “antisemitic” acquired a negative connotation at certain times for that very reason.

Goldhagen shows similar lack of perspective in relation to the 1930s. He stresses that in 1932 more than 37% of the German electorate voted for the Nazis, but finds nothing significant in the fact that nearly 63% failed to do so. Nor does he mention that as late as 5 March 1933, in the midst of reprisals for the burning of the Reichstag, the communist and social-democratic left, which was of course opposed to antisemitism, won almost a third of the poll.

Goldhagen also overestimates the antisemitic significance of the Nazi vote. Most historians have noted that Hitler gradually soft-pedalled his hatred for the Jews, which he considered less appealing to voters than anti-communism. In short, to quote Saul Friedlander, “Although traditional religious and social antisemitism was widespread in Germany, in my opinion, hatred of Jews did not constitute a primary factor capable of explaining the Nazi rise to power or the participation of ordinary Germans in the mass murders of the Final Solution (8).” Moreover, if the whole country was so eager to exterminate the Jews, why was the genocide perpetrated outside Germany and in the greatest secrecy? And by what miracle did this age-old anti-Jewish culture suddenly disappear in post-war Germany, as Goldhagen claims?

Concentrating solely on antisemitism involves a second major error. It is true that Adolf Eichmann was condemned to death in Jerusalem in 1962 for “crimes against the Jewish people”, rather than “crimes against humanity” (9). Nevertheless, 250,000 Gypsies (out of 700,000) died in a genocide of the same type. Over 3 million Soviet prisoners of war were shot, starved to death or, in some cases, gassed. Poland lost hundreds of thousands of its leaders and intellectuals. And what of the mentally ill? By the time it was halted on 24 August 1941, following protests from Church leaders, the euthanasia programme which the Reich chancellery initiated in October 1939 had led to the murder of more than a quarter of the country’s 360,000 registered insane, 70,000 of whom were killed in gassing vans. Those who had devised the killing machines shifted their activities to the eastern front and went on to develop the gas chambers used in the extermination camps.

A crusade against the “Judeo-Bolsheviks”

Consideration of the other victims of Nazi ferocity (10) suggests that genocidal antisemitism was part of a vast plan of conquest, colonisation and aryanisation of the lebensraum which the Reich was seeking in the East. Hence the inevitable confrontation with the “Judeo-Bolsheviks” in power in Russia. On studying Hitler’s antisemitic diatribes, numerous historians — apart from Goldhagen — have been struck by the fact that hatred of Jews is almost always coupled with hatred of communism.

Finally, to isolate German antisemitism is to disregard the combination of other factors that largely explains the success of the Nazi enterprise. As he subsequently admitted, Goldhagen deals only fleetingly with the slaughter of 1914-18, the national humiliation at Versailles, the effects of the economic crisis, the fragility of the young Weimar Republic, the lack of an alternative due to suicidal divisions among the parties of the left, and so on. Nor does he find any significance in the class alliance, headed by the employers, that was built up around Hitler because he was seen as the only bulwark against Bolshevism. Whereas Ian Kershaw, for example, argues that the huge profits made by big business were certainly no accidental side-effect of Nazism.

Again, how can we ignore the effects of the extraordinary totalitarian bureaucratic machine which Hitler’s henchmen installed as soon as he became chancellor? The combination of all-pervasive propaganda and ruthless repression led to the detention of 150,000 communists and social-democrats in concentration camps from 1933 to 1939 (11). And how can we underestimate the effects of the war itself, from the nationalistic exultation of the initial victories to the humiliation of the subsequent defeats and allied bombing?

Few historians still see a straight line leading from Mein Kampf to Auschwitz. True, once in power the Nazis lost no time in attacking the Jews.

From the initial boycott declared on 1 April 1933, which was a flop, to Kristallnacht in November 1938, and from the Nuremberg laws of September 1935, via the aryanisation of businesses in 1937, to the final prohibition of all Jewish professional activity in 1939, the exclusion of the Jews from German society was a continuously escalating process. But until the outbreak of war, the stated objective was the expulsion of Jews to any countries that would have them. This included emigration to Palestine, which was the subject of an agreement with the Jewish Agency in August 1933 (12).

Speaking in the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, the Führer prophesied that a world war would spell the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”. Seven months later he launched the invasion of Poland, which brought ten times as many Jews under the Nazi yoke. From that point on, the regime began concentrating Jews in ghettos and camps, to which victims from other countries were soon deported. But at Hitler’s request, the Central Emigration Office directed by Adolf Eichmann continued to work towards the forcible transfer of four million Jews to Madagascar. It was only upon failure to reach agreement with London that the Madagascar project was abandoned. In the view of some historians, the fall-back solution was mass deportation beyond the Urals. All that remained was to conquer the Soviet Union.

Operation “Barbarossa”, launched on 22 June 1941, was the great turning point. The “Rules of Conduct for Soldiers in Russia”, quoted by Arno Mayer, required German troops to attack Bolshevik agitators, snipers, saboteurs and Jews “energetically and mercilessly” and to strive unremittingly to eliminate all active and passive resistance. With this official cover, the Wehrmacht and, above all, the 3,000 killers of the Einsatzgruppen, assisted by their local accomplices, committed increasingly horrific mass murders of civilians. It was the radicalisation of those massacres, and their extension to the whole of European Jewry, which, in the opinion of the large majority of historians, led to genocide in the proper meaning of the word (13). An outstanding historical issue is the actual date of the decision, and whether it was a written order or, as Christopher Browning argues, simply ” a nod of the head” from the Führer. Some historians situate it during the period of preparation for the attack on Russia, others in the summer of 1941, in the euphoria following the first victories. Yet others think it was taken in the autumn, when the tide of war turned against Germany.

Arno Mayer argues that the era of old-style pogroms had passed and Nazi Germany had chosen to take the Jews as hostages in its desperate struggle, to make them the “privileged martyrs” of its ferocious crusade against Bolshevism, adding that the choice was now irrevocable. In mid-March 1942, 75% to 80% of the victims of the Shoah were still alive. A year later, the proportions were reversed.

“Delegates of all the victims of history”

According to Hilberg’s conservative estimate, 1.3 million Jews were shot “in the open”. A further 3 million, deported from all over Europe, perished in the camps, and about 800,000 in the ghettos. The Wannsee Conference, which was convened on 20 January 1942 after the failure of the final attack on Moscow, made all the Reich’s resources available for extermination. To the concentration camps, where the vast majority of the inmates died of starvation, illness and forced labour, there now were added extermination camps (which Goldhagen does not discuss). Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek combined both functions, but Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were nothing else than death factories where, to paraphrase Pierre Vidal-Naquet, anonymous executioners gassed equally anonymous victims.

The destruction of European Jewry was unique in human history. “Its uniqueness,” writes Eberhard Jackel, “lies in the fact that never before had a state decided and proclaimed, under the authority of its highest leader, that a specific group of human beings was to be exterminated, if possible in its entirety… a decision which the state in question carried out with all means at its disposal (14).” While a paradigm for genocide, it is nevertheless a link in a long chain of savagery that includes the massacre of Indians in America, Armenians in Turkey and, more recently, Tutsis in Rwanda. Ian Kershaw was right to stress that if we are to learn a lesson from the genocide of the Jews, it is vital to accept — while acknowledging the uniqueness of the holocaust as an event without precedent — that our world has not reached the stage where it is immune from similar atrocities involving peoples other than the Germans and the Jews. It was, he wrote, no longer a matter of “explaining” the holocaust by reference to Jewish history or to relations between Jews and Germans, but of endeavouring to understand the pathology of modern states and the nature of “civilisation” itself.

Four years before Daniel Goldhagen, Christopher Browning published his book on the reserve police battalion responsible for shooting 38,000 Jews in the Lublin area and deporting 45,000 others to Treblinka. His conclusion was radically different: “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers, which group of human beings could not?”

The powerful formulation of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur gets right to the heart of the matter: the victims of Auschwitz were, par excellence, “delegates to our memory of all the victims of history (15)”.


  1. Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 15 May 1998.
  2. Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial : the Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1998.
  3. Except where otherwise indicated, the quotations from these authors are taken from the following books: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1961); Ian Kershaw, The Nazi dictatorship : problems and perspectives of interpretation, E. Arnold, London and New York, 1989; Arno Mayer, Why did the heavens not darken? : the “final solution in history”, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988; Christopher Browning, Ordinary men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland, Aaron Asher Books, New York, 1992.
  4. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, New York, 1996. In general, the terms “genocide” or “genocide of the Jews” are to be preferred to the religious term “holocaust”, which denotes a sacrificial burnt offering.
  5. Quoted in Outlook, Santa Monica, Vol. 36, No. 3, 1 April 1998.
  6. His publications include Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Verso, London and New York, 1995.
  7. Quoted in The New York Times, 10 January 1998.
  8. Haaretz, 5 December 1997. Saul Friedlander is the author of Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1 The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, Harper Collins, New York, 1997. Vol. 2 has just been published.
  9. See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem : a report on the banality of evil, Faber and Faber, London, 1963.
  10. See Jean-Michel Chaumont, La concurrence des victimes : génocide, identité, reconnaissance, La Découverte, Paris, 1997.
  11. See Martin Broszat, “The Third Reich and the German People,” in The Challenge of the Third Reich : the Adam von Trott memorial lectures, edited by Hedley Bull, Clarendon Press, New York, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.
  12. See Yehuda Bauer, Jews for sale? Nazi-Jewish negotiations, 1933-1945, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994. From 1933 to 1939, 52,000 German Jews were thus enabled to emigrate to Palestine with part of their savings. The total amount of 140 million reichmarks made up 18% of all private capital imported to Palestine.
  13. See Philippe Burrin, “L’autre face du génocide”, Le Monde diplomatique, December 1995, and “Le génocide des juifs en débats”, also available in English “Debating the Holocaust”, ibid, June 1997. See also his book Hitler and the Jews : the genesis of the Holocaust, Edward Arnold, London, New York, 1994.
  14. Die Zeit, Hamburg, 3 October 1986.
  15. Paul Ricoeur, Time and narrative, Vol. 3, University of Chicago Press, 1988.