Date: Tue, 30 Apr 1996 14:13:43 -0500
From: H-GERMAN EDITOR Dan Rogers 
To: Multiple recipients of list H-GERMAN 
Subject: Goldhagen Debate & Role of Historians

Submitted by:   Peter Schommer

As a graduate student in German history, I have been watching the
scholarly and public debates over Professor Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing
Executioners" closely.  The book has generated a great deal of press
interest, with reviews in the major news magazines, _The New Republic_,
and the _New Yorker_ among others.  Much of the coverage has been about
the reaction of historians to Professor Goldhagen's thesis that ordinary
Germans were exterminationist anti-Semities who enthusiastically supported
and participated in genocide.  More attention is paid to the fact that
Professor Goldhagen has aroused strong and emotional opposition than to
the specific nature of the criticism.  The media coverage of the
controversy can be reduced to two statements:

        1.  A Jewish Professor at Harvard claims the Germans willingly
        participated in the Holocaust because of a national character
        flaw.

        2.  This has made a lot of historians angry.

Lacking in these accounts is an articulate summary of objections to
Professor Goldhagen's thesis.  This is particularly troubling because
members of the general public generally believe Professor Goldhagen's
statement.  Most of my colleagues in the Navy Department are more
surprised at the reaction to "Hitler's Willing Executioners" than to
Professor Goldhagen's thesis.  They are not familiar with the bulk of
scholarship in the field which tends to undermine this notion of
collective guilt.

This raises the troubling question of why the general public has a
dramatically different concept of Nazism and the Holocaust from
historians?  It cannot be for lack of interest.  Books and television
programs about Nazi Germany abound.  Between A&E and the History Channel,
it is impossible to go for more than a week without a program about
Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust.  Nearly every bookstore in America
with a history section carries multiple titles on the subject. Schindler's
List was a critical and commercial success.  There are more opportunities
for serious historians to communicate their views on these subjects than
in any other area of historical scholarship.  Why then the disconnect
between historians and the public?

In the introductory note to his book "Inside Nazi Germany," Detlev Peukert
speaks of a two fold dialogue.  The first dialogue is between the
historian and his sources.  This is the dialogue at which most historians
excel. Working long hours in various archives, they have achieved a good
understanding of history at it was (to use the Rankean term, "_wie es
eigentlich gewesen_").  This is, however, only half the dialogue.  The
other half, Peukert described as a public discourse.  What the Goldhagen
controversy shows is that historians as a group have failed in this part
of the dialogue.

This failure can be attributed mostly to a lack of articulation on the
part of historians.  While the public is intensely interested in the
history of Nazi Germany, most historians choose to look down on the public
as incapable of understanding what they are doing.  Many of the books in
stores and programs of television suffer from a lack of scholarship.  It
is interesting to note that part of the reaction to Professor Goldhagen's
book has been against its popularity, as if writing a book which sells
necessarily compromises the quality of the scholarship therein.  If
historians want to explain their findings to a broad audience, and I would
argue that this is more than half of the role of an historian in society,
they must write for a larger audience and participate in the making of
these television programs.

Secondly, historians must improve the quality of their writing.  Many of
the most important pieces of scholarship in the field are inaccessible to
the general public because of tangled prose, bad grammar, and arcane
jargon.  Scholarly should not be a synonym for unreadable.

A final measure of how little interaction there is between historians and
the public is name recognition.  The two most famous historians in the
field right now are Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and David Irving, aka "that
Jewish Professor from Harvard who says the Germans enjoyed it" and "the
guy who says Hitler didn't do it."  There are no preeminent names in the
field to whom the public turns for a reaction to Goldhagen's thesis.
Those who have responded have failed to get their message across.  While
the goal of historians should not be fame per se, it is fair to ask if the
goal should be to collect research grants, teach a few undergraduates, and
write obscure and often unreadable texts.

I welcome comments and ideas on these topics.

LT Peter J. Schommer USN
Navy Department
Norwich University
65 S. Main St.
Northfield VT 05663
(802) 485-2193
peters@norwich.edu