In order to understand the book's popularity with the lay audience, it is essential to recognize Goldhagen's mindset and the mentality to which he appeals. The book obviously taps into a deep vein of anti-Germanism in this country, reflecting an unresolved ambivalency about our former enemy that has been exacerbated by German Reunification. At a somewhat less obvious level, the book also reflects the growing national mood demanding that perpetrators be held morally accountable for their actions, and that extenuating circumstances should not absolve them of guilt. Goldhagen's book has been aptly described as "angry." He writes like a lawyer rather than like an historian. To extend this analogy even further, the reader often has the impression that Goldhagen is writing in the style that Mark Klaas might adopt if he were to produce a social study about the murder of his daughter, Polly, and if he were to adopt the pretense of being an objective social scientist. Goldhagen's primary concern in this book is with moral accountability for the Holocaust, and he is unwilling to accept any verdict less than a pall of collective guilt, blanketing the entire German nation. He marshals facts in a selective fashion, and seemingly throws objectivity to the winds in his quest for a collective indictment. He summarily dismisses all standard social science explanations for the Holocaust as mere "moral alibis" (p. 383).
Under ordinary circumstances, a passion to condemn genocide and a concern for moral accountability would be admirable motivations, but they become serious flaws when they compromise the objectivity of a social scientist. Is there a legitimate parallel between the guilt of an individual murderer and the collective guilt that can be placed on a nation of 80 million people? Is it meaningful to hold the German nation accountable for the deeds of a totalitarian government, conducted in great secrecy outside of Germany, while the nation was preoccupied during the extremes of wartime? Goldhagen seems to unflinchingly answer, yes!
Proceeding like a trial lawyer, Goldhagen boldly states his initial premise: the German nation as a whole had the motive, they were in the grip of a pervasive, "exterminationist" anti-Semitism that extended well- back into the nineteenth century, and this ideological mindset was the sole necessary and sufficient cause of the Holocaust. Given this premise, the corollaries fall into place like a domino effect. He sets out to prove that German anti-Semitism was "qualitatively unique" from that in other countries in Europe, and that the Holocaust was carried out with greater brutality than any other genocide in history. He insists that the Holocaust was collectively known and approved of by the German people. He deliberately refers to the planners and perpetrators of the genocide as "ordinary Germans" rather than as "Nazis," anything less being simply an evasion of responsibility. He sees no need to distinguish between the actions of Nazi extermination squads and the common civilians since they were all collectively cruel to the Jews and, given the opportunity, they all would have been direct perpetrators.
Goldhagen insists that the Holocaust presents a special problem of explanation, different from other genocides throughout history. As he puts it, "...the Holocaust and the change in sensibilities that it involved defies explanation. There is no comparable event in the twentieth century, indeed in modern European history..." (p. 5). Goldhagen thus elevates the explanation of the Holocaust into the Gordian Knot, a social conundrum that has apparently eluded all previous attempts at understanding.
Is this really the case? The twelve years of the Third Reich are the most thoroughly documented and analyzed period in history. Over the course of a half century of historiography a variety of factors have been identified as explanations for why a radical Right Wing government succeeded in consolidating power during a crucial hiatus in German history, why the Jews were selected as a scape-goat, and how the Holocaust was carried out. Some of these factors include the defeat of Germany during the First World War, the punitive nature of the Versailles treaty, French ambitions for territorial acquisitions after the war, Germany's wounded national pride, political collapse and social turmoil, the Great Depression, economic ruination of the Middle Class, polarization between the extreme Left and the Right, fear of rampant Communism looming from the East, the association of the Jews with Bolshevism in the popular mind, the vulnerability of a population to seeking scape-goats during periods of rapid social change, a wide-spread historical tradition of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, peer pressure and conformity within a highly regimented totalitarian society, the iron grip that the Nazis had on the populace and on all organs of mass information, and so on. Obviously all these factors were relevant, they worked in consort with each other, and it would be difficult to prioritize any one of them as being more important than the others.
To Goldhagen, however, nuanced and multi-causal analyses such as these are unsatisfactory since they rely on "universal" psychological and social factors that could affect any human society (p. 390). He dismisses them as "conventional" explanations. They place the Holocaust in the same class as other genocides in history, and thereby reduce its singularity.
What type of answer is Goldhagen seeking? He wants to identify a "particularity" in German society that can explain the Holocaust. In other words, Goldhagen's quest is for nothing less than a uniquely German flaw that can explain what he regards as an absolutely unique event.
It is an old truism that the solution to a problem usually lies in the way that it is defined. The so-called "inexplicability" of the Holocaust is a good example of this principle. One might reasonably question why Goldhagen assumes that the Holocaust requires a "unique" explanation, different from other genocides in history. Why does he assume that the Holocaust is any more puzzling than the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or the genocide in Rwanda? Would Goldhagen accept "conventional" explanations for these events, but not for the Holocaust? Is there something sui generis about German social phenomena that requires a distinct body of social theory? These questions remain unaddressed by Goldhagen.
Most readers are probably somewhat puzzled by that point since it is rather obvious that there was anti-Semitism in Germany before the Holocaust. No one has particularly denied this fact. After the Nazis consolidated their grip on Germany, the propaganda ministry proceeded to bombard the German people for 12 years with an endless diet of negative imagery about the Jews. Authors such as George L. Mosse, for example, had long recognized the power of a controlled media in a totalitarian society. In his book Nazi Culture, Mosse states that "a wall was built around the nation, none the less effective for lacking stone and mortar. Within this wall Nazi culture had a free hand to determine, if it could, every man's attitude toward life" (p. xxi).
What is so unique about Goldhagen's model of events? To Goldhagen, emphasizing factors such as the propagandizing of the German masses doesn't reach far enough. He claims to break new theoretical ground by virtue of the extreme lengths to which he is willing to go to inflate the single factor of anti-Semitism above all other explanations, and because he prefers to anchor it in the long-term flow of German history and culture. Nazi Propaganda was merely a "situational" factor (p. 12-13). Goldhagen prefers to impute causal priority to a basic German "cultural axiom" extending back for centuries. He alleges that German society in the nineteenth century was characterized by deeply ingrained "eliminationist" anti-Semitism (i.e., the belief that Jews should be removed from Germany), and this took on an even more sinister "exterminationist" flavor well before the Nazi era. In other words, the Holocaust happened because the German nation was permeated with a near kill-frenzy level of anti-Jewish hatred, that was just waiting to be unleashed. This heretofore ignored "ideological" or cognitive feature is Goldhagen's missing link of explanation that has eluded all previous historians.
Goldhagen's assertions raise some important methodological problems. The first rests with his logic. He dismisses "situational" social factors because they are "universals" which can't explain the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He is quite correct that universal factors cannot explain a particular event -- assuming that the precedent conditions were an historical constant. However, the factors that other authors have identified, such as the social turmoil in Germany after the war, the manipulation of public opinion by propaganda, and pressure for conformity, were not constants. They were part of a multivariate nexus of factors operative at a unique juncture of German history, and therefore they are legitimate explanations.
On the other hand, the same principle of explanatory adequacy that Goldhagen uses can be stood upon its head and used against him. Goldhagen is so committed to the truth of his proposition that he goes so far as to label anti-Semitism as the only causally "necessary" and "sufficient" condition explaining the extermination of the Jews (p. 417). Most scientists realize that it is extremely difficult to prove that something is both a "necessary and sufficient condition." This doesn't deter Goldhagen, and thus he walks willingly into a trap of his own making. If it is indeed the case that anti-Semitism was a qualitatively unique "cultural axiom" in German society that extended back for centuries (p. 419), and if it was a "sufficient" condition to trigger the Holocaust, then Goldhagen has simply set up another universal factor that cannot explain particular events. How can he explain why genocide erupted at exactly this one point in time? Anti-Semitism obviously is not a sufficient explanation in and of itself. He must appeal to other factors such as social turmoil, fear of Bolshevism, and so on which triggered events -- in other words, all those things that he dismisses as merely "situational."
Goldhagen also makes the categorical assertion that social factors - which he terms "non-cognitive structural features" - cannot explain the actions of the perpetrators, and he dismisses these factors as "reductionist" (p. 409). He doesn't offer a rationale for this peculiar assertion. Indeed, this is a rather bizarre reversal of the normal use of the term "reductionism," since most social theorists state that complex social events (such as organized genocide of millions of people) cannot be "reduced" to psychological explanations.
Another problem is the weak empirical basis for Goldhagen's generalization. He asserts that it "strains credibility" to imagine that "ordinary Danes or Italians" could have acted as the Germans did (p. 408). Does it also strain his credibility to accept the fact that ordinary Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, and Ukrainians participated in the Holocaust? Anti-Semitism was common throughout Europe, and some feel that it was more pronounced in Eastern Europe than in Germany. As the Nazi armies expanded to the east, they found many willing accomplices. Goldhagen himself notes that after the German army occupied Kovno and other cities in Lithuania, "pogrom-like rampages and massacres" erupted against the Jews. He notes that the Poles often pointed out to the Germans where Jews had concealed themselves (p. 216).
Goldhagen recognizes the extent of collaboration by non-Germans, but he dismisses it by asserting that "German antisemitism ...[had] qualitatively different consequences from the antisemitisms of other countries, and [this] substantiates the Sonderweg thesis: that Germany developed along a singular path, setting it apart from other western countries" (p. 419). There is more than a hint of tautological reasoning in this statement. He is asserting that German anti-Semitism had to be "qualitatively" different than that found in other countries because the Holocaust was planned by Germans, despite the fact that it was executed with the enthusiastic participation of many non-Germans. If in fact German anti-Semitism was not unique, but just one member of a broader class, then Goldhagen's argument just simply doesn't hold water. There are hints that even Goldhagen is uncomfortable with his overly neat formula, and he tries to sweep these annoying considerations under the rug in a footnote-- he pleads that he doesn't have enough space to properly address the issue of participation in the Holocaust by non- Germans (p. 476). Yet, in this 600 page volume, he had ample space to devote to other topics, such as graphic descriptions of the techniques of mass murder.
Goldhagen's hypothesis fails to encompass not only the total range of perpetrators, but also the total range of victims targeted by the Nazi regime. He rejects "universal" social principles as inadequate explanations for the Holocaust because this would mean that the perpetrators didn't necessarily have to be Germans, nor the victims necessarily Jews (p. 392). The glaring flaw in this rationale is that many of the perpetrators were in fact not Germans, and many of the victims were not Jews. Although he asserts that anti-Semitism was the crucial missing link in explaining Nazi ideology, this cannot explain the fact that Nazi pogroms were also conducted against the Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally retarded. To adequately understand the range of victims, we must recognize that Nazi social philosophy was based on broader racial theory and on applied eugenics. While the Jews were certainly a central concern of Nazi ideology, they were not its sole rationale. To assert otherwise is nothing less than an ethnocentric bias, and an insult to other classes of victim.
First, he expands his definition of a "perpetrator" to include anyone who "worked in an institution that was part of the system of brutal, lethal domination, a system that had as its apogee the institutions of direct mass slaughter...for he knew that by his actions he was sustaining institutions of genocidal killing" (p. 165). By focusing not just on those who committed the killings, but also on those providing logistical support (in the broadest sense of the term), Goldhagen estimates that the number of "perpetrators" was "over one hundred thousand," and he would not be surprised if "the number turned out to be five hundred thousand or more." Goldhagen also makes the rather facile assumptions that everyone knew about the genocidal killings, they understood the extent of it, they approved of it, they were motivated to sustain the process, and they would have willingly participated if they had the opportunity.
Is it legitimate to assume that workers in munitions factories, as well as women who sewed uniforms, were motivated (primarily, secondarily, or in any fashion at all) by the desire to exterminate Jews? Is it not legitimate to suggest that they were motivated to support the defense of their country, their families, and their young men who were giving their lives on the battlefield? Apparently not to Goldhagen.
Having thus lain the groundwork, Goldhagen then takes the next step in his logic by asserting that the Ordnungspolizei, one of the major groups of perpetrators of the massacres in Eastern Europe, were a sample representative of the German people as a whole -- "the conclusions drawn about the overall character of the members' actions can, indeed must be, generalized to the German people in general. What these ordinary Germans did also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans" (p. 402). In order to justify this drastic assumption, Goldhagen draws radically different conclusions from his data than those drawn by Christopher Browning, who wrote an earlier award winning study (Ordinary Men) on the same Police Battalion 101. Browning labeled the police as "ordinary," but he did not imply that they were statistically typical. He speculated that the SS may have selected the men who participated in the Ordnungspolizei because they may have been more pliable. They tended to have lower education, they were semi-skilled, marginally employed, middle-aged, and about 25% of them were members of the Nazi party, a considerably larger percentage than for the population as a whole. Goldhagen, in contrast, states that due to their age they were "less pliable," and that they are a valid sample representing the anti-Semitic attitudes typical of German society prior to the Nazi era (p. 183). He also states that the Order Police were "not a Nazi institution" and that the officers "made little effort to fill its ranks with people especially beholden to Nazism" (p. 185). However, he admits that 32.5% of Police Battalion 101 were members of the Nazi party, a figure even larger than that cited by Browning (p. 207-8).
Is Goldhagen seriously proposing that the shooting of the Jews was any more brutal than the massacres in Rwanda, which were largely perpetrated with "low tech" weapons, such as machetes and axes? Were the deaths of the Jews more heart-rending than the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, where it was reported that some prisoners had to sit on sharp spikes? Were these deaths more inhumane than those that occurred at the end of the Second World War, when 15 million ethnic Germans were driven out of Eastern Europe, two million of them dying in the process? (Russian troops routinely gang raped German women, and sometimes nailed their bodies to barn doors, arranged in cruciform postures). The fact is, massacres are always gruesome -- human bodies hemorrhage the same way, regardless of their ethnicity, race, or creed. All genocides consist of countless tales of personal tragedy, that could be recounted in gruesome detail.
Since Goldhagen rejects comparative analysis with other genocides, he never rises above the simplistic level of attempting to portray the Germans during the war years as a cruel people. Is this fruitful social science, or is this just an abdication of analysis? What does this type of explanation leave us with? Apparently human beings are capable of great brutality to their follow men without necessarily being exposed to a centuries old tradition of ethnic hatred, which Goldhagen postulates was the essential factor underlying the Holocaust.
One example is found in the way that he selectively uses the testimony of the Ordnungspolizei, who were directly involved in many of the massacres in Eastern Europe. At several points the men mentioned the emotional distress that they had experienced, especially during the early days of the actions. Goldhagen, sounding like a tough-minded empiricist, dismisses these statements, asserting that "the only methodological position that makes sense is to discount all self- exculpating testimony that finds no corroboration from other sources" (p. 467). Goldhagen criticizes Christopher Browning's earlier study (Ordinary Men), which used this same data, because it was "impaired" by Browning's "uncritical" acceptance of the testimony (p. 534).
In this fashion, Goldhagen systematically discounts all statements indicative of normal human emotion by the perpetrators. However, at several places in his narrative he is quite willing to casually throw empiricism to the winds and to liberally conjure up fantasies to bolster his portrait of collective German brutality! For example, on p. 339 he muses about what went through the minds of the soldiers as they "...made love in barracks next to enormous privation and incessant cruelty. What did they talk about when their heads rested quietly on their pillows, when they were smoking their cigarettes in those relaxing moments after their physical needs had been met? Did one relate to another accounts of a particularly amusing beating that she or he had administered or observed, of the rush of power that engulfed her when the righteous adrenaline of Jew-beating caused her body to pulse with energy." One can legitimately ask whether Goldhagen is writing history at such points, or creating a short story.
On p. 242 Goldhagen notes that the wife of Captain Wohlauf was present once when Jews were shot by Police Battalion 101, and that some of the men became angry at this, especially since she was pregnant. Goldhagen notes that "their objections bespeak no shame at what they were doing" and he attributes their anger to a "purely physical concern for her pregnancy." Nevertheless, the basic question remains -- why did they have such a concern unless they felt that these deeds were emotionally stressful, either to themselves or to a bystander? Did her pregnancy perhaps remind them that they too were family men? In fact, several of the Ordnungspolizei testified to such feelings, and they commented on the high degree of stress that they experienced from shooting Jewish women and children. Alcohol abuse was rampant after these actions.
Goldhagen dismisses these sentiments as being self-serving lies. He further notes that their testimony was presented in "neutral" tones of voice, which he takes as proof that they weren't emotionally upset from participating in the massacres (p. 152). One is struck by Goldhagen's casual willingness to project such extreme conclusions from very minimal data. He could as easily have concluded that their voice tone was flattened because the men were on trial, undergoing lengthy interrogation, emotionally subdued, and because emotional dissociation is a common reaction in these circumstances after such horrible events.
In some instances the evidence for "emotional stress" is too clear for even Goldhagen to deny -- for example, Himmler's documented concern for the psychological well-being of the soldiers involved in the massacres. Goldhagen acknowledges that the gas chambers were resorted to as a means of mass death not because of their greater efficiency, but because they were less of a "psychological burden" on the soldiers (p, 157). However, once again he interprets this "psychological burden" in purely physiological terms, as simple reaction to the physical gore (p. 221).
Another example of how Goldhagen selectively portrays German brutality is found in his elaborate description of the death marches, to which he devotes an entire section of his book. Interestingly, he notes that on the first day of the march, just outside Helmbrechts, "German civilians responded to the supplications of the Jews for food and water, only to meet the interdiction of the guards." When the column neared Sangerberg "the Jews communicated to the townspeople standing nearby that they were suffering from hunger: A few women...tried to pass to the prisoners some bread. At once, however, the nearby SS women prevented it. A male guard threatened one of the women who wanted to distribute food that he would shoot her if she should try again to pass food to the prisoners." Later, "they allowed the Jews to have some soup that the people of Althuetten had prepared, but forbade them from receiving any other food." And again, "the guards still refused to allow townspeople, this time from Volalry, to feed the Jews" (p. 348-9).
An unavoidable question is raised by Goldhagen's own account -- were these German civilians not "typical" of the rest of the nation? Were they immune to the "hallucinatory" and "exterminationist" anti-Semitic fever that supposedly gripped the German people? Goldhagen resorts to an interesting linguistic ploy on these pages -- he refers to the civilians as the "townspeople," and the guards as the "Germans." Indeed, were they not all "Germans?" Later, Goldhagen states that the townspeople "more frequently... looked upon these 'subhumans' with hostility and moral disgust" -- and in this context he characterizes them once again as "the German populace" (p. 365).
As a final example, Goldhagen portrays Kristallnacht as being a vast orgy of violence by the German people themselves, not just by the SA troopers. Paradoxically he notes that afterwards there was a widespread groundswell of criticism "voiced by Germans of all stations, including those in the Party." Goldhagen dismisses this protest by stating that the Germans simply disliked displays of lawlessness, and it disturbed them to see good property being destroyed (p. 101). In general, he dismisses most Germans who opposed the Nazi regime as being motivated by "non- principled protest," and he claims that most of them were themselves anti-Semitic.
While Goldhagen is certainly correct that the Nazi propaganda ministry demonized the Jews, he is overlooking a factor of great importance by dismissing everything as being a mere "hallucination." Propaganda becomes especially potent when it builds on elements of truth. The Nazis were able to capitalize on the fact that many Jews did play important roles in the Communist leadership, and Jews comprised a disproportionate number of the local party officialdom in the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and other areas. Peter Lawrence, in his article "Why Lithuania?" points out that in Byelosrussia the Jews comprised about 8 percent of the population, and while only 6.2 percent were members of the Communist party they comprised 23.2 percent of Party Committees at the district level. Nazi estimates for the Soviet Union (cited on p. 49 in The Einsatzgruppen Reports edited by Yitzhak Arad et al , 1989), were that the Jews comprised 1.77% of the general population, 5.2% of the Communist party membership, 25.7% of the party's Central Committee, and 36.8% of the Politburo, with the latter percentage rising to 42.9% by the end of Lenin's era. In other words, Jews had greater public visibility within the Communist bureaucracy, greatly exceeding their percentage of the population. Nazi propagandists invariably emphasized the connections between Bolshevism and the Jews, and often spoke of them as being one and the same phenomenon. This attitude was typical: "Bolshevism, with which Germany was locked in apocalyptic battle, was a Jewish invention and was only serving the interests of Jewry" (p. 393).
Compounding the deadly intensity of this image, the Germans and the peoples of Eastern Europe were well aware that the Soviet government had launched ruthless pogroms of genocidal proportion against various ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. World concern was aroused during the 1920s and 1930s when millions of Ukrainians and Volksdeutsch died as a result of the deliberate Soviet policy to exterminate these ethnic groups through mass starvation. The Ukrainians initially hailed the German troops as liberators who would remove the Bolshevik yoke from their backs. Nazi propaganda was relentless in its message: either victory, or total slavery under the Jewish Bolsheviks.
While Goldhagen acknowledges on p. 393 the link drawn by the Nazi propagandists between Bolshevism and World Zionism, he fails to emphasize the crucial importance of this belief. Rather than focusing on how German fears were aroused by rampant Communism in the east (an historically specific, "situational" factor), he prefers to focus on the deep, long-term historical roots of hallucinatory anti-Semitism, to which he devotes an entire section of his book.
Goldhagen himself inadvertently raises a problem with his theory when he notes on p. 122 that Germans typically did not condemn particular Jewish families with whom they were personally acquainted, although they routinely condemned the World Zionist conspiracy which they had been taught actually existed. "When the people read of the measures taken against the Jews in the big cities, then they approve of them. But when a Jew of their circle of close acquaintances is affected, then the very same people moan about the terror of the regime. Then compassion stirs in them again...Against them [the anonymous Jews in the big cities] the Germans applaud the eliminationist measures." If anti- Semitism was indeed a deep-seated, centuries old belief that had reached near hallucinatory "exterminationist" proportions, why did the German people routinely make such personal exceptions? A rather obvious conclusion would be that despite 12 years of skillful manipulation of the mass media by the Nazi propaganda ministry, many Germans were not prejudiced against Jews as people, but rather against Jews as representatives of an abstract conspiracy theory.