“The German may be a good fellow, but it is better to hang him.”
—Russian Proverb

This is a disturbing book: not simply because the author, an assistant professor of government at Harvard, points an accusing finger at the German people whom he implicitly accuses of having been Hitler’s willing accomplices in the implementation of the “final solution” (the eradication of Jews from German society), but for its claim that the general mood of anti-Semitism, pervading all strata of German society in the 1930’s and making the holocaust possible, owed a great deal to age-old anti-Jewish prejudices and stereotypes inculcated and nourished by centuries of Catholic and Protestant indoctrination. As Daniel Goldhagen sums up in a sweeping, simplistic formula: the “Jew,” regarded as an instrument of the Devil in the medieval Age of Belief, came to be regarded as the Devil himself when, from the beginning of the 19th century on, religious faith declined, and with it the medieval belief in Satan.

No one can honestly accuse Daniel Jonah Goldhagen of not having done his homework. The notes and source references, filling more than 120 pages, attest to the diligence of the author’s research during the months he spent reading books and plowing through thousands of pages of documents concerning special police battalions and other death-camp units preserved at the Ludwigsburg Center for the Elucidation of National-Socialistic Crimes, near Stuttgart, and other archives centers in Hamburg, Koblenz, and Munich. (One is surprised, nevertheless, by the absence of a badly needed bibliography.)

All of the quotations needed to buttress his thesis are there, from Martin Luther’s ferocious anathema against Jewish money-lenders (“They hold us captive in our country. They let us work in the sweat of our noses, to earn money and property for them They . . . mock us and spit on us, because we work and permit them to be lazy squires who own us and our realm”) down to Thomas Mann’s initial sigh of relief (“the Jewish presence in the judiciary has been ended”), the theologian Kad Barth’s denunciation of the Jews (an “obstinate and evil people”). In this context, Goldhagen quotes Pastor Niemoller’s belated admission in March 1946 that “Christianity in Germany bears a greater responsibility than the National Socialists, the SS and the Gestapo.”

Not surprisingly, this disturbing book, with its inflammatory title and provocative central thesis, stirred a furor in the German press last April, not long after the publication of the American edition, a furor that may well become a hurricane when the German edition is published. The general consensus—to judge by the newspaper and magazine articles I have seen so far—is that Goldhagen’s book is excessively one-sided (an extreme case of “monocausality,” as one reviewer put it) and not particularly original, being largely based on the pioneering research done by others (such as the American historian Christopher Browning).

Rudolf Augstein, the highly opinionated editor of Germany’s most influential weekly, Der Spiegel, dismissed Goldhagen out of hand as a “nonhistorian,” adding that “the end result is meager, one can even say, it is simply ‘Nil.'” In the Berliner Morgenpost, Professor Michael Wolffsohn (who was born in Israel) was no less withering, remarking: Déjà vu, Déjà lu. . . . The doors, which were supposed to be wrenched open, are gaping wide. . . . The wheel once again has been invented and America rediscovered.”

This may seem a trifle harsh. But in an article dramatically entitled “Ein Volk von ‘Endlösern’” (“A People of ‘Final Solutionists'”), published in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Berlin historian Norbert Frei was certainly on target in pointing out that “Whoever wishes to obtain a hearing in the hotly contested media market of the 1990’s needs detonating theses.”

The question of just how original and “trail-blazing” Goldhagen’s explosive research really is, is one I shall have to leave to the specialists. What is certain is that he has put together a formidable indictment, based on the simple principle that since most Germans failed to speak out openly in protest, they were de facto accomplices who bear the burden of proof of their innocence. As Frank Schirrmacher noted in the Frankfurter Allgemmeine Zeitung, in criticizing Goldhagen’s “mechanistic” psychology, “One often has the impression that here it is not a historian who is speaking but a computer operator who has pored through legal proceedings and documents as though they were components in a giant software program.”

What most surprised me about this book is the almost mystical conception Goldhagen has of its key element, anti-Semitism. He describes it as a kind of undulating force, waxing and waning over the centuries and ever ready to erupt from the depths of the Germans’ collective consciousness according to mysterious circumstances he makes no attempt to elucidate. His thesis, though he does not formulate it that succinctly, is essentially that “Ugliness lies in the eye of the beholder.” The beholders in this case were the “ordinary Germans” mentioned in the subtitle of this book, while the ugliness lay in the preconceived stereotypes of the “scheming” or “money- grubbing Jew,” “the instrument of Satan,” and so on, which were harbored by average Germans who often had never dealt or met with flesh-and-blood Jews. This thesis is not one Goldhagen himself invented; it is based, as repeated source references make clear, on a book written by Bernard Glassman, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes without Jews: Images of the Jews in England, 1290-1700—a study of the anti-Semitic sentiments that were rife in that country at a time when there were practically no Jews living there.

Far be it from me to belittle the influence of stereotypes and primitive dislikes on human behavior. A great deal of what passes for “thinking” (in fact mere opinion-holding) in daily life is nothing more than stereotypic image-forming about “others” based on superficial contacts. As Dostoyevsky had one of his characters exclaim, “What a stench would spread out over the world if each person said what he really thinks!”

Anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen knows well, is no new phenomenon. Nor is it something absolutely unique and sui generis; it is merely a particularly vicious, and often pathological, form of a more general phenomenon we call “xenophobia”—which, as the Greeks clearly realized, was not simply a “hatred” but a fear of everything that is strange, foreign, alien. Not the least curious aspect of Goldhagen’s book is that, whereas the words “anti-Semitism and “anti-Semitic” appear on almost every page, there is virtually no discussion anywhere of the larger phenomenon of German xenophobia.

I write as one whose father in 1900 was sent to a boarding school in Berlin, where for the first few days he was brutally attacked and beaten up by groups of arrogant young Prussians until he, his older brother, and another American decided, for their own welfare, to move around everywhere à trois. None of this embattled trio was Jewish.

Years later, when I had to prepare a university paper on the German General Staff, I began to understand what had happened at this Berlin boarding school. Those young Prussian bullies were giving vent to what might be called the “Tirpitz complex”: a deep, simmering, rancorous feeling of national inferiority and resentment directed against all Anglo-Saxons because the British had not only the world’s greatest navy but also the world’s largest empire, whereas, thanks to its previous divisions, the recently united Germanic Reich had been cheated out of most of its “rightful spoils” in Africa.

Shortly after the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, Marshal Foch remarked that “Bolshevism is a disease of defeated countries.” The same could, I think, be said without too much exaggeration of the most vicious forms of modern anti-Semitism in Europe. The bacillus—the mythical image of the omnipresent, basically disloyal Jew as the scapegoat explanation for a country’s decline—first made its fateful appearance in Vienna (where Adolf Hitler caught the “bug”), shortly after Austria’s defeat by Prussia in the war of 1866. The disease then spread to France, after that country’s humiliation during the brief Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (with Drumont’s vitriolic pamphleteering and the bitterly contested climax of the Dreyfus case). After which, the epidemic infected the postwar German Reich, which had lost its emperor, which had been stripped of its colonies in Africa, and had been reduced to the modest dimensions of the Weimar Republic.

What I miss in Daniel Goldhagen’s book is the kind of intellectual subtlety that Peter Viereck demonstrated years ago in Metapolitics, which, though written in 1941 before the “final solution” had been carried out in all of its gruesome horror, remains one of the best books ever written about Nazism. In it he cites the case of a wounded German soldier who, taken prisoner by the French during the campaign of 1940, needed a blood transfusion. “When approached by the doctor and blood donor, the prisoner insisted: ‘I will not have my blood polluted with French blood. I would much rather die!’ So the French racial inferiors could only shrug their un-Nordic shoulders with very Gaelic shrugs and—soon after—bury the prisoner, a martyr to the new religion of racism.”

Here is another, equally illuminating quotation from the same book, which shows to what grotesque heights of lunacy Nazism’s racist xenophobia could be carried:

After the World War, General Ludendorff formed a nordic group to combat everything Christian. His motto: “War is the highest expression of the racial life.” Ludendorff recognized that a religion of war was more likely to win the new “total war” for which he prayed than a religion of love. He was converted by his bluestocking wife Mathilde, who wrote Redemption from Jesus Christ. Most Nazis consider themselves sufficiently subtle when they “discover” that all foes are tools of Judaism. Mathilde goes them one better in subtlety: even the Jews are tools. At a Nazi party congress she unmasked the subtlest plot in history, shrieking that Jews, capitalists, Reds, democrats, and Free Masons were all puppets of the insidious Dalai Lama, who pulled their strings from his fiendish laboratory in Tibet, where he plotted to persecute Germany.

I have quoted these two extracts because they put the anti-Semitic feelings of the Germans in their complex Pan-German, Herrenrasse perspective. It was precisely for this reason that most Jews living in Germany under the Weimar Republic—they numbered more than half a million—at first refused to take Nazism seriously. They regarded the rantings and ravings of Hitler, Goebbels, Julius Streicher (the hysterical purveyor of a kind of sex-crazed anti-Semitism), and others as the fulminations of a lunatic fringe.

This explains two extraordinary phenomena which go virtually unmentioned in Goldhagen’s superficial account of the vitally important Weimar years: the German Jewish intellectuals’ feeling of being completely “at home” in a Berlin, which—with Max Reinhardt (magnificently installed in the Bellevue Palace), Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Kurt Weill, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Lang, and Erwin Piscator—was perhaps culturally the most dynamic capital in Europe; and the conviction, shared by virtually all of these intellectuals, that Nazism, even after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of the Reich, was a kind of transient phenomenon, unlikely to last. As Manes Sperber (himself an Austrian Jew) later wrote in his fascinating memoirs, he and thousands of other left-wingers stayed on not only because they were convinced that “it cannot happen here,” but because they expected Germany to be shaken and saved from the “brown pest” by some kind of cataclysmic convulsion.

The cataclysm came—in the form of the diabolical Reichstag fire and the rigged elections of early March 1933. But by then it was too late to do anything but flee. For those, at least, who had the means to do so. 


[Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 622 pp., $30.00]