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Re "Criticism in Jeopardy?"

Submitted by: Jeremiah Riemer

In the matter of Goldhagen vs. Birn and H-GERMAN's discussion of this dispute, I find myself

1) much less worried about the global "chilling effect" most H-GERMAN subscribers automatically assume to have emanated from Goldhagen's demand for a retraction and 2) much more concerned with how H-GERMAN members have completely avoided very specific issues of substance and interpretation raised by this episode. Most of the messages on "Criticism in Jeopardy" are alarmist flights of speculation about questions we cannot answer until we have more facts in front of us. At the same time, more central problems for which we already have plenty of evidence are being skirted left and right.

By reminding subscribers that "the content of Goldhagen's book was discussed thoroughly over a year ago and is not really the issue now," H-GERMAN has in effect bracketed further discussion about the very issues that go to the core of Goldhagen's dispute with Birn. Goldhagen (in "The Fictions of Ruth Bettina Birn," German Politics and Society 15, 3, Fall 1997, p. 156) has accused Birn of a "wholesale misrepresentation of my book's contents." Whether one regards Birn's article as a devastating blow against Goldhagen or a self-inflicted wound (or none of the above), her claim to have said something new and significant in the Historical Journal is not devoid of content either. For better or worse, form and substance cannot be so easily separated here.

Goldhagen's response to Birn in German Politics and Society was mentioned twice in the first H-GERMAN posting. One historian, Jorg Bottger, says he has read it, but only to pronounce that "It's getting pretty ugly!" and to repeat unverified speculation that Goldhagen's aim is to "silence a critic with legal means." Neither the editors nor subsequent contributors give any indication of having compared Goldhagen's reply against Birn's arguments and evidence in the Historical Journal. Virtually the entire debate on H-GERMAN is proceeding on the basis of an implicit agreement with the assessment made by the FAZ reporter (and highlighted by the first H-GERMAN message on this subject): "Das Neuartige und Ungewoehnliche dieses Vorgangs liegt darin, dass hier ein Autor versucht, wissenschaftliche Kritik nicht durch Argumente zu widerlegen, sondern mit dem Hinweis auf ein eventuell einzuleitendes Gerichtsverfahren zu unterbinden. Dergleichen ist in der 'scientific community' unueblich."

What is wrong with this statement? Quite apart from the editorial implication that Goldhagen has forfeited his right to membership in the community of scholars, it is the empirical assumption that argument and evidence do not matter to this particular author, since he can always resort to the legal system as an alternative. Whatever one may think about the wisdom or fairness of Goldhagen's demand for a retraction by Birn, what FAZ maintains here (and with which H-GERMAN seems to concur) is precisely not what Goldhagen is doing: He is not using legal communication as an alternative to debate. Rather, arguments and evidence of the kind he marshals in German Politics and Society form the basis for his legal action. Goldhagen wants a retraction based on scholarly reasoning, not as an alternative to the same. Whether law and scholarship can or should be linked this way is a point very much worth debating, but it is not the same as a pseudo-debate over the supposed use of legal threats as a way of avoiding debate. On the other hand, H-GERMAN's pronouncement of closure on substantive matters and its contributors' numerous protestations of offense at the disrespectful attack-dog methods Goldhagen allegedly uses against reputable rival scholars (a charge he answers in German Politics and Society) do distract from real debate.

Much has been made of documents in the Birn-Goldhagen affair. What do the publicly available documents tell us, and on what issues are they silent?

First, what we know: Anyone can read Birn's review and Goldhagen's response. In my initial reading of Birn's review, I was struck by two aspects of her argument -- one somewhat intriguing, the other quite disconcerting, neither very satisfying. First of all, Birn advances a number of methodological objections to Goldhagen's use of archival evidence and judicial testimony. For example, she puts forth the interesting notion that war crime defendants' expressions of Nazi ideological zeal should not be taken at face value because appearing fanatical was often part of an exculpatory defense strategy. Birn's methodological views are radically different -- indeed, often the very reverse -- of Goldhagen's, and certainly worthy of debate. Secondly, however, Birn also makes a number of assertions about Goldhagen's book that any careful reader should immediately recognize as distortions of his arguments. Most dramatically, there is her claim that Goldhagen has denied "the possibility that the crimes committed during the Holocaust are within the scope of human behavior" (p. 213).

Nothing in Birn's essay persuaded me that the documents prove Goldhagen wrong. I found no archival "smoking gun." While the article piqued my curiosity about what those papers in the Ludwigsburg Zentralstelle (ZStL) actually say, and how I might be able to test both Goldhagen's and Birn's interpretations against them, Birn offered nothing more conclusive than footnotes at the bottom of the page and interpretive assertions in the body of the article. By my count, there are just two actual quotes from ZStL documents that allow any reader to see who is being more forthright about this evidence. In one case, where the issue is whether a Police Battalion medical orderly expresses shame about killing Jewish patients in a hospital or merely about "this way of acting" ("diese Handlungsweise"), it appears that Goldhagen has given us the fuller citation (see Birn, HJ, p. 199 & fn. 6; Goldhagen, GPS, p. 135 and p. 161, fn. 17). In the other case, where the issue is whether one word ("Nuessknacken)" in a song about teaching Jews a lesson refers metaphorically to the cracking of skulls, Goldhagen concedes that he may have misread this one word in the poem, but rejects Birn's claim that his is a "blatantly false rendering of original text" and points out how Birn neglects to mention the contexts (Christmas and one other "social gathering of the killers") in which this poem celebrating the humiliation of Jews was recited (see Birn, HJ, p. 211, and fn. 41; Goldhagen, GPS, p. 163, fn. 27). In both cases, incidentally, the more complete record of information is to be found not only in Goldhagen's GPS response to Birn, but also in Hitler's Willing Executioners.

In his response to Birn in GPS, Goldhagen makes the effort (successfully, in my view) to tell us what is wrong with what I have called the second aspect of Birn's review. Through a meticulous reconstruction of her rhetorical devices, he shows how Birn arrives at a picture of Hitler's Willing Executioners bearing little resemblance to the book he actually wrote. The major distortion, he argues, comes from the way Birn turns carefully argued statements Goldhagen makes into wild generalizations out of context. It is insufficiently appreciated in the community of historians -- and it will no doubt shock many H-GERMAN subscribers to hear me say this -- how carefully and contextually Goldhagen has stated his case. As I wrote in die Tageszeitung over a year ago, the interpretive problems arising out of his book are not due to "simplification," but to Goldhagen's "different appreciation of complexity." If H-GERMAN members can suspend their aesthetic judgment on how "ugly" the debate is getting, they will find the German Politics and Society piece a useful reminder of this point.

Goldhagen does not (in my view) deal exhaustively with the first aspect of Birn's review, her methodological differences with his manner of evaluating testimony. He argues that Birn's entire explanatory edifice collapses under the weight of her misreading of his book, that her "attacks on my use of archival sources are rendered moot because their basis -- without which they do not even make sense -- is her fictional positions that she falsely attributes to me" (Goldhagen, GPS, p. 156). I remain to be convinced that this disposes of every last methodological objection Birn entertains. However, Goldhagen does make a very convincing case that their dispute cannot now be settled by discussing "archival material to which people do not have ready access" (Goldhagen, GPS, p. 156). And, even if the specific misrepresentations Goldhagen answers constitute only a sample of her method, it is a large and representative sample.

This exchange of arguments is what we know from the public record. But there is much that we do not know, mostly about Goldhagen's demand for a retraction and Birn's response. Birn is our major source for this, since she has expressed her anxieties and speculated on the background to Goldhagen's action in both FAZ and Spiegel. To the press she has made the odd and disturbing remark that Goldhagen's book "zeichnet, boese gesagt, den Holocaust als Andachtsbild fuer den reichen nachgeborenen Spender in Amerika, fuer alle, die Betroffenheit, aber keine Selbstzweifel mehr spueren sollen" (Spiegel, November 10, 1997, p. 267.) (This remark is an answer to Spiegel's leading question about whether Goldhagen's book "placates the victims' and the perpetrators' side alike," so one can only hope Birn is not implying that American Jewish philanthropists ought to feel "self- doubt" about the Holocaust.) Goldhagen responded to the FAZ story in a letter published on November 12 (p. 15) saying that the retraction of proven error is the only issue here and that he welcomes debate. But here is what we do not know: Although Birn expresses amazement (Spiegel, p. 266) that Goldhagen did not publish his response in the Historical Journal, we do not know whether the Historical Journal, a journal supposedly committed to scholarly debate rather than self- aggrandizing exposes, offered Goldhagen equal time to answer her serious charges. Though many statements from FAZ, Der Spiegel, and H-GERMAN urge us to feel sorry for Birn and blame Goldhagen for making her feel "eingeschuechtert" (Spiegel, p. 266), we do not know everything about the sources of her nervousness. We do not know how Cambridge University Press or her employer at the Canadian Justice Ministry are now (re)assessing her scholarly and professional work, nor do we know if the prospect (undoubtedly humiliating) of having to issue a retraction admitting that there are distortions in her review might be properly creating "Selbstzweifel" of her own. Although Ken Ledford blankly asserts that "one purpose of suing an historian... MUST be the financial ruin of that historian," we do not know (and I personally doubt) that this is Goldhagen's goal. The legal and journalistic communications at issue here have been going on within a "black box." Not even the parties immediately affected know everything that's going on. What purpose is served by amplifying the noises in these vacuum tubes?

[...] The widespread speculation -- by Birn, the German media, and now H-GERMAN -- about how either Goldhagen's action or his book is connected to some wider trend (whether among American Jews, as both FAZ and Spiegel prefer, or among multinational corporations, as David Crawford ruminates) -- would not be worth commenting on if it were not such a prominent part of what Goldhagen rightly identifies as a Vermeidungsdiskurs. How Goldhagen functions as an agent of big publishing companies or an identity-crisis-ridden Jewish community remains a mystery; neither the mechanisms nor the direction of influence are ever specified. Is Goldhagen manipulating PR resources at his special command, or is the corporate apparatus using him? How widely should we cast this net of corporate manipulation of history? Should we include Historical Journal consulting editor Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers -- commercially published with Random House, heavily promoted on TV and radio talk shows, and giving its author celebrity status in Spiegel and other news weeklies? Or conclude that the persistent German interest in what Kennedy has to say in his post-Cold-War sequel merely reflects a stubborn European resentment at America's sole-superpower status? In place of all this vague and silly conspiratorial conjecture, I prefer what might be called the "single bulletin theory" of Goldhagen: Whatever the resources at his disposal (and whatever the broader social sources of his lay audience's fascination with this academic book), he is acting alone.

The most disturbing of these "contextual" interpretations is the ill- informed yet sanctimonious conclusion FAZ draws (November 4, 1997, p. 41): "Dieser ganze Vorgang, Goldhagens freundliche, aber stahlharte Intransigenz als 'Bote' bestaetigt den Befund der israelischen Historikerin Gulie Neeman Arad. Sie analysierte die Goldhagen- Kontroverse im kulturellen Kontext der Vereinigten Staaten und sah in ihr den Ausdruck einer tiefgreifenden Verunsicherung der amerikanischen orthodoxen Juden." Whatever else Goldhagen may be, he is certainly not a spokesman for America's Orthodox Jews. Furthermore, anyone halfway familiar with the sociology and public debates of American Jews would know that it is secular and non- Orthodox Jews who are expressing more concern about assimilation and cultural identity, whereas the Orthodox (with higher birthrates, lower rates of intermarriage, and greater certainty about religious dogmas) are confident about their future (and even begrudgingly admired for this by their secular and Reform opponents). Even if FAZ and Arad had correctly analyzed the relationship between the Holocaust and American Jewish identity, it would have no bearing on the validity of Goldhagen's scholarship. It would be too embarrassing even to mention this if it were not essential to illustrate the direction Spiegel and FAZ are taking the Vermeidungsdiskurs once more. Playing upon ignorance and suspicion of the most prominent Diaspora community, they are turning the Goldhagen debate into a Jewish problem.

I concur wholeheartedly with Ken Ledford's sentiment that "we should write the truth in our criticisms of each other, fearlessly and openly" and "be cautious as well." These are (by no means abstract) sentiments with which Goldhagen agrees (indeed, he says as much in his letter to FAZ), though he obviously thinks British laws about truth in publishing are preferable to what the ACLU and probably most American scholars think about the exercise of these liberties. I see no harm in taking up a collection for Ruth Bettina Birn, though I detect no urgency to do so either. (In his letter to the FAZ, Goldhagen says it is the Historical Journal that he has asked for a retraction. Does Cambridge University Press not have lawyers as competent and pockets as deep as Goldhagen's?) Unlike Dan Rogers, I do not feel that "a cold wind is blowing... as I am typing these words," nor am I going to change my insurance policy. But I can think of a more fruitful collective action historians and other social scientists might undertake to help resolve disputes like this (and which was hinted at in a previous H-GERMAN discussion): Lobby for whatever changes in German privacy and public information laws are needed to get documents on the Holocaust into print, where every undergraduate can read them.


History-GERMAN <[email protected]> Sat, 22 Nov 1997.

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