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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4 November, 1997


Protection of the almighty author

by Michael Jeismann

(English translation)

...The impetus for this after-piece was an incisive review of Hitler's Willing Executioners by Ruth Bettina Birn and Volker Riess in the March edition of the Cambridge Historical Review. Birn is the chief historian for the department concerned with crimes against humanity of the Canadian Justice Ministry. Volker Riess is also a historian, and both of them are among the most knowledgeable experts on the Central Archive of the State Administration for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg. These archives contain a considerable part of the sources on which Goldhagen based his thesis. Birn and Riess first subjected Goldhagen's work to a detailed critique in association with these sources. The result was devastating: Goldhagen consistently sought confirmation, not scientific findings. After this detailed critique, to speak of a "selective handling" of the sources on Goldhagen's part is a euphemism; he is manipulative.

All this would have remained a purely academic matter if news hadn't surfaced during the summer that Goldhagen was threatening Ruth Bettina Birn and the two publishers of Historical Studies as well as the director of Cambridge University Press with a libel suit, in accordance with the English laws governing the press. The Freiburg historian Ulrich Herbert had already made note of this in a letter to the Spiegel in connection with the critique by the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein that was less close to the sources, but equally sharp.

What is new and unusual about this procedure is that an author attempts to refute scholarly criticism, not by argumentation, but by threatening future suit. Such is unusual in the "scientific community." The decisive question is not whether the critique is justifiable, but whether one attempts to bring another authority other than scholarship into play. There cannot be a continuation of scholarship by juridical means. Whoever attempts, as is here the case, to exchange the basic ground rules of scholarly disputation for legal force sets himself outside of scholarship....

The accusation of libel which Goldhagen has initiated, plays itself out in several distinct chapters. The opening move was a letter from a London solicitor. In this sharply worded letter, Birn was told that her critique defamed the character of the author, and that she lacked objectivity because she could find almost nothing good about the book. There follows a lengthy list of alleged false representations, filling up several pages. The letter closes with the demand that she apologize publicly and take back everything that the accuser finds objectionable. Furthermore, Birn was advised that any further dissemination of her article would be viewed as an aggravating circumstance.

There were seven days in which to answer [the accusation]. Goldhagen, on the other hand, has six long years in which to consider whether to pursue the next step. Thus, Ruth Bettina Birn publishes under probation. The damages that could be demanded would not be inconsiderable. What this would mean to Cambridge University Press and Birn can be imagined.

Ruth Bettina Birn did not apologize and saw no reason to retract her criticism. After Ulrich Herbert's letter, made the matter public, she sees no reason to remain silent either, and has explained the background behind this affair to this newspaper. It now becomes clearer what interests and forces may have contributed from the beginning to turning Goldhagen's dissertation into an American and European "event."

An assailable publicity and scholarly discussion has accompanied Goldhagen's book from the very beginning. If one can ascribe the enthusiastic prepublication reports of non-experts in important American newspapers to clever marketing, the same cannot be said of the symposium organized by the Research Institute of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in the spring of 1996. Four renowned historians were invited, and not one was willing to praise the book. The director of the Research Institute later published the proceedings of the symposium from which three critical contributions were omitted.

At the same time as the debate about the book was in full swing in Germany, and Goldhagen was stating in all seriousness in the August 2 Times regarding German criticism that, "Germans tried to silence me," Ruth Birn was asked by Jonathan Steinberg, the editor of the Historical Journal for an article critiquing Goldhagen's use of sources. Holocaust Studies, published by the Holocaust Museum, wanted to republish this critique in an abridged, somewhat different version. However, that was not to be. After Holocaust Studies received the critique, they demanded of the author in advance that she give them authority to come to an out-of-court financial agreement with any author to whom she might have to pay damages.

Scholarly silencing

At the same time, Daniel Goldhagen contacted Ruth Birn and attempted to get her to write a "fairer" review and give him a copy in advance so that he could "react" to it. Birn didn't want anything to do with that, but instead had attorneys examine her review. Like Volker Riess, Ruth Birn knew Daniel Goldhagen from encounters in the central archives in Ludwigsburg. Both critics had been friendly and helpful to Goldhagen more than once as he tried to get access to the source material.

Finally, in May of this year, Birn received the letter, which one can justly call a suit in installments and which essentially sought to render her silenced as a scholar. Because the offer by an American publisher to include her critique in an collection on the subject produced unpleasant consequences for Birn. Her employer, the Canadian Ministry of Justice, informed her in writing that new actions had been taken to block the reprinting of her article. [aaargh emphasis] After leaving queries by this newspaper unanswered, Daniel Goldhagen let it be known via the Deutsche Presseagentur that he had never sued Birn, a statement that has more to do with playing with legal terminology than with fact. Goldhagen has just published a long reply to Birn's critique in the magazine German Politics and Society, in which he accuses Birn of "systematic violation of scholarly praxis." Furthermore, he uses Jurgen Habermas' eulogy on the occasion of the awarding of the "Democracy Prize" for 1997 as proof of his scholarship and as a sign of moral authority.

This entire process, Goldhagen's friendly but steely intransigence, and finally his self-understanding as a "messenger" all confirm the findings of the Israeli historian Gulie Neeman Arad. She analyzed the Goldhagen campaign within the American cultural context and saw in it an expression of a deep-seated insecurity on the part of orthodox American Jews. In the face of a "competition for victim status" and a growing number of mixed marriages, there is a tendency to retreat into a cult of "victimization," according to Arad. This victim-consciousness alone can "reinsure group solidarity" and guarantee the "maintenance of a unique and separate identity." This interest is not identical to that involved in scholarly research of the Holocaust. If the search for guarantees of existence become too powerful, it is guaranteed to produce unscholarlyness.


Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4 November, 1997. Translation by Kenneth Kronenberg posted on H-Holocaust on Sat, 15 Nov 1997. The first two introductory paragraphs have been omitted.

The posting of this article in no way implies that the author or the translator share any other views expressed on this Website.

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