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The HMM Symposium

Partial account on H-GERMAN

The following is a report on the Monday, April 8 symposium organized by the Holocaust Research Institute at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. It is based on Maria Mitchell's notes with Peter Caldwell's collaboration; the text was written by Maria Mitchell. This report is in no way intended to be a definitive or official account of the proceedings, and we ask that others in attendance contribute their comments and impressions. This report is also not presented as an intervention in the debate about Goldhagen's thesis; we tried to eliminate all personal opinion in the text. The symposium was a long and unusual one. It shed much light on the gap between academic history and popular history and the passions with which the Holocaust is inevitably debated. The audience on the whole supported Goldhagen and reacted sharply to his critics. There was an overflow crowd of at least 600 people, many of whom had to watch the proceedings on a video screen outside the auditorium. The symposium began at 4:30 p.m. and was scheduled to conclude at 8:30 p.m.

The program of the conference was as follows:

Introduction to Conference: Michael Berenbaum, Director, United States Holocaust Research Institute.

Presentation: Daniel Goldhagen, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies, Harvard University.

Comment: Konrad Kwiet, J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence, United States Holocaust Research Institute; and Professor of German, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, Macquarie University, Australia.

Yehuda Bauer, Jona M. Machover Professor of Holocaust Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Ida E. King Distinguished Visiting Professor of Holocaust Studies, Stockton College.

Moderator: Lawrence Langer, Professor Emeritus of English, Simmons College.

Presentations: Christopher Browning, J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence, United States Holocaust Research Institute; and Professor of History, Pacific Lutheran University.

Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, Cologne University.

Moderator: Richard Breitman, Professor of History, American University; and Editor-in-Chief, Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Final Comments: Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor, The New Republic.

It is important to note that we left after Christopher Browning's presentation. Neither of us remained to hear Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm's paper, Daniel Goldhagen's response to Christopher Browning, or Leon Wieseltier's concluding comments.

Berenbaum introduced the conference with a plea for "civil discourse" and by noting that the Research Institute had been criticized for hosting a symposium on Goldhagen's book. He then set out the following questions: How essential was antisemitism to the motivation of the perpetrators? How endemic was antisemitism to German social and political culture?

For the purposes of his presentation, Goldhagen organized his thesis into three major points: (a) "exterminationist antisemitism" was a "cultural norm" in Germany already by the late nineteenth century; (b) the perpetrators all shared a Hitlerian view of the Jews; (c) most German citizens shared this view as well. His conclusion on the basis of these three points was that the majority of ordinary Germans was prepared to kill Jews. In asserting that "exterminationist antisemitism" was a "cultural norm" by the end of the nineteenth century in Germany, Goldhagen argued that "eliminationist antisemitism" became part of German culture due to certain set of historical circumstances which, he claimed, changed fundamentally after World War II. Jews became a symbol of all that was evil in late nineteenth-century Germany as antisemitism became infused with the "concept of race"; the goal of this type of antisemitism, widespread through all cultures and social classes in late nineteenth-century Germany, was exclusively to eliminate Jews. This version of antisemitism became, according to Goldhagen, official public ideology uncontested within German society. It maintained that Jews were racially different from Germans, harmful to Germany, and therefore had to be eliminated. Because there was no institutionally supported alternative view in Germany before 1945, Germans were raised on eliminationist antisemitism as they were on their "mothers' milk". This is why, according to Goldhagen, perpetrators had so little difficulty murdering Jews. Careerism, peer pressure, "myopic bureaucratism" (all of which he labeled "ahistorical") played no role; because some of those pressured did resist "governmental coercion" to kill, it was clear that there was no "real coercion". Exterminationist antisemitism was the only motivation and Germans' collaboration must therefore be ascribed -- and ascribed exclusively -- to virulent antisemitism. This explained, in Goldhagen's words, why Germans were not only zealous about eliminating the Jews but exceptionally cruel in doing so. This held, furthermore, not only for the collaboration of the perpetrators, but also for that of German citizens, whose refusal to intervene reflected their adherence to exterminationist antisemitism. In the 1930s, Goldhagen concluded, the vast majority of German citizens supported the Final Solution.

Kwiet began by accusing Goldhagen of having written and promoted the book in order to become famous, stating that -- no matter what the outcome of this debate -- Goldhagen had "made it". To stand out and attract media attention among the numerous publications in Holocaust Studies, Kwiet said, one has to advocate a spectacular thesis; this was exactly what Goldhagen did. In particular, Kwiet criticized Knopf's packaging of the book, especially its claim that the thesis relied on "new material". Most of the material, according to Kwiet, was borrowed from Christopher Browning's book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Very little else was new at all, according to Kwiet; the bulk of the book relied on secondary sources.

Not only was Goldhagen's material well-known, continued Kwiet, but nothing about Goldhagen's thesis was original either. The reliance on generalizations about national character and portrayal of the Germans as "exceptional" represented the heart of the Sonderweg thesis, according to Kwiet, which was debunked well over a decade ago. For this reason, Kwiet found particularly "irritating" Goldhagen's claim to understanding fully and finally the Holocaust. No other scholar, said Kwiet, has ever made such an arrogant claim. In this context, he quoted Hilberg and Friedlaender, who said of the book (paraphrased): It's worthless, despite all of Knopf's overhype. On the more specific level, Kwiet challenged Goldhagen's portrayal of women as equally involved/antisemitic and his disregard for the non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. How does Goldhagen explain the murder of the Gypsies and other groups, he asked, if murder was motivated exclusively by exterminationist antisemitism? Kwiet also criticized Goldhagen's interpretation of postwar German society, particularly his claim that antisemitism disappeared after 1945. Kwiet quoted Goldhagen to the effect that Germans today are "like us". If that's so, Kwiet asserted, then we can't expect Germans to display any sort of sensitivity or responsibility vis-a-vis the Holocaust; it might just as well be forgotten. Kwiet concluded by describing Goldhagen's perspective as "more than frightening". In contrast to Goldhagen, who had received loud applause from the audience, Kwiet was met with near silence.

Kwiet was succeeded by Yehuda Bauer, who began by asserting that Goldhagen's thesis is simply a re-warmed Sonderweg argument, one that was widespread in the decades after World War II. This interpretation, Bauer maintained, was in fact the very one that he, Bauer, had been arguing for the last thirty years, although in a much more sophisticated form. His own work, Bauer asserted, explored political and cultural structures as well as contesting voices and institutions in German society. It also relied on work that Polish and other Israeli scholars have produced for the last several decades, work to which Goldhagen, according to Bauer, had no access to because he didn't read those languages. The fact that Goldhagen's argument rested on German and English-language sources represented a serious problem, continued Bauer; among his few non-German/English sources was one in Czech -- "probably copied from me", said Bauer.

Goldhagen's lack of comparative research was problematic not only in terms of other secondary material, according to Bauer, but also in terms of his very thesis. What about Rumania, he asked, and its tradition of exclusionist antisemitism dating from the nineteenth century? What about Rumanians' enthusiasm for rounding up and killing Jewish men, women, and children? Why didn't Goldhagen deal with any other traditions of antisemitism, including the Polish, the Russian, and the French? In this regard, Bauer made reference to George Mosse's assertion that, if you had told people in 1900 that there would be a Final Solution, their response would have been (paraphrased), "Oh, those bad, very bad French." Bauer then attacked Goldhagen's advisor at Harvard. Goldhagen, he said, should not be held responsible for this shoddy work, in particular for its lack of a comparative focus. Instead, it is his advisor who must be blamed: How was this work awarded a PhD at Harvard when it doesn't cover the most basic issues? Bauer then criticized Goldhagen for ignoring competing strains of German history and, in doing so, for not being able to answer the questions: If eliminationist antisemitism was dominant already in the nineteenth century, why then did the Holocaust not take place until the twentieth? What was the difference? How was it that Hitler came to power? Bauer chided Goldhagen for not dealing adequately with the breakdown of the Weimar Republic. In this regard, he cited the fact that, in the Weimar Republic's last free election, 67% of Germans did not vote for Hitler. Was Hitler voted in, asked Bauer, solely because people supported his antisemitism?

Bauer concluded by saying that, while Goldhagen's answer was "wrong", his question remains important. But, he continued, it's one that needs to be dealt with with "humility", not arrogance. In asserting that, "I'm right and all those who have come before me are wrong," Goldhagen, according to Bauer, displayed an astounding lack of sensitivity vis-a-vis his subject. Goldhagen also ran the risk, Bauer continued, of becoming another Arno Mayer after Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? Following a big media splash and a great deal of discussion, Bauer says, Mayer's book has completely and justifiably been forgotten. Mayer's work, he said, is gone and rightly so; no one cites or talks about it anymore. You, he said, turning to Goldhagen, do not want to end up like Arno Mayer. You have started your career the wrong way, he concluded; you do not begin with Public Relations, you end with it.

Lawrence Langer then spoke as moderator. Making reference to Goldhagen's having exceeded the time limit for his initial presentation, Langer suggested he be "gracious" and forgo his comment so that discussion could begin. Goldhagen did respond, however, beginning -- to much applause -- by asserting that his book was a product of his own work, so one should not hold his tutors responsible. "I'm older than I look," he said. "I can take responsibility for myself." His thesis, Goldhagen continued, was new, even if his documentation was not. Kwiet, he asserted, misread my book entirely, while Bauer and I agree more than we disagree. After Goldhagen sat down, discussion began. Among the questions/comments from the audience, Goldhagen was asked about the marketing of the book. In response, he said that everything Knopf had done to promote the book had been cleared by him, and that he stood behind the publisher's claim that it would "rewrite the history of the Holocaust entirely". Kwiet then stated that there was no historical proof that German citizens had applauded the Final Solution. Germans responded with indifference and silence, Kwiet said, not with applause. In his answer to Kwiet, Goldhagen countered that indifference equalled support. In a question shortly afterward from the floor, Jerry Muller of Catholic University said he now regretted having invited his graduate students to the symposium. This has been an exceptionally poor example of scholarly exchange, he said, because you older scholars have been enormously disrespectful to this young man. You are exhibiting pettiness and jealousy over the fact that he's become important, and betraying the very purpose of our undertaking. In response to Muller's comment, the audience burst into enthusiastic applause. Lawrence Langer interjected amidst the turmoil that honest academic disagreement did not have to be characterized as "petty". The lights came on and the scheduled break began.

It appeared that the entire audience returned from the break. Beginning the second half of the proceedings, Richard Breitman introduced Christopher Browning, who began by noting that he had written in Ordinary Men that another person with a different perspective might not read the same documents similarly. Little did I expect, he continued, for that to happen so quickly or so dramatically. Browning then asserted that Goldhagen's thesis was by no means new, "the claims of the book's promotion notwithstanding". (He was met with an audible moan from the audience.) The greatest flaw of Goldhagen's thesis, he continued, was its "monocausality" and focus on "demonological antisemitism". According to Goldhagen, Browning said, there was no reluctance for Germans to overcome in order to be able to kill. They killed for pleasure and because they thought they were doing the right thing; they enjoyed it.

Browning continued by saying that much of Goldhagen's thesis rested on his treatment of sources, many of which he himself used in Ordinary Men. Browning critiqued Goldhagen's methodology as follows: By disregarding any testimony from postwar trials in which German perpetrators expressed reservations or remorse -- on the grounds that this was a simple attempt to gain clemency -- Goldhagen guaranteed that the sources would support his pre-formulated conclusion. Goldhagen's exclusionist principle was "deterministic", according to Browning, and failed to account for examples of Schutzpolizei who helped Jews or those who suffered emotionally from what they did. Goldhagen's approach also excluded the possibility that Germans could and did distinguish between socially acceptable antisemitism and unacceptable plans for mass murder. Browning's next point concerned the issue of non-German perpetrators in the Holocaust and particularly Goldhagen's disregard for sources that address this question. Here Browning relied on a case study of Luxembourgians who had been integrated into the German killing forces. These men, he argued, had presumably not been imbued with the "cultural norm" of exclusionist antisemitism, but they nonetheless participated in the crimes to the same degree as did German men. This showed the power of peer pressure and other social forces at work, asserted Browning. Such time-specific and situational pressures found no place in Goldhagen's work.

Goldhagen, Browning concluded, has written a book of "key hole" history, finding in German history only what he wanted to see and ignoring such powerful and competing cultural forces as Catholicism, Socialism, etc. Goldhagen operated outside of a historical context, according to Browning; he consequently offered a one-dimensional analysis. Goldhagen disregarded, furthermore, the degree of Nazi control of society and the real penalties that existed for speaking out. Browning accused Goldhagen of writing simplistic, Manichean, and "popular" history and concluded with a quote from Primo Levi to the effect that things are never as simple as people would like them to be. Nothing in history is very easy.

We left as Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm of Cologne University began speaking.


Maria D. Mitchell, Assistant Professor of History, Franklin & Marshall College American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, 1995-1996

Peter Caldwell, Assistant Professor of History, Rice University Fellow at the Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University, 1995-96


AAARGH NOTE: We saw the end of the symposium on a German TV channel satellite transmission to Paris. It was probably ZDF. What was striking was that the audience, mostly composed of very young people were supporting 100% Goldhagen against the "old ones", the real scholars. Whoever has organized the selection of the audience is a shrewd politician. This showed clearly the way the Holocaust Memorial Museum despises real scholarship and prefers press hypes and sensationalism.

H-GERMAN, Thu, 11 Apr 1996.

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