National Character, Collective Guilt, and Original Sin - the Goldhagen Controversy

By Cohen, Edmund D. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

National Character, Collective Guilt, and Original Sin - the Goldhagen Controversy


Cohen, Edmund D., Free Inquiry


Early in 1996, a young Harvard Government and Social Studies teacher published his dissertation. Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen(1) was touted as a groundbreaking work, shedding startling new light on the role of ordinary Germans in the mass murder of the Jews of Europe.(2) It received ecstatically favorable initial reviews. The cover kudos included review snippets from several major daily newspapers and an imprimatur from Elie Wiesel.

In early spring, longer reviews by experts in the field portraying the book as significantly flawed but still worthwhile began to appear.(3) Numerous feature stories recounted devastating criticism Goldhagen's book was subjected to by senior Holocaust experts and the German press.(4) More and more the book came to be portrayed as fundamentally flawed and misleading, the product of its author's visceral personal hatred for the Germans.(5)

What was it about this book that so beguiled a major publisher and many early readers, and kept it on the New York Times hardback best-seller list for eleven weeks? What does it take to keep discussion about a topic so fraught with emotion as the Holocaust sober and reasoned? Is it possible that reluctance to deal forth-rightly with the significance of the Christian religion in the formation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust - no less on his critics' part than on Goldhagen's - did more to bring about this sad spectacle than first appears?

If nothing else, Hitler's Willing Executioners ably tells the specific historical events Goldhagen studied in detail. Its central focus is Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were elements of the so-called Order Police (Ordnungspolizei). These were actually light-duty military outfits composed of recruits who were overage or otherwise not considered fit for regular army duty. Men with extensive Nazi Party connections were unlikely to be found in these unprestigious police battalions.

Police Battalion 101, like many others, was assigned to rounding up, deporting, and sometimes killing Polish Jews. From the written records and correspondence, Goldhagen demonstrates that members of police battalions could opt out of killing civilians without prejudice to themselves. Few did. Instead, they generally outdid what was ordered in their cruelty and brutality. Goldhagen correctly points out that refusal by Germans within the uniformed services to brutalize Jews during World War II as well as punishment for such refusal were all but nonexistent. For those confronted with the assignment of killing defenseless Jews, the typical response was to rationalize that killing to be justified and then go on to develop actual enthusiasm for the gruesome task. However, by no account were persons directly involved in perpetrating the Holocaust more than a fraction of a percent of the German population.(6)

Other aspects of the Holocaust Goldhagen tells well include the distorted concept of work arising from Nazi doctrine about the Jews. From all other types of internees, the Nazis sought to extract economically valuable work adding to the war effort. Amelioration of living conditions and rations just enough to allow the internees to be productive workers was the usual result. But even at times when need to supply the war was most pressing, the Nazis put Jewish prisoners to performing pointless busy work, meant only to increase the suffering and degradation preceding their deaths. Also, Goldhagen documents how the SS conducted Jewish prisoners on long, circuitous death marches for no conceivable rational purpose. The German officials' delusional and irrational hatred for the Jews is illustrated by example after example.

The problem with Goldhagen's book is in his interpretation and analysis - his extrapolation of the attitudes of Nazi officialdom to the German public at large - not his documentation of specific events. Goldhagen begins by declaring it his mission to dispel purported widespread misconceptions about the Holocaust:

This revision calls for us to acknowledge what has for so long been generally denied or obscured by academic and non-academic interpreters alike: Germans' antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

National Character, Collective Guilt, and Original Sin - the Goldhagen Controversy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.