A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth

A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth

by Norman G. Finkelstein, Ruth Bettina Birn

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No recent work of history has generated as much interest as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Purporting to solve the mystery of the Nazi holocaust, Goldhagen maintains that ordinary Germans were driven by fanatical anti-Semitism to murder the Jews. An immediate national best-seller, the book went on to create an international sensation.


No recent work of history has generated as much interest as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Purporting to solve the mystery of the Nazi holocaust, Goldhagen maintains that ordinary Germans were driven by fanatical anti-Semitism to murder the Jews. An immediate national best-seller, the book went on to create an international sensation.

Now, in A Nation on Trial, two leading critics challenge Goldhagen's findings and show that his work is not scholarship at all. With compelling cumulative effect, Norman G. Finkelstein meticulously documents Goldhagen's distortions of secondary literature and the internal contradictions of his argument. In a complementary essay, Ruth Bettina Birn juxtaposes Goldhagen's text against the German archives he consulted. The foremost international authority on these archives, Birn conclusively demonstrates that Goldhagen systematically misrepresented their contents.

The definitive statement on the Goldhagen phenomenon, this volume is also a cautionary tale on the corruption of scholarship by ideological zealotry.

Editorial Reviews

Ian Kershaw
Finkelstein and Birn provide a devastating critique of Daniel Goldhagen's simplistic and misleading interpretation of the Holocaust. Their contribution to the debate is, in my view, indispensable. -- Ian Kershaw
Eric Hobsbawm
All readers of Goldhagen's controversial book should take note of these much-needed studies, which, in line with serious historians, convincingly and authoritatively dismantle its arguments. -- Eric Hobsbawm
From the Publisher
"All readers of Goldhagen's controversial book should take note of these much-needed studies which authoritatively dismantle its arguments." —Eric Hobsbawm

"Finkelstein's contribution is more than a dessection: it tells us something about where we are." —Raul Hilberg

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A Nation on Trial

The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth

By Norman G. Finkelstein, Ruth Bettina Birn

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1998 Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6427-6


Before the Genocide

Genocide was immanent in the conversation of German society. It was immanent in its language and emotion. It was immanent in the structure of cognition.



In a seminal study published thirty-five years ago, The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg observed that the perpetrators of the Nazi holocaust were "not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. ... [T]he machinery of destruction was a remarkable cross-section of the German population." These representative Germans, Hilberg went on to say, performed their appointed tasks with astonishing efficiency: "No obstruction stopped the German machine of destruction. No moral problem proved insurmountable. When all participating personnel were put to the test, there were very few lingerers and almost no deserters." Indeed, an "uncomfortably large number of soldiers ... delighted in death as spectators or as perpetrators."

Long before Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's study, it was thus already known that "ordinary" Germans were Hitler's "willing" and not infrequently cruel "executioners." The main distinction of Goldhagen's study is the explanation it purports to supply for what Hilberg called this "phenomenon of the greatest magnitude." It is Goldhagen's thesis that the "central causal agent of the Holocaust" was the German people's enduring pathological hatred of the Jews (Hitler's Willing Executioners [hereafter HWE]: 9). To cite one typical passage:

[A] demonological antisemitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators' cognition and of German society in general. The German perpetrators ... were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist antisemitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural antisemitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just. (HWE: 392–3)

There are no prima facie grounds for dismissing Goldhagen's thesis. It is not intrinsically racist or otherwise illegitimate. There is no obvious reason why a culture can't be fanatically consumed by hatred. One may further recall that, Goldhagen's claims to novelty notwithstanding, his argument is not altogether new. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the genesis of the Final Solution was located in a twisted "German mind" or "German character." The departure point of Holocaust literature is that Germans, nurtured on anti-Semitism, were thirsting for a "war against the Jews." On the eve of Hitler's ascension to power, wrote Lucy Dawidowicz, Germany was "a world intoxicated with hate, driven by paranoia, enemies everywhere, the Jew lurking behind each one." The complicity of Germans at every level of society in the Final Solution, Holocaust historian Steven T. Katz likewise argues, ineluctably "flowed" from their belief in the "parasitic vileness of 'the Jew.'" This is also the dominant image of the Nazi extermination among Jews and in popular culture generally.

Bolstered as it is by a bulging scholarly apparatus, the audacious sweep of Goldhagen's thesis nonetheless merits emphasis. He argues that, for centuries, nearly every German was possessed of a homicidal animus toward Jews. Thus, he suggests that more than 80–90 percent of the German people would have relished the occasion to torture and murder Jews. Goldhagen takes to task the "conventional explanations" that supposedly ignore the "identity of the victims": "That the victims were Jewish — according to the logic of these explanations — is irrelevant." Indeed, he declaims that we must "abandon the assumption that, by and large, Germans in the nineteenth and twentieth century were not antisemitic" (HWE: 13, 30–1, emphasis in original). In a rejoinder to critics, Goldhagen credits his own book as being the first to correct this misconception: "Most seem now to agree that anti-Semitism was a necessary cause of the Holocaust ..." ("A Reply to My Critics," in The New Republic, 23 December 1996 [hereafter Reply]: 41). Yet, one is hard-pressed to name an account of the Nazi genocide that doesn't situate it within the context of German anti-Semitism. Goldhagen's true distinction is to argue that German anti-Semitism was not only an integral but rather that it was the sufficient condition for perpetrating the extermination of the Jews: "With regard to the motivational cause of the Holocaust, for the vast majority of perpetrators, a monocausal explanation does suffice" (HWE: 416, emphasis in original; cf. 455, 582 n42).

The Hitlerite regime accordingly plays a subordinate role in Goldhagen's comprehension of the Final Solution. Inasmuch as the inclination for "killing" Jews "predated Nazi political power," the Nazis were "easily able to harness the perpetrators' preexisting antisemitism once Hitler gave the order to undertake the extermination" (HWE: 399, 463; cf. 418–9). All Hitler did was "unleash the pent-up antisemitic passion," "unshackle and thereby activate Germans' preexisting, pent-up antisemitism," and so on (HWE: 95, 442, 443).

Leaving to one side the question of its veracity, this last formulation of Goldhagen's is still problematic. Consider that he repeatedly contradicts it. Had it not been for "Hitler's moral authority," Goldhagen observes, the "vast majority of Germans never would have contemplated" the genocide against the Jews (Reply: 42; cf. HWE: 446–7). It was the Nazis' unprecedentedly "extreme and thoroughgoing ... cognitive-moral revolution" that, Goldhagen suggests, produced Germany's "lethal political culture" (HWE: 456; cf. Reply: 42). Unaware that "these Germans were like no Germans they had ever known," Goldhagen explains, Soviet Jewry "initially greeted" the Nazi soldiers "obligingly and without hostility" (HWE: 587 n87). But if Goldhagen's thesis is correct, these Germans were like all other Germans.

On a related issue, Goldhagen dismisses the need for a comparative study by pointing up the centrality of Hitler's regime: "Whatever the antisemitic traditions were in other European countries, it was only in Germany that an openly and rabidly antisemitic movement came to power ... that was bent upon turning antisemitic fantasy into state organized genocidal slaughter" (HWE: 419; cf. Reply: 43). Yet Goldhagen's account merely restates the problem: Why did "an openly and rabidly antisemitic movement" come to power in Germany and not elsewhere? The answer cannot be the uniqueness of German anti-Semitism. That simply returns us to the comparative question. True, Goldhagen argues: "Had there not been an economic depression in Germany, then the Nazis, in all likelihood, would never have come to power" (Reply: 42; cf. HWE: 87). But that just evades another obvious question: If Germans were so possessed by a fanatical anti-Semitism — more on which directly — why did "an openly and rabidly antisemitic movement" have to await an economic depression to attain power?

Indeed, Hitler's Willing Executioners is a monument to question-begging. Eschewing the claim that it is "inexplicable," Goldhagen sets as his objective to "explain why the Holocaust occurred, to explain how it could occur." He concludes that it "is explicable historically" (HWE: 5, 455). Goldhagen's thesis, however, neither renders the Nazi holocaust intelligible nor is it historical. For argument's sake, let us assume that Goldhagen is correct. Consumed by a ferocious loathing of the Jews, the German people jumped at Hitler's invitation to exterminate them. Yet the question still remains, Whence the hatred of Jews? A nation of genocidal racists is, after all, not exactly a commonplace.

On this crucial issue, Goldhagen sheds no light. Anti-Semitism, he suggests, was symptomatic of a much deeper German malaise. It served the Germans as a "moral rationale" for releasing "destructive and ferocious passions that are usually tamed and curbed by civilization" (HWE: 397). Yet, he explains neither why these normally quiescent passions burst forth in Germany nor why they were directed against the Jews. Goldhagen depicts anti-Semitism as the manifestation of a deranged state. The Germans were "pathologically ill ... struck with the illness of sadism ... diseased ... tyrannical, sadistic," "psychopathic" (HWE: 397, 450, quoting a "keen diarist of the Warsaw Ghetto"), in thrall to "absolutely fantastical ... beliefs that ordinarily only madmen have of others ... [prone] to wild, 'magical thinking'" (HWE: 412), and so on. Goldhagen never explains, however, why the Germans succumbed and why the Jews fell victim to this derangement.

In what is surely the book's most evocative analogy, Goldhagen compares the Germans to "crazy" Captain Ahab. Recalling Melville's memorable description of Ahab's insanely hateful state as he harpoons the whale, Goldhagen writes: "Germans' violent anger at the Jews is akin to the passion that drove Ahab to hunt Moby-Dick" (HWE: 398–9). Yet even if, as Goldhagen maintains, the Germans were "crazy" like Ahab, it still remains to explain what drove them to such a frenzied state. In Ahab's case, the motive is clear. Moby-Dick had earlier mangled him. To quote Melville from the passage Goldhagen excerpts: "It was revenge." But Goldhagen plainly does not believe the Jews inflicted violent injury on Germans. Indeed, he emphatically denies that Jews bear any responsibility for anti-Semitism: "The existence of antisemitism and the content of antisemitic charges ... are fundamentally not a response to any objective evaluation of Jewish actions ... antisemitism draws on cultural sources that are independent of the Jews' nature and actions" (HWE: 39, emphasis in original). In an almost comically circular argument, Goldhagen concludes that the Germans' Ahab-like loathing of the Jews originated in their loathing of the Jews: "Germans' antisemitism was the basis of their profound hatred of the Jews and the psychological impulse to make them suffer" (HWE: 584 n62; cf. 399). This argument recalls one of Goldhagen's key theoretical insights: "The motivational dimension is the most crucial for explaining the perpetrators' willingness to act" (HWE: 20).

Goldhagen approvingly cites the Sonderweg argument that "Germany developed along a singular path, setting it apart from other western countries" (HWE: 419). But Goldhagen's thesis has precious little in common with this argument. Unlike the Sonderweg proponents, he never once anchors the deformations of the German character in temporal developments. Rather, the perverted German consciousness of Goldhagen's making floats above and persists despite history. Just how little Goldhagen's argument has in common with any school of history is pointed up by his conclusion that the Germans' "absurd beliefs ... rapidly dissipated" after the Second World War (HWE: 593–4 n53; cf. 582 n38). Indeed, Germans today are "democrats, committed democrats." Emerging from oblivion and enduring for centuries, the psychopathic German mind vanished again into oblivion in the space of a few decades. Thus Goldhagen renders the Nazi holocaust "explicable historically."

The merit of his thesis, Goldhagen contends, is that it recognizes that "each individual made choices about how to treat Jews." Thus, it "restores the notion of individual responsibility" (Reply: 38). Yet if Goldhagen's thesis is correct, the exact opposite is true. Germans bear no individual or, for that matter, collective guilt. After all, German culture was "radically different" from ours. It shared none of our basic values. Killing Jews could accordingly be done in "good conscience" (HWE: 15). Germans perceived Jews the way we perceive roaches. They did not know better. They could not know better. It was a homogeneously sick society. Moral culpability, however, presumes moral awareness. Touted as a searing indictment of Germans, Goldhagen's thesis is, in fact, their perfect alibi. Who can condemn a "crazy" people?


Goldhagen deploys two analytically distinct strategies to prove his thesis. The first derives from his own primary research on the German perpetrators of the genocide. Goldhagen maintains that some of the Germans' actions "defy all of the conventional explanations" (HWE: 391). In particular, he argues that only a murderously anti-Semitic culture can account for their wanton cruelty (Reply: 38–9). Yet, it is not at all obvious why Goldhagen's thesis is more compelling than one that, say, includes the legacy of German anti-Semitism exacerbated by the incessant, inflammatory Jew-baiting of Nazi propaganda exacerbated by the brutalizing effects of a singularly barbarous war. It is perhaps true, as Goldhagen suggests, that such a "patchwork explanation" (HWE: 391) does not yet fully plumb the depths of German bestiality. But Goldhagen himself acknowledges that neither does his theory. Ultimately, he concedes, the immensity of German cruelty "remains hard to fathom" and "the extent and nature of German antisemitism" cannot explain it (HWE: 584 n62, 584 n65; cf. 399).

The second thrust of Goldhagen's argument is to demonstrate historically that German society was seething with virulent anti-Semitism on the eve of Hitler's ascension to power. The undertaking is a daunting one. Goldhagen relies almost entirely on the recent secondary literature on German anti-Semitism. He acknowledges that his analysis cannot be "definitive" because the data needed "simply do not exist" (HWE: 47). In reality, however, the research situation is even worse than that. Not a jot of this scholarship, profuse as it is, sustains Goldhagen's thesis. No serious German historian discounts the legacy of German anti-Semitism; none, however, maintains that German anti-Semitism was in itself sufficiently virulent to account for the Nazi genocide. Indeed, this is one reason versions of Goldhagen's thesis have been discarded in serious scholarly inquiry. The task Goldhagen sets himself is to force the new evidence into the Procrustean bed of an obsolete theory. To meet this challenge, Goldhagen fashions a new model of anti-Semitism. Thomas Kuhn suggested that a new paradigm comes into existence when anomalies crop up that the old one can no longer accommodate. The purpose of Goldhagen's new paradigm, however, is to make the anomalies fit the old one.

The essence of Goldhagen's new paradigm is what he calls "eliminationist antisemitism." Goldhagen situates German anti-Semitism along a continuous spectrum. At one extreme was the perception that Jews were vaguely different. At the other extreme was the perception that Jews were distinctly evil. Between these poles were various perceptions that Jews were more or less flawed. Sliding from one end of the spectrum to the other, the complementary German desire to eliminate an unappealing feature of the Jews rapidly turned into the desire to eliminate Jews altogether. "The eliminationist mind-set," Goldhagen proclaims, "tended towards an exterminationist one" (HWE: 71, emphasis in original; cf. 23, 77, 444). Thus, any German who questioned the group loyalty or objected to the business practices of Jews was effectively a Nazi brute. Wedded as it was to an assimilationist version of the "eliminationist mind-set," even German liberalism inexorably led to Auschwitz.

Rescuing an otherwise improbable thesis, "eliminationist antisemitism" serves as Goldhagen's deus ex machina. Indeed, using this device, it is not at all difficult to prove that nearly every German was a latent Hitler. It would also not be at all difficult to prove that nearly every white American is a latent Grand Wizard. How many white Americans do not harbor any negative stereotypes about black people? If Goldhagen is correct, we are all closet racial psychopaths. Why then did the Final Solution happen in Germany? If we all suffer from an "eliminationist mind-set" then the "eliminationist mind-set" cannot by itself account for what Goldhagen calls a "sui generis event" (HWE: 419).


Excerpted from A Nation on Trial by Norman G. Finkelstein, Ruth Bettina Birn. Copyright © 1998 Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Norman G. Finkelstein, author of two acclaimed studies on the Israel-Palestine conflict, teaches political theory at Hunter College and New York University.

Ruth Bettina Birn is chief historian in the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Department of Justice, Canada. She lives in Toronto.

Norman G. Finkelstein, author of A Nation on Trial and two acclaimed studies on the Israel-Palestine conflict, teaches political theory at Hunter College and New York University.

Ruth Bettina Birn, coauthor with Norma G. Finkelstein of A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, is chief historian in the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Department of Justice, Canada. She lives in Toronto.

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