New Book Reopens Door On German Guilt Debate

BERLIN -- The long march of German shame was supposed to have ended last spring, after obligatory 50th-anniversary stops at Warsaw, Normandy and, bleakest of all, Auschwitz. Following a May 8 finale to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe, the expectation was that the national mantra of atonement would subside to background noise.

Then along came "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by American author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a book virtually shouting, "Not so fast, Germany."

The reason can be found on the ninth of Goldhagen's 622 weighty pages, where he writes the following: "The conclusion of this book is that antisemitism moved many thousands of 'ordinary' Germans -- and would have moved millions more, had they been appropriately positioned -- to slaughter Jews. Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity."

So much, then, for the years of hearing that Germans allowed Adolf Hitler to lead them astray into the darkness of the Holocaust. According to Goldhagen, Hitler only led them where they'd wanted to go all along, even if it took Nazi will and absolutism to set the journey in motion.

Already, many German critics have reacted harshly against Goldhagen's thesis. The angriest ones have dismissed the book as well-packaged pamphleteering, a biased and possibly racist tirade of misguided zealotry. A German-Jewish critic in the weekly Rheinischer Merkur wrote that Goldhagen's "Germano-centric" view of anti-Semitism was "unhistorical and un-Jewish."

Even the few more charitable critics, who regard the book as an important, scholarly study of the Holocaust, have cited flaws in its conclusions and historical methods. The rush of negative reaction was running strong enough last week to prompt the leader of Germany's Jewish community to say, in effect, "Let's all take a closer look for ourselves."

Although the German translation of the book won't go on sale until August, it is already hard to go more than a few days without seeing a discussion of it on German television, where the airwaves are glutted with ultra-serious talk shows. The respected weekly journal Die Zeit is serializing excerpts from the book in three consecutive editions, and a few months from now Goldhagen will arrive for a promotional tour.

Holocaust historians in Germany are angry with the book for several reasons. One is that it doesn't break much new ground, although that's the way it's being portrayed in the United States. Previous books and studies had already well established the wide and willing role of thousands of "ordinary" Germans in carrying out the Holocaust, and there seems to be an irritation here that Americans didn't already know this. Critics also say Goldhagen brushed aside or ignored much important evidence, particularly when it ran counter to his theories on anti-Semitism in pre-war Germany.

"Goldhagen does not at all take into account that there were social groups like the Social Democratic Party, (which for years garnered more electoral support than the Nazis) specifically opposed to the growing anti-Semitism," says Volker Ullrich. The eliminationist brand of anti-Semitism in those days "was limited to a small group of right wing intellectuals."

But an even bigger complaint is that Goldhagen seriously underestimates the atmosphere of terror and fear that many other Germans, not only Jews, felt under Nazi rule.

"Before 1933," says historian Jost Nolte adds, "death camps were unimaginable in Germany. Ditto after 1945. Thus Goldhagen's speculation about the murderous German soul is itself racist. ... It was beginning to look as if history had relieved Germans of their Sisyphus role; now Goldhagen is doing his best to push them back into it."