Daniel in the lions' den

February 20, 1998

A review of a book about ordinary Germans' complicity in the Holocaust has made the author reach for his lawyers. Tim Cornwell reports

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is politely but firmly not talking about the latest row inspired by his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Over three days, the Harvard scholar who wrote of the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust returns a series of phone calls promptly and passes along copies of his written work. He offers plenty of comment but it is all strictly off the record.

It is a pity. The other parties in the matter are full of chat - in particular, the German-born historian who claims her Canadian job may be on the line as a result of her criticism of Goldhagen's work. But scholars,presumably, have a right to remain silent as much as anyone else.

The tale begins with a review of Goldhagen's book in the Historical Journal, published by Cambridge University Press, last year. It was not particularly well written, nor was it the only academic review to take serious issue with his work: yet it inspired sharp discussion on the Internet.

Goldhagen, 38, has sold half a million copies of Hitler's Willing Executioners, and has often been showered with critical praise for shedding new light on the forces driving the Holocaust. His book controversially argues that ordinary Germans were motivated by their own hatred for Jews to take part in the Holocaust, that even before Hitler came to power virulent anti-Semitism had already infected the German in the street. Goldhagen is thick-skinned enough to have weathered the controversy that greeted the book's publication in Germany. But the review apparently moved him to pen a bitter 45-page line-by-line rebuttal to the 20-page article, and to instruct a firm of solicitors to send a sharp note to CUP about "many serious libels".

The offending review was written by Ruth Bettina Birn, 45, the chief historian with the Canadian Justice Department's war crimes unit, which is charged with tracking down the dwindling number of Nazi persecutors. Next month, a revised version is to be published in book form by Henry Holt Publishing in New York, in a move that has already fanned controversy.

Birn's PhD at the University of Stuttgart was on the SS and police history in Germany and North America. In the mid-1980s she became an adviser to the US Office of Special Investigations, charged with tracking down Nazis, before moving to her current job in 1991. She says she actually recommended to Goldhagen a major source of his material - the Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen, the central agency for the investigation of Nazi war crimes in Germany, where she has conducted research on and off for 20 years. "We had been in good and friendly contact," she says. An acknowledgement in Goldhagen's book echoes that. "Bettina Birn and Volker Riess (her collaborator on the review), while doing their own research, provided comradeship and valuable advice during the course of my stay," it says.

"There is no reason for Mr Goldhagen to do me any harm," Birn says naively. "His piece against me is full of abuse and personal abuse and I find it rather sad." However, in her review she did write: "Goldhagen's book is not driven by sources, be they primary or secondary ones". She added:

"verbosity and repetitiveness are the most striking features of the book",and that it is written somewhat in the style of "bad historical novels". Her critique may have seemed particularly hurtful, coming from someone who could claim intimate knowledge with the documents on which Goldhagen relied.

Birn's review will be republished next month in A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, alongside a second critical essay by Norman Finkelstein, who teaches at New York University. Finkelstein is attacked by leading US Jewish groups as "virulently anti-Semitic", in particular for writing that the Holocaust studies "industry" developed partly as a propaganda exercise for Israel. Questioning his academic credentials, Jewish groups have asked publishers Holt to pull the book, which they have refused to do.

The Canadian Jewish Congress reportedly asked the Justice Department to persuade Birn to stop her work being published alongside Finkelstein's. "Publish," the CJC's spokesman told the Toronto Globe and Mail, "but don't publish with somebody who's loathed and despised by the Jewish community."

Goldhagen does not wish to give an iota more publicity to his critics on the eve of the publication of their book on his book. The CJC and their American counterparts - along with the letter from his lawyers in Britain, at the very least firing a shot across Cambridge's bow - have already done a very good job of that. He is probably right to be keeping his own counsel.

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