Heirs to a contested past

April 26, 1996

Alan Thomson talks to Daniel Goldhagen, proponent of the latest controversial theory about ordinary Germans' role in making Hitler possible

US academic Daniel Goldhagen may be forgiven for thinking he has stepped into a lion's den following the publication of his controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners (reviewed in The THES on March 29). The book's central thesis - that ordinary prewar Germans were thoroughgoing anti-Semites who condoned and frequently participated in the Holocaust - has provoked an explosive reaction in Germany, where the book will not be published in German until August but where debate has been sparked by the publication of lengthy excerpts.

In Der Spiegel historian and publisher Rudolf Augstein called the book "ignorant and malicious", while Peter Glotz, a Munich University professor, said Goldhagen's thesis was "distorted". "Genocide is not a German disease which could not appear elsewhere. The ground from which it sprang is still fertile - in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Chechenia, among the extremists of Hamas," wrote Glotz in Die Woche.

Goldhagen, however, seems fired by the criticism. "It has been unpleasant to read some of the more personal attacks, but I am disappointed that people are not responding to the substantial evidence in the book," he says.

He rejects much of the criticism with a neat five-point summary of the conventional explanations for ordinary Germans' participation in the Holocaust: coercion; following orders; social pressure; bureaucratic self-interest; and ignorance of the Nazis' "final solution". And he draws analogies with the US in a bid to convince readers that "my argument is unremarkable and common sense". "For example," he said, "before the American civil war, whites in the South believed blacks were intellectually and morally inferior. No one nowadays doubts that these views were commonplace. Why then should the Holocaust be the only exception?" He admits that he was warned off the book by some political scientists in the US for fear that it would "hurt" his career. As one of the candidates for Harvard's new chair of Holocaust studies it could prove decisive either way. In the meantime, he is no doubt steeling himself for a tour of Germany.

Additional reporting by Jennie Brookman

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