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Any good-faith account of the "controversy" surrounding my book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, would include a discussion of the many demonstrable untruths and misrepresentations written about both it and me personally. Fritz Stern's article ("The Goldhagen Controversy," November/December 1996), supposedly devoted to the debate surrounding the book, fails to do this, which is not surprising because it consists largely of the by now familiar tactics of raising false issues instead of focusing on the book's themes, findings, and arguments, of misrepresenting the book's contents, of asserting against it strident positions that have already been shown to be false, and of substituting denunciation for argument. Since I have already dealt with such general tactics, as well as Stern's principal substantive attacks, in my reply to my critics in the December 23 New Republic, I will confine my remarks here to two of Stern's charges, which reveal the heart of his project and the quality of his entire critique.ffi
Stern repeats an accusation that was leveled without substantiation at me in Der Spiegel, namely that, in Stern's words, the German translation "modifies or mutes some of his more sweeping allegations." The editor who wrote this piece had earlier revealed his true defamatory stripes by writing a cover story on the fiction that my book is about collective guilt -- a charge that one German scholar, Ulrich Herbert, labeled "a discourse of avoidance." As I have written and said many times, my book owes nothing to the indefensible notion of collective guilt. And, of course, those who make the charge provide no textual evidence to substantiate it, as Stern does not for his unscholarly accusation that my book is held together "by a single intent: the indictment of a people." What actually upsets many is that the book, against so much of the existing literature and the heretofore dominant view in Germany, champions the notion of Germans' individual responsibility for their actions and shows that many more ordinary Germans willingly took part in the genocide than has been maintained.
People in Germany, however, knew Der Spiegel's charge was baseless, as they could see that the German edition is faithful to the English edition. Even my scholarly critics there recognized the attack for what it was: another attempt to delegitimize my book and to divert attention from the real historical issues. Der Spiegel printed a letter from me in the next issue refuting this charge.
Stern mentions none of that. In order to present the charge as if it is true while protecting himself from having to defend it, he states in parentheses that he has not seen the translation. Essentially, he is making a charge about a book (the German edition) that he has not read. Since when do scholars do this? But Stern is not even credible here. The German edition was published in August. Stern tells us that he was in Germany in October. The book was readily available; it was prominently displayed. One would think that Stern, even without easy access to the German edition, would take pains to ensure that such a serious charge was true before printing it. Which is more condemning: that before writing this obvious untruth Stern did not even care enough to look at the German edition, or that he did?
Stern's second charge is that the extremely positive reception I and the book received during my trip to Germany was a result of disingenuousness on my part. I supposedly "attenuated" conclusions that would give offense to Germans: "It would seem that [Goldhagen] tried to please his German audiences." This is absurd, as Stern's description of my response in Die Zeit to the German critics unwittingly reveals: "Goldhagen attacked all his critics and rejected all their arguments." ** In Germany, I spent ten days in interview after interview and in six panel discussions with scholars including many of my most vehement critics (a number of which were broadcast on national and regional television), discussing and vigorously defending my book in the same terms in which it is written. All this, and the dozens of articles in German newspapers about the trip, form a voluminous documentary record that reveals Stern's claim to be manifestly untrue.< Josef Joffe's extensive account of my reception in Germany (he moderated two of the panel discussions), which appeared in The New York Review of Books, gives no hint of my having changed my arguments or conclusions.> Again the question must be asked of Stern: Did he so misrepresent what happened in Germany without investigating the facts, or after he had investigated?
The real story in Germany is that Hitler's Willing Executioners has led many to renounce comforting postwar myths and has provoked an intensive discussion of fundamental issues long ignored. Two examples illustrate how these developments have been welcomed. Wolfgang Wippermann, a professor of history at the Free University in Berlin and a scholar of the Holocaust and the Nazi period, declared at the Berlin panel discussion, "Goldhagen has done a great service to the political culture of our country," at which point, as Volker Ullrich writes in Die Zeit, "the audience thanked [Goldhagen] with thunderous applause." Hildegard Hamm-Brucher, nominated as the Free Democratic Party candidate in the last election for the German presidency, said on national television, "We have had a renaissance of reflection because of Goldhagen."
All this and more, including the book's reception in other countries, goes unnoted in Stern's account. He fails to report that many participants in the German panel discussions, as well as other scholars, have accepted many of my conclusions and that, in Joffe's words, "some contemptuous critics of the spring were strangely transformed by the autumn -- they now appeared as respectful, even deferential discussants."fi
Stern's account of the two issues treated here reveals that he is not interested in providing a fair or scholarly account of my book, the discussion surrounding it, or its reception in Germany. The rest of his many assertions about the book should be read with that in mind.
THE PUBLIC SPEAKS
The most fitting commentary on Stern and the other polemicists, and also on the German public's very favorable reaction to my book despite the months of Stern-like vituperation about it before its publication in Germany, comes from a Nuremberg woman writing me at the beginning of August. She began: "I am honestly sorry for the letter I sent to you last May!" That earlier, scathing letter, she informed me, was based on what she had gleaned from the initial attacks on the book, and especially on the belief that it was about the "idea of national character," which she "hated." She explained: "I did not expect scholars of the Holocaust to represent the content of Hitler's Willing Executioners in a misleading way." She then procured a copy and, "to put it mildly," she wrote, "I was surprised about what I found. This was not the book I had expected. I think it should be obvious to anyone who reads your book that these scholars twisted your words or criticized mistakes that are either very far-fetched or nonexistent."
The woman continued: "I learned a lot by reading your book (and by following this hypocritical debate) and it caused a very positive discussion among my fellow students, as well as among the adults I am teaching. So far I have not come across anyone who knew the real nature of your arguments and thought them absurd, nor anyone who was not disturbed by the historical facts that you described (apart from one whose grandfather had been a member of the SS -- he has had a hard time, though, ever since I introduced your book in his class)." By the way, she read the "undoctored" English edition.
Stern and the other detractors are reeling before the public's (and some of their colleagues') favorable reaction to my book. He is "puzzled." For months, critics like him have issued condemnations "in a feeding frenzy," to quote Joffe. In Joffe's words, each critic, like "a Vatican cardinal in charge of the Index," in effect decreed: "Don't Read This Book." Yet the German public paid no heed. Thousands came to the panel discussions; millions followed the discussions on television and in the press; and the majority of those who attended the events signaled by their reaction that they agreed with my positions, not those of the critics.
Stern has contrived two laughable explanations for this positive response: I sought to "please" Germans by altering the German translation and by modifying my positions, and I "enthralled" the public and "bested" the critics with my "charm," my "telegenic presence," and my "conciliatory manner." The first explanation, as I have shown above, is groundless. The second is equally suspect. To suggest that thousands of literate Germans could be seduced by the attributes of my physiognomy and the courtesy of my demeanor into accepting arguments that are so deeply troubling, that cast such a harsh light on their nation's past, is to disparage the intelligence of the present generation, grappling with the darkest period of their nation's history in the attempt to understand.
Germans have been exposed to seemingly endless attacks on my book and on me personally similar to Stern's, in all media, before, during, and after my trip to Germany, including during the panel discussions where the critics for the first time were compelled to justify and defend their charges.fl According to the German public, they failed. Germans have judged for themselves, and many have concluded that Stern and the others have unpersuasive arguments and little evidence to substantiate their attacks. The public in Germany and elsewhere is decidedly not being fooled. This seems to infuriate Stern and the other cardinals.
ffi One small but instructive example of Stern's willingness to invent anything that will damn is his statement about my book, "Unintelligible diagrams distract." In the book's more than 600 pages, there is exactly one diagram (reproduced twice), which is a simple two-by-two matrix.
** "Das Versagen der Kritiker," Die Zeit, August 2, 1996. This article discusses at length and refutes the central contentions of my German critics. Neither these critics nor Stern ever responded with serious counterarguments or evidence; Stern instead dismisses the piece in his article by terming its arguments "arrogance." This is yet another example of how I have addressed the arguments of my critics but they have not engaged mine.
< See, for example, Volker Ullrich's roundup piece on my trip, "Goldhagen und die Deutschen," Die Zeit, September 13, 1996. The exception to this is one Reuters report about the first panel discussion, which took place in Hamburg on the second day of the trip. It was written by an openly hostile reporter who argued with me about my book while admitting he had read only a small portion of it. The event's moderator, Robert Leicht, the editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, has authorized me to say that he will attest that the article's charge that I altered my positions is wrong. Die Zeit has since published the proceedings of the event , so anyone can verify that I presented my book's arguments faithfully.
> Josef Joffe, "Goldhagen in Germany," The New York Review of Books, November 28, 1996. Joffe's evenhanded account of the reception of Hitler's Willing Executioners in Germany, including my trip there, when compared to Stern's supposed treatment of the "controversy," becomes a devastating commentary on the latter. Joffe writes that the early reactions to the book in Germany, which read very much like Stern's, were "so hostile that it was almost bizarre."
fi Joffe's explanation, that some critics were changing their tune in response "to audiences that were thoroughly sympathetic to Goldhagen," ignores that Frank Schirrmacher and Norbert Frei, to mention the two whom Joffe cites, were backing away from earlier untenable assertions. The critics at the panel discussions continued to criticize, often forcefully, which shows they were not cowed by the audience. Joffe fails to consider that the source of the audiences' sympathy for my positions might have been the inadequacy of the critics' arguments.
fl Undoubtedly, part of the reason that so many in Germany have remarked on my supposedly winning manner is that, for months before my trip, I had been portrayed as something between a hate-filled avenger and a hanging judge. It is not surprising that when people finally saw and heard me, and therefore learned that I do not conform to what they had been told, my demeanor became part of the story. Most people seemed to realize that I had been falsely portrayed. Stern contrives to draw the opposite conclusion-that in Germany I must have been dissembling.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is Associate Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University.