Courtesy Reuters

The Goldhagen Controversy: One Nation, One People, One Theory?

In This Review

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Knopf, 1996
640 pp. $35.00
Purchase

Holocaust literature abounds, as survivors seek to bear witness and historians try to understand. So far the very magnitude of the satanic murder has inspired a kind of awed reticence about pronouncing overarching explanations. Now a 37-year-old political scientist from Harvard claims: "Explaining why the Holocaust occurred requires a radical revision of what has until now been written. This book is that revision." Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published in this country in April and in Germany in early August, has become an international sensation, a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book is a deliberate provocation -- I consider this a neutral judgment. Provocations can shock people out of their settled, comfortable views; they can also be self-promoting attacks on earlier work and professional standards. Goldhagen's title is provocative and delivers his thesis: the executioners of Jews were willing murderers, who willingly chose to torment and kill their victims; they were ordinary Germans, not Nazi monsters, not specially trained or indoctrinated by party membership or ideology, but simply acting out of what Goldhagen calls the common German "eliminationist mind-set." And being "ordinary" Germans responding to a common "cognitive model" about Jews, their places could have been taken by millions of other ordinary Germans.

Goldhagen's book comes in two related parts: the explanatory model, or "the analytical framework," as he also calls it, and the empirical evidence. The parts are joined by a single intent: the indictment of a people. The duality of presentation marks the style as well. Goldhagen depicts horror and renders judgment in evocative and compelling phrases. He bolsters polemical certainty with concepts drawn from the social sciences, relying on the vaporous, dreary jargon of the worst of academic "discourse." Unintelligible diagrams distract, even as horrendous photographs confirm. "The book's intent is primarily explanatory and theoretical," he notes. Theory explains and, as there is a persistent mismatch between the powerful, unsparing description of Holocaust bestiality and simplistic theoretical explanation, theory triumphs. Astoundingly repetitive,

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