The willingness of the executioners: a foucauldian critique of Goldhagen1

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The willingness of the executioners: A Foucauldian critique of Goldhagen1

Karen Vintges and Eric Tjong Tjin Tai2
Since its publication, three years ago, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s willing executioners (1996)3 has been generating a worldwide debate, of which it is an understatement to say that it hasn’t always been conducted according to civilized academic traditions.4 This is due primarily to the book’s provocative thesis and its attack on all current historical Holocaust research, which he says provide only ‘patchwork explanations’. As a political scientist, Goldhagen’s aim is to prove beyond any doubt that the Holocaust was only possible through the willing cooperation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans. His thesis is that it was a cultural tradition that created this willingness in the German people, in particular the tradition of a specific, German form of eliminationist antisemitism. This is what he considers the crucial factor in the coming about of the Holocaust.

Not only has his book upset many historians, but besides that a growing controversy has risen between historians on the one hand and social theorists specialised in social explanation, on the other. Is the Holocaust only to be studied by historians, or can the social sciences contribute to its understanding? Many historians dismiss the study of the political scientist Goldhagen as a non-historical and therefore nonsensical one. Goldhagen is accused of merely applying a theoretical, sterile model. On the other hand, the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas praises the book for its value to contemporary Germany.5 Other social theorists have welcomed the book, convinced as they are that the Holocaust should not be the exclusive domain of historians. We agree with their stance that, besides historical reconstruction, social explanation should be applied as well, with the added remark that its outcomes later have to be developed and formulated in terms of historiography again (Schreurs 1997; Hartmans 1995), and a reconciliation of social theory and historical facticity has to take place.6 This article only deals with the first step, and does not pretend to combine it with historical research. A comparison is made between Goldhagen’s explanatory model and that of other authors, and the heuristic value of one of these models is proposed for historical research which may contribute to understanding the way in which the Nazi regime related to its subjects. On the basis of this proposal, additional conclusions are drawn with respect to the topics of subjectivity, morality and integrity in modern-day Western civilization.

1. Controversy

Hitler’s Willing Executioners is composed primarily of three case studies, enclosed between a (theoretically founded) history of German antisemitism and an explanatory conclusion on the causes of the Holocaust. The first and most significant of the case studies is that of the infamous Police Battalion 101. Based on eye-witness accounts stored in the central judicial archives in Ludwigsburg, Goldhagen provides detailed accounts of how ordinary police officers emerged as willing, ‘unnecessarily’ cruel perpetrators. The second case covers the so-called work camps whose only purpose was, according to Goldhagen, to murder Jews after a brief respite - if forced labour can be called that. Finally, the third case analyses one of the many death marches to which victims were subjected at the very end of the war, while civil populations looked on. What emerges from these three case studies is that the perpetrators of the Holocaust (at least 100,000 and, according to Goldhagen, probably five times that number (HWE: 167)) were not only following orders, but developed their own - terrible - initiatives, especially against their Jewish victims, often voluntarily and even against orders from direct superiors.

In his study, Goldhagen dismisses all current explanations of the perpetrators’ behaviour. In particular, he rejects philosopher Hannah Arendt’s explanation in terms of totalitarianism, and the view of historian Christopher Browning, who in his own study of battalion 101 (Browning 1992a) suggests peer pressure as an explanation of the extremely cruel actions of these ‘ordinary men’. “The perpetrators acted neither under compulsion nor out of submission to highers, neither because of social pressure nor out of self-interest, further not out of bureaucratic short-sightedness. Decisive was the fact that they all partook in the virulent antisemitism which pervaded the whole of German society”, Goldhagen summarizes.7

If there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of perpetrators, Goldhagen concludes that millions of Germans must have known of the gruesome mass murders of Jews and must have approved of these. In his view, there must have been a deeply rooted, so-called eliminationist antisemitism with a German character; a deep-seated hatred in German culture which brought forth a passionate desire to wipe out the Jewish people. This can be the only explanation for “the fact that the Holocaust could have come to pass”: “the Holocaust finds its roots in Germany” (Goldhagen 1996b).8
Goldhagen’s book has found both extreme proponents and opponents.9 Survivors of concentration camps perceive him as the first historian to represent their point of view, after a period in which the reliability of victims as an historic source had been questioned. In The Observer (March 31st, 1996) author Elie Wiesel advocates introducing the book as part of the compulsory German school curriculum. Richard Bernstein speaks of a ‘pioneering study’ in The New York Times (March 27th, 1996). In The Sunday Times (March 24th, 1996), Robert Harris calls it a great work. Historian Josef Joffe in The New York Review of Books (November 28th, 1996) applauds Hitler’s Willing Executioners as “an original, indeed, brilliant contribution to the mountain of literature on the Holocaust that has been produced over the last fifty years”. With the exception of a few methodological errors, this book contains “first-rate history that has transformed the way we look at the Holocaust”, he again concludes some weeks later in the same publication (February 6th, 1997).

However, the book evokes a great deal of resistance with most historians. The Germans Eberhard Jäckel and Hans Mommsen both consider it to be a miserably bad book (Die Zeit August 30th, 1996; May 17th, 1996 respectively). The Isreali historians Robert Wistrich and Moshe Zimmermann wipe the floor with Goldhagen’s study. The first calls it “a very one-sided and in academic terms unacceptably over-generalization of German culture, history and the character of the German people” (De Volkskrant 1996-11-30). Zimmermann accuses Goldhagen of racism because his point of departure is an inherent distinction between Germans of gentile and of Jewish origins (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1996-4-29). The American historian Christopher Browning, who had earlier studied the reserve 101 police battalion (Browning 1992a), calls Goldhagen’s book ‘keyhole’ history: “he views events through a single narrow vantage point that blocks out context and perspective”; the result is “a kind of methodological determinism” (Browning 1996: 97 and 99). Goldhagen merely demonstrates what was built into his approach.

The Canadian historian Ruth Bettina Birn attacks Goldhagen for dealing with the material at the institute in Ludwigsburg in a highly inaccurate and selective way. A closer look at the material contradicts his conclusions with respect to a specific cruelty against Jewish victims. Other Nazi victims were tortured and brutalized just as much. Birn thus refutes the findings of Goldhagen’s case-studies, from which he deduced his thesis of a German so called ‘eliminationist antisemitism’ as the single cause of the Holocaust (Birn 1997). Goldhagen responded in (1997). The American political scientist and historian Norman Finkelstein attacks Goldhagen’s ‘crazy’ thesis as well, in particular his method of eliminating each fact that proves the ambiguous attitude of many Germans, including many of the perpetrators (Finkelstein 1997).

While Birn and Finkelstein explicitly attack Goldhagen for his perceived inaccurate use of sources, for most historians it is Goldhagen’s ‘monocausal’ explanation of the Holocaust from a so-called German eliminiationist antisemitism which is the primary bone of contention. However, Goldhagen himself, supported by some of his defenders (Vries 1996; Schreurs 1997; Gilcher-Holtey 1996), has argued that this is not his main thesis at all. Not the actual occuring of the Holocaust but the motivation of its perpetrators is said to be the real topic of his book, its main thesis dealing only with this.

It must be said that Goldhagen’s own methodological reflections are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, he repeatedly claims that virulent antisemitism explains the Holocaust as such (Thesis I);10 on the other hand, he claims that it only explains the subjective world of the perpetrators of the Holocaust (Thesis II).11 It is the first claim which thus far has been the focus of most criticism - and of confusion as well. ‘Extreme determinism’, ‘voluntarism’, ‘structuralism’, these are only a few of the - contradictory - qualifications applied to Goldhagen’s approach. First we shall deal with these criticisms, and clarify why Goldhagen’s Thesis I is tantamount to an extreme methodological individualism.

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