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Hitler’s Willing Executioners’: An Exchange

To the Editors

I have read Gordon Craig’s review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners [NYR, April 4]. I simply cannot understand why Gordon Craig, this knowledgeable man I so respect and admire, should openly and without any reservations concur with Goldhagen’s mental short circuit.

Goldhagen takes the view that National Socialism was a specific German anti-Semitic attitude: All believed in the necessity of radical action to safeguard the existence of their people. This is why “the extermination of the Jews appeared to them to be a necessary national project.”

Gordon Craig begins his review with a description of the conditions in Germany in the year 1733. At that time the Jews—incidentally not only in Germany—were indeed without any rights. However, Gordon Craig does not cover conditions in the following 200 years, but with a bold leap lands directly at the Holocaust, which was triggered off by the alleged “deep smoldering anti-Semitism.”

A development, however, had taken place between 1733 and 1933 which does not substantiate the contention that there had been a continuous and uninterrupted fervent anti-Semitism. As early as 1776 Lessing had called for religious tolerance in his drama “Nathan the Wise.” Then in about 1800 began the Romantic period. The salon of Rachel Varnhagen, née Levin, was for a long time the focal point of intellectual and literary life in Berlin.

In Prussia—where in 1671 the Great Elector had with a special charter allowed the settlement of fifty Jewish families expelled from Vienna—an edict in 1812 integrated the Jews into the judicial system. The state chancellor von Hardenberg declared at the time: “I shall not vote for a law concerning the Jews which contains more than the following four words: Equal rights, equal obligations.” For the Jews this led to their “Assimilierung,” secularization, and their gradual integration into German life and culture. It is worthy of note that in the wars of liberation there were more than 400 Jewish volunteers.

When I was young I devoured the contemporary literature: Zweig, Wassermann, Werfel, Kafka…. The idea would never have occurred to me that they were all Jews, for me they were great German writers.

Goldhagen is quite right when he states that Hitler had firmly decided to eliminate the Jews. But he is mistaken in his contention that “anti-Semitism unusually violent in its imagery and tending towards violence was deeply embedded in German culture.”

Dr. Marion Gräfin Dönhoff

Die Zeit

Hamburg, Germany

Gordon Craig replies:

I am distressed by Marion Dönhoff’s reaction to my review of Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, because I had believed that I had made my reservations to its general thrust abundantly clear, while acknowledging its contributions to our knowledge of the Nazi past. My assumption, I guess, was too easily made, and I had better try again.

I think that Hitler’s Willing Executioners is to be welcomed because, with all of its exaggerations and dogmatism, it will stimulate new discussion and research on the most dreadful and incomprehensible event of our century, and particularly on the mentality of the large number of average Germans—much larger than was believed ten years ago, when Martin Gilbert wrote about “the tacit, unspoken, unrecorded connivance of thousands of people”—who participated, not only in the administrative aspects of the Holocaust, but in the actual killing as well. I believe also that the book is important because of the light it throws upon aspects of the Holocaust that have not previously been emphasized in the literature on the subject, particularly conditions in the labor camps and the behavior of the guards during the death marches of the last phase of the war. These chapters are deeply disturbing and raise important questions for students of the Holocaust.

My reservations are rooted in the fact that Goldhagen argues a case that requires historical proof if it is to be accepted with almost no reference to historical evidence. His thesis is that the Germans never overcame the anti-Semitism that was common to Christians in the Middle Ages but merely compounded it with increasingly hateful, and finally racial, views about the Jews until it became what he calls “eliminationist anti-semitism,” a concept that he says was “unclear and hazy” yet “pregnant with murder.” As I said in my article, he shows little interest in demonstrating the historical evolution of this process, taking the position that it was logical and therefore must have happened, and admitting that his intent is “primarily explanatory and theoretical. Narrative and description…are here subordinate to explanatory goals.”

The specificity and variety of history find no place in Goldhagen’s book. There is no detailed discussion of what German life was like or what the state of politics and culture was at any time in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even when Goldhagen writes of the increase of anti-Semitism in the political system after 1875, his account is one-sided and distorted, saying nothing about the opponents of anti-Semitism, the Progressives and the Social Democrats. Instead of history, we get reductionism and are fobbed off with the impression that by the beginning of the twentieth century all Germans were eliminationist anti-Semites, whatever that term might mean.

Goldhagen’s relentless argument by implication that the population of Germany consisted exclusively of two groups, the Jews and the Germans who hated them, bears little resemblance to the facts of life. Marion Dönhoff has given us some historical examples to illustrate this. Others might be added: Bettina von Arnim’s tireless work for Jewish causes in the 1840s; the idolization of Ferdinand Lassalle by the workers of Leipzig and of Paul Singer by those of Berlin; the repudiation by Mommsen and other historians of Treitschke’s statement in the Preussische Jahrbücher in November 1879 that “the Jews are our national misfortune.”

The behavior of the Jews themselves is the most persuasive refutation of Goldhagen’s thesis. If the radical division of Germany was as far advanced by the beginning of the twentieth century as he seems to think, the Jews would have been aware of the hatred of their German neighbors every hour of their waking days. But John Dippel shows, in his book Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, which I also reviewed in my article, that this was far from being the case. The Jews were not a separate entity in Germany but half a million individuals, building their lives in their own ways, with German co-workers and friends and with the same freedom to find their own values and careers.

It was the gradual evolution of the Nazi anti-Jewish program that changed their situation, and it is worth noting that the first stages of this (the anti-Jewish boycott of 1933, for example) were not widely popular, as they would have been if Goldhagen’s major argument were sound. It is certainly regrettable that, as Hitler’s genocidal program moved from horror to horror, there was not more public support for the Jews from the churches and professions and people in prominent positions, but that is to be explained, perhaps, by human frailty and the by then well-established Nazi reputation for ruthlessness.

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