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What We Need to Know About the Holocaust’: An Exchange

In response to:

What We Need to Know About the Holocaust from the September 30, 2010 issue

Willy Georg/US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Residents of the Warsaw ghetto, summer 1941

To the Editors:

Timothy Snyder opens his discussion of my book [“What We Need to Know About the Holocaust,” NYR, September 30] with “Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, by contrast, in Worse Than War, takes the view that we already know all that we need to know about the Holocaust, and indeed about all of the other calamities of the twentieth century.” But on pages 88–89 of Worse Than War, after discussing the relative abundance of information on the German perpetrators of the Holocaust (which hardly means full knowledge), I state my actual view, which is the opposite of what Snyder has invented for me:

Only a fraction of such information exists for other mass murderers. Generally, little is known about the killing institutions and their members. Hence, an analysis of why and how the perpetrators implemented most exterminationist and eliminationist programs relies on less voluminous and good information…. Overall conclusions must be provisional and tentative, until more complete information is uncovered about other mass eliminations….

One might think that even a dishonest writer would try not to expose himself with such a demonstrable fabrication in the very first line of his “review” of a book. Yet given what Snyder has written, he appears to have had little choice but to risk doing just that, as virtually his every critical assertion about the content of Worse Than War, or of my alleged views, relies on out-of-context quotation, sleight of hand, or out-and-out invention. In plain English, Snyder makes it up—again and again and again—and then proceeds to knock down the fabrications he has imputed to me, in a seeming withering demolition of the book, and, with grotesque innuendo, of me personally.

Space limitations prevent me from documenting more than a few corners of Snyder’s wide and tangled web of such fabrications. But take a broad issue: Snyder asserts that I am “impatien[t] with plural causality,” and the only factor I put forward to explain genocides is ideology. This is an outright fabrication, as anyone who has bothered to read Worse Than War knows. On page 274, I write in a chapter called (note the plurals) “Sources and Patterns”:

Although a complex interactive relationship exists between a specific country’s politics and society, we can identify several political factors that crucially contribute to the initiation and character of our time’s mass murders and eliminations.

I then enumerate and proceed to discuss in-depth five such factors: (1) features of modernity and the modern state, (2) structural relationships within countries, (3) international contexts, (4) beliefs about certain groups and about the politics and society, and (5) proximate factors that produce opportunity. Later on page 560, I return to the discussion of these multiple causal factors as the explicit foundation for crafting prevention strategies. Even though I have concluded that people’s beliefs are a critical factor, an analysis that places plural causality at its center is, demonstrably and undeniably, at the heart of Worse Than War.

Take a narrower issue: Snyder invents for me the ridiculous position that Jewish policemen helping the Germans round up Jews in the Warsaw ghetto “must have acted, in Goldhagen’s account, according to their anti-Semitic desire to eliminate Jews.” Why? Because, according to Snyder, I deny that coercion was ever used to get people to kill. Yet page 150 of Worse Than War reads thus: “Sometimes a regime’s killers coerce local civilians to aid them in killing. The Indonesian perpetrators who slaughtered communists did this in some towns. The Guatemalan mass murderers of Maya did this in some villages.” I then cite a Tutsi survivor’s estimate that 30 percent of Hutu perpetrators were “forced to kill.”

So Snyder (1) fabricates for me the position that I deny coercion was ever at work, even though I unequivocally state that there were many instances when coercion was applied. Then Snyder (2) takes a scenario that in my six-hundred-page book I never discuss, namely that of such Jewish policemen, and then based on his initial fabrication, Snyder (3) asserts that a position he himself calls “absurd”—namely, that the Jewish policemen were anti-Semites and wanted to eliminate Jews—“must” be my own. This is the sort of series of moves that Snyder repeatedly undertakes in his “review.” Does Snyder have any scholarly integrity?

Snyder employs these and other techniques of fabrication on small, middling, and large matters, in his systematic attempt to cast me as intemperate, reductionist, and foolish. Worse, he uses such fabrications to assault my character. Malice and viciousness stain the pages of Snyder’s “review.” He claims that I rob people of their humanity, likens my views to those of the Nazis, aligns me with mass murderers by writing that I should see the “beast within” me, and more. This pattern of fabrication and calumny suggests that Snyder was never engaged in actually writing a review of my book on genocide.

Let Snyder produce undoctored quotations—and not a few words out of context or casuistic evasions or new diversionary attacks on my character—with page numbers from Worse Than War that prove each of his assertions above, namely that my view is unequivocally “X,” even though, as I show (and on these points I could have cited many additional passages), the book explicitly contains “not-X.” Let him demonstrate that my extensive and various discussions of “plural causality” are actually not in the book! The same challenges would apply to the substantial list of Snyder’s other fabrications which I can document. If he cannot—and he cannot as it is impossible—then it will be apparent to everyone that Snyder’s piece tells us a great deal about him and nothing about Worse Than War.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Newton, Massachusetts

Timothy Snyder replies:

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes that I “fabricate,” “invent,” and doctor quotations. Strong words! And completely baseless. Though I quote liberally from his book in my review essay about recent works on the Holocaust, Goldhagen provides not a single example that might support his bold accusations. Instead, he takes a cue from Lewis Carroll’s bellman, and simply repeats them three times. He complains of a lack of space, but that’s not his problem: his letter is as long as the portion of my review devoted to his book. His problem is that he has no case whatsoever. The veracity of all of my quotations can easily be checked by the interested reader (at pp. 51, 69, 91, 94, 123, 357, 358, 359, 386, 394, and 440 of Goldhagen’s book).

Goldhagen complains that I impugn his character. What he means is that I report on what he writes. In his book, Goldhagen uses terms of analysis redolent of the Nazi era, applying categories of subhumanity and disease to our fellow human beings. In a particularly objectionable bit of pseudoscientific jargon, he claims to be able to discern “variation in beastliness across cultures and subcultures” (pp. 440–441). Having chosen to use such terms, Goldhagen had two legitimate options: defend his own choice to discuss groups of people in terms of subhumanity and “pathology” (p. 358), or grant that the revival of such notions is dreadful scholarship and worse ethics. Instead, he imagines that the review essay is about Daniel Jonah Goldhagen rather than about books and history. Treating the review as a personal attack just trivializes the issue. More important matters are at stake.

One of these is our urgent need to understand the Holocaust. Goldhagen has a number of problems here, one of which he recalls in his letter: his definition of “perpetrator” (p. 91) includes many people whose motivations are not what he says. As I showed by reference to Jewish policemen and former Soviet POWs, it is impossible to explain the mass murder of European Jews by reference to a paradigm of perpetrators who, in Goldhagen’s terms, after a “conversation” and a “decision-making moment” have “freely opted” to take part (quotations on pp. 396, 69, 94; see also pp. 96, 150, 180, 187, 189, 301, 307, 356, 384, 386, 396, and passim). I agree with Goldhagen that anti-Semitism is very important; where I part company is at the distortion of the historical record required to minimize other factors. Emphasizing the salience of German anti-Semitism, Goldhagen claims, wrongly and grievously, that “Germans did not rape Jewish women” (p. 457). Underlining the importance of face-to-face killing, he refers to the gas chambers where 2.8 million Jews were asphyxiated as “incidental implements” of mass killing (p. 123). Not so.

Goldhagen’s account of mass murder is voluntarist. Though of course he mentions various other factors besides the human will, his explanation then systematically removes them from view. Of the perpetrators, he writes that their

decision-making moment is not reducible to or determined by other factors. It is generated by the will to kill and also the forge for translating that will into a firm resolve to perpetrate the act. It is therefore the self-sufficient account for why these people perpetrate mass murder and elimination” (p. 69).

Goldhagen is right to note, in his letter, that he did not test his explanation by the case of the mass murder of the Polish Jews. Indeed, Goldhagen provides no adequate case study of any episode of mass killing. Instead, he picks and chooses among what he takes to be the facts of individual episodes to support whatever general argument he believes himself to be developing. In doing so, he makes shocking errors of fact and judgment, some of which I mentioned, and not a single one of which he now denies.

It would indeed have been wiser for Goldhagen to cast his conclusions in a way that was, as he writes, more “provisional and tentative.” He is quite right, after all, that one can draw evidence from his book that contradicts his positions. Goldhagen’s reference to his discussion of genocide prevention reminded me of a notable example. He argues there that the UN is an inadequate tool to stop genocide, because Security Council members Russia and China will prevent coordinated action. His solution? Replace the UN with a new “United Democratic Nations”—which would also include Russia and China. People who note his bald self-contradiction, says Goldhagen, are “carping holier-than-thous, cynics, or the illegitimate and injurious status quo’s dissimulating defenders” (p. 596). When Goldhagen makes no sense, someone else is to blame.

The review of current historiography of the Holocaust, my fifth essay on the subject in these pages, discussed seven other publications alongside Goldhagen’s. I’d like to commend again the recent studies by Yehuda Bauer and Saul Friedländer, as well as the guide to the Warsaw ghetto by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak. I tried to show how, by modifying David Engel’s approach to Jewish historiography, these and other works of history can be seen to comprise complementary schools in the enterprise of understanding the Holocaust. I hope that Marek Szapiro’s Polish-language Warsaw diary, also discussed, will be translated. I’m glad to have this occasion to mention that Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka memoir, the French edition of which figured in the review, will be published in January in English by MacLehose Press under the title Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory.

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