Germany, The Holocaust
The Holocaust is still the subject of academic disputation. In Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen damned all Germans, much as Hitler denounced all Jews in Mein Kampf. Most academics were frightened of criticizing his thesis for fear of being branded anti-Semitic. Indeed, when two Jews, Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth B. Birn, did so, the Anti-Defamation League tried in vain to stop publication of their book A Nation on Trial. The Goildhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York: Holt, 1998). The League even damned a Superman comic strip about Poland under the Nazis for not using strong enough language. Since I lived in Bayreuth in 1933, I can give first-hand testimony on the situation then, admittedly well before the final solution.
Goldhagen is wrong on three counts. The Holocaust was not a historically unique event. It is wrong to imply that all victims were Jews, as some writers do when discussing Mauthausen, which in fact housed Spanish Republicans. Finally, young Goldhagen, who was not an eye-witness, paints a gross picture. It is an easy trap to fall into when looking at pictures of German crowds giving the Nazi salute. I myself did once when attending a Nazi rally as an unsympathetic observer; had I not done so, I would have been hauled off heaven knows where.
Most of the older generation were afraid to speak. A German woman returning home on the boat from England avoided the subject, with fear in her eyes. The kind parents in the Bayreuth home where I was staying did likewise; I avoided raising the subject with them. However, the younger generation was represented by their son, an angry unpleasant young man. At supper he would read diatribes he had written against the Jews. They he would put on his stiefel (high boots) and disappear into the night. There were many like him. One day, while cycling, I was hailed by another cyclist, a butcher's assistant, who thought I was German. He launched into a long tirade boasting how the previous night he and his friends had beaten up some Jews. Again, when cycling, I struck up a conversation with a frightened Jew. I asked him why he did not emigrate to Palestine. He asked angrily: "Why should I? I am a German!" Unlike those in Eastern Europe, the Jews in Germany and Austria were assimilated, which makes their plight even more disgraceful.
The house where I lived was located on the tonende Hugel, the hill where Wagner's opera house stands. I attended a performance there, and stood a few feet from Goehring during the intermission. I was disgusted to see society ladies fawning over him, but it should be remembered that Wagner fans were ipso facto infected with the Nazi bug.
In between the fearsome old and the violent young men were middle-aged people who vaguely hoped that the Nazi regime would ease Germany's plight. Some had fought in World War I; like Hitler, they felt humiliated. Indeed, the French led by the tiger Clemenceau must bear some of the blame. Tigers do not make good peace-makers. To unify Germany, Hitler proposed to abolish the old territorial divisions, replacing them with numbers. Bavaria was to be Region 7; Bayreuth is in northern, Protestant Bavaria, so I was not surprised when people expressed approval of the plan. How they felt in Catholic, southern Bavaria I do not know. Between the two lay beautiful medieval Nuremberg, the site of Hitler's rallies. They may have been good for business, but for the city, now unconvincingly rebuilt, they turned out to be the kiss of death.
I cycled out of Germany southward to the Tyrol and Italy . By a beautiful Alpine lake, the Kochelsee, I had a long talk with two pleasant, intelligent and clearly peace-loving schoolteachers. They explained their hopes for the future, but they spoke of the new Germany, not of Hitler and the Nazis. They ended telling me to remember the conversation by the Kochelsee. I certainly do, and I wonder what happened to them, as well as the other pleasant Germans I knew. As for the son of the house and the butcher's assistant, they deserved whatever fate they met. In conclusion, I can definitely assert that Goldhagen is simply wrong: all Germans were not nasty Nazis. That he is an academic, and a Harvard one at that, makes his misrepresentation even more egregious. But what can you expect from academia these days?
Ronald Hilton - 06/28/98
Replies to the Holocaust
My rebuttal of Goldhagen's thesis that the Holocaust proves that all Germans are evil was welcomed. Hoover Institution Archivist Elena Danielson, a German specialist, writes:
"Your snapshot of Bayreuth in 1933 captures very succinctly the dangerous divisions in German society at the time, splitting families and social classes. An insightful account is Ein wiederstaendliches Leben, the biography of Marion Doenhoff, an aristocrat involved in the July 44 plot against Hitler. Her own uncle spied on her and reported her to the Gestapo. I think it is safe to generalize that any historical work that attempts to present a country or people as homogeneous is probably very far from the reality of the situation.
After reading yesterday's New York Times review of Finkelstein and Birn's rebuttel, it seems that there is a logical problem lurking in the Goldhagen debate. The tone of the review was rather odd, very tortured with mixed feelings. The reviewer was basically sympathetic to Goldhagen, but from family sources had heard that "not all Germans were bad." The if-then logic is the problem: For many thoughtful people the holocaust must be unique and the German people uniquely evil. If the holocaust is not unique and the German people not somehow uniquely evil, then the impulse towards genocide must be more universal. And that is a truly difficult thought to bear.
The Germans I know welcome the Goldhagen debate and say that it a healthy warning from the past. (It is also not a bad idea for Americans to be educated about their past in the slave trade.) In some sense the book is important and useful, even as the analysis is fundamentally flawed."
My comment: The "thought that is truly difficult to bear" is that man, albeit a potential angel, is a beast (to parody Pascal). It flatters a people to tell them they are good, as so many politicians do. Little was more pathetic than French President Chirac touring France before the last elections assuring crowds that "le peuple francais est bon" [i.e., vote for us]. His party lost. I wonder what he thinks about le peuple francais now?
Ronald Hilton - 06/29/98
More Replies to the Holocaust
Russell Berman, Professor of German Studies and Director of Stanford's
Overseas Program, writes about Goldhagen:
" I have published two notes on his book, one in the journal, Telos, Nr.
109 (1996), and one just appeared in the German Quarterly, Vol 71.1 (winter
Whatever historians make of his historiographical "arguments," I, as a
scholar of German literature, take issue with his claim that German
culture, at its core and for centuries before 1933, was constitutively
anti-semitic. This is his real fundamental assertion, and it is of course
simply wrong. It is particularly interesting that he in fact makes no
effort to substantiate this claim--perhaps he doesn't try because he knows
Ronald Hilton - 06/29/98
More Discussion on the Holocaust
The Holocaust still stirs people's minds. Let me stress that I did not
compare Goldhagen with Hitler, but rather their books in that they condemn
a whole people and thus lose credence. Edith Coliver writes:
"The title of the book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners" is correct. There
were many people who sent pictures back from the front and who boasted of
their misdeeds. There was no way that the German people didn't know what
was going on; many were helpless, I grant you, but there was some heroic
resistance, such as, from the Generals on July 20, 1944 and from those
brave "Weisse Rosen" students who were eventually caught and executed.
The tragedy was that there was no united front against Hitler early enough,
to stop him."
Edith Coliver is right on all counts. Of course Germans knew. When I was in
Bayreuth, fear of speaking was humorously (?) expressed in altering the
German proverb "Reden ist silber, Schweigen ist gold" (speech is silver,
silence is gold) to "Schweigen ist gold, reden ist Dachau"--a reference to
Dachau, the concentration camp in southern Bavaria. There was much more
fear in Germany than in Italy. I do not recall a single German criticizing
Hitler, whereas in an Italian cafe an Italian loudly and bitterly denounced
fascism while the owner simply looked embarassed.
Ronald Hilton - 07/01/98
Conclusions & COnsensus on the Holocaust
The consensus is that it is incorrect and self-defeating to describe the
Holocaust as a historically unique event. Michael May writes:
"The Germans are not the only people predisposed to genocide, as witness
what Milosevich and Co. have been able to do with the Serbs, what various
leaders have been able to do in Rwanda and Burundi, what the Khmer Rouge
did in Cambodia, and the whole human record before that, back to tribal
days, including the book of Judges, and the American view that the only
good Indian (or Philipino) is a dead Indian....It would be foolish and
short-sighted, in the face of
all the evidence, to say this is purely German or surely in the past.
One of the problems with the way we collectively have handled the Nazi era
and the Holocaust, as a matter of guilt, punishment and atonement, is that
it leaves little intellectual resource to look dispassionately at who we
are, under what circumstances we, or most of us, might act that way, and
what might be done to prevent a recurrence. Dehumanizing the enemy is a
plague of the human spirit, one we are not immune to in any country."
Ronald Hilton - 07/01/98
The Holocaust, Roth, The President & Popular Opinion
Several people have called my attention to the resignation of John K. Roth
as head of a research center at the Holocaust Museum. Some Jewish groups
had criticized him severely because in 1988(!) he had compared the
treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany to Israel's treatment of Palestinians
(obviously a gross exaggeration). While the critics rejoiced, museum
officials expressed their regret. That there is disagreement between
right-wing and liberal Jews was confirmed by the argument between Israeli
President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Holocaust is history and must not be forgotten, but "You're history!"
means that it is. When I was a child, the reality was World War I. I heard
references to the Boer War and to the relief of Mafeking, but that meant
nothing to me. Today, the younger generation does not even remember the
Vietnam War. What people see is the Palestine people striving against
Jewish repression to establish a Palestinian state. Outside of the United
States opinion favors the Palestinian cause, while the U.S. Zionist lobby
is seen as cowing U.S. politicians and even the press. President Clinton,
reflecting majority Jewish opinion, has now timidly spoken more bravely on
the subject. Members of Congress have cautiously avoided even such
Recent articles on the Holocaust and associated subjects
One message has been received alleging that the Holocaust was a unique
phenomenon, while all the others have correctly denied this. Jon Wonder
"It seems incredibly naive to me to go on speculating about the
uniqueness of the Holocaust. It is of course was not, and there have been
worse things in history. Human beings have an evil and malevolent streak.
It can only be kept in check either by a authoritarian political structure
or by a civil society which doe not condone such behavior."
Ronald Hilton - 07/03/98
More on the Holocaust
I must respectfully differ from the consensus in that I believe the
Holocaust was a historically unique event. As Mr. May correctly signals
with well chosen examples, the Germans had by no means cornered the market
on genocide. What makes the Holocaust unique, I believe, was the
magnitude and intensity of the event: as far as I know, never before in
human history had so many people been murdered in so short a time (six
million in just over six years), nor with such horrifying, mechanized
The point is important. In the 1980's, some German revisionist historians
attempted to place the Holocaust in its "proper historical context" by
raising examples of other historical genocides (American Indians, the
Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, Armenians, etc.). The intent was
obvious: to reduce the historical guilt of the Germans by diffusing it so
broadly that the concept became meaningless.
While all Germans certainly shouldn't be painted with the same brush, the
silence and tacit acceptance of the death camps by most Germans was
certainly as an important factor as the active participation of
psychopaths that masterminded the gas chambers. Hannah Arendt
convincingly demonstrates this proposition in her penetrating "Eichmann in
Jerusalem". What we would have done in the same situation is, for me,
irrelevant, at best, a speculative "what if" game. What is important is
how we react to the genocide occurring now. World reaction, to say the
least, hasn't been very encouraging. So, while satanizing the Germans is
an inappropriate response to the Holocaust, blithely absolving them by
pointing to other incidents of genocide is equally, if not more,
Each people must come to grips with the black periods in its history
(including the historical responsibility of American settlers to the
aboriginal population of the United States). Fortunately, it seems as
though post-War German generations are doing just that, as indicated by
the strength of anti-fascist and anti-racist movements in Germany, which
despite getting comparatively little press, are more important than the
handful of neo-Nazis who get their kicks by beating up Turks and other
immigrants who supply a steady source of cheap labor in an aging country.
And let us not forget, in the middle of World Cup fever, the group "German
Fans Against Soccer Violence".
- David Crow
Ronald Hilton - 07/06/98
More on the Holocaust
The holocaust continues to provoke strong feelings among those in some way
involved. Their comments vary according to their own background and
experiences. Elena Danielson, a German specialist, has compared the
"holocausts" perpetrated by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot; I have
transferred her statement to our newsgroup files, where all (not just
members of the WAIS list) can read it. Special weight should be attached to
the statement by Siegfried Ramler because of his participation in the
Nuremberg trial. He writes:
"Rather than debate whether crimes against humanity in one part of the world
are more "unique" or abhorrent than in another, we should approach the
issue of man's inhumanity to man as a universal challenge. As a member of
the staff of the international tribunal at Nuremberg I have I have been
exposed to the extent and enormity of crimes during the Nazi era through
exhaustive evidence and testimony by victims and witnesses. And on a
recent mission to Cambodia I found that scarcely a family had not
experienced the impact of Pol Pot's genocide. We could add to this
chronicle to cover virtually every country on the globe. For the victims
the tragedy is always unique, whether or not it is multiplied by millions.
The establishment of a permanent international criminal court under the
auspices of the United Nations , now under consideration, will be an
important step towards a more civilized society in the 21st century."
My comment: I agree entirely. The assertion of the uniqueness of the
holocaust is is counterproductive because historically it is not correct,
it enrages victims of other purges and leaves the newer generation
generally indifferent. The only holocaust about which it (except in the
United States) is passionately concerned is the world soccer cup, in which
one team will eliminate the rest. As for Cambodia, the holocaust there
was distant for me until, a few days ago I went to Frys, the big Palo Alto
computer store. I chatted with the young salesman who served me. He had
escaped from Cambodia with his mother after the father was arrested and
killed. He was still traunatized by the experience, and I was moved.
Ronald Hilton - 07/08/98