Other Discussions on Germany

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 1998). 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 he couldn't."

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 minibravery.

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 writes:

"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 efficiency.

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, dangerous.

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