Goldhagen's Willing Executioners

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April 8 1998 3:30 AM

Goldhagen's Willing Executioners

The attack on a scholarly superstar, and how he fights back.

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Third, Finkelstein deduces from some Germans' disgust at the destruction of Jewish lives and property during Nazi-sponsored pogroms such as Kristallnacht that "Germans overwhelmingly condemned the Nazi anti-Semitic atrocities." If they did, they gave new meaning to the term "silent majority." The Germans, he writes, displayed "the callousness toward human life typically attending war. ... Hardened and bitter, in search of a scapegoat, they occasionally lashed out at the weak." The first adverb casually banalizes German brutality; the second diminishes its extent; together, they come dangerously close to apologia.

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The most controversial part of Finkelstein's book, though, is the last chapter, in which he sets out to explain why the Goldhagen book was such a big deal. Finkelstein observes that after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, there was a boom in the kind of Holocaust literature that portrayed the catastrophe as the natural culmination of millennial Jew-hatred. Where some Holocaust experts, such as Hilberg and Martin Broszat, depicted it as a "complex and contingent event," other writers, such as Lucy Davidowicz, found it more "politically expedient" to focus on anti-Semitism, especially as Israel came under increasing censure. (Click here for Finkelstein's explanation of why this logic is "expedient.") According to Finkelstein, Goldhagen's claim that all forms of anti-Semitism "tend toward a genocidal 'solution' " is expedient in this way, and therefore popular--though Finkelstein says Goldhagen adds no more than a veneer of social science sophistication to this reductionist point of view.

Finkelstein is not breaking new ground here. Israeli intellectuals such as Amos Elon and Tom Segev and the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov have made similar points about the ideological subtext of Holocaust writing. But they also take pains not to dismiss the trauma the Holocaust visited and continues to visit upon Jews. By contrast, Finkelstein adopts an ugly conspiratorial tone when he attributes the book's popularity in the United States to its Zionist message. This is nonsense. The book owed its commercial success to its soothingly simplistic thesis--and to astute marketing. At times, Finkelstein's tone even veers toward the jocular, as when he makes fun of Elie Wiesel's racist remarks about ungrateful black people. One is reminded of Gershom Scholem's remark to Hannah Arendt at the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem: "This is not the way to approach the scene of that tragedy."

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It's too bad that the noise about Finkelstein has drowned out his co-writer, Birn. She knows the archives better than anyone, and she has come up with more quietly damning observations. Birn's experience as a prosecutor gives her a radically different take on the legal testimony Goldhagen bases much of his book on, for the most part confessions of death squad members. "Goldhagen seems to have difficulty comprehending that when perpetrators claim to have been motivated by Nazi propaganda, it need not be sincere," she writes. (Click here to see how these statements could instead form part of a legal defense.) Birn also shows how Goldhagen's insistence on German complicity leads him to soft-pedal the anti-Semitism of the Germans' collaborators, referring obliquely to the "pressures operating on the Ukrainians that did not exist for the Germans." This is flat-out Eastern European revisionism; you could easily imagine some Ukrainian nationalist writing it.

But the weightiest of Birn's accusations is that Goldhagen glosses over atrocities in which the victims weren't Jewish. Goldhagen recounts the tale of a witness who saw a Russian man beaten to death because his name was Abraham; he does not report the same witness's account, on the next page of testimony, of the "sexually sadistic murder of a young [non-Jewish] girl by one of the officers." In the end, this may be one of the most compelling condemnations of Goldhagen yet: that his focus on Jewish victims leaves him indifferent to the fate of non-Jews, from that young girl to the millions of Soviet POW's who were starved and worked to death in the camps. Without minimizing the significance of anti-Semitism, Birn provides an eloquent rejoinder to Goldhagen's blood-thinking. Her essay radiates a dignified humanism that both Goldhagen and Finkelstein lack.

Endnotes

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