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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Last year, while browsing at one of those sadly disappearing Upper West Side bookstores, I ran into Norman Finkelstein, a member of the sadly disappearing tribe of left-wing gadflies. Finkelstein said he was working on a book about Harvard Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen, he declared, was a fraud crying out to be unmasked.

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This wasn't surprising. Goldhagen made a lot of people angry with that book. (Click here for a quick refresher on why.) Finkelstein, a political scientist, bills himself a "forensic" scholar. He's fashioned a career out of demystifying what he deems pseudoscholarly arguments. It also made a kind of poetic sense that Finkelstein would become obsessed with Goldhagen. Like him, Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors and a strident commentator on Jewish affairs. He just comes at them from the opposing side.

Finkelstein's reputation rests on his refutation of Joan Peters' 1984 From Time Immemorial, a book purporting to prove Palestinian Arabs had no claims on the land that is now Israel, having been drawn to it only by reports that Jews were making the desert bloom. Peters' book was lavishly praised by American Jewish organizations, novelists, and scholars. But when Finkelstein showed that Peters had manipulated Ottoman demographic records to make her case, the book's supporters attacked him as an anti-Zionist. By 1986, though, Zionist scholars having published articles that bolstered Finkelstein's case, his version was the conventional wisdom.

Finkelstein told me Goldhagen was just another Peters. That struck me as dubious. After all, Goldhagen's book wasn't a hoax. It was a troubling interpretation. But Finkelstein insisted that, whatever the reviewers said, the book had been a megapublishing event, and for one simple reason: It was useful to Zionist Jews who believe that all non-Jews are potential Jew killers and that Jews, therefore, are justified in using whatever means are necessary to defend themselves.

Calling Goldhagen a Zionist propagandist seemed an act of provocation, to say the least, and so it was taken. Last summer, Finkelstein published an article with the lurid title "Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis" in the British New Left Review. Shortly afterward, it was excerpted in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and in Italy's Panorama. Goldhagen promptly denounced Finkelstein as a supporter of Hamas, a radical Islamic Palestinian group. Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Holt, decided to publish a revised version of Finkelstein's essay, along with a no less hotly contested attack on Goldhagen by the German-born historian Ruth Bettina Birn that was first published in the Cambridge Historical Journal.

Several months before the publication of Finkelstein and Birn's book, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, Finkelstein's opponents pressured Metropolitan to cancel it. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, got on the phone with his friend Michael Naumann, the publisher of Holt and a German, to express his outrage. The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman wrote to Finkelstein's editor, Sara Bershtel, calling the writer's views "beyond the pale."

Finkelstein's co-author took even worse flak. Goldhagen accused her of having defamed him in her Historical Journal article, then assembled a team of lawyers in Britain to demand a retraction and an apology. In Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress is trying to have Birn removed from the government's war crimes division (where she helps build cases against Nazi war criminals) on the grounds that, by publishing with Finkelstein, she has demonstrated insensitivity unbecoming a public servant.

The prepublication attack almost worked. István Deák, a Columbia University historian who agreed to write a preface, backed out. He did provide a blurb, as did seven other distinguished academics, including the Holocaust experts Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning, the French Jewish intellectual Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. (Click here to read what some of them say and here to read why they say it.) Now that the book is out, the grand irony is that Goldhagen should consider himself lucky to have Finkelstein as his adversary. Not that it isn't a good dissection of Goldhagen's contradictions and distortions. Finkelstein handily refutes Goldhagen's claim that German anti-Semitism is all that's required to explain the Holocaust. (Click here to read how he does this.) Checking Goldhagen's assertions against his citations, Finkelstein demonstrates that the scholar's use of secondary sources is untrustworthy. (Click here for another telling example.) And yet Finkelstein turns out to be a kind of doppelgänger of Goldhagen's, equally biased and inflammatory.

First, Finkelstein makes much of the point that the majority of Germans "did not cast their lot for Hitler." Technically true--but a plurality of Germans did. No party received as many votes in the March 1933 election as the Nazis--43.9 percent. Finkelstein acknowledges the Nazi state was a brutal dictatorship, but he glosses over its disturbingly popular character.

Second, Finkelstein echoes conventional historical thinking when he says Nazism's main appeal lay in Hitler's promises to restore order in post-Weimar Germany, end unemployment, and make the country an international power. But anti-Semitism permeated Nazi ideology, and Finkelstein is deaf to its nuances. He writes, "Not the Jews but Marxism and Social Democracy served as the prime scapegoats of Nazi propaganda" during their rise to power. Also technically true. But the Nazis perceived Social Democracy as a Jewish party and Marxism as a Jewish creed; when they rallied against Bolshevik enemies, their audiences did not need to be told that these enemies were, if not actual Jews, then "spiritual Jews." If Finkelstein were to apply his logic to Lee Atwater's Willie Horton strategy, he'd have to write, "Not race but crime served as the prime scapegoat of George Bush's 1988 campaign."

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