Neusner review, Goldhagen

It is interesting to discover the scholarly critique of Goldhagen’s book
parallels so much of the criticism of it expressed in this newsgroup.

This article can be found on the Jewish Communication Network (page doesn’t exist)
and I invite you to do so! Greetings Ruth
Hype, Hysteria, and Hate the Hun
The latest pseudo-scholarship from Harvard
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
N.Y., 1996: Knopf. 622 pp. $30.

By Jacob Neusner

A revised doctoral dissertation accepted for the Ph. D. at
Harvard University in the field of Political Science, this
hysterical book, full of pseudo-scholarship and bad arguments,
calls into question the scholarly integrity of Harvard’s
doctorate. For the three named Doktorvater, Stanley Hoffmann,
Peter Hall, and Sidney Verba, have accepted as a contribution to
learning what in fact adds up to little more than a rehash of
familiar anti-German prejudices, dressed up with a year of
archival research on some special cases and problems. The work
makes a classic error, by treating examples as proof of something
beyond themselves. Goldhagen has once more documented the
well-known fact that Nazism was wildly popular in National
Socialist Germany. Who has doubted it for the last five decades?
But then he has asked the world to conclude that Germany as a
nation, through the whole of its history, practiced
crypto-Nazism; Germany is singled out as uniquely anti-Semitic
and possessed of an “eliminationist,” “exterminationist” culture
through all eternity. So Goldhagen’s cases now are represented
as probative of the character of German culture, as though
conduct in the National Socialist period flowed naturally and
inexorably out of a long history, to which Nazism wrote a mere

Lest readers suppose I exaggerate the intellectual vulgarity, the
sheer bigotry, of the matter, let me turn to specifics.
Goldhagen’s thesis is: “In the middle ages and the early modern
period, without question until the Enlightenment, German society
was thoroughly anti-Semitic,” and, consequently, the Holocaust
testifies not to the work of a single generation but to the worth
of an entire country. Goldhagen never asks whether or not the
same statement applies, too, to Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Rumania,
Hungary, Austria, and numerous other territories in Europe. But
everyone knows that it does.

That is why, formulated in terms of a particular country as
sinful beyond all others, such a statement about a particular
“race” on the face of it is racist: the condemnation of an entire
culture, people, and nation must be treated no differently. Let
us not mince words: this is a book nourished by, and meant to
provoke, hatred of Germany. Were its topic the Jewish people,
its method–give a few cases, in a special situation, to
characterize the whole in all times and places–would qualify for
out-of-hand rejection as naked anti-Semitism of a gross and
repulsive, intellectually contemptible, order. In my view,
anti-Germanism differs in no important way.

Right after the war the German message came through loud and
clear: “We knew nothing, we saw nothing, we heard nothing, it was
all done in secret.” Nobody today entertains that proposition,
which was self-serving and deceitful. No one claims that Germany
before Hitler knew no anti-Semitism with the rest of Europe,
important elements in German society–the clergy, the army, the
universities for example, among many–maintained
bitterly-anti-Semitic attitudes and adopted anti-Semitism as a
philosophy and a program. But the same attitudes flourished
everywhere else, and Goldhagen does not even pretend to undertake
the work of comparison and contrast that would have rendered his
thesis plausible. I have heard survivors of concentration camps
debate with greater rationality and reason on whether Auschwitz
was “worse” than Treblinka, or Buchenwald than Dachau.

What Goldhagen asks us to believe is that Germany was uniquely
anti-Semitic. Then, to prove his point, he simply ignores that
anti-Semitism was an international political phenomenon, on the
one side, and insists that what happened in the National
Socialist period can be explained only in continuity with
pre-Hitler Germany. That is a considerable claim, and one that,
in my view, Goldhagen not only does not, but cannot,
substantiate. For the work of comparison and contrast–German
anti-Semitism in the National Socialist period compared with that
prevalent it prior periods in German history, and, more
important, German anti-Semitism contrasted with the anti-Semitism
of other countries–simply is not done. But without comparison
and contrast, all of Goldhagen’s fulminations against German
culture–a distinctively-German mode of Jew-hatred–lose all
purchase on reality.

That is why I find astonishing that so shoddy and poorly-argued a
dissertation should have won for its writer the doctoral degree
at Harvard University, a reputable center of learning, where, we
surely have reason to expect, rigorous and critical learning,
objective argument, above all the recognition that a case or an
example on its own proves nothing, supposedly prevail.
Essentially what we have is a set of allegations, with episodic
evidence to illustrate them. But to allege is not to
demonstrate. Only rigorous argument, resting on the formulation
also of a counter-argument in a null-hypothesis, can serve.

A single example suffices to show the quality of argument
characteristic of the Goldhagen dissertation. I shall now prove,
in his way, that Germany was and is less anti-Semitic than
Poland, then and now. [1] When I was student-assistant to
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great theologian of Judaism, he told
me that when, in the later 1930s, he took the train from Warsaw
to Berlin, he always felt a sense of relief upon crossing the
border from Poland into Germany. Poland, he said, pursued its
anti-Semitic attitudes and policies far more bitterly and nastily
than anything he experienced in National Socialist Germany, until
he was expelled as a foreign national. And [2] if that does not
prove the point, my own experience, wearing a skull cap in an
international Roman Catholic religious processional in Warsaw in
1989 does: I found myself jeered, and, unless the bystanders were
jeering Cardinal Glemp, walking beside me, I am sure it was
because I was marked as a Jew (and a Rabbi!). In many visits to
Germany, I never encountered such a thing. Not only so, but [3]
in 1971 the Israeli ambassador to Austria told me that, in the
National Socialist period, Austria was much more uniformly
anti-Semitic than Germany. His words echo in my ear even now:
“In every city in Germany, Jews survived, somewhere, somehow,
with Christian help. But in Vienna, so far, we have

are three stories that prove–in the manner of Goldhagen’s
interminable, but hardly probative, massing of evidence–that
Poland was and is more anti-Semitic than Germany, and so was

To accept such proof based on examples and random episodes,
readers have, of course, to suspend not their critical capacities
but their very power of reasoned judgment: to take two anecdotes
as ample evidence. Those who wish to believe will believe. And
so too with Goldhagen, who in a long and much-footnoted
dissertation appeals to nothing more than the will to accept as
scholarship was is nothing other than an indictment of an entire
country and nearly the whole of its population. Nothing in the
evidence or argument of this work proves commensurate to its

But much in the work suggests that we have
hate-the-Hun-propaganda masquerading as serious scholarship
(including some rather murky writing that invokes commonplaces
phrased in impenetrable social scientific jargon). Ordinarily a
dissertation is supposed to tell us something we did not know.
But Goldhagen’s Harvard dissertation alleges as new the
proposition, “ordinary Germans were animated by antisemitism, by
a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that
the Jews ought to die a most significant…source of the
perpetrators’ actions.” But who can find surprising such a
commonplace, and from what history of anti-Semitism in this
century is that observation omitted? Everyone knows that Germany
harbored a long history of anti-Semitism. But so did France and
England, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, Russia, and

It is a commonplace that German troops were welcomed by East
European Jews as friends and liberators from the much more
virulent and dangerous anti-Semitism of the collapsing Czarist
regime (not to mention that which was to come under the
Communists!). Everybody knows that German Jews fought and gave
their lives for Germany; the pictures of German troops observing
the Day of Atonement during the siege of Strassburg in the
Franco-Prussian War in 1870 are widely circulated (among many).
While German Jews’ love of German culture may have been
unrequited, it also calls into question the notion that that
culture at its foundations was pervasively and incurably and
blatantly anti-Semitic. Matters were simply more complicated.
But here German culture is represented as uniquely and
incorrigibly and inexorably anti-Semitic. Does Goldhagen deny
that all of Europe at the same time competed for honors in the
Olympics of Jew-hatred. On which page? Germany is further
alleged to have been characterized only or mainly by
anti-Semitism, which is a gross misrepresentation of a complex
and rich political culture.

Let me (as a Harvard alumnus, class of 1954) show what I think
takes place in this book by giving another case of the same mode
of argument by appeal to a handful of examples–but now having to
do with the standards of excellence demanded at Harvard for a
doctoral dissertation. Ought we not to argue that the very
corrupt character of intellectual life at Harvard University
defines the precondition for the acceptance of such remarkably
overblown rhetoric for a doctoral degree? Should we not
speculate–with a suitable array of episodic examples to prove
our case–that an institution full of ambitious, bitter,
prestige-hungry, headline-hunting careerist, academic
entrepreneurs alone can account for such a travesty of learning?
Here is a Harvard professor and the Harvard-educated son of a
Harvard professor–the very chosen, the elect, the prince of the
realm: does he not reveal the quality of the entire aristocracy
of scholarship that Harvard tells us it supplies to the USA? No,
I do not think any reasonable person can agree that he does. But
were we to mount such an argument and conduct such a speculation,
then we should replicate the mode of argumentation that fills and
disgraces the pages of this work. That is, lots of cases, but no
comparison with the quality of work in Political Science at
Chicago or Berkeley or Cologne or Frankfurt! So much for bad

But when we come to logic, Goldhagen’s case proves still worse.
For he maintains that, since the Germans in the National
Socialist period perpetrated such monstrous deeds, as Goldhagen
says, “its [the Holocaust’s] commission was possible…because
Germans had already been changed.” Post hoc, ergo propter hoc!
Because one event follows another, the earlier has caused the
later. Goldhagen’s very formulation ought to have embarrassed
his teachers in elementary logic (if they still teach logic at
Harvard). For surely his recapitulation of the simple logical
fallacy described in the words, post hoc, ergo propter hoc,
should have alerted his teachers. Everyone knows that causation
is more complex and that explanation demands more nuanced and
searching analysis.

Raising an objection on the spot, some august dignitary ought to
have asked, “Mr. Goldhagen, would you not agree with me that your
argument consists of little more than the discredited, post hoc,
ergo propter hoc!” That small but telling objection might have
served to protect Harvard from the disgrace involved in its
bestowing a doctorate on work of such pretension and violent
emotion, a work lacking rigorous argument altogether. But then
Goldhagen’s one-sided and simple-minded characterization of
German culture, not in the National Socialist period in
particular, but over all time in general, must be set aside as
simply lacking in all logical rigor. A generation ago the
brilliant historian, Stephen Hackett Fisher wrote the classic,
Historians’ Fallacies, spelling out the stupidities of poor
argument that make a laughing stock of historical scholarship.
He owes us now a sequel, on political science.

To exculpate Goldhagen’s Harvard teachers, we must suppose that
the three Doktorvater must have been sleeping on a long summer
afternoon, when their young doctoral candidate (perhaps to wake
them up, more likely just to impress them) insisted, “We must
substantially rethink important aspects of German history,” since
no serious professor can expect a newcomer to the life of
learning, however brazen, to establish himself with his first
book as the revolutionary genius to reinvent a field of learning.
And, as a matter of fact, the consensus now has established,
Harvard’s Dr. Goldhagen cannot take his place among the major
historians of Germany, with his extreme and impressionistic
judgment of pre-National Socialist Germany. For, unless at
Harvard (where they exact deference for the opinions of the great
professors and their sons) merely making an allegation serves as
adequate proof for what is alleged, we must wonder why the
responsible professors did not demand systematic and informed
evidence and argument for that allegation. The book should
contain numerous chapters of analysis of existing data on
Pre-Nationalist Socialist German history and social life, notjust
a shallow potted resume of standard textbook knowledge.

Further, we must ask, where is the argument to the contrary, the
null-hypothesis to test the hypothesis against contrary data,
that any serious social scientist will require as part of the
presentation of a solemn dissertation? And enough said to remove
the work from the shelves of reputable social science, which
prefers testing a hypothesis to merely shouting it long and loud
enough to prevail.

Yet another massive failure in a work claiming to describe German
culture awaits attention. If as Goldhagen insists, Germany was
permanently poisoned by an indelible heritage of anti-Semitism,
then how do account for the Germany that from 1945 has taken its
place as a major power in world culture? Everyone knows that of
all the countries that were party to the Holocaust, those most
guilty, the Germans, also have most thoroughly addressed the
Holocaust, repaired such damage as could be remedied, and
undertaken to build for themselves a political culture as free of
racism and anti-Semitism as exists in the world today. No
country has done more to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, and
none makes a more systematic effort to educate new generations in
those lessons.

France has yet to address the complicity of its own government in
the Holocaust; its police, not German ones, rounded up the Jews.
The Netherlands produced out of its population a higher
proportion of Nazi Party members than any country in Europe.
Everyone knows that the USSR denied the Jews even the manifest
right to claim they had been singled out for special handling.
Austria happily calls itself Hitler’s first victim, as though no
one saw the movies of the wild reception Vienna gave him in the
Anschluss. In all of Europe, as Judith Miller showed in her One
by One by One, only Germany has frankly examined its past,
expiated its built through acts of genuine atonement, and
acknowledged its enduring shame, much as we Americans acknowledge
the enduring shame of slavery That is why the new Germany also
has built upon granite foundations uncovered in the hidden
heritage of the old, a heritage that survived the National
Socialist period. After all, Adenauer was a German, but Hitler,
an Austrian (once more to argue from a single case!). True, the
damage done by the National Socialist period to the enduring
institutions of the country required long decades for
reconstruction; in my experience at Tuebingen, Frankfurt, and
Goettingen I learned that the universities have not fully
recovered. But Germany in a half-century overall has
accomplished that reconstruction. It has acknowledged its
heritage of shame, but it has removed from its shoulders the
burden of guilt for deeds that the current generation did not do
and would not repeat and has repudiated in every possible way.

Now how are we to explain that fact–which even Goldhagen
acknowledges, if grudgingly, in a sentence or so? For if Germany
were as Goldhagen wishes us to think it was, irremediably,
irrevocably tainted at the very roots of its culture and
politics, then whence the sources for regeneration and renewal
that, manifestly, have found ample nourishment in the country and
its culture from 1945? I do not think we can explain Germany
from 1945 onward without uncovering in pre-National Socialist
Germany–whether in 1848, whether in Weimar–alongside the
abundant sources of murderous political culture. The consensus
of learning has concluded that National Socialism competed with
other political traditions, vanquished them, and ruined Germany.
That seems to me a much more plausible picture than Goldhagen’s,
which, if adopted, leaves us unable to make sense of today’s

Here too, then, a reputable university doctoral committee would
expect to read Goldhagen’s well-researched,
carefully-reflected-upon discussion of the competing political
traditions of a complex society; they would want to press the
candidate to account for National Socialist success in other
ways, besides the way he has taken, which is to indict a country
and its culture in such a manner as to leave inexplicable its
entire history beyond the war. If Germany were the reprobate,
retrograde culture that Goldhagen says it is, then how are we to
explain the character of German youth today? I miss the chapters
on that problem in his long discourse. If this were a
dissertation in political science, then the problems of analysis
of continuity and change would have replaced the (truly
depressing) narratives of cases and episodes. Goldhagen appears
to have presented his dissertation to the wrong department. But
why the department secretary did not send him to the right
building no one knows.

That is why it is not enough for Goldhagen to present chapters on
pre-National Socialist anti-Semitism. As I said, he has also to
tell us about the same anti-Semitism elsewhere and about the
Germany that, while characteristically anti-Semitic, won the
loyalty of its Jewish citizens and saw them reach the highest
levels of society, whether Bleichroeder with Bismarck, or Warburg
and Rathenau in Weimar. Goldhagen has taken a complex country
and represented it in a simple and one-sided way. That is why he
cannot explain what happened before and after National Socialist
times and why to make his case he must ignore what was happening
in that same period in other countries.

In 1920 few predicted what would happen two decades later, and
those who did–the visionary Zionist, Jabotinsky, for
instance,–warned of mass murders not in Germany but in Poland.
The country he wanted to evacuate first was not Germany but
Poland. National Socialism drew upon one deep source of European
culture; anti-Semitism was general and international, not
particular to Germany. The success of National Socialism–so
historians except Goldhagen concur–marked a special situation
and not the inevitable outcome of the general traits of German,
and only German, culture. And that special situation was indeed
brought about by a particular concatenation of events and
personalities that brought the Nazis to power in Germany. Then
they did turn the entire enterprise of the country to their
purposes, staining the future history of the country–but only in
that measure that future generations would affirm and continue
Nazism. But they have condemned and outlawed it.

To treat Germany as the sole venue for “eliminationist
anti-Semitism” requires us to ignore the rest of Europe, on the
one side, and to dismiss as an important basis for explaining
what happened the actualities of the National Socialists and
their history from World War I onward: a special case, to be
explained within the framework of its time and place, not a

remote times. In this context, we must wonder, what of the
systematic destruction of Judaism by the Communists in exactly
the same time? For while they preserved the Orthodox Church to
serve their purposes, they rooted out the practice of Judaism in
the USSR as thoroughly as Germany would hunt down and kill Jews.
How does anti-Judaism fit into the picture? In my view, it
complicates matters, and so is best omitted to make the case
Goldhagen wishes to make.

Rehearsing dreadful, but familiar cases of brutality beyond all
rational purpose, Goldhagen sets forth as his thesis that
“eliminationist antisemitic German political culture…was the
prime mover of both the Nazi leadership and ordinary Germans in
the persecution and extermination of the Jews and therefore was
the Holocaust’s principal cause.” Framed in that way, the thesis
emerges as both unexceptionable and also unexceptional; no one
can find it surprising. For two generations, now, the argument,
“we heard nothing, we knew nothing, we saw nothing,” which I
heard in Frankfurt in 1953 as a young Oxford student come to see
with my own eyes the people who had done such things. Today’s
Germans know better.

What goes wrong, then, is that, along the way, the thesis of
Germans’ broad and enthusiastic complicity in mass murder extends
its reach and turns into an indictment of an entire country and
its history and culture, as though National Socialism were the
inevitable outcome instead of a special situation. It is to that
incubus, taking over what is otherwise a perfectly ordinary
historical narrative, that I strenuously object. My objection is
because the dissertation proves much less than it alleges. It
demonstrates that Nazism penetrated into the deepest layers of
German life, that many Germans, at some points surely a majority,
supported the National Socialists, and that Germany in that time
united in support of its leader’s program. But the dissertation
then does not prove what it sets out to demonstrate, which is the
inevitability of the Holocaust in Germany and no where else, the
peculiar traits of German life and culture rendering Germany the
unique and sole venue for such an event. As I said, a
dissertation meant to prove that point would have included long
and thorough studies aimed at the international comparison of
anti-Semitism, in theory and in practice, in culture and in
politics, in all of the countries that adopted that philosophy as
a principal medium for social organization and expression, not
just Germany.

Why then has so obviously meretricious and shoddy a piece of
research gotten for its author not only a Harvard doctorate but
also a huge audience? For we have to explain not only the work
but also its remarkable reception. Part of the answer derives
from the sheer genius of Knopf as a mass-marketer, its power
through heavy advertising to secure prominent reviews in
prominent bastions of opinion-mongering. But the book gains its
notoriety not so much from its medium as from its message. To
frame that message, let me cite a saying I heard from my
grandmother, who came to the USA at the end of the nineteenth
century from Volhynia Province in Belarus. In her homely Jewish
language, she would say, “Oifn yenems tuchus iz gut zu
schmeisen,” that is, it is a pleasure to beat up on someone
else’s behind. And whose better than Germany’s!

The market for this book is comprised by those many people, who
simple answers to complex questions, who would rather blame
Germany than explain an entire civilization poisoned by
Jew-hatred; who would rather explain the Holocaust away as a mere
chapter in German culture than explain it in such a way as to
account for its unique qualities within the history of humanity.
The counterpart, in the USA, represents the South as uniquely
racist, when, in fact, racism against blacks marks every region,
while the South, for its part, like Germany in its context, today
forthrightly confronts and deals with its special heritage of
black chattel-slavery, segregation, and economic subordination.

This is a let’s-be-beastly-to-the-Boche book, and that explains
its commercial success. Without the emotionalism, the sweeping
anger, the righteous indignation at the deeds of dreadful people
(then, and who knows about now?), this book would have sold its
allotted 5,000 copies and gone into oblivion. For it changes no
accepted views and establishes no new ones. It lays no claim to
art or elegance of expression. Its passion derives from the
simple, natural emotions of horror and empathy with the suffering
of poor victims. These are then not elevated and deepened but
preserved in the form of contempt for such awful, hateful people.
But that is not the people who did the deeds and approved them
but for the German people–past, present, and then who knows?
That forms the book’s subtext on those pages on which it is not
explicit in the text itself.

Contempt for the Huns, like Jew-hatred, is endemic, if not
epidemic, and a work that validates prejudice against an entire
culture by the apparatus of scholarship, that appeals to bigotry
against a whole people through all of its history by inflammatory
language, above all that makes life simple and easy by explaining
complicated facts in simple and easy ways–such a work, whether
directed against Germany or against the Jewish people will find
its audience. Indeed, if so august a body as the American
Political Science Association conferred upon a dissertation so
riddled with bad arguments and dubious demonstrations of
undemonstrable propositions, we must find the reason not in a
rational assessment of the quality of work but elsewhere.

And where might that be? Just now, when Britain found itself
unhappy with the European Community’s handling of the crisis
afflicting its cattle industry, the old hate-Jerry prejudice
gushed upward, and the Germans once more became “the Boche” and
“the Huns,” and Prime Minister John Major could claim for
himself, if not the mantel of Churchill, then at least the dress
of Thatcher. That is why, also, the thoroughly legitimate and
honorable project of memorializing the Holocaust and recording
what happened in it in works like this shades over into a
condemnation not of National Socialist Germany then but of
Germany before, then, and always. The Holocaust then finds its
explanation in the irrationality that that is, anyhow, how the
Germans are. That bigoted judgment once more makes the
explanation of radical evil simpler than it ought to be. How
satisfying to feel such self-satisfaction–to give thanks that I
have not been made like him.

When, on Easter, the Passion Narratives resound in the Churches,
with “the Jews” identified as the evil actors in the condemnation
and murder of Jesus, Christians over the centuries have found
difficult the distinction that sets apart for condemnation those
people in that generation, then and there, but that treats as
unblemished by the ancient deed all later generations of Israel,
the Jewish people. That is how, nurtured every day for 2,000
years, anti-Semitism transformed into a massive, mythic construct
the calamitous deeds of a handful of people in a specific place
at a determinate time. Anti-Germanism differs in no important
way, when the Holocaust is used as a weapon to discredit Germany
through all time, instead of the Germany at that time and in that
place. That is why, in my view, if the methods and modes of
argument that define Goldhagen’s book were to produce a
comparably-argued and equivalently-documented book about the Jews
or about Harvard University the work would not win either the
audience Goldhagen has gotten for himself–let alone acceptance
in fulfillment of the requirement of a doctoral degree and even a
dissertation prize.


A specialist in the history of Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner
is Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the
University of South Florida, Tampa, and Professor of Religious
Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Among
research institutes, he is also Member of the Institute for
Advanced Study, Princeton, and Life Member of Clare Hall,
Cambridge University. He holds six honorary doctorates, from the
Universities of Cologne and Bologna in Europe, Chicago,
Rochester, Tulane, and St. Louis in the USA, and a dozen academic
medals, including those of Columbia University, Ebo Akademi in
Finland, and College de France. He was Buber Professor at the
University of Frankfurt in 1991 and Von Humboldt Research
Professor at the University of Goettingen in 1995. In 1977 he
delivered lectures in honor of Tuebingen University’s 500th
anniversary and received the medal commemorating that occasion.

All rights reserved to Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner 1997 This article
can be found on the Jewish Communication Network

Goldhagen revisited

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