The praises heaped on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Michael Solot reveal a startling ignorance of the basic facts of German history [“Genocide and the Ordinary German,” June 14]. Goldhagen and Solot’s belief that the Holocaust “expressed the will of the German people as a whole” has been treated with the scorn it deserves by a wide variety of Israeli, English, and American scholars who have no desire to make excuses for the Germans. Goldhagen’s charge that even before 1914 “a near universal acceptance of the central aspects of the Nazi image of the Jews characterized the German people” is ridiculous; Solot should know better. From 1860 to 1879, the Liberal Party dominated elections in Germany, and their opposition to anti-Semitism earned them the title of “the Jewish party” by German reactionaries, even though 95 percent of Liberal Party members and voters were gentiles. Moreover, the Progressive Liberal Party, even more opposed to anti-Semitism, was a potent political force during the 1880s and trounced the reactionary anti-Semites in many big cities, including Hamburg and Berlin. And even at the height of the anti-Semitic firestorm of the 1890s, the Progressive Liberals and the Social Democrats–who also opposed anti-Semitism publicly and often put up Jewish candidates for office–gained over 40 percent of the vote. Moreover, anti-Semitic parties never won more than 25 percent of the popular vote before 1914, and they reached that percentage only once, in the 1893 elections, elections which Goldhagen falsely claims gave the anti-Semites a majority. And in 1912, the Social Democrats gained an unprecedented one-third of the German vote, while other nonracist parties received another one-third and the anti-Semitic parties lost heavily. But the kaiser, the army, and the all-powerful bureaucracy prevented the expression of the democratic will of the majority. Nor is it true, as Goldhagen claims and Solot believes, that liberals expected Jews to cease being Jews as the price of liberation. German liberals, like liberals in all nations, supported religious freedom and tolerance.
Furthermore, at no time did the Nazis ever receive a majority of the German vote. The Social Democrats out-polled the Nazis in the elections of 1928 and 1930, and even in 1932, when Hitler received his high point of 37 percent of the vote, some 45 percent of the German public voted for parties opposing attempts to harm the Jewish community. In 1933, Hitler was not made chancellor by majority vote, he was selected by the autocratic elites by virtue of the dictatorial emergency powers of President Hindenburg. And after Hitler was in power, hundreds of thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets were distributed, and Gestapo agents reported thousands of work stoppages and acts of sabotage protesting Nazi rule. Youth groups were formed which regularly beat up Hitler Youth members. As a consequence of their anti-Nazi activities, some hundred thousand Germans were hunted down, tortured, shot, or imprisoned, and tens of thousands exiled. This was all done by Germans, Germans that Solot and Goldhagen defame by saying that “the Holocaust expressed the will of the German people as a whole.” And ask yourself, Mr. Solot, if you would have been willing to risk death to oppose the Nazis once the war started.
Ignoring the evidence, Goldhagen, with Solot’s approval, blithely says of the killers that “what these ordinary Germans did also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans.” He presents absolutely no evidence for this accusation; indeed, he cannot, for there is none. Given these facts, Mr. Solot, we cannot “thrust the good Germans” into the “dustbin of history” as you say we must. Indeed, you and your mentor dishonor the memory of those decent Germans the Gestapo long ago thrust into the grave.
Lest I be branded an apologist, let me say that I write as one who knows that many German historians have grievously underestimated the unique power and class diffusion of anti-Semitism in modern German history. (See John Weiss, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996.) Unlike Goldhagen, however, I and many other scholars have studied anti-Semitism in other lands, which Goldhagen ignored so that he could rattle on about a supposed universal German desire to murder the Jews. It is not that simple. To truly understand the causes of the Holocaust and why it happened in Germany, one must strive to understand the effects of Christian and secular anti-Semitism upon German society and identify the classes, groups, and political parties that did or did not support these abominations. Above all, one must understand why anti-Semitism was so powerful among the German elites and ruling groups, the people who could and did elevate the Nazis to power. But collective guilt? No, Mr. Solot, that is far too easy; one should not fight racism with racism, nor praise those who do.
Professor of history
The Graduate Center of the
City University of New York
Michael Solot replies:
Nowhere did I say that the people John Weiss is calling “good Germans,” those who opposed the Nazi regime with their lives, should be thrust into the dustbin of history. I did suggest that the usual stereotype of the “good German,” the soldier who commits atrocities through his blind devotion to authority, ought to be discarded as a lie. There seem to be more “good Germans” marching across the pages of the Chicago Reader than there were in the streets of Berlin during the 1930s. In any case, Professor Weiss should learn how to read before he starts waving the bloody shirt.
If he did, he might also discover that “the German people as a whole” is not the same as “everybody in Germany.” As a whole, Americans accepted Negro slavery until the Civil War; as a whole, Israelis believe in the Jewish state; as a whole, Argentines eat a lot of beef. To admit these facts is not to deny the existence of abolitionists, Muslims, or vegetarians. Many Germans did oppose the Nazis, it is true. They raised an outcry against the so-called euthanasia program, for example, in which more than 70,000 Germans suffering from mental infirmities and congenital physical defects were killed. As a result of this challenge the Nazis backed down (officially, though not in fact) and the protesters went unpunished. There was also a large public demonstration against the jailing of Jewish men married to German women. Again, the petitioners were neither “tortured, shot, or imprisoned,” and 6,000 Jewish men were freed. But there was no such dissent from the policy of Jewish extermination.
Unlike Professor Weiss, I am no expert in pre-Nazi German politics. Even so, Goldhagen’s explanation for the decline of upstart anti-Semitic parties after the turn of the century–that their ideas had been co-opted by the ruling Conservative Party–strikes me as more plausible than Professor Weiss’s belief that at the peak of their Jew-baiting frenzy Germans suddenly abandoned a hatred they had cherished for a thousand years: the old kaiser and his omnipotent bureaucracy, he tells us, just dug their hobnails into the “democratic will of the majority,” now presumably philo-Semites to a man. To the layman this sounds preposterous; but the professional thinker of today is so eager to indict those “elites and ruling groups” that he can turn the career of a demagogue like Hitler into an argument for giving the multitude even more power to assign itself a master. I’m not surprised Goldhagen’s book has so annoyed the schoolmen. To say that people get the government they deserve is considered chastening and high-minded, but the idea that they get the one they really want buzzes into the cool shade of the academy like a horsefly heading straight for the pate.