To the editors:
Michael Solot’s reply to John Weiss’s letter (July 12) was a shabby disgrace. While Solot acknowledges that he is “no expert in pre-Nazi German politics,” he nonetheless insists that the Germans (“as a whole”) had nurtured a hatred of Jews “for a thousand years.” How can Solot substantiate this claim, without making at least some attempt to grapple with the actual choices made by Germans in the era of modern electoral politics? In the absence of elections (or other democratic practices), how exactly does a “whole people” make its true sentiments and positions known? As Professor Weiss demonstrates in his letter, the actual electoral choices made by Germans prior to WWI fell short of a popular mandate for the German anti-Semitic parties.
Unfettered by fact or logic, Solot responds by arguing that the “ruling Conservative Party” successfully co-opted the anti-Semites “after the turn of the century.” But this was in fact a period of Conservative Party decline: from 10 percent of the vote in 1903 to 9.4 percent in 1907 to 9.2 percent in 1912. These figures suggest a less than convincing mandate for Solot’s alleged “ruling party”; they do however confirm the impression that the man simply hasn’t a clue as to what he’s talking about.
A serious burden of proof falls upon anyone who alleges that the Nazi final solution represented the will of the “German people as a whole.” Indeed, Solot’s peculiar fixation upon this notion invites comparison with the Nazis’ own propaganda, which made quite similar claims (of a “Volksgemeinschaft”) while exhibiting the same contempt for actual indices of popular opinion. Just what purpose does this concept serve, anyway? Did the lynching of thousands of black people represent the will of the “American people as a whole”? (A different argument, by the way, than the recognition that white Americans generally benefited from black oppression.) By Solot’s shoddy standards, such an argument could be rather easily made–white racism has certainly played a greater role in this country’s development than did anti-Semitism in Germany prior to 1933.
If Solot had the intellectual courage to pursue this sort of comparison, one could at least respect his position. Instead, he makes irrelevant, incongruous analogies to the confessional makeup of Israel and the meat-eating proclivities of Argentineans (his related claim that “as a whole, Americans accepted Negro slavery until the Civil War,” while at least relatively serious, unfortunately also happens to be wrong: without Northern opposition to the slave system, there would have been no sectional crisis, no Bloody Kansas, and in fact no Civil War).
It is for good reason that historians usually avoid talking about “people as a whole,” and this applies all the more in regards to Germany prior to 1933. Germany’s political life over the 19th and early-20th century was distinguished mainly by discord and rancor; in no other European country were class antagonisms so powerfully concentrated within the political party system. It was arguably this chronic political fractiousness, and the failure of the German establishment to forge a more durable basis for political consensus, that more than anything else made large numbers of Germans susceptible to the Nazi siren song in the early 1930s. Even then, as Professor Weiss points out, the Nazis never gained an electoral majority, receiving at most 37 percent of the vote in 1932. It was the fractured context of German politics which rendered this plurality a relative “landslide.”
That the Nazis thereupon forged a national consensus of sorts no one denies; that they enjoyed considerable popular support and consent is likewise uncontested. But they accomplished this only after establishing a one-party state, an unhinged dictatorship in which brutality and terror provided singular constants. For this reason alone, any claims proffered on behalf of “the German people as a whole” between 1933 and 1945 are utterly speculative and wantonly foolish.
What is most galling about Solot’s (and Goldhagen’s) position is not just its manifestly willful ignorance, but its underlying, almost aggressive sense of smugness. In this respect, Solot’s obvious misunderstanding of the term “good Germans” deserves comment. His use of the phrase suggests an exculpatory function (in fact postwar apologists usually spoke of “the other Germany” when referring to Germans who had resisted, or failed to conform to, Nazi rule). In the postwar period, however, the notion of the “good German” has animated our political culture via a quite different meaning. A “good German” was someone who had “only followed orders” and thereby checked his conscience and personal responsibility at the gate. Thus for example did many Americans during the 1960s, in choosing active resistance against the Vietnam war, refuse to play the role of “good Germans.” The term has a negative, sardonic connotation, one which implies a moral critique and challenge.
All of which seems completely lost on Solot. Indeed, in his and Goldhagen’s vision of history, the moral and political questions posed by Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are denied much of their broader relevance and meaning. Because, according to their arguments, the crux of the problem inhered within those nasty Germans, and them alone, the whole experience can be neatly enclosed within a historical parenthesis. Because, as they maintain, the German people “as a whole” so obviously willed the Holocaust, troubling questions about authority and resistance, or the possible links between even “casual” prejudice and mass murder, need not overly concern virtuous Americans of the late-20th century.
Solot casts himself as a bold spirit tilting against the orthodoxy of stuffy academics. But his display of intellectual laziness and shallow moral petulance can hardly be considered a serious alternative (and much the same can be said for Goldhagen as well). Surely your readers, and the issues themselves, deserve better.