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Hitler's Willing Executioners By Daniel Goldhagen

3391 words - 14 pages

"Goldhagen’s book is worthless as scholarship.” (Finkelstein and Birn, 1998) In the light of the public success of Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Evaluate whether this statement is justified.

After its publication in 1996, Daniel Goldhagen’s PHD Thesis and book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Goldhagen, 1996) evoked great public fascination and popular interest, almost more than any other historical research on the Holocaust that came before it. His book seemed to mesmerise the public and press; The New York Times claimed it as “one of those rare new works that merit the appellation landmark.” (Bernstein, 1996). The book sold eighty thousand German copies in the first month (Adams, 2011) and as a result, Goldhagen toured the world hosting sold-out panel discussions, featuring in articles in Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, and participating in several television talk shows. (Ullrich, 1996) (Spiegel Online, 1997) (Ridderbusch, 1996) However, it also aroused distaste from certain Holocaust researchers and was met with other works of rebuttal; “it is not at all a learned enquiry” (Finkelstein and Birn, 1998, p.4) and “[h]is moral theory is radically incomplete” (Smith, 1997, pp. 48-57). Goldhagen’s book was claimed to be “a blanket [of] accusation lies” (Locke, 2007, p.26), “[r]eplete with gross misinterpretations of the secondary literature” (Finkelstein and Birn, 1998, p.4) and “simply bad” (Jäckel, 2007, p.161). The thesis was greeted with such controversy, because of its seeming lack of recognition for past research: “it dismisses the careful findings […] of several generations of eminent scholars, many of whom have devoted a lifetime to inquiry on the monumental horror of the twentieth century.” (Locke, 2007, p.26)

In the book Goldhagen concluded that a particular kind of eliminationist anti-Semitism was “a pathology afflicting all Germans” (Goldhagen, 1996, p.387). Goldhagen’s thesis suggests that the German population was already predisposed to eliminating the Jews and Hitler coming to power in 1933 allowed them to “easily [become] genocidal killers” (Goldhagen, 1996, p.185). Society was so saturated with anti-Semitism it was simply “common sense” (ibid, p.27) of the time, ordinary Germans “wanted to be genocidal executioners” (ibid, p.279) and with the chance they would kill with “gusto” (ibid, p.241); they had “fun” (ibid, p.231) and “they killed for pleasure” (ibid, p.451).

Given that it attracted such a great reading audience and generally positive public interest, there is no prima facie reason to disregard Goldhagen’s thesis, so the question must be asked, why do other scholars of the Holocaust dismiss his findings so harshly and quickly? In order to gain a greater insight into this mystery, the book’s narrative, conclusions, and its position in the public reception must be examined.

On the first reading it is easy to see how...

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