Richard A. Koenigsberg
This is Volume XI of the History of Library of Social Science.
To read Volumes I-X, please click here.
Daniel Goldhagen
Daniel Goldhagen
Video of Daniel Goldhagen:
How Did Ordinary Germans Become Perpetrators in the Final Solution?
The 20th Annual Holocaust Conference at Millersville University: "The Holocaust in the Context of the Twentieth Century", Millersville, PA, April 2-3, 2000
Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

For information on ordering, click here.

At the 1997 Annual Holocaust Conference, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Weiss on “The Ideology of Death” (he had just published Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany).

In the course of the discussion, he mentioned “the hated Goldhagen.” Apparently, the audience understood what he meant—because a substantial conversation ensued about “the hated Goldhagen.”

I wondered what this was about. I’d attended over 100 conferences by then and many presentations—and had never heard academics speak like this. Indeed, the reigning ideology of the time was “Everyone is entitled to his (or her) own discourse.”

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners was published in 1996. Apparently, the book generated enormous controversy among academics in the United States as well as Germany. The book became a best-seller.
What was all the fuss about?

I read the book—all 656 pages. It’s the richest, most dynamic book I’ve ever read on the Holocaust—and I’ve read quite a few.

Apparently, people took issue with Goldhagen’s claim that there was a uniquely German anti-Semitism, and that many Germans killed willfully—responding to their hatred of Jews.

I won’t address the substance of Goldhagen’s arguments here. Rather, I’d like to discuss the issue of hatred—why someone might be “hated” for putting forth certain propositions or theories.

Of course, we’ve seen this occur many times. Freud was hated and condemned for his theory of sexuality: his discovery that sexual desire plays a profound role in shaping our lives.

Similarly, people did not take kindly to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—showing how human beings have descended from “lower” forms of animal life. Darwin’s ideas, like those of Freud, generated disagreement that took the form of anger, even rage.

It’s not difficult to understand that the theories of Freud and Darwin generated hostility because many people found their ideas disturbing, or painful. People become angry when confronted with truths they find unpleasant. Anger or hatred serves in the name of pushing away—disavowing—certain ideas. Hatred is a form of denial.

This dynamic of hatred as denial is no less operative today than it was a century ago. Each culture (including each academic culture) embraces certain beliefs as if they are absolutes—and reacts violently to ideas that contradict their world view.

Can everyone be wrong? Can entire cultures embrace ideas that have no foundation in reality? Can many ideas that society puts forth turn out to be nonsense? I have found this to be the case.

I often ask people: “How many Jews do you think were in Germany in 1933—out of a population of 65 million?” I get answers of 5 million, 10 million, even 20 or 30 million. The correct answer is: there were approximately 500,000 Jews in Germany in 1933, half of 1%.

I no longer find it fruitful to debate the point that Jews were killed for no reason at all. People have difficulty with this idea. They insist there must have been some reason that the Nazis acted as they did.

There weren’t any reasons. Hitler and the many Germans were embroiled in a shared fantasy. Entire societies can be wrong. Many cultural ideas—that people fervently believe are true—turn out to have no foundation in reality.

On the surface, people challenged Goldhagen because they believed his theories were “wrong;” not supported by the evidence; or because they felt his scholarship was suspect. But why would someone be “hated” for a theory that was incorrect?

At the Holocaust conference, Goldhagen was invited to give the keynote address, “The Holocaust in the Context of the 20th Century.” I arrived early to set up the Library of Social Science Book Exhibit. Enjoying the sights of the Millersville campus, I spotted conference director Jack Fischel walking with someone at a distance. Perhaps he was taking Goldhagen out to lunch?

Ah, I reflected, that couldn’t. The person walking with Jack was a slight, unimposing young man. Could this be “the hated Goldhagen?” Based on the way people spoke about him, I imagined Goldhagen as having a commanding, threatening presence.

The young man walking with Jack Fischel indeed was Daniel Goldhagen. I met him later when he came to check out the books in the exhibit room. He was a warm, gentle person. Nothing whatsoever to “hate.”

We began rapping. I explained to him why I thought many people were disturbed by his theories. I gave him a copy of Hitler’s Ideology (no charge). We were having a great conversation.

But then Jack Fischel was at the door. The lecture was about to begin (down the hall from the exhibit room). Goldhagen couldn’t tear himself away. Fischel called his name several times; finally, he departed. Time to go back to work, do his job, earn his fee.