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How Could They?

A NATION ON TRIAL: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth.\o7 By Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn (Owl Books: 148 pp., $12.95 paper)\f7 ; THE HISTORY OF AN OBSESSION: German Judeophobia and the Holocaust.\o7 By Klaus P. Fischer (Continuum: 544 pp., $39.50)\f7 ; GERMANS INTO NAZIS.\o7 By Peter Fritsche (Harvard University Press: 264 pp., $24.95)\f7

May 10, 1998|NEAL ASCHERSON | Neal Ascherson is the author of numerous books, including (with Magnus Linklater and Isabel Hilton) "The Nazi Legacy: Klaus Barbie and the International Fascist Connection" and, most recently, "Black Sea," for which he was awarded the 1996 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history

At the end of the 20th century, we know far more than our luckier grandparents about those mechanisms. As Fischer shrewdly observes, "torture, cruelty, degradation are necessary elements in destroying human beings because they make it easier for the perpetrators to kill. . . . Gratuitous cruelty conditions those who have to carry out mass killings; it makes it possible for them to do what they did." That has been as true in Latin America or Rwanda or Bosnia as it was in German-occupied Europe. Whatever their atrocities prove, it is not that the men of Battalion 101 were acting out of any preexisting "exterminist" beliefs. They doubtlessly loathed "the Jews" and agreed that they were one of the world's misfortunes. But to kill them willingly, even with enthusiasm, required a state of mind that had to be constructed, step by step, until the necessary condition of numbness was acquired. To dehumanize the victims, by applying bestial cruelty to them in the prelude to finally taking their lives, was the first, indispensable lesson to be mastered.

This point is eagerly snatched up by Finkelstein. Goldhagen, he claims, has painted himself into a corner by admitting that Germans with more Nazi indoctrination (like the uniformed SS) were actually less brutal to Jews than Germans who lacked party discipline and racialist training. Where does that leave the native "exterminist anti-Semitism" that Goldhagen attributes to the German nation? But here Finkelstein's fury runs ahead of his logic, and it's at about this stage in the book that the reader may begin to feel impatient with him.

The trouble with Finkelstein is that he is not content to win an argument. He carries on with foaming relish until he thinks he has stomped his opponent to dust. This is irritating, because so much of what he has to say is important as well as provocative. He makes, for instance, a distinction between "Holocaust scholarship" and "Holocaust literature"--the one historical and multicausal, the other "unhistorical and monocausal." The scholars agree that popular German anti-Semitism was only one of the factors behind Hitler's rise to power and the Final Solution. The litterateurs, in contrast, see the Nazi genocide as "the climax of a millennial Gentile hatred of Jews" and insist on the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust, something that must never be "relativized" by comparison to other genocidal slaughters.

Goldhagen's book, according to Finkelstein, is the first foray from Holocaust literature to invade the territory of scholarship. And he goes on to denounce the literature as a genre developed for "crass political motives" to provide moral support for the state of Israel. "Holocaust literature first flourished in the wake of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This is the crucial context for comprehending the Goldhagen phenomenon."

Much of this is true, or partly true. But Finkelstein puts it so ruthlessly with such extremes and reductions that he comes close to producing his own Holocaust "anti-literature." The truth is more complicated, and--to go back to the central piece of evidence here--it would be tragic if anybody concluded from Finkelstein that the tale of Police Battalion 101 is not worth studying. This testimony is one of the most terrible documents to emerge from the 20th century. If Goldhagen fails to extract from it conclusive evidence for his main thesis, the story of that unit nonetheless shows that "ordinary" Germans could be induced to show pitiless savagery to Jews and that a substantial percentage of other "ordinary" Germans must have known what was going on.

Fischer in "The History of an Obsession" sums up the current state of opinion among historians. "One emerging consensus . . . indicates that the German people did not subscribe to the biological-racial Jew-hatred of the Nazi leadership. The best judgment on the nature of public Judeophobia in Nazi Germany and its effects is that of Norman Cohn, who argued that 'the majority was conditioned not so much to fanatical hatred as to utter indifference.' This was no small achievement, for it was all that the murderers needed by way of public support to carry out their crime."

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