Finkelstein, Norman G. and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. New York, NY: Owl Books, 1998.

Academic Integrity and the American Agenda

“Rarely has a book with scholarly pretensions evoked as much popular interest as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s study” (p. 3) opens the first paragraph of Norman Finkelstein’s essay in A Nation on Trial, and from that point on a literal onslaught of criticism rolls page after page out of the book. This tiny work by Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn was received like an academic kick in the teeth in the late 1990s by the American publishing community and initiated a controversy that has lasting implications among historians today. A collection of two essays, Nation is a scathing review of the bestselling book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (HWE) by Daniel Goldhagen. In that book, published in 1996, Goldhagen claimed that an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” permeated every level of German society and culture, and that it had been integral to the German people since the Middle Ages, only finding outward expression through the Nazi regime. For Goldhagen, this pre-existing racial hatred of the Jewish community is the primary cause and explanation for the Nazi holocaust. In Nation, Finkelstein and Birn present their independent critiques of HWE and in Finkelstein’s case, attempt to formulate a theory of how a work that “is worthless as scholarship” (p. 4) came to be so well received.

The book is divided into two separate essays. Finkelstein’s work appears first, and his essay is broken down into three pieces: how Goldhagen deals with pre-war Germany, his consideration of Germany during the war, and a third, speculative piece about the book’s reception. The majority of Finkelstein’s criticism targets Goldhagen’s sloppy research, inadequate (and for Finkelstein, often faulty) citation, and illogical, sometimes circular, logic. In only one of many examples, Finkelstein illustrates how Goldhagen’s quotation of the secondary literature is not only incomplete but portrays one author’s conclusion in a completely reversed manner (p. 21). Not only does Finkelstein argue that Goldhagen supports his claim with misrepresentation, he also illustrates how in some cases Goldhagen cites little or no evidence when making sweeping statements. In discussing the decade before the war, Goldhagen is quoted as saying, “Rarely has a national leader (Hitler) so openly, frequently, and emphatically announced an apocalyptic intention – in this case, to destroy Jewish power and even the Jews themselves – and made good on his promise” yet Finkelstein shows that for that several year period Goldhagen cites only three such instances, and obscure ones at that (p. 28). Yet Finkelstein does not question the existence of anti-Semitism, he merely questions Goldhagen’s claim, writing, “Who ever doubted that there were sadistically cruel Germans? To sustain his thesis, however, Goldhagen must prove considerably more. What marks off its novelty, after all, is the audacious indictment of nearly all battalion members – hence ordinary Germans – as sadistic anti-Semites” (p. 69). In Finkelstein’s final section, he discusses the differences between holocaust scholarship and Holocaust literature, the importance of the former and rising popularity of the latter, and the politics behind the field itself. Humorously, in a footnote to the discussion, Finkelstein claims Goldhagen’s work is its own third category, “Holoporn” (p.90).

While Finkelstein is consistently harsh, even vituperative, in his thorough critique of Goldhagen’s research of the secondary literature and his argument, Birn carries the examination even further in her essay where she considers Goldhagen’s primary sources. Singularly qualified for the task, Birn was the Chief Historian in the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity section of the Canadian Department of Justice when she wrote her critique. In Birn’s opinion, to make the claim that all Germans were involved Goldhagen has to study every level of society, instead of the three distinct groups on which he relies. She writes, “The number of statements on which he bases his conclusions is fewer than two hundred, which is a very narrow selection from the tens of thousands of statements in existence on those topics” (p. 107) in criticizing his selection of testimonials taken after the war. After condemning HWE for its lack of a bibliography or archival listing, Birn goes on to say, “He prefers instead to use parts of statements selectively, to reinterpret them according to his own point of view, or to take them out of context and make them fit into his own interpretative framework” (p.111). Although she does not spend the same time and effort in seeking an explanation for its popularity, Birn does offer her own opinion, “As it stands, this book only caters to those who want simplistic answers to difficult questions, to those who seek the security of prejudices” (p. 148).

In both of their reviews of A Nation on Trial, Mordecai Briemberg and Laura Shapiro discuss the firestorm of debate that not only followed, but even preceded the publication of the book. Shapiro even notes that groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Canadian Jewish Congress sharply criticized the books publication. Briemberg illustrates how Birn was unsuccessfully pressured to withdraw her essay from the book and some critics even tried to get her removed from her position with the Department of Justice. The source of this outrage, as both reviewers allude to in varying degrees, is politics. The link between American-Israeli policies, the American publishing community, and ‘historical’ support seem to lie in the background of the controversy, not clearly defined and hard to focus on but existent nonetheless. Briemberg’s article becomes a cry for help in support of Birn and Finkelstein, saying, “there is a shameful public silence from those individuals and organizations who pride themselves as defenders of intellectual freedom in our country” and he continues, “Are they prepared to abandon to public pillory, intimidation and unemployment those whose scholarship and integrity does not serve that political organization’s agenda?” (Briemberg, “Zionism & Political Orthodoxy”, Canadian Dimension, May/June 98).

A Nation on Trial is perfectly titled, only the nation in question this time is not Germany. This work should be required reading for every history student, not only for the many lessons that can be learned about the importance of fundamental research and source use, but also for the questions it raises. In trying to understand their role in the modern world, history students should remember Birn’s words, “When the historical agenda can be dictated by advertising and marketing, professional historians must respond” (p. 148).

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