In a powerful defence of the role of the study of history in contemporary life, Karl Jaspers wrote "That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented." These words have particular relevance to the study of Nazi Germany, a study which for years was dominated by the political framework it took place in: Germany seemingly divided for ever, the Reich of 1870 - 1945 been merely an abberation in the history of German fragmentation. To the West the FDR's state ideology was practically anti-Communism and anti-fascism, and in the East all explanations of Nazism took place within a Marxist framework.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, a new chapter was opened in the historiography of the Third Reich. The conclusion to this chapter is far from written. With the dogmatic underpinnings of the Marxist interpretation discredited, all serious debate now took place within the 'liberal' school of historical study. Most commentators predicted that reunification and time (someone who was old enough to be in the Hitler Youth is now pensionable) would perhaps allow the Nazi era to pass into the field of dispassionate historical study. With a new German nation-state and a new era begun, maybe German society could finally put the past behind it. Nothing showed how premature these predictions were more than the Goldhagen controversy.

The controversy

In 1996, Daniel J. Goldhagen published a book based on his Harvard Ph.D thesis (which won an award in the field of comparative politics) called Hitler's Willing Executioners. A German version appeared shortly after the English, and by the time it was published the amount of media controversy was already immense. The publisher's publicity machine had done its job. Goldhagen's book was presented as an overturning of the last fifty years of historical study on the Holocaust. German television, radio and print media was sensationalised by this young political scientist's thesis and it began to be discussed in the most vehement terms. So what was the deal?

Put bluntly, Goldhagen's thesis was that the entire German nation was responsible for the Holocaust. He implores us not to view German society as we would view our own, nor to presume it had the same moral values. In his view, all the evidence points to a constant presence of "eliminationist anti-semitism" throughout German society since the Middle Ages. If only historians would abandon their assumptions, they would see that German society had always been profoundly antisemitic. A direct line could be traced from the blood libel of the Middle Ages to the secular antisemitism of the modern era. Evidence of a change in opinion not been forthcoming to him, he asked why we assume German society had ever abandoned its virulent antisemitism. In times of economic prosperity it had simply been "latent": its later re-emergence proved that the concept was still alive in people's minds.

Just about every historian of the Holocaust or German history in general denounced Goldhagen's thesis, with various degrees of virulence and liberal doses of personal attacks. A political scientist by training, Goldhagen was accused of poor historical practice and of constructing a model that was wracked with internal inconsistencies. At first his empirical work on the lives of men in the SS-Einsatzgruppen, if not his central arguments, were praised. But even these increasingly came under attack by others familiar with the sources he used, and others on top. Many people wanted Goldhagen utterly discredited as a historian and considered his book to be a non-entity in the historiography of Germany. But something peculiar was happening: his book was consistently topping the non-fiction bestseller charts.

Goldhagen's book was hugely popular among the German public, who flocked in huge numbers to take part in media debates on it. The grandchildren of people who had been alive in Nazi Germany seemed to find it very compelling. It has been suggested that its monocausal explanation is alluring, especially when compared to more complex and less sharply-defined explanations. Seemingly safe in the belief that "eliminationist anti-semitism" hadn't continued after 1945, many people seemed to find this explanation of the Holocaust a satisfactory one despite its implications. The public debate that followed showed that Nazism had certainly not been 'historicised', which is to say passed into the realm of areas of the past which we seek to understand and present merely "as it was".


The controversy invites comment on whether the central thesis has any validity whatsoever. The reason such polemics can sometimes be important is that they offer sharp black and white scenarios which can be used as reference points in scholary debate. This debate cuts to the heart of a main debate over the nature of the Third Reich, which can broadly be defined as 'intentionalist' vs. 'structuralist'. Intentionalist interpretations build a sort of pyramid of power with Adolf Hitler at the top, the SD-Police-SS complex below and a hapless German society at the bottom. Structuralist interpretations stress the importance of the structure of German society, German politics and German economics in understanding the Nazi era. They are hence less prone to stress the importance of the individual in historical development and more in line with trends of social history in the 1970s.

Goldhagen's position here is plain: German antisemitic policy was not forced on German society from above, but was a natural outgrowth of its very nature. Hitler merely acted as a focus for the natural wishes of the German people - in this sense the totalitarian myth of identification between ruler and ruled was true. Although the issue is complex, this interpretation is very problematic. We know, for instance, that Hitler did not initiate the boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, nor the Nurembourg Laws of 1935, nor even Reichskristallnacht in 1937 (he did, however, sanction all of these). But the boycott of Jewish businesses had to be called off after a mere day in the face of public opposition - Party radicals and hotheads were responsible for this move. Reichskristallnacht - Crystal Night - was initiated by Goebbels in an attempt to win Hitler's favour, but again met with massive public opposition.

In the end, the abhorrent 'Final Solution' to the 'Jewish Question' had to be carried out in secret by men told to take its secret to their graves. Hitler knew that the German people would not stand for what he was doing if the truth was out, and he even was reluctant to discuss the issue directly with his subordinates. Antisemitism was certainly a large factor in German public life, as was natural when economic opportunism and ideology could synergise to deliver benefits to those ruthless enough to grab them. But Goldhagen fundamentally failed to prove that German society was inherently and irreprably antisemitic, and that it as a whole should bear the terrible burden of guilt.