Examining Daniel Goldhagen’s “Eliminationist Anti-Semitism” and Its Implications on Holocaust Studies

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Submitted by: Brendan Grady
Submitted to: Professor Robert Jan van Pelt
Class: HIS338H1
Date Submitted: December 3, 2010
Over the years, the amount of research on the Holocaust has piled up; many phenomenal published works from scholars on the topic have largely gone unnoticed, ignored by the general public—then, Daniel Goldhagen arrived. Few books have managed to rival the attention that Goldhagen received for his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Written in 1996, his book began as a Harvard doctoral dissertation that grew into an international phenomenon before the book was even released. In his book, Goldhagen hypothesizes that “ordinary Germans” not only knew about the Holocaust, but supported and participated in the Holocaust, due to a national ‘eliminationist anti-Semitic’ mindset.[1] Such a controversial statement naturally resulted in an onslaught of response, ranging from enthusiasm to scornful criticism. In this paper, I will investigate various historians’ opinions on Goldhagen’s work, centering the discussion on his belief in widespread anti-Semitism throughout Germany before and during the Holocaust. I will break the discussion into two primary questions: first, how did Nazi racial ideology make its way to the foreground of society in Nazi Germany? Second, how were seemingly normal Germans able to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust? I will conclude with what implications Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the lively debates surrounding the book have on the future value of learning about the Holocaust. The works that will be discussed are Karl Schleunes’ The Twisted Road to Auschwitz, Omer Bartov’s and Geoff Eley’s work in The “Goldhagen Effect”, Norman Finkelstein’s A Nation on Trial, and, of course, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. In his book, Goldhagen promotes a monocausal explanation for the eliminationist anti-Semitism felt in Germany that led to the Holocaust. Scholars have written books attempting to disprove his work point-by-point, while others have written material that simply contradicts the assertions made in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. He argues that, long before the Genocide, “normal” Germans had a pre-existing eliminationist anti-Semitic mindset towards Jews that took the highest precedence.[2] He maintains that “eliminationist anti-Semitism was a German cultural cognitive model that predated racial anti-Semitism. Killing Jews was…a deed not for Nazism but for Germany.”[3] It is unclear what Goldhagen bases this information off. Karl Schleunes provides a different take on German ideals at the onslaught on the Nazi regime, arguing that no specific plans for a solution existed early, just a “commitment to an eventual solution”.[4] Schleunes raises a strong point—why were death camps not implemented immediately, if both the Nazi regime and the overwhelming majority of “normal Germans” had eliminationist anti-Semitist goals? Even before this, Schleunes points out a general German willingness to allow Jewish integration into mainstream European society through an adoption of basic Christian-German values, a seemingly enormous step forward in the context of the time.[5] It would seem that Schleunes is arguing the “Jewish problem” stemmed from German ideas and desires of a fully German nationhood, not at all from a racial hatred of Jews. Goldhagen’s thesis does not explain in enough detail the reasons why so little discrimination (legal or violent) faced German Jews prior to the World Wars, or, as Omar Bertov muses, how these supposedly racist Germans became “just like us” after the Second World War.[6] Norman Finkelstein adds to this side of the argument, mentioning that Hitler maintained his ultimate goal was emigration, and that he confined remarks on Jewish massacres, aware of the general opposition he would meet.[7] Schleunes talks about Hitler’s writing in Mein Kampf, in which he discusses the importance of basing a party on the ideals of...
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