The Goldhagen Wars

Attempts at censorship, lawsuits and claims of anti-Semitism abound, in the juicy saga of the book that went head-to-head with Daniel Goldhagen's controversial Holocaust bestseller



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, August 5, 1998



Hero to some, anathema to others, Norman G. Finkelstein is the protagonist of a tale that has drawn Holocaust studies into an imbroglio of scholarship, criticism, free speech and Zionism.


Norman Finkelstein, a feisty academic and fierce critic of Israel, took Harvard scholar Daniel Goldhagen to task over what he saw as the latter's poor scholarship in his bestseller "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (photo: Norman Finkelstein)

Finkelstein, an adjunct professor of political theory and international relations at Hunter College and New York University, is the co-author of "A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth," published recently by the German-owned New York house Henry Holt & Co., after running an obstacle course of attempts to prevent its appearance. Bringing together two articles published separately last year in Britain by Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, a noted war crimes researcher in Canada, the book rebuts both the logic and methods of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust." Goldhagen, the Harvard professor whose PhD thesis-turned-bestseller gained him instant celebrity in 1996 and sales of half a million copies in 13 languages since, theorized that the Germans' collective history of homicidal anti-Semitism led inevitably (with a little help from Hitler) to the Holocaust.


Most Holocaust scholars have been highly critical of Goldhagen's thesis, so Finkelstein's contribution to the debate was hardly enough to land him at center stage. But he is also the author of two censorious books on Israel's Palestinian policies — "The Rise and Fall of Palestine" and "Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict" — where he argues, among other things, that Israelis are collectively responsible for human-rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza and that "Israel's terroristic war against the Palestinians... besmirched the memory of the six million Jewish martyrs." It's because of those books that, from the moment Holt approached him and Birn about a book, the project has lurched from one altercation to the next.


First, Abraham H. Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, fired off a letter to Sara Bershtel, the book's editor, urging her to drop it because Finkelstein's "irreversibly tainted, glaring" anti-Zionist bias "disqualified" him from commenting on the Holocaust. "The issue," Foxman suggested, "is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong but what's legitimate criticism and what goes beyond the pale."


Bershtel, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, thought the issue was precisely whether Goldhagen was right or wrong, and wrote back to Foxman to say so. Bershtel now says she was "frightened, angered and appalled" by Foxman's attempts to interfere with her editorial freedom. "It's a model of censorship when you don't even care if someone is right or wrong, and you want to slap that person down," Bershtel told The Report.


Enter Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who went over Bershtel's head to Holt publisher Michael Naumann, a longtime friend. Wieseltier, too, cited Finkelstein's anti-Zionism, again unsuccessfully. Both Foxman and Wieseltier asserted to the publisher that their concern was less with defending "Hitler's Willing Executioners" than with "upholding scholarly standards." "There's an encyclopedia of criticism on Goldhagen's thesis by thousands of reputable scholars," Foxman told The Report. "All we asked was why did a mainstream publisher have to turn to the fringe for two ersatz scholars — a notorious anti-Zionist and a little-known scholar with few credentials."


"Ersatz scholars" may be stretching it. The German-born Birn, who did her PhD on the SS and the Nazi police at Stuttgart University and a post-doctorate at MIT, is the foremost authority on the German Ludwigsburg archives where Goldhagen conducted his primary research; Finkelstein, who holds a PhD on the theory of Zionism from Princeton, admits to being no Holocaust expert but asserts his exegesis on Goldhagen's internal contradictions requires no expertise beyond common sense.


From Foxman's letter on, the attacks were on a roll. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, likened Holt & Co. to "garbagemen" for deciding to bring out Finkelstein's critiques. Jonathan Mahler, an editor of the New York Forward, compared the publisher's decision to that of St. Martin Press, which in the early 1990s decided to publish British revisionist historian David Irving's biography of Joseph Goebbels, but backed down after lobbying from Jewish groups. "Clearly, there was a campaign of hardball politics to stem the publication of this book," says Naumann. "The interpretation of the Holocaust has left, it seems, the realm of remembrance and entered the realm of lobby politics."


Out of Finkelstein and Birn's collaboration also unfolded the story's Canadian subplot. Birn is chief historian for Canada's Nazi war crimes unit, and Canadian Jewish organizations were soon protesting her partnership with Finkelstein. For her to lend her name as a civil servant to his "anti-Israel outbursts," says Bernie G. Farber, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, was "an insult" to Jews.

Daniel Goldhagen's thesis that most ordinary Germans were only too happy to murder Jews at will made his "Hitler's Willing Executions" a runaway bestseller (photo: Daniel Goldhagen)


Farber put his complaints in writing to the Department of Justice. His letters, and a CJC-backed report by a disgruntled former head of the war crimes unit, which called her "a member of the perpetrator race," prompted the Canadian deputy justice minister to look into Birn's alleged anti-Semitism. Birn, who has been a war crimes researcher for 13 years, six of them in Canada, was vindicated by the investigation in March, but not, she says, without being "eternally branded an anti-Semite."

lrving Abella, chair of the CJC's war crimes committee and its former president, asserts that Birn, by publishing with Finkelstein, has only herself to blame for her ordeals. Birn counters that her run-ins with Goldhagen and his defenders predate her ever hearing of Finkelstein, whom she had never met before "A Nation on Trial" came out. She has been targeted, Birn says, since last summer, when she first published her critical essay in the Cambridge Historical Journal in which she set out to prove that Goldhagen had tampered with his sources to support his arguments.


Instead of accepting an invitation by the journal for a side-by-side response, "Danny" Goldhagen, whom Birn had known for 13 years and helped in his research, responded by suing her and Cambridge University Press in England, demanding an apology, a retraction and a guarantee she wouldn't perpetuate her alleged libel by reprinting her critiques elsewhere. The suit is still pending, and, says Birn, "I'm sitting there like the toad under the harrow wondering what will happen next." Unlike Birn, Finkelstein is unfazed. He has been here before. In the mid-1980s, still a graduate student at Princeton, Finkelstein earned a lion's share of the credit for debunking first-time author Joan Peters's scholarship in her controversial bestseller "From Time Immemorial," which purported to disprove Palestinians' historical land claims. Some people, Finkelstein says, have never forgiven him for that; hence the trashing of his book and character now.


Maybe so, but he isn't exactly helping his cause. In "Reflections on the Goldhagen Phenomenon," added as an afterthought to his critiques in "A Nation on Trial," Finkelstein "speculates" on a Zionist conspiracy in Holocaust studies so elaborate it makes "The X-Files" straightforward. He divides writings on the Holocaust into "Holocaust scholarship" and "Holocaust literature" — the former consisting of genuine attempts to get at the truth, the latter being a Zionist propaganda tool to bestow on Jews eternal martyrdom and deflect criticism of Israel after the territorial gains of 1967. Finkelstein places Goldhagen firmly among the purveyors of the latter, branding him "a Holocaust ideologue." "I find it highly offensive," says Finkelstein, whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek and Auschwitz, "to see the suffering of my parents manipulated, distorted and abused in the service of a political-ideological agenda."


What agenda would that be? Goldhagen, he told The Report, portrays the Nazi genocide as "the climax of a millennium-long Gentile hatred of Jews," from which it follows that Gentiles always harbor homicidal anti-Semitism while Jews always enjoy a priori "moral impunity" in defending themselves. Israel's apologists, he goes on, use Goldhagen's arguments to dismiss all criticisms of Israel as "simply disguised forms of anti-Semitism." Goldhagen's supporters see such arguments as adding "Holocaust denial" (Foxman) and "anti-Semitism" (Farber and others) to Finkelstein's anti-Zionism.


The skirmishing is not over yet. The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs carries a vituperative, partisan review of "A Nation on Trial" by Stanley Hoffinann, a professor at Harvard who was Goldhagen's thesis supervisor and wrote a laudatory endorsement for his book. Historian Raul Hilberg, one of eight scholars who supplied blurbs for "A Nation on Trial," counters that Finkelstein and Birn are helping to "untangle the Goldhagen phenomenon and leave a record that there are second thoughts on his simplistic answers." One outcome of all this jousting: "A Nation on Trial" is getting a lot of free advertising: Holt is planning a second printing, and French, German and Dutch editions are in the works.


Goldhagen's assumptions have been derided by Holocaust scholars before; Birn and Finkelstein take a swing at his scholarship.


Goldhagen's thesis, Birn says, reads like "a bad historical novel," providing plot without narrative, conclusions without proofs. According to Goldhagen, "eliminationist anti-Semitism" was second nature for Germans long before they knew it; a German anti-Semite was like no other anti-Semite; the Nazis didn't do it, they let "ordinary Germans" do it. In short, instead of the Nazification of the Germans, he posits the Germanization of the Nazis, she says.


For her critique, Birn, whom Goldhagen thanks in his acknowledgments, checked his footnotes against the German originals. Her synopsis: He ignores data, dilutes sources and generalizes to excess. When he speaks of the singular brutality of Germans in dealing with Jews, he soft-pedals all evidence of Eastern European Nazi collaborators doing the same. He expounds on the "random and wanton" savagery of Nazi killing commandos, although they were so organized they murdered Jews in shifts.


"Goldhagen has this tunnel vision of history," Birn charges. "He looks back at German history from the perspective of the Holocaust so that everything leading up to that point follows logically to him."


Goldhagen's is a theology of all vice but no redemption, Finkelstein agrees, and like other theologies it takes liberty with facts and their interpretation. Finkelstein scoured Goldhagen's book for inconsistencies and contradiction, coming up with 86 pages of them. Goldhagen, he says, is such a self-contradictor and evidence-fiddler that his book is "worthless as scholarship."


The ultimate criticism, in Birn's words to The Report, is this: "Goldhagen has a sugar-coated version of the Holocaust, which eliminates the need for people to constantly think about the ethical choices of right and wrong. If you say the German's are a species apart with their pathological anti-Semitism, then you absolve them of all normal standards of moral culpability. And with them you absolve all non-German perpetrators of the Holocaust as well."


The implications of this line of thought are staggering. Already at two deportation hearings this year in Montreal and Toronto, Canadian attorneys defended their clients, two alleged Ukrainian war criminals, on the grounds that certain documents alleged to prove that the defendants volunteered to kill Jews were doctored by the Nazis to disguise their own genocidal activities. The source for their claims?: "Hitler's Willing Executioners," where Goldhagen dismisses such German documents as "fiction."


Goldhgen refuses to discuss the charges of Finkelstein and Birn, beyond the ripostes ("The Fictions of Ruth Bettina Birn") he has pasted on his website (, telling The Report he doesn't want to dignify "their inventions" with a response.


In cyberspace, he accuses Birn of deliberately misreading his arguments arid insinuates that she may be anti-Semitic. And he claims that Finkelstein louses up the real contentions of "Hitler's Willing Executioners" "in the cause of anti-Zionism."


And that's why this saga ends where it started: with no denouement in sight. Finkelstein appears set to remain a hero to his supporters and an anathema to his detractors. But he doesn't care about either. "Holocaust scholarship is not a popularity contest," he says. "If I'm wrong, show me where I'm wrong and I will correct it. But if I'm right, accept that I am right."


Previous page