Commentary Magazine


Hitler and the Germans

To the Editor:

In his review of Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum [Books in Review, September], Gabriel Schoenfeld writes that the “centrality of large social forces” discussed in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners grants “indirect absolution” to Hitler and the Germans “for the crime of genocide.” This is quite a leap of interpretation. Whether one agrees with Goldhagen’s argument or not, “the centrality of large social forces” does not erase the reality that such forces are composed of millions of personal choices and decisions arrived at and acted upon by individuals in a multiplicity of contexts.

Mr. Schoenfeld takes an even greater leap when he writes that “Goldhagen is hardly the only student of the Holocaust to exculpate Hitler, or the Germans, in some fashion or other.” After again labeling Goldhagen, in effect, an apologist for the perpetrators of the Holocaust, he uses this phraseology to segue into a discussion of the anti-Semite and Nazi-lover David Irving and the self-hating Jew George Steiner—referring to them all as “twisted examples” of Holocaust-explainers. This failure to differentiate between a scholar with a controversial thesis and two deeply flawed individuals purveying moral trash reveals either that Mr. Schoenfeld bears a personal animus toward Goldhagen or that he suffers from a hideously deficient discriminatory function.

Sidney Helfant
Kingsborough Community
College
Brooklyn, New York

_____________

 

Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:

Sidney Helfant is certainly correct that “large social forces” are composed of “millions of personal choices and decisions,” but this obvious observation hardly begins to resolve the thorny problem of affixing historical responsibility. After all, in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s schema, ordinary Germans were in the grip of anti-Semitic “fantasies” so intense that they not only lacked compunctions about murdering innocent men, women, and children but believed instead that they were “ideological warriors” carrying out “heroic deeds.” It is hardly a leap, or even much of a step, to argue, as Ron Rosenbaum does in his book, that the attribution to the Germans of such powerful delusions has the effect of diminishing their responsibility for their crimes on grounds of mass insanity, thereby offering them an indirect form of absolution.

With respect to the “personal animus” or the “hideously deficient discriminatory function” that has allegedly led me to lump Goldhagen together with David Irving and George Steiner, all I can say is that Mr. Helfant has worked himself into a lather without cause. I was fairly clear in distinguishing the legitimate scholar Goldhagen from the other two truly “grotesque” cases, though evidently not clear enough for a reader unaccountably determined to grind an ax.

_____________

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