The Noelle-Neumann Case
To the Editor:
We would like to respond to Leo Bogart’s article, “The Pollster and the Nazis” [August 1991], and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s reply [Letters from Readers, January].
As members of a university community, we consider it our duty to uphold academic freedom. That freedom requires that members of our community be permitted to hold and express beliefs that may be unpopular. Yet we also have an obligation to oppose bigotry. The past activities of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a visiting professor in our department, have forced us to consider how we act when these principles are opposed.
We do not wish to silence Dr. Noelle-Neumann, either for what she wrote in the past or what she believes now. It would have been equally inappropriate to ask for her resignation. But we must challenge Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s understanding of her past conduct, because it reveals an inadequate appreciation of why her writings and statements in the Nazi period were harmful and deeply offensive. Because her failure to understand the true nature of anti-Semitism is not unique, it is especially important that we identify what is at stake.
Dr. Noelle-Neumann has offered a detailed response to Leo Bogart’s charges, in an effort to explain her behavior and to live up to her moral obligations. In brief, she portrays herself as a naive young woman torn between her own beliefs and the realities of power in a totalitarian state. She admits that she joined a Nazi youth group in order to obtain permission to study abroad, and she acknowledges using anti-Semitic phrases in her writings. She defends these actions as a compromise taken in order to preserve her capacity to subvert Nazi rule in other ways. With the benefit of hindsight, she now offers a conditional apology. “If” her actions harmed Jews, she writes, she is “terribly sorry.” She condemns the Holocaust, and adds that the memory of that event will haunt her forever, as it should all of us.
Unfortunately, Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s response suggests that she does not understand the full nature of anti-Semitism and her own contribution to it. Anti-Semitism—or racism or sexism—is not simply hatred or active persecution. More importantly, anti-Semitism is about exclusion. In its more common forms, anti-Semitism denies Jews full membership in civil society, simply because they are Jews. In its most virulent forms—as in the Nazi period—Jews are even denied full status as humans.
The obvious danger is that once Jews (or any other social group) are excluded from full membership in society purely on the basis of group characteristics, it becomes easier to justify taking virtually any action against them. By identifying Jews in Germany and elsewhere as an alien and corrupting influence, Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s writings helped reinforce the belief that Jews were not entitled to basic rights as citizens and as human beings.
Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s writings did not advocate the Holocaust. Properly speaking, her writings did not even consent to it. But by providing rhetorical support for the exclusion of Jews, her words helped make the disreputable reputable, the indecent decent, the uncivilized civilized, and the unthinkable thinkable.
This is the moral failure that requires an apology. Whether she intended to harm Jews or not is irrelevant. By supporting their exclusion, as millions of others did as well, her actions did harm Jews. Contrition in this case cannot be conditional, and apologies must be made without ifs, ands, or buts.
Stephen M. Walt
Gerald N. Rosenberg
David D. Laitin
John J. Mearsheimer
John Mark Hansen
Bernard S. Silberman
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
To the Editor:
Leo Bogart’s article attempts to link Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s alleged anti-Semitism to responsibility for the Holocaust and to support for the Nazi regime of the Third Reich. Doing so raises the question of what kind of conduct is at issue—agency, complicity, or resistance? Agency would mean that Dr. Noelle-Neumann both intended something like the Holocaust and Nazi rule to happen and acted to bring them about. I do not think such a view of her intentions or actions can be sustained. Complicity in bad or evil events is common and harder to judge. (I will comment on complicity below at greater length.) Resistance would mean that she was opposed to Hitler’s Nazi regime and, when possible, acted accordingly.
Basing my judgment in part on her response in COMMENTARY to the Bogart article, a response I find credible and persuasive, and in part on my assessment of her as a person and as a professional, resistance seems a more plausible interpretation than agency. But even while, on occasion, she resisted, her experiences as a student and her early career as a journalist can be read as complicity in the Nazi regime and in the perpetuation of anti-Semitism. But what are we to make of such complicity? Why did she use anti-Semitic language? Is anti-Semitism one thing or several? If several, what consequences have followed from different forms and uses of anti-Semitism?
Her complicity can be explained in considerable measure as a consequence of her choice to resist from within. . . . She neither left the country nor withdrew into a “safe” occupation. In the event, she decided to stay and to pursue a career in journalism. In a totalitarian regime, maintaining opportunities to resist, whether as a student writing a Ph.D. or as a journalist with Das Reich or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, entailed a measure of compliance-with-regime language. How much and what kind of compliance is at issue, not whether she intended or acted to support the Nazi regime or to cause the Holocaust.
Some have argued that unless a person in Nazi Germany overtly resisted by not appearing to be anti-Semitic, he or she bears some responsibility for the Holocaust. Too few Germans stood up for the Jews. Anti-Semitic ideas were widely accepted. Those who, like Dr. Noelle-Neumann, wrote in this vein helped to inculcate and legitimize an anti-Semitic German mentality. Such persons, the argument goes, bear a heavy responsibility for the Holocaust. How persuasive is this view?
Dr. Noelle-Neumann says she went along on one occasion by joining a National Socialist student organization at her university as a necessary condition for getting a scholarship to study in the U.S. This I read as complicity, not agency. Later, as a journalist at Das Reich and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, she says she used National Socialist language so that she could resist from within, a position that involves complicity as a trade-off for resistance. Her critics have denied that her writing at Das Reich . . . can be counted as anti-Nazi. But . . . the Third Reich Ministry of Propaganda seems to have viewed what she wrote as resistance. Otherwise we cannot account for her being fired and blacklisted.
When we move from the level of individual responsibility to the historical level, the causal connection between anti-Semitism and the Holocaust becomes even more attenuated. Many readers of Paul Lawrence Rose’s recent book, Revolutionary Anti-Semitism in Germany From Kant to Wagner, will be surprised to learn that anti-Semitism in modern Germany can be traced as far back as 1793, the year Kant’s Religion in the Bounds of Rationality appeared. According to Rose, Kant and Fichte argued that the Jews exemplified the kind of degraded moral existence to which they were opposed. Fervently moral anti-Semitism, Rose argues, was the work of radical or revolutionary thinkers, not only Kant, Fichte, and Herder, but also Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and Marx. The more obvious anti-Semitism of German romantic idealism best exemplified by Wagner also has to be counted as contributing to anti-Semitic discourse. In this reading, some are more complicit than others in establishing and perpetuating anti-Semitism, but who can be said to have intended or caused Nazism or the Holocaust? Is there a difference between conventional and deadly anti-Semitism, between anti-Semitism as racialism and anti-Semitism as genocide? . . .
In the 1930’s, admiration for Hitler and anti-Semitism were actively present in America as well as in Europe, not least among respectable people in high places. It was not until Nazi Germany was defeated that the world learned that in 1942 a “Final Solution” had been decided upon and the Holocaust was revealed. It was then that Nazi racism that dehumanized and demonized “the other” was identified as a crime against humanity. Ethnic hatred and fear remain with us, but human rights, including the crime of genocide, have now become an increasingly enforceable worldwide concern.
With these considerations in mind, how should we judge Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s anti-Semitic language as a twenty-year-old attending the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and, after her return to Germany, as a Ph.D. student and young journalist? She was wrong, she says, not to have recognized in Missouri the enormity of the implications of the National Socialist regime’s racism or its willingness to wage aggressive war. She defends her use of anti-Semitic language as a Ph.D. student and a journalist as the condition for resistance. Whether defensible or not, her complicity stands. What should we make of her complicity in the use of conventional anti-Semitic language and arguments and of her failure to see or anticipate the extremes to which Hitler was prepared to go?
In America in the 1930’s the America First Committee saw no need to oppose Hitler. It counted about half the American electorate among its supporters. It was Pearl Harbor that brought America into the war against Hitler, not opposition to anti-Semitism. Franklin Roosevelt may have wanted to oppose Hitler but it was for geopolitical reasons, not because he was concerned about the fate of Jews in Germany. Indeed, he has been roundly criticized for his indifference to their fate. It was only after the war when knowledge of the Holocaust seized the world’s moral imagination that Hitler’s racism became a cause of our involvement. In judging Dr. Noelle-Neumann’s underestimation of the Nazi regime’s capacity for evil in the 1930’s, it is important to remember that she was not alone in her complicity. . . .
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann played an important part in the Adenauer generation’s successful effort to create a democratic Germany. Resistant but complicit as a youthful journalist under Hitler, she has for forty years been an exemplary person and professional. In my view she has been unfairly and wrongly accused, judged, and censored. Apologies are needed but not from her.
Lloyd I. Rudolph
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
To the Editor:
Leo Bogart’s article and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s reply—a debate which spilled over into the New York Times—have stirred up some old memories in me; in particular her statement that “Das Reich was not Goebbels’s paper, . . . on the contrary, its editors were from Germany’s best and most liberal newspapers.”
During World War II, as a member of an Allied Psychological Warfare team first in North Africa and Italy (1943-44) and later in France and Germany (1944-45), I was assigned to monitor and report on Axis radio propaganda.
The highlight of the German radio propaganda effort was the weekly reading on Fridays of Goebbels’s article in Das Reich over all German radio stations, including short-wave and army stations. To emphasize the importance of these articles, they were read by Goebbels himself at the beginning and later entrusted to the “Speaker of the German Radio.” This article set the tone and “leitmotif” for the following week’s German propaganda line. The last article appeared on April 21, 1945, under the heading “The Hour of Final Triumph Awaits Us.”
If any German publication could be considered Goebbels’s own mouthpiece, it was Das Reich.
Irving M. Rosenbaum
New York City