A predestined Holocaust?

April 18, 1996|By WILLIAM PFAFF

NEW YORK -- The attention given in America to a new book on the Shoah has already provoked anger in Germany -- justifiably so. The book is ''Hitler's Willing Executors: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,'' by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an assistant professor at Harvard.

He says that he is providing ''a new interpretation of the Holocaust itself'' through his research, which finds that ''at least 100,000 Germans, and probably far more, helped exterminate European Jews.'' (Germany's prewar population consisted of some 70 million people.) He attributes this to the fact that anti-Semitism was ''a deep-rooted part of German culture'' before Hitler arrived in power.

That anti-Semitism was important in Germany and contributed to Hitler's rise is obvious. Mr. Goldhagen is making the argument that Germany was unique in its anti-Semitism, and suggesting that the Holocaust was a crime only Germans could have committed.

The forces at work in Germany existed elsewhere. The crime itself, of purposeful mass murder for ideological reasons, has been repeated elsewhere, both in scale and quality -- in Stalinist Russia, Mao's China, Cambodia.

Any student (or survivor) of the period knows that anti-Semitism was a general social phenomenon not only in prewar Germany but Western Europe and the United States. A minor instance was the ''social'' anti-Semitism all but universal among the upper and middle classes of the Western countries, which manifested itself in restrictions and quotas (some of them legally enforceable) on where Jews could live, how they could make their living, and the private and political associations they were permitted (including matriculation at Harvard University, which was subject to quotas).

This, in part, reflected prejudice against immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia who were religiously observant, lived in cramped ghetto-like neighborhoods and engaged in low-prestige trades.

It was not a prejudice peculiar to Germany. A good argument can be made that before 1932 Jews suffered less discrimination in Germany than in either Britain or the United States.

A second source of the anti-Semitism of the period was, of course, religious. The Christian religion held that God had chosen Jews as his own people, and that the Jews had rejected him by refusing to accept Christ as the Messiah. The Jews had condemned themselves.

Again, there is nothing specifically German about this. It was a general phenomenon in Christian society, where few listened to the teaching of Saint Paul that, through the Jews, God had provided the means by which salvation was extended to all men, Jews included.

Anti-Semitic political prejudice existed on both right and left throughout the Western countries, caused by the perceived internationalism or anti-nationalism of the Jewish people. The mindless right saw Jews as revolutionaries or anarchists, and as intellectual subversives. The left saw Jews as international bankers and rapacious capitalists. (One of many lapses in the contemporary memory concerns the anti-Semitism of the prewar left.)

The effect of Mr. Goldhagen's argument is to obscure the intellectual sources of Nazi anti-Semitism. Nazism and the Holocaust were not caused by vulgar mass prejudice, and certainly not by religious conviction.

None specifically German

Nazism was a modern phenomenon based on a peculiar and unique mixture of certain intellectual currents of the early 20th century, all of them widely considered to be progressive and forward-looking, and none of them specifically German. These were social Darwinism, ''race science,'' nationalism and eugenics.

The former three combined to say that societies and ''races'' were living organisms, which developed toward maturity as dynamic, progressive and powerful nations, naturally challenging other nations, conquering those which demonstrated their unfitness for survival, forcing them into decline or servitude. Such notions were commonly held in the America of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and the England of Rhodes, Kitchener and Curzon.

Eugenics was a fateful addition to the mixture, offering an ostensibly scientific argument for ''improving'' humanity through breeding a strong and intelligent elite while blocking reproduction by the handicapped, mentally backward and racially ''undesirable.'' Euthanasia for the latter -- their murder, that is -- was accepted by some as an appropriate measure. Enforced sterilization of the insane was practiced in several U.S. states before the Second World War. The first people ''exterminated'' by the Nazis were the German insane.

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