Cultural Cohesion, p.58Clive James
Unfortunately Goldhagen reaches it in a style disfigured by rampant sociologese and with a retributive impetus that carries him far beyond his proper objective. It would have been enough to prove that what he calls “eliminationist anti-Semitism” was far more widespread among the German people than it has suited their heirs, or us, to believe. But he wants to blame the whole population, and not just for prejudice but for their participation, actual or potential, in mass murder. He is ready to concede that there were exceptions, but doesn’t think they count. He thinks it would be more informative, and more just, to stop fooling ourselves by holding the Nazis responsible for the slaughter, and simply call the perpetrators “the Germans.” Didn’t we call the soldiers who fought in Vietnam “the Americans”?
Well, yes—but we didn’t blame “the Americans” for the atrocities committed there, or, if we did, we knew that we were talking shorthand, and that the reality was more complicated. No doubt many of the soldiers involved had a ready-to-go prejudice against the Vietnamese, but without the ill-judged, and even criminal, initiatives of their government it would have remained a prejudice. What needed examining was not simply the soldiers’ contempt for alien life-forms but the government policies that had put the troops in a position which allowed their contempt to express itself as mass murder. Much of the examining was done by Americans at the time, sometimes in the face of persecution by their own government, but never without the hope of getting a hearing from the American people. So it would make little sense, except as an ad hoc rhetorical device, to say that it was the natural outcome of the American cultural heritage to burn down peasant huts in Vietnam. Putting up Pizza Huts would have been just as natural. And it makes no sense whatsoever to call the perpetrators of the Holocaust “the Germans” if by that is meant that the German victims of Naziism—including many Jews who went on regarding themselves as Germans to the end of the line—somehow weren’t Germans at all. That’s what the Nazis thought, and to echo their hare-brained typology is to concede them their victory. Nothing, of course, could be further from Goldhagen’s intention, but his loose language has led him into it.
The Nazis didn’t just allow a lethal expression of vengeful fantasy; they rewarded it. They deprived a readily identifiable minority of German citizens of their citizenship, declared open season on them, honoured anyone who attacked them, punished anyone who helped them, and educated a generation to believe that its long-harboured family prejudices had the status of a sacred mission. To puzzle over the extent of the cruelty that was thus unleashed is essentially naive. To marvel at it, however, is inevitable, and pity help us if we ever become blasé about the diabolical landscape whose contours not even Goldhagen’s prose can obscure, for all his unintentional mastery of verbal camouflage. In a passage like the following—by no means atypical—it would be nice to think that anger had deflected him from a natural style, but all the evidence suggests that this is his natural style.
Because there were other peoples who did not treat Jews as Germans did and because, as I have shown, it is clear that the actions of the German perpetrators cannot be explained by non-cognitive structural features, when investigating different (national) groups of perpetrators, it is necessary to eschew explanations that in a reductionist fashion attribute complex and highly variable actions to structural factors or allegedly universalistic social psychological processes; the task, then, is to specify what combination of cognitive and situational factors brought the perpetrators, whatever their identities were, to contribute to the Holocaust in all the ways that they did.
A sentence like that can just about be unscrambled in the context of the author’s attention-losing terminology, but the context is no picnic to be caught up in for 500-plus pages, and the general effect is to make a vital does of medicine almost impossible to swallow. This book has all the signs of having begun as a dissertation and it makes you wonder what America’s brighter young historians are reading in a general way about their subject before they are issued with their miner’s lamps and lowered into the archives. Clearly they aren’t reading much in high school, but isn’t there some spare time on campus to get acquainted with the works of, say, Lewis Namier and find out what an English sentence is supposed to do? If only jargon were Goldhagen’s sole affliction, things would not be so bad, because what he must mean can quite often be arrived at by Sanforizing the verbiage. A “cognitive model of ontology” is probably your view of the world, or what you believe to be true; an “ideational formation” is almost certainly an idea; when people “conceptualize” we can guess he means that they think; when they “enunciate” we can guess he means that they say; and if something “was immanent in the structure of cognition” we can guess it was something that everybody thought.
But along with the jargon come the solecisms, and some of those leave guesswork limping. Goldhagen employs the verb “brutalize” many times, and gets it wrong every time except once. Until recently, when the wrong meaning took over, no respectable writer employed that verb to mean anything else except to turn someone into a brute. Nobody except the semi-literate supposed that it meant to be brutal to someone. Our author does suppose that on all occasions, except when, to show that he is aware the word is being used incorrectly, he employs quotation marks on the only occasion when he uses it correctly. But a modern historian can possibly get away with inadvertently suggesting that he has never read a book written by a historian with a classical education. It is harder to get away with providing evidence that he has never read a book of history emanating from, or merely written about, the classical world. Throughout his treatise, Goldhagen copies the increasingly popular misuse of the verb “decimate” to mean kill nearly everybody. Julius Caesar was not the only author in ancient times to make it clear that the word means kill one in ten. When Goldhagen repeatedly talks about some group of Jews being decimated, all the reader can think is: if only the death toll had been as small as that.
Still, we know what he must mean, and no disapproval of Goldhagen’s style can stave off discussion of the story he has to tell with it. In the long run he mines his own narrative for implications that are not always warranted and are sometimes tendentious, but there is no way round some of his initial propositions. From the archives he brings back three main narrative strands that will make anyone think again who ever thought that the men in the black uniforms did all the dirty work and that any culpability accruing to anyone else was through not wanting to know. The mobile police battalions who conducted so many of the mass shootings in the East were drawn from run-of-the-pavement Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) and many of them were not even Nazi Party members, just ordinary Joes who had been drafted into the police because they didn’t meet the physical requirements for the army, let alone the SS elite formations. So far we have tended, in the always sketchy mental pictures we make of these things, to put most of the mass shootings down to the Einsatzgruppen, SS outfits detailed by Himmler specifically for the task of pursuing Hitler’s cherished new type of war, the war of biological extermination. Goldhagen is right to insist that this common misapprehension badly needs to be modified. (Here, as elsewhere, he could have gone further with his own case: the Einsatzgruppen themselves were a fairly motley crew, as Gitta Sereny, in her recent biography of Albert Speer, has incidentally pointed out while pursuing the subject of just how one of the best-informed men in Germany managed to maintain his vaunted ignorance for so long: if, indeed, he did.) The police battalions tortured and killed with an enthusiasm outstripping even the Einsatzgruppen, whose leaders reported many instances of nervous breakdown and alcoholism in the ranks, whereas the police seem to have thrived physically and mentally on the whole business, sometimes even bringing their wives in by train to share the sport. The few that did request to be relieved of their duties were granted a dispensation without penalty. Goldhagen draws the fair inference that all who stayed on the job were effectively volunteers. Very few among the innocent people they shot into mass graves were spared the most
Had these operations been truly mechanical, there would have been none of this perverted creativity. If Goldhagen’s limitations as a writer mercifully ensure that he can’t evoke the wilful cruelty in its full vividness, he is right to emphasize it, although wrong to suppose that it has not been emphasized before. The cruelties are everywhere described in the best book yet written on the subject, Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust, which strangely is nowhere referred to or even mentioned in Goldhagen’s effort. Raul Hilberg’s monumental The Destruction of the European Jews is elbowed out of the way with the assurance that though it deals well with the victims it says little about the perpetrators, but Gilbert, who says a lot about the perpetrators, doesn’t get a look in even as an unacknowledged crib, as far as I can tell. (For a work of this importance, the absence of a bibliography is a truly sensational publishing development. What next: an index on request?) It is a lot to ask of a young historian who has spent a good proportion of his reading life submerged in the primary sources that he should keep up with the secondary sources too, but Gilbert’s book, with its wealth of personal accounts, is a primary source, quite apart from doing a lot to presage Goldhagen’s boldly declared intention of showing that the detached modern industrial mentality had little to do with the matter, and that most of those who died were killed in a frenzy. But Goldhagen’s well backed-up insistence that a good number of the perpetrators were not Nazi ideologues but common or garden German citizens is a genuine contribution, although whether it leads to a genuine historical insight is the question that lingers.
The second main story is about the “work” that the Jews who were not granted the mercy of a comparatively quick death were forced to do until they succumbed to its rigours. It is Goldhagen who puts the quotes around the word “work” and this time he is right, because it was the wrong word. Real work produces something. “Work” produced little except death in agony. Non-Jewish slave labourers from the occupied countries were all held in varying degrees of deprivation but at least they had some chance of survival. For the Jewish slaves, “work” really meant murder, slow but sure. Here is further confirmation, if it were needed (he overestimates the need, because the sad fact is already well established throughout the literature of the subject), that the Nazi policy on the exploitation of Jewish labour was too irrational even to be ruthless. A ruthless policy would have employed the Jews for their talents and qualifications, concentrated their assigned tasks on the war effort, kept them healthy while they laboured, and killed them afterwards. Nazi policy was to starve, beat and torture them up to and including the point of death even in those comparatively few cases when the job they had been assigned to might have helped win the war, or anyway stave off defeat for a little longer. The Krupp armaments factories in Essen were typical in that the Jewish workers were given hell (Alfried Krupp, who might have faced the rope if he had ever admitted knowledge of the workers tortured in the basement of his own office block, lived to be measured for a new Porsche every year) but atypical in that the Jews were actually employed in doing something useful. The more usual scenario involved lifting something heavy, carrying it somewhere else, putting it down, and carrying back something just like it, with beatings all the way if you dropped it. What the something was was immaterial: a big rock would do fine. These were Sisyphean tasks, except that not even Sisyphus had to run the gauntlet. Tracing well the long-standing strain in German anti-Semitism which held that Jews were parasites and had never done any labour, Goldhagen argues persuasively that this form of punishment was meant to remind them of this supposed fact before they died: to make them die of the realization. Here is a hint of what his book might have been—he is really getting somewhere when he traces this kind of self-defeating irrationality on the Nazis’ part to an ideal: perhaps their only ideal. It was a mad ideal, but its sincerity was proved by the price they paid for it. At all costs, even at the cost of their losing the war, they pursued their self-imposed “task” of massacring people who had not only done them no harm but might well have done them some good—of wasting them.
Many of the top Nazis were opportunists. In the end, Goering would probably have forgotten all about the Jews if he could have done a deal; Himmler did try to do a deal on that very basis; and Goebbels, though he was a raving anti-Semite until the very end, was nothing like that at the beginning. During his student career he respected his Jewish professors, and seems to have taken up anti-Semitism with an eye to the main chance. He got into it the way Himmler and Goering were ready to get out of it, because even his fanatacism was a power play. But for Hitler it was not so. According to him, Jews had never done anything useful for Germany and never could. It was a belief bound to result in his eventual military defeat, even if he had conquered all Europe and Britain with it; because in the long run he would have come up against the atomic bomb, developed in America mainly by the very scientists he had driven out of Europe. On the vital part played in German science by Jews he could never listen to reason. Max Planck protested in 1933 about what the new exclusion laws would do to the universities. In view of his great prestige he was granted an audience with the Führer. Planck hardly got a chance to open his mouth. Hitler regaled him with a three-quarters-of-an-hour lecture about mathematics, which Planck later called one of the stupidest things he had ever heard in his life. The pure uselessness of all Jews, the expiation they owed for their parasitism, was at the centre of Hitler’s purposes until the last hour, and the same was true of all who shared his lethal convictions.
This bleak truth is brought out sharply by the third and main strand in Goldhagen’s book, which deals with the death marches in the closing stage of the war, when the camps in the East were threatened with being overrun. The war was all but lost, yet the Nazis went on diverting scarce resources into tormenting helpless civilians. The survivors were already starving when they set out from the Eastern camps, and as they were herded on foot towards camps in the Third Reich their guards, who might conceivably have gained credit after the imminent capitulation by behaving mercifully, behaved worse than ever. They starved their charges until they could hardly walk and then tortured them for not walking faster. This behaviour seems beyond comprehension, and, indeed, it is—but it does make a horrible sort of sense if we accept that for the Nazis the war against the Jews was the one that really mattered.
Goldhagen’s account of the death marches gives too much weight to the fact that these horrors continued even after Himmler issued instructions that the Jews should be kept alive. (“Perhaps it’s time,” he famously said to a Jewish representative in 1945, “for us Germans and you Jews to bury the hatchet.”) Goldhagen doesn’t consider that the guards, both men and women, were facing a return to powerlessness and were thus unlikely to relinquish their shred of omnipotence while they still had it. He prefers to contend that the killings went on because the people in general were in the grip of a force more powerful than Nazi orders: eliminationist anti-Semitism. To him, nothing but a theory in the perpetrator’s mind—in this case, the Germans’ view that the Jews were subhuman and thus beyond compassion—can explain gratuitous cruelty. But recent history has shown that people can become addicted to torturing their fellow human beings while feeling no sense of racial superiority to them, or even while feeling that no particular purpose is being served by the tor
The price for holding to the conviction about the all-pervasiveness of murderous anti-Semitism among the Germans is the obligation to account for every instance of those who showed mercy. In his discussion of Kristallnacht, Goldhagen quotes a Gestapo report (obviously composed by a factotum not yet fully in synch with the Führer’s vision) as saying that by far the greater part of the German population “does not understand the senseless individual acts of violence and terror.” Why shouldn’t the people have understood, if their anti-Semitism was as eliminationist as Goldhagen says it was? Later, talking about one of Police Battalion 309’s operations in Bialystok, he mentions a “German army officer appalled by the licentious killing of unarmed civilians,” and he dismisses a conscience-stricken Major Trapp, who, having been ordered to carry out a mass killing, was heard to exclaim, “My God! Why must I do this?” Were these men eliminationist anti-Semites, too? We could afford to consider their cases without any danger of lapsing into the by now discredited notion that the Wehrmacht was not implicated. Finally, during a reflection on the Helmbrechts death march, Goldhagen mentions that some of the guards behaved with a touch of humanity. He doesn’t make enough of his own observation that they were the older guards—“Germans . . . old enough to have been bred not only on Nazi culture.”
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