Cultural Cohesion, p.59Clive James
For Goldhagen, prejudice is the sole enemy. Other scholars, such as Raul Hilberg in his Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, have tried to show how Germans overcame their inhibitions to kill Jews. Goldhagen’s monolithic thesis is that there were no inhibitions in the first place. But we need to make a distinction between Germany’s undeniably noxious anti-Semitic inheritance—an age-old dream of purity, prurient as all such dreams—and the way the Nazi government, using every means of bribery, propaganda, social pressure and violent coercion in its power, turned that dream into a living nightmare. Goldhagen slides past the point, and the result is a crippling injury to the otherwise considerable worth of his book. He could, in fact, have gone further in establishing how early the Final Solution got rolling. Gilbert does a better job of showing that it was, in effect, under way after the invasion of Poland, where thousands of Jews were murdered and the rest herded into the ghettos. Goldhagen quotes some of Heydrich’s September 21, 1939, order about forming the ghettos but omits the most revealing clause, in which Heydrich ordered that the ghettos be established near railheads. That can have meant only one thing. In May of 1941, Goering sent a memo from the Central Office of Emigration in Berlin ordering that no more Jews be allowed to leave the occupied territories. That, too, can have meant only one thing. Hannah Arendt was not wrong when she said about Nazi Germany in its early stages that only a madman could guess what would happen next. In 1936, Heinrich Mann (Thomas’s older brother) published an essay predicting the whole event, simply on the basis of the Nuremberg laws and what had already happened in the first concentration camps. But his was a very rare case, perhaps made possible by artistic insight. It needed sympathy with the Devil to take the Nazis at their word; good people rarely know that much about evil. But well in advance of the Holocaust’s official starting date there were plenty of bad people who didn’t need to be told about mass extermination before they got the picture.
Here Goldhagen, in his unquenchable ire, provides a useful corrective to those commentators who persist in extending the benefit of the doubt to opportunists like Albert Speer. Gitta Sereny’s book is a masterpiece of wide-ranging sympathy, but she wanders too near naivety when she worries at the non-subject of when Speer knew about what his terrible friends had in mind and whether he had actually read Mein Kampf. In 1936, a popular album about Hitler carried an article under Speer’s name which quoted Mein Kampf by the chunk: of course Speer had read it, and of course he knew about the Final Solution from the hour it got under way. The top Nazis didn’t conceal these things from one another. They did, however, conceal these things from the German people. Why was that? There is something to Goldhagen’s contention that the people found out anyway—that eventually everyone knew at least something. But why, if they were so receptive to the idea, weren’t the people immediately told everything? Surely the answer is that Hitler shared the Gestapo’s suspicion about the ability of the people to think “correctly” on the subject.
He certainly had his doubts before he came to power. In the election of 1930, which won the Nazis their entrée into the political system, the Jewish issue was scarcely mentioned. And later, when the Third Reich began its expansion into other countries, in all too many cases a significant part of the local populations could be relied on to do the very thing that Goldhagen accuses the Germans of—to start translating their anti-Semitism into a round-up the moment the whistle blew. In the Baltic countries, in the Ukraine, and in Romania and Yugoslavia, the results were horrendous from the outset. A more civilized-sounding but even more sinister case was France, where the Vichy regime exceeded the SS’s requirements for lists of Jewish men, and handed over lists of women and children as well—the preliminary to the mass deportations from Drancy, which proceeded with no opposition to speak of. Why weren’t the Germans themselves seen by the Nazis as being thoroughly biddable from the start?
Goldhagen leaves the question untouched because he has no answer. He is so certain of the entire German population’s active collaboration—or, at the very least, its approving compliance—in the Holocaust that he underplays the Nazi state’s powers of coercion through violence, something that no previous authority on the subject has managed to do. He overemphasizes the idea that the German people weren’t completely powerless to shape Nazi policies; he cites, for example, the widespread public condemnation of the policy that resulted in the euthanizing of physically and mentally handicapped Germans. The practice was stopped, but in that case people were protesting the treatment of their own loved ones, and the Jews were not their loved ones. There could easily have been more protests on behalf of the Jews if the penalty for protesting had not been severe and well known.
Goldhagen qualifies the bravery of the Protestant minister and Nazi opponent Martin Niemöller by pointing out—correctly, alas—that he was an anti-Semite. But he doesn’t mention the case of a Swabian pastor who after Kristallnacht told his congregation that the Nazi assault on the Jews would bring divine punishment. The Nazis beat him to a pulp, threw him onto the roof of a shed, smashed up his vicarage and sent him to prison. And what about the Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg, who, after the burning of the synagogues, closed each of his evening services with a prayer for the Jews? When he protested the deportations, he was put on a train himself—to Dachau. These men were made examples of to discourage others. They were made to pay for their crime.
Because it was a crime—the biggest one a non-Jewish German could commit. In Berlin (always the city whose population Hitler most distrusted), some non-Jewish German wives managed to call a temporary halt to the round-up of their Jewish husbands, but that scarcely proves that a mass protest would have been successful, or even, in the long run, tolerated without reprisal. The penalties for helping Jews got worse in direct proportion to the sanctions imposed against them, and everyone knew what the supreme penalty was: forms of capital punishment under the Nazis included the axe and the guillotine. (The axe was brought back from the museum because it was medieval.) Both the Protestant and the Catholic Church knuckled under to the Nazis with a suspicious alacrity in which rampant anti-Semitism was undoubtedly a factor, but the general failure of rank-and-file priests and ministers to bear individual witness has to be put down at least partly to the risks they would have run if they had done so. (Later on, when the Germans occupied Italy after the Badoglio government signed an armistice with the Allies, and the extreme anti-Jewish measures that Mussolini had stopped short of were put into effect, the round-up was a comparative failure, partly because the priests and nuns behaved so well. But they had not spent years with the threat of the concentration camp and the axe hanging over them.) In Germany, everyone knew that hiding or helping Jews was an unpardonable crime, which would be punished as severely as an attack on Hitler’s life—because it was an attack on Hitler’s life. Why, Goldhagen asks, did the population not rise up? The answer is obvious: because you had to be a hero to do so.
. . .
Eventually, of course, a small but significant segment of the German people did rise up, because they were heroes. About the various resistance groups of the pre-war years Goldhagen has little to say, and about the participants in the attempt on Hitler’s life of July 20, 1944, he concludes that they were mostly anti-Semitic and that their rebellion against the Nazi regime was not motivated chiefly by its treatment of the Jews. But from Joachim Fest’s 1994 Staatsstreich (Coup d’État) we know that Axel von dem Bussche-Streithorst, who was twenty-four at the time of the plot, turned against Hitler after witnessing a mass shooting of thousands of Jews at the Dubno airfield, in the Ukraine, and that Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld was turned towards resistance after seeing what the Einsatzgruppen were up to in Poland. There are further such examples in the Lexikon des Widerstandes 1933–1945, an honour roll of those who rebelled, and in a 1986 collection of essays by various historians entitled Der Widerstand Gegen den Nationalsozialismus (The Resistance Against National Socialism). The latter volume includes a list of the twent
The plot was already a ceremony before it was launched. The experienced Henning von Tresckow, who had been in on several attempts before, was well aware that it might fail but told his fellow conspirators that it should go ahead anyway, coute que coute. Claus Graf von Stauffenberg’s famous last words Es lebe das geheime Deutschland have turned out to be not quite so romantically foolish as they sounded at the time. If there never was a secret Germany, the July plotters at least provided a sacred moment, and the Germans of today are right to cherish it. As for the aristocracy, though even the bravery of its flower could not offset the way that it helped to sabotage the Weimar Republic, at least it regained its honour, in preparation for its retirement from the political stage. Since then the aristocracy has served Germany well in all walks of life—the Gräfin Dornhoff, active proprietress of Die Zeit, one of the great newspapers of the world, would be an asset to any nation—but it has paid democracy the belated compliment of a decent reticence. Churchill, the instinctive opponent of Hitler and all his works, always thought that Prussia was the nerve centre of German bestiality. He was wrong about that. Hans Frank, outstanding even among Gauleiters for his epic savagery, was closer to the truth. Many of the July plotters had a background in the famously snobbish Prussian Ninth Infantry regiment, of which Frank himself was a reservist. Just before his own hanging at Nuremberg, Frank said that the Ninth’s officers had never understood Antisemitismus der spezifisches Nazi-Art (anti-Semitism of the specific Nazi type). They had been unsound on the Jewish question.
How many of the German population were unsound on the Jewish question we can never now know. Probably there were fewer than we would like to think, but almost certainly there were more than Goldhagen allows. However many there were, there was not a lot they could do if they didn’t want to get hurt. After the Nazis finally came to absolute power, the build-up to the annihilation of the Jews moved stage by stage, always with the occasional lull that allowed people to think the madness might be over. Certainly there were a lot of Jews who wanted to think that, and who can blame them? Seizing the chance to emigrate meant leaving behind everything they had. Some of them—especially the baptized and those who no longer practised their faith—never stopped thinking of themselves as Germans, believing, correctly, that the regime which criminalized them was a criminal regime. They thought Germany would get its senses back. They would scarcely have done so if they had thought that there were no non-Jewish Germans who thought the same.
From the year the Nazis took power right up until Kristallnacht in November 1938, the legal deprivations and persecutions looked selective, as if there might be some viable limit beyond which they would not go. After Kristallnacht, it became clearer that an all-inclusive, no-holds-barred pogrom was under way, but by then it was too late. It was too late for everyone, non-Jewish Germans included. But really it had always been too late, ever since the Nazis rewrote the laws so that their full apparatus of terror could be legally directed against anyone who disagreed with them. Is it any wonder that so many of those who retained their citizenship turned their backs on the pariahs from whom it had been stripped? When one Communist shot a storm trooper, eleven Communists were immediately decapitated in reprisal. Everyone knew things like that. Those were the first things that every German in the Nazi era ever knew—a fact worth remembering when we confidently assume that they all must have known about the last thing, the Holocaust. It can be remarkable what you don’t find out when you are afraid for just yourself, let alone for your family. All you have to do is look away. And the Nazis made very sure, even when Hitler was tumultuously popular in the flush of his diplomatic and military successes, that failure to join in the exultant unanimity would not pass unnoticed. Even if you lay low, you still had to stick your right hand in the air. Max Weber defined the state as that organization holding the monopoly of legalized violence. The Nazi state overfulfilled his definition by finding new forms of violence to make legal. Probably Goldhagen realizes all that. But he doesn’t say much about it, because he has a bigger, better idea that leaves the Nazis looking like last-minute walk-ons in the closing scene of Götterdämmerung: spear carriers in Valhalla.
Here we have to turn to his account of the growth of German anti-Semitism, which means that we have to turn back to the beginning of the book. His thesis would have gone better at the end, as a speculative afterthought, but he puts it at the front because it contains the premise that for him explains everything. Since most of it is written in the brain-curdling jargon which he later partly lets drop when he gets to the Holocaust itself, this glutinous treatise would make for a slow start even if it were consistent. But the reader is continually stymied by what is left out or glossed over. An artist in the firm grip of his own brush, Goldhagen slap-happily paints a picture of anti-Semitism pervading all levels of society, without explaining how it failed to pervade the members of the political class who contrived to grant citizenship to the Jews. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, the process of emancipation moved through the German States, culminating, in 1869, with citizenship for every Jew in the North German Confederation. (The laws were carried over into the Kaiserreich after German unification, in 1871.) Even in the tolerant Austria-Hungary of Emperor Franz Josef, citizenship for Jews had some strings attached, whereas in Germany civil rights for Jews remained on the books until the Nazis rewrote them. Not even in the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a choleric anti-Semite by the end, were people of Jewish background deprived of their rights. They undoubtedly had trouble exercising them—prejudice was indeed everywhere, in varying degrees—but that doesn’t alter the fact that they were granted them.
Perhaps those nineteenth-century politicians were thorough anti-Semites, and merely stopped short of trying to put their prejudice into law. President Truman freely used the word “nigger” among his Southern friends, but when some returning black GIs were beaten up he made the first move in the chain of legislation that eventually led (under President Johnson, who was not without prejudice, either) to voter registration by blacks in the South. There have always been people with prejudice who have nevertheless served justice, whether out of a supervening idealism, out of expediency or out of a simple wish not to be thought provincial by more sophisticated peers. In other words, there is prejudice and there is prejudice. But Goldhagen wants all the grades of anti-Semitism, from the enthusiasm of nutty pamphleteers down to the stultifying, self-protective distaste of the Kleinbürgertum at their pokey dinner tables, to add up to just one thing: the eliminationist fervour that led to extermination as soon as it got its chance.
Until recent times, one of Germany’s recurring troubles was that it was more integrated culturally than it was politically. A case
Which brings us to Thomas Mann. Here one is forced to wonder if whoever gave Goldhagen high marks for his thesis ever showed it to a literary colleague. As evidence of the all-pervading nature of eliminationist anti-Semitism, Goldhagen has the audacity to rope in, without qualification or explanation, a remark by Thomas Mann. Well, there is a grain of truth in it. In 1933, when Mann had already begun his long exile, he did indeed confide to his diary that it was a pity the new regime should include him along with some of the undesirable Jewish elements it was dealing with. But against this grain of truth there is a whole silo of contrary evidence. Thomas Mann had always disliked what he saw as the rootless Jewish cosmopolitanism (shades of his beloved Wagner there) that criticized because it couldn’t create, and thus gave rise to a bugbear like Alfred Kerr. Mann, the Nobel Prize–winning eminence, the new Goethe, the walking cultural icon, had a bad tendency, quite normal among writers even at their most successful, to take praise as his due and anything less as sabotage. He thought, with some justification, that the annoyingly clever Kerr was on his case. But for Jews who, in his opinion, did create, Mann had nothing but admiration. He had it in the first years of the century, when his conservatism was still as hidebound as the snobbery he was never to overcome: his two early encomiums for Arthur Schnitzler are models of generosity. He had scores of friendships among the Jewish cultural figures of the emigration and maintained them throughout the Nazi era, often at the expense of his time, effort and exchequer. For Bruno Walter, it was always open house chez Mann, because Mann honoured Walter as the incarnation of the Germany that mattered, just as he despised Hitler as its exterminating angel. Even to allow the possibility of our inferring that Mann might have thought otherwise is to perpetrate a truly stunning libel, and one can only hope that the excuse for it is ignorance.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes