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New Left Review I/224, July-August 1997


Norman G. Finkelstein

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘Crazy’ Thesis: A Critique of Hitler’s Willing Executioners

In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful. . .

John Stuart Mill

Rarely has a book with scholarly pretensions evoked as much popular interest as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. [1] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York 1996. The author wishes to thank David Abraham, Roane Carey, Noam Chomsky, Samira Haj, Adele Olfman, Shifra Stern, Jack Trumpbour, and Cyrus Veeser for comments on an earlier draft. This essay is dedicated to the memory of my beloved par- ents, both survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps: only a ratio- nal apprehension of what happened can give point to their suffering. Every important journal of opinion printed one or more reviews within weeks of its release. The New York Times, for instance, featured multiple notices acclaiming Goldhagen’s book as ‘one of those rare new works that merit the appellation landmark’, ‘historic’, and bringing to bear ‘corrosive literary passion’. Although initial reviews were not uniformly positive, once the Goldhagen juggernaut proved unstoppable, even the dissenting voices joined in the chorus of praise. An immediate national best-seller, Hitler’s Willing Executioners was hailed in Time magazine’s year-end issue as the ‘most talked about’ and second best non-fiction book of 1996. Before long, Goldhagen was also an international phenomenon, creating an extraordinary stir in Germany. [2] New York Times, 27 March, 2 April, 3 April 1996; Time, 23 December 1996. The New York Review of Books first gave Goldhagen’s book a tepid notice but then ran a glowing piece in which it was acclaimed as ‘an original, indeed, brilliant contribution to the mountain of literature on the Holocaust.’ (18 April 1996, 28 November 1996) Initially running a hostile review, The New Republic subsequently featured Goldhagen’s nine-page ‘reply to my critics’ (29 April 1996, 23 December 1996). Crucial as it is to fully appre-hending the Goldhagen phenomenon, the German reaction will not be considered in this monograph. Deciphering its anomalies would require a much more intimate knowledge of the German cultural landscape than this writer possesses.

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