Books: Even As We Speak — Postscript to Goldhagen |
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Postscript to Goldhagen

The preceding review is reprinted in a form substantially different from the way it first appeared in the New Yorker. The way it looks here is much closer to the way I first wrote it. Goldhagen’s book was big news at the time, so Tina Brown very properly decided that my notice should be promoted from the ‘back of the book’ reviews department to ‘Critic at Large’ status in the middle of the magazine. This unlooked-for elevation, however, proved to be a mixed blessing, because in a position of such prominence the soi-disant Critic at Large often finds himself not as at large as he would like. Suddenly he is held to be speaking for the magazine as much as for himself, and inevitably it is decided that his personal quirks should be suppressed, in the interests of objectivity. My animadversions on Goldhagen’s prose style were held to be a potentially embarrassing irrelevance: to dispute his interpretation of factual events was going to be contentious enough, without getting into the subjective area of how he wrote his interpretation down. I didn’t think that it was a subjective area; I thought the callow over-confidence of his jargon-ridden style was a clear index of how he had been simply bound to get his pretended overview of the subject out of shape from the start; but I knuckled under or we would have all been stymied.

It wasn’t, after all, as if the editors wanted to change the main thrust of the piece. There is a fine line between being asked to say something differently and being required to say something different, but it is a clear one. When they do want you to say something different, of course, it’s time to take the kill fee and quit. But this piece was guaranteed to give me trouble whatever the circumstances. Goldhagen’s book aspires to be wide-ranging over both the political and cultural background to the Holocaust, and if you hope to show that his reach exceeds his grasp, you have to be pretty wide-ranging yourself, over a literature that it takes half a lifetime to absorb. It was probably as much a blessing as a curse that I had to write the piece against a deadline, and that I had to do much of the work on it while I was filming in Mexico City, away from my own library and any other library that held the relevant books. To a great extent I had to rely on what was in my memory. In retrospect, the restriction feels like a lucky break. Otherwise I would have ended up writing a review longer than the book, and it would have had footnotes hanging off it in festoons.

There is something to be said for being forced into ellipsis. Skimpiness, however, is inevitably part of the result. You wouldn’t know, from Goldhagen’s book, that the question of the Jewish contribution to German-speaking culture was far more complicated than he makes out. Unfortunately you wouldn’t know from my review just how complicated it was. It was elementary work to rebut his line with a few simple examples. The editing process reduced them to even fewer, but the obvious point was made. It was also fudged. Goldhagen is clamorously wrong on that particular topic, but the evidence by which he might think himself right is stronger than I had the time, the room or — less forgivably — the inclination to make out. As my admired Marcel Reich-Ranicki explains in his Der Doppelte Boden (augmented edition, Fischer, 1992), some of the Jewish writers, though they enjoyed huge public acclaim, had ample motive for feeling rejected. The novelist Jakob Wasserman, for all his success as a best-seller, despaired of social acceptance. Among Jewish artists in Germany after World War I that state of mind was not rare, and in Austria it was common. Its epicentre had been registered by Arthur Schnitzler at the turn of the century, in a key passage of his great novel Der Weg ins Freie (The Path into the Clear), where a leading character spells out the impossibility of true assimilation with a mordant clarity not very different from the polemical Zionism of Theodor Herzl. There can be no doubt that Schnitzler was speaking from the heart.

The question abides, however, of whether he was speaking from a whole heart or only a part of it. Though insecurity was ever-present and outright abuse always a threat, the Jewish artists and thinkers, if assimilation to the German-speaking culture was what they wanted, had good reasons to think it was being achieved in those last years before 1933. Their influence, even their dominance, in the various fields of culture was widely acknowledged. On playbills, in concert programmes and on publisher’s lists there were Jewish names that attracted an audience totalling millions. The career of Stefan Zweig, alone, would be enough to make Goldhagen’s cultural theory look fantastic. Zweig’s books were customarily translated into about thirty languages but his sales in the German-speaking countries would have been enough on their own to make him wealthy. It shouldn’t need pointing out that his sales couldn’t have been that big if they had been confined to an audience of Jewish background, a qualification which applied to only 300,000 people in the whole of Germany. Zweig was part of the German literary landscape, together with the liberal values he professed. Hans Scholl, the master spirit of the White Rose resistance group in Munich, had already turned against his Hitler Youth upbringing, but his trajectory towards outright subversion was accelerated after one of Zweig’s books was taken away from him by a Nazi official. Scholl thought that if the Nazis were against that, they were against the Germany he cared about. (Goldhagen’s failure to so much as mention the White Rose, incidentally, is the kind of omission that makes a mockery of his scientific vocabulary. In science, the fact that doesn’t fit the theory eliminates the theory, not the other way about. Hans and Sophie Scholl were gentiles born into a household formed by liberal German culture, were well aware that Jews had helped to form that culture, and were ready to die for it rather than betray it. If Goldhagen wants to go on asking why the German population did not rise up, he might consider the manner in which those two brave young people perished. The guillotine is a big price to pay for a conviction.)

A necessary conclusion, about the large and well-informed German-speaking audience for the arts, would be that if they were all eliminationist anti-Semites, they must have been strangely ready to sideline their otherwise overmastering prejudice when it came to matters of aesthetic enjoyment. It’s not a conclusion that Goldhagen feels bound to draw, because he doesn’t even consider the matter. Nor does he consider that the abuse heaped on Jewish artists by the Nazi propaganda machine before the Machtergreifung was a measure of the success they had achieved in becoming a part of the landscape. Finally and fatally, he doesn’t consider that the massive and irreversible damage done to German-speaking culture by the repression, expulsion and murder of the Jews was the full, exact and tragic measure of how they had been vital to it. Once again it is an awful thing to find oneself saying, but it has to be said: the Reichskulturkammer, if it were still in business, couldn’t have done a better job of treating the Jewish contributors to German culture as if they had been an irrelevance, simply begging to be swept away.

But a young historian can be forgiven for lacking the kind of cultural information that would bring such questions to the forefront. The richness of what the German-speaking Jews achieved before the Nazi era takes time to assess. Harder to understand is Goldhagen’s apparent supposition that nothing much has happened in Germany since the Nazi era when it comes to his own field — history. You would never know, from his book, that whole teams of German historians, in the full knowledge that they are trying to make bricks from rubble, have dedicated themselves to the study of the catastrophe that distorted their intellectual inheritance. As in any other country at any time, there have been a few historians who have devoted prodigious resources to missing the point. Of the star revisionists mixed up in the Historikerstreit, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber at least had the merit of being too blatant to be plausible: they pretty well blamed the Holocaust on the Soviet Union. Klaus Hildebrand and Michael Stürmer were more insidious because there was nothing wrong with their facts: after the Red Army crossed the German border, the retreating Wehrmacht really was fighting heroically for its country’s heritage. Unfortunately their suggestion that post-war German patriotism might thus claim a solid base was hopelessly compromised by the consideration that part of the heritage was the Holocaust. In his various essays and open letters about the Historikerstreit, Jürgen Habermas (who, it is only fair to concede, admires Goldhagen’s book) was marvellous on the equivocations and the delusions of the revisionists, but on the main point he didn’t need to be marvellous: it was too obviously true. The revisionist historian can’t reasonably hope to have a Germany that is not obsessed with the past. There can be no putting off shame to achieve maturity. The shame is the maturity.

Most of the German historians are well aware of this. The revisionists did not prevail, and the work entailed in rebutting them had already become part of the accumulated glory of Germany’s indigenous historical studies as the terrible twentieth century neared its end. But if German culture really had been nourished at its root by eliminationist anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen argues, it is hard to see why so many of today’s German historians should now be so concerned about the Holocaust. Very few of them are Jews, for sadly obvious reasons. Surely they, too, are ‘the Germans’, as Goldhagen would like to put it. It can only follow that their culture has other continuities apart from the one that Goldhagen picks out. Their urge to comprehend, their respect for the facts — these things could not have started up all by themselves, out of nowhere.

There are plenty of Germans, naturally enough, who would like to think that their country as they know it today has started up out of nowhere. For those who would like to throw off the burden of history and move on, Goldhagen’s book has been a welcome gift. Purporting to bring the past home to the unsuspecting present, he has had the opposite effect. If he has not yet asked himself why his book has received such an enthusiastic reception in Germany, he might ponder why ‘the Germans’ should be so glad to be supplied with the argument that their parents and grandparents were all equally to blame because they inhabited a culture blameworthy in itself: we’re different now. But nobody is that different now, because nobody was that different then. It will always suit the current generation of any country to blame the turpitude of their ancestors on the culture then prevailing, as if people had no choice how to act. It saves us from the anguish of asking ourselves how we might have acted had we been there, at a time when plenty of people knew there was a choice, but couldn’t face the consequences of making it, and when those who did choose virtue were volunteers for torture and death.

No wonder Goldhagen is so popular. On top of leaving out the large numbers of German citizens who declined to vote for the Nazis even when there was almost no other party remaining with credible means to stop the chaos in the streets, he doesn’t even mention the Germans who were so suicidally brave as to defy the Nazis after they came to power. Sacrificial witnesses to human decency, they died at the rate of about twenty-five people per day for every day that the Third Reich was in existence. They might seem to add up to a drop in the bucket, and it was terribly true that they had no real hope of having any effect, but Goldhagen is keeping questionable company when he treats a handful of powerless lives as if their deaths meant nothing in the eye of history. Some of the questionable company he is keeping is alive now. We would all find life a lot easier if we didn’t have to ask ourselves how we would have measured up to the same test. Hence the temptation to suppose that nobody ever did. The challenge to one’s compassion is tough enough, without compounding it by the challenge to one’s conscience.

In our time and privileged surroundings there has been no such examination to pass or fail, but what makes the difference is political circumstances. The new Germany is a democracy. So was the old Germany, or it tried to be: but then the Nazis got in, and Hell broke loose. It can break loose anywhere, in any people: all peoples have hellish propensities. When Daniel J Goldhagen has lived long enough to value democracy for what it prevents, he will be less ready to be astonished by what his fellow human beings are capable of when they are allowed. And the Germans really are his fellow human beings. To assert otherwise is to further the kind of argument which the Nazis, thereby achieving their sole lasting value, contrived to discredit beyond redemption.