|Norman G. Finkelstein
Ruth B. Birn
A Nation on Trial
"Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis: A Critique of Hitler's Willing
Executioners", by Norman G. Finkelstein was published in the New Left Review (London), nr 224, July 1997, p. 39-88.
"Historiographical Review: Revising the Holocaust", by Ruth Bettina BIRN, is from The Historical Journal (Cambridge University Press), 40, 1 (1997), p.193-215.
Goldhagen has threatened the Ruth Birn with a suit.
The posting of these two articles in no way implies that their authors share any other views expressed on this Website.
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Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis:
A Critique of Hitler's Willing Executioners
Norman G. Finkelstein
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). 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 balled in Time magazine's year-end issue as the 'most talked about' and second best non-fiction book of 1996.(2) Before long, Goldhagen was also an international phenomenon, creating an extraordinary stir in Germany.
What makes the Goldhagen phenomenon so remarkable is that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not at all a learned inquiry. Replete with gross misrepresentations of the secondary literature and internal contradictions, Goldhagen's book  is worthless as scholarship. The bulk of what follows documents this claim. In the conclusion I speculate on the broader meaning of the Goldhagen phenomenon.
I. Before the Genocide
Genocide was immanent in the conversation of German society. It was immanent in its language and emotion. It was immanent in the structure of cognition.
Hitler's Willing Executioners, p. 449
1. A Nation Crazy with Hatred?
In a seminal study published thirty-five years ago, The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg observed that the perpetrators of the Nazi holocaust were 'not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population... the machinery of destruction was a remarkable cross section of the German population.' These representative Germans, Hilberg went on to say, performed their appointed tasks with astonishing efficiency: 'No obstruction stopped the German machine of destruction. No moral problem proved insurmountable. When all participating personnel were put to the test, there were very few lingerers and almost no deserters.' Indeed, an 'uncomfortably large number of soldiers... delighted in death as spectators or as perpetrators.' (3)
Long before Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's study, it was thus already known that
'ordinary' Germans were Hitler's 'willing' and not infrequently cruel 'executioners'.(4) The main distinction of Goldhagen's study is the  explanation it purports to supply for what Hilberg called this 'phenomenon of the greatest magnitude.' (5) It is Goldhagen's thesis that the 'central causal agent of the Holocaust' was the German people's enduring pathological hatred of the Jews. (Hitler's Willing Executioners [hereafter HWE] p. 9) To cite one typical passage:
[A] demonological anti-Semitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators' cognition and of German society in general. The German perpetrators ... were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural anti-Semitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just. (HWE, pp. 392-3)
There are no prima facie grounds for dismissing Goldhagen's thesis. It is not intrinsically racist or otherwise illegitimate. There is no obvious reason why a culture cannot be fanatically consumed by hatred. One may further recall that, Goldhagen's claims to novelty notwithstanding, his argument is not altogether new. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the genesis of the Final Solution was located in a twisted 'German mind' or 'German character'. (6) The departure point of much 'Holocaust scholarship' is that Germans, nurtured on anti-Semitism, were thirsting for a 'war against the Jews'. On the eve of Hitler's ascension to power, wrote Lucy Dawidowicz, Germany was 'a world intoxicated with hate, driven by paranoia, enemies everywhere, the Jew lurking behind each one.' (7) This is also the dominant image of the Nazi extermination among Jews and in popular culture generally.
Bolstered as it is by a bulging scholarly apparatus, the audacious sweep, of
Goldhagen's thesis nonetheless merits emphasis. He argues that, for centuries, nearly every German was possessed of a homicidal animus toward Jews. Thus, he suggests that more than 80-90 per cent of the German people would have relished the occasion to torture and murder Jews.(8) Goldhagen takes to task the 'conventional explanations' which supposedly ignore the 'identity of the victims': 'That the victims were Jewish – according to the logic of these explanations – is irrelevant.' Indeed, he declaims that we must 'abandon the assumption that, by and large, Germans in the nineteenth and twentieth century were not anti-Semitic.' (HWE, pp. 13, 30-1, original emphasis) In a rejoinder to critics, Goldhagen credits his own book as being the first to correct this misconception: 'Most seem now to agree that anti-Semitism was a necessary cause of the Holocaust...' (9) Yet, one is hard-pressed to name a single account of the Nazi genocide that doesn't crucially situate it within the context of German anti-Semitism. Goldhagen's true distinction is to [ 41] argue that German anti-Semitism was not only a significant but rather that it was the sufficient condition for perpetrating the extermination of the Jews: 'With regard to the motivational cause of the Holocaust, for the vast majority of perpetrators, a monocausal explanation does suffice.' (10)
The Hitlerite regime accordingly plays a subordinate role in Goldhagen's comprehension of the Final Solution. Inasmuch as the inclination for 'killing' Jews 'predated Nazi political power', the Nazis were 'easily able to harness the perpetrators' preexisting anti-Semitism once Hitler gave the order to undertake the extermination.' (HWE, PP. 399, 463; see also pp. 418-19) All Hitler did was 'unleash the pent-up antiSemitic passion', 'unshackle and thereby activate Germans' preexisting, pent-up antiSemitism', and so on. (HWE, pp. 95, 442,443)
Why was the Holocaust Unique to Germany?
Leaving to one side the question of its veracity, this last formulation of Goldhagen's is still problematic. Consider that he repeatedly contradicts it. Had it not been for 'Hitler's moral authority', Goldhagen observes, the 'vast majority of Germans never would have contemplated' the genocide against the Jews. (11) It was the Nazis' unprecedentedly 'extreme and thoroughgoing ... cognitive-moral revolution' that, Goldhagen suggests, produced Germany's 'lethal political culture'. (HWE, p. 456; see also Reply, p. 42) Unaware that 'these Germans were like no Germans they had ever known', Goldhagen explains, Soviet Jerry 'initially greeted' the Nazi soldiers 'obligingly and without hostility.' (HWE, p. 587 n. 87) But if Goldhagen's thesis is correct, these Germans were like all other Germans.
On a related issue, to explain why the genocide unfolded in Germany and not elsewhere, Goldhagen points up the centrality of Hitler's regime: 'Whatever the antiSemitic traditions were in other European countries, it was only in Germany that an openly and rabidly anti-Semitic movement came to power... that was bent upon turning anti-Semitic fantasy into state organized genocidal slaughter.' (HWE, p. 419; see also Reply, p. 43.) Yet Goldhagen's explanation evades an embarrassingly obvious question: if other Europeans were as anti-Semitic as Germans which is what this argument assumes why didn't a 'rabidly anti-Semitic movement' come to power elsewhere? True, Goldhagen argues that 'Had there not been an economic depression in Germany, then the Nazis, in all likelihood, would never have come to power.' (Reply, p. 42; see also HWE, p. 87) But that simply evades another obvious question:
if Germans were so possessed by a fanatical anti-Semitism – more on which directly – why did a 'rabidly anti-Semitic movement' have to await an economic depression to attain power?
Indeed, Hitler's Willing Executioners is a monument to question-begging. Eschewing the claim that it is 'inexplicable', Goldhagen sets as his  objective to 'explain why the Holocaust occurred, to explain how it could occur.' He concludes that it 'is explicable historically'. (HWE, pp. 5, 455 [incomplete reference]) Goldhagen's thesis, however, neither renders the Nazi holocaust intelligible nor is it historical. For argument's sake, let us assume that Goldhagen is correct. Consumed by a ferocious loathing of the Jews, the German people jumped at Hitter's invitation to exterminate them. Yet the question still remains, whence the hatred of Jews? A nation of genocidal racists is, after all, not exactly a commonplace.
On this crucial issue, Goldhagen sheds no light. Anti-Semitism, he suggests, was symptomatic of a much deeper German malaise. It served the Germans as a 'moral rationale' for releasing 'destructive and ferocious passions that are usually tamed and curbed by civilization.' (HWE, p. 397) Yet he neither explains why these normally quiescent passions burst forth in Germany nor why they were directed against the Jews. Goldhagen depicts anti-Semitism as the manifestation of a deranged state. The Germans were 'pathologically ill ... struck with the illness of sadism ... diseased ... tyrannical, sadistic', 'psychopathic' (HWE, pp. 397, 450, quoting a 'keen diarist of the Warsaw Ghetto'), in thrall of 'absolutely fantastical ... beliefs that ordinarily only madmen have of others ... prone to wild, "magical thinking"' (HWE, p. 412), and so on. (12) Goldhagen never explains, however, why the Germans succumbed and why the Jews fell victim to this derangement.
In what is surely the book's most evocative analogy, Goldhagen compares the Germans to 'crazy' Captain Ahab. Recalling Melville's memorable description of Ahab's insanely hateful state as he harpoons the whale, Goldhagen writes: 'Germans' violent anger at the Jews is akin to the passion that drove Ahab to hunt Moby Dick.' (HWE, pp. 398-9) Yet even if the Germans were 'crazy' like Ahab, it still remains to explain what drove them to such a frenzied state. In Ahab's case, the motive is clear: Moby Dick had earlier mangled him. To quote Melville from the passage Goldhagen excerpts: 'It was revenge.' But Goldhagen plainly does not believe the Jews inflicted violent injury on Germans. Indeed, he emphatically denies that Jews bear any responsibility for anti-Semitism: 'the existence of anti-Semitism and the content of anti-Semitic charges... are fundamentally not a response to any objective evaluation of Jewish actions... anti-Semitism draws on cultural sources that are independent of the Jews' nature and actions.' (HWE, p. 39, original emphasis) In an almost comically circular argument, Goldhagen concludes that the Germans' Ahab-like loathing of the Jews originated in their loathing of the Jews: 'Germans' anti-Semitism was the basis of their profound hatred of the Jews and the psychological impulse to make them suffer.' (HWE, p. 584 n. 62; see also p. 399). ( 13) This argument recalls one of Goldhagen's key theoretical insights: 'The motivational dimension is the most crucial for explaining the perpetrators' willingness to act.' (HWE, p. 20)  Goldhagen approvingly cites the Sonderweg argument that 'Germany developed along a singular path, setting it apart from other western countries.' (HWE, p. 419) But Goldhagen's thesis has precious little in common with this argument. Unlike the Sonderweg proponents, he never once anchors the deformations of the German character in
temporal developments. Rather, the perverted German consciousness of Goldhagen's making floats above and persists in spite of history. Just how little Goldhagen's argument has in common with any school of history is pointed up by his conclusion that the Germans' 'absurd beliefs... rapidly dissipated' after the Second World War. (HWE, pp. 593-4 n. 53; see also p. 582 n. 38) Indeed, Germans today are 'democrats, committed democrats.' (14) Emerging from oblivion and enduring for centuries, the psychopathic German mind vanished again into oblivion in the space of a few decades. Thus Goldhagen renders the Nazi holocaust 'explicable historically'.
The merit of his thesis, Goldhagen contends, is that it recognizes that 'each individual made choices about how to treat Jews.' Thus, it 'restores the notion of individual responsibility'. (Reply, p. 38) Yet if Goldhagen's thesis is correct, the exact opposite is true. Germans bear no individual or, for that matter, collective guilt. After all, German culture was 'radically different' from ours. It shared none of our basic values. Killing Jews could accordingly be done in 'good conscience.' (HWE, p. 15) Germans perceived Jews the way we perceive roaches. They did not know better. They could not know better. It was a homogeneously sick society. Moral culpability, however, presumes moral awareness. Touted as a searing indictment of Germans, Goldhagen's thesis is, in fact, their perfect alibi. Who can condemn a 'crazy' people?
2. Explaining Everything
Goldhagen deploys two analytically distinct strategies to prove his thesis. The first derives from his own primary research on the German perpetrators of the genocide. Goldhagen maintains that certain of his findings 'defy all of the conventional explanations.' (HWE, p. 391) In particular, he argues that only a murderously antiSemitic culture can account for the wanton cruelty of the Germans. (Reply, pp. 38-9) Yet, it is not at all obvious why Goldhagen's thesis is more compelling than one that, say, includes the legacy of German anti-Semitism exacerbated by the incessant, inflammatory Jew-baiting of Nazi propaganda, and further exacerbated by the brutalizing effects of a singularly barbarous war. It is perhaps true, as Goldhagen suggests, that such a 'patchwork explanation' does not yet fully plumb the depths of German bestiality. (HWE, p. 391) But Goldhagen himself acknowledges that neither does his theory. Ultimately, he concedes, the immensity of German cruelty 'remains hard to fathom' and 'the extent and nature of German anti-Semitism' cannot explain it. (HWE, pp. 584 n. 62, 584 n. 65; see also p. 399)
The second thrust of Goldhagen's argument is to demonstrate historically that German society was seething with virulent anti-Semitism on the eve of Hitler's ascension to power. The undertaking is a daunting  one. Goldhagen relies almost entirely on the recent secondary literature on German anti-Semitism. He acknowledges that the evidence does not in a 'definitive' manner prove his conclusions. (HWE, p. 47) The problem, however, is rather larger. Profuse as it is, not a jot of this scholarship sustains Goldhagen's thesis. No serious German historian discounts the legacy of German anti-Semitism; none, however, maintains that German anti-Semitism was in itself sufficiently virulent to account for the Nazi genocide.(15) Indeed, this is one reason why versions of Goldhagen's thesis have been discarded in serious scholarly inquiry. The task Goldhagen sets himself is to force the new evidence into the Procrustean bed of an obsolete theory. To meet this challenge, Goldhagen fashions a new model of anti-Semitism. Thomas Kuhn suggested that a new paradigm comes
into existence when anomalies crop up that the old one can no longer accommodate. The purpose of Goldhagen's new paradigm, however, is to make the anomalies fit the old one.
The essence of Goldhagen's new paradigm is what he calls 'eliminationist antiSemitism'. Goldhagen situates German anti-Semitism along a continuous spectrum. At one extreme was the German perception that Jews were vaguely different. At the other extreme was the perception that Jews were distinctly evil. Between these poles was the perception that Jews were more or less flawed. Moving from one end of the spectrum to the other, the complementary German desire to eliminate an unappealing feature of the Jews rapidly yielded to the desire to eliminate Jews altogether. 'The eliminationist mind-set', Goldhagen proclaims, 'tended towards an exterminationist one.' (HWE, p. 71, emphasis in original; see also pp. 23, 77, 444) Thus, any German who questioned the group loyalty or objected to the business practices of Jews was effectively a Nazi brute. Wedded as it was to an assimilationist version of the 'eliminationist mind-set', even German liberalism inexorably led to Auschwitz.
Rescuing an otherwise improbable thesis, 'eliminationist anti-Semitism' serves as Goldhagen's deus ex machina. Indeed, using this device, it is not at all difficult to prove that nearly every German was a latent Hitler. It would also not be at all difficult to prove that nearly every white American is a latent Grand Wizard. How many white Americans do not harbour any negative stereotypes about black people? If Goldhagen is correct, we are all closet racial psychopaths. Why then did the 'Holocaust' happen in Germany? If we all suffer from an 'eliminationist mind-set' then that alone cannot account for what Goldhagen calls a 'sui generis event'. (HWE, p. 419)
Casting as a theoretical novelty the distinction between 'type[s] of anti-Semitism', Goldhagen dismisses previous scholars who 'typically... treated' anti-Semitism 'in an undifferentiated manner'. Before he came along, 'a person [was] either an anti-Semite or not.' (HWE, pp. 34-5; see also Reply, p. 41) Leaving aside the fact that the contrast he proposes  between, say, religious and racial or latent and manifest antiSemitism is standard in the Nazi holocaust literatures, (16) it is Goldhagen himself who radically undercuts all distinctions: on the 'eliminationist' spectrum, every manifestation of anti-Semitism and even philosemitism 'tend[s] strongly towards a genocidal "solution".' (17)
In this connection, Goldhagen's resolution of a key controversy in the Nazi holocaust literature is noteworthy. Historians have long disputed whether Hitler sought from the outset (the intentionalist school) or was pressed by circumstances (the functionalist school) to exterminate the Jews. To prove the intentionalist thesis, Goldhagen simply lumps Hitler's various initiatives together: they were all effectively genocidal. Thus, Hitler's pre-invasion orders that limited the extermination of Soviet Jews to adult males was 'still genocidal'. His ghettoization and deportation schemes were 'bloodlessly genocidal', 'proto-genocidal', 'psychologically and ideologically the functional, if not the eventual, actual equivalent of genocide', 'quasi-genocidal', 'bloodless equivalents of genocide', and so on. Even the destruction of Jewish synagogues during Kristallnacht was a 'proto-genocidal assault... the psychic equivalent of genocide.' (18) The very basis of the intentionalist-functionalist controversy, however, is that the distinction between riot, expulsion, and mass murder, on the one hand, and genocide, on the other, does count. Why else focus on
Hitler's decision to initiate the judeocide? Goldhagen's 'proof annuls the debate's central premise. It also annuls the central premise of his own book. If all these policies evidence genocidal intent, then genocidal intent is very far from uncommon in human history. Yet, Goldhagen maintains that 'the Holocaust is ... utterly new', and it is 'crucially' the genocidal intent that makes it so. (HWE, p. 5; Reply, p. 45)
Once Goldhagen attends to the matter of distinctions, the bankruptcy of his explanatory model stands exposed. Thus, he also enters the strong caveat that German 'eliminationist anti-Semitism' was equally compatible with a broad range of social outcomes. It was 'multipotential.' Indeed, 'eliminationist anti-Semitism' could 'obvious[ly]'culminate in everything from 'total assimilation' to 'total annihilation', with 'verbal assault', 'legal  restraints', 'physical assault', 'physical separation in ghettos', 'forcible and violent expulsion', all being intermediate possibilities. (HWE, pp. 69, 70, 132-6, 444, 494 n. 92) These multiple options, Goldhagen further elucidates, 'were rough functional equivalents from the vantage point of the perpetrators.' (HWE, p. 135; see also p. 70) Yet, if all these policy options were 'rough functional equivalents' for the 'eliminationist mind-set', then that mind-set plainly cannot account for the genocidal variant. So capacious is his conceptual device, Goldhagen suggests, that it can explain in a 'logical' manner the full gamut of unfolding German anti-Jewish policies. (HWE, p. 444) True it explains all of them; it also explains none.
Goldhagen's survey of German anti-Semitism roughly divides at the Nazis' ascension to power. In the next two sections, I shall consider his analysis of Germany before and after the Nazis took over.
3. Pre-Nazi Germany
In his introductory chapter, Goldhagen emphasizes an analytical distinction: 'Some anti-Semitisms become woven into the moral order of society; others do not.' Theorizing that the former are potentially more explosive, Goldhagen puts 'the conception of Jews in medieval Christendom' in this category: 'its uncompromising non-pluralistic and intolerant view of the moral basis of society... held the Jews to violate the moral order of the world ... Jews came to represent ... much of the evil in the world; they not only represented it but also came to be seen by Christians as being synonymous with it, indeed as being self-willed agents of evil.' (HWE, pp. 37-8; see also p. 51) Alas, Goldhagen also argues that anti-Semitism was not at the core of pre-modern Christianity: 'In medieval times ... Jews were seen to be responsible for many ills, but they remained always somewhat peripheral, on the fringes, spatially and theologically, of the Christian world, not central to its understanding of the world's troubles ... even if the Jews were to disappear, the Devil, the ultimate source of evil, would remain.' (HWE, p. 67; see also p. 77) Apart from his theoretical insight – or perhaps insights – Goldhagen skips quickly over the pre-modern era.
Except perhaps for an obscure, unpublished, thirty-year-old doctoral dissertation, Goldhagen acknowledges, the extant scholarly literature on modern German antiSemitism does not reach his conclusions. If, however, the same findings are 'reconceptualize[d]' in a 'new analytical and interpretative framework', they do, he believes, sustain his novel thesis. (HWE, pp. 488 n. 17, 76-7; see also Reply, p. 41)
Summarizing his conclusions for the nineteenth century through World War I, Goldhagen writes:
It is... incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi anti-Semitism... had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture. It is incontestable that racial antiSemitism was the salient form of anti-Semitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society. It is incontestable that it had enormously wide and solid institutional and political support in Germany at various times ... It is incontestable that this racial anti-Semitism which held the Jews to pose a mortal threat to Germany was pregnant with murder. (HWE, pp. 74-5; see also p. 77)
 No serious historian doubts that anti-Semitism persisted in modern Germany. The question is, what was its scope and nature? (19) Goldhagen argues that antiSemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. Yet German Social-Democracy forcefully denounced anti-Semitism and, as the single largest political party (the SPD), commanded the allegiance of fully a third of the electorate by the early twentieth century. Not the working-class base, Goldhagen suggests, but only 'the core of the socialist movement, its intellectuals and leaders' repudiated anti-Semitism. It was merely a 'small group'. (HWE, p. 74; see also p. 72) The only source he cites is Peter Pulzer's Jews and the German State, which enters no such qualification. (20) Indeed, turning to Pulzer's authoritative companion study, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, we learn that 'anti-Semitism drew little strength from ... the working-class ... The [German worker] knew that national and religious arguments were at best irrelevant to a solution of his problems and at worst a deliberate attempt to cloud his view of the "real issues".' (21) A compelling example of popular German anti-Semitism cited by Goldhagen is the recurrence of ritual murder accusations. 'In Germany and the Austrian Empire', he reports, twelve such trials took lace between 1867 and 1914.' (HWE, pp. 63-4) Goldhagen cites Pulzer's The Rise of political AntiSemitism in Germany and Austria. Turning to the cited page, we find that Goldhagen has reversed the import of Pulzer's finding. The remainder of the sentence reads: 'eleven of which collapsed although the trials were by jury'. (22)
To further document the extent of German anti-Semitism, Goldhagen recalls a 'spontaneous, extremely broad-based, and genuine' petition campaign in Bavaria opposing the full equality of Jews. Yet, the corresponding note tucked in the book's back pages reveals that actually the campaign was carefully orchestrated by 'priests and other anti-Jewish agitators' and that 'many' signatories were 'indifferent' to the Jews. Ian Kershaw adds that 'many petitioners... knew little of any Jewish Question.' Unfazed, Goldhagen concludes his endnote: 'because agitators could so easily induce them to anti-Semitic expression', the petition drive still proves 'how anti-Semitic Bavarians were'. (23)
 Even if Goldhagen were able to prove that German culture was 'axiomatically anti-Semitic' (HWE, p. 59), that in itself would not yet prove that the German people strained at the bit to murder Jews. Thus, as seen above, Goldhagen also argues that German anti-Semitism was pervasively homicidal. Consider some other representative passages:
By the end of the nineteenth century, the view that Jews posed extreme danger to Germany and that the source of their perniciousness was immutable, namely their race, and the consequential belief that the Jews had to be eliminated from Germany were extremely widespread in German society. The tendency to consider and propose the most radical form of elimination – that is, extermination – was already strong and had been given much voice. (HWE, p. 72, original emphasis)
... the cognitive model of Nazi anti-Semitism had taken shape well before the Nazis came to power, and ... this model, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was also extremely widespread in all social classes and sectors of German society, for it was deeply embedded in German cultural and political life and conversation, as well as integrated into the moral structure of society. (HWE, p. 77)
Pulzer, however, maintains that only 'a small, though growing, and noisy minority' even held that 'Jews were a separate, unassimilable race'. A second authority frequently cited by Goldhagen, Shulamit Volkov, similarly concludes that nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism did not 'bring forth' the Nazi genocide. Indeed, it was 'closer to the French version of that time than to later National Socialist positions.' (24)