Eley (ed.), Goldhagen Effect, cover

Geoff Eley (ed.), The Goldhagen Effect:
History, Memory, Nazism--Facing the German Past

(Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2000), 172 pages.
UCSB: D804.3.G6483G64 2000.

book essay by Katie Irwin
March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

Prof. Marcuse's homepage
133c Course
Research Papers
index page

About the author
& abstract
and Links
plagiarism warning
133c Book Essays
Index page
$25/14 w/ excerpt
at amazon

About Katie Irwin (back to top)

I am a senior double majoring in Global Studies and Russian at UCSB. Prior to this class, I have taken several 20th century European political and history courses. However, History 133C is my first course which specifically focuses on German history. Although I have not been to Germany, I have visited several concentration camps. I went to the propagandist camp, Terezin, and the infamous Auschwitz while studying abroad in Prague last summer. I chose to write on Goldhagen’s book because I wanted to examine people’s reception worldwide to his thesis and its significance. I was interested in taking a more social approach to analyzing history which I think is extremely relevant to how one recalls and understands the Holocaust.


The Goldhagen Effect was written as a critique to the social reactions in select countries regarding Daniel Goldhagen’s monograph Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen asserts that Germans were knowledgeable and willingly participated in Hitler’s execution of the Final Solution. Goldhagen states that this high level of genocidal volunteerism against the Jews was a result of anti-Semitic fervor rooted deeply in German history. Additionally, Goldhagen criticizes academics for having largely ignored this fact when educating on the Holocaust. A thorough knowledge of Goldhagen’s platform is essential to understanding essays in The Goldhagen Effect. In addition to his own response, editor, Geoff Eley, compiles a selection of responses from contributing authors to examine how both the public as well as academics viewed Goldhagen’s controversial thesis. The reception of Goldhagen’s thesis after his publication is analyzed in four countries, the United States, Germany, France, and Israel. What is incredibly interesting is the stark contrast between countries in their overall acceptance or rejection of Goldhagen’s novel. The Goldhagen Effect is an excellent source for studying beyond the controversial legitimacy of Goldhagen’s thesis, and into examining the social upheaval it created; consequentially causing a reevaluation of how people perceive and recall Holocaust history.

Book Essay (back to top)

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s monograph, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was an extremely controversial, yet original piece, which was published in 1994. Goldhagen’s primary thesis claims that a majority of "ordinary" Germans during the Nazi era were the main contributors to and perpetrators of Jewish extermination because of Germany’s extensive history of anti-Semitism, which had a specific "eliminationist" orientation. Goldhagen argues that not only did the average German support, but willingly participated in the persecution, exploitation of Jewish labor, mass murder, and enforcement of death-marches. Since its publication, there have been many scholarly critiques refuting the credibility of this monologue. However, editor Geoff Eley has taken a different approach. The anthology The Goldhagen Effect seeks to analyze the validity of Goldhagen’s thesis and discusses the book’s impact and its reception in both the scholarly and public spheres. Contributing author Omer Bartov examines popular culture and reviews the media’s role in the reception, a form of "popular memorialization" of the book in four countries, the United States, Germany, France, and Israel. The Goldhagen Effect argues that the public and academic reception of the international best-seller in each respective country depended on variables such as: questions of national identity, generational conflicts, societal quests for truth, and the overall acceptance of the text. These complex variables ultimately influenced and dictated each individual country’s acceptance or rejection of the Goldhagen thesis. Whichever reaction developed, it is evident that Goldhagen’s ground-breaking publication stimulated intense international discussion, which consequentially evoked a "reawakening" on how people recall and understand legacies of the Third Reich and the treacherous past of the Holocaust.

In studying Goldhagen’s analysis of the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust, Eley asserts that many debates surfaced about topics such as history versus memory, tensions between ideological groups and personal national identity, resistance versus involvement, generational conflicts, as well as present versus past atrocities. These opposing viewpoints surfaced when discussing the popularity of the "Goldhagen phenomenon" in different international communities. Eley states that public reception to Goldhagen’s novel was essentially, a "public discourse of national remembrance and its relationship to political culture and the allowable forms of national identification." (Eley, 29). His novel provided a new forum for discussion on people’s social, political and cultural past. In most cases, the book’s reception was divided between academics and overall public opinion. However, it depended on factors such as the integration of the book into the academic and public sphere, internal debates, and circulation.

In the United States, Goldhagen’s book was highly anticipated upon its publication. Contributing author, Omer Bartov attributes this to the Jewish author’s highly talented public relations agency, which had Goldhagen campaigning internationally. As a result, there was enormous media hype and public enthusiasm for the book. Bartov additionally attributes the popularity of the public’s reception to the book to the "emergence of multiculturalism" in the United States (Bartov, Reception and Perception). In his essay, "Reception and Perception: Goldhagen’s Holocaust and the World," Bartov states that America is not the melting pot of widespread ethnicities it once was. However, it is home to distinct cultural identities that have been fully integrated into American society since their immigration. For this reason, the book was welcomed, and as Bartov coined it, a form of "Holocaust consciousness" based on the concept of victimization was strengthened. There was, however, an elevated level of debate in the academic arena. One debate was in response to Goldhagen’s explosive assertion, which blamed scholars for not admitting what he believes the German people knew, namely that the Holocaust happened because Germans did not like Jews.

Goldhagen’s thesis countered historian Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men, which says that the German participation in genocide was a result of peer pressure rather than rooted in national anti-Semitic fervor. Browning disagrees with the level of participation and motivation of numerous Germans, and the increasingly high degree of voluntarism that Goldhagen asserts Germans exhibited. Additionally, Browning criticizes Goldhagen’s "eliminationist" theory and his text which states that:

"All Germans who perceived Jews as different and viewed this difference as something negative that should disappear-whether through conversion, assimilation, emigration, or extermination, are classified as "eliminationist" anti-Semites." (Browning, 194)

Browning argues that anti-Semitism is a multi-faceted concept and that Goldhagen’s mistake was to synthesize all differing variables into a "single German eliminationist anti-Semitism" thus making everybody one. Another pivotal debate worth noting that Browning refutes is that prior to the implementation of the Final Solution in 1941, the Nazi regime was more than capable to legitimize, authorize, and organize the killings of millions of people including: Russian prisoners of war, handicapped and disabled, and Polish intelligentsia for instance. Browning asserts that this was concrete evidence that the Nazi killing campaign did not have to rely on anti-Semitism as motivation for killing, because in fact the victims previously noted were not Jewish (Browning, 203). Browning’s book is just one example of the multiple scholarly debates that were profusely circulated in response to Goldhagen’s novel.

As a result of many debates about rejection, the American public and media embraced Goldhagen’s argument. Most importantly, however, Bartov asserts that the media hype was short lived, and ultimately the reception of the book depicted the Holocaust as an almost ancient past, instead of warning a society of its members’ potential to commit genocide.

In contrast to the United States’ public reception of Goldhagen’s book, Germans were initially hostile and disdainful of the Goldhagen thesis. Bartov asserts, however, that media publication and circulation of the novel was a different process than in the United States, which made it difficult to compare the reception in Germany and the United States. The "middlebrow" and "highbrow" media publications allocated substantial space to academic critics. However, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad, and eventually in addition to Goldhagen’s campaigning, public opinion transformed to acceptance. The book was also increasingly circulated within a select media sphere that catered to a Jewish audience, which consequently increased its popularity.

Several of the controversies surfaced in the form of generational conflicts and questions of national identity. Bartov notes that in many German universities, fiery debates erupted in lecture halls in which young German and Jewish students countered their professors’ rejection of the book. University students supported the book because they felt Goldhagen’s book told the truth, something that their conservative professors refused to admit (Bartov, Reception and Perception). Young Germans also felt that Goldhagen had liberated the truth; something that was masked additionally by their parents. They felt they could connect with the book because Goldhagen represented an outside source, (not linked through their education or family) who was not hesitant to confront their controversial past.

An additional debate surfaced that questioned the validity of the Goldhagen’s book, namely that Goldhagen was a son of a Holocaust survivor. German scholars did not believe he was able to write history objectively because he had an emotional and personal connection to the Holocaust. This contrasts greatly to the United States’ perception that because of his second generational relationship to the Holocaust, Goldhagen was a valid source. Ultimately, Bartov notes that the book’s German reception was overall positive, despite its initial rejection. He attributes this to Germans’ link to Nazism and quest for national identity as the greater significance of the book. As a result, Goldhagen was awarded a "Democracy Prize" in appreciation of his historical detailed research on the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and perhaps more specifically because of the new found attention to German anti-Semitism Goldhagen provoked. Additionally, he states that the book was profoundly beneficial to Germany because it focused on the historical content in teaching about Nazism and the Third Reich. Goldhagen’s book shone light on Germany’s teaching of the Holocaust in an academic arena, which had been previously largely marginalized and created a new need for refocusing and educating.

The publication of Goldhagen’s book in France and its public reception there contrasted greatly from the United States and Germany. Media and intellectual interest in the Goldhagen phenomenon was minimal, mostly due to its success in Germany and the United States. Bartov attributes the limited success was primarily due to the French people’s lack of interest in the topic and Goldhagen’s thesis. He states that in France, scholarship on the Holocaust is mainly focused "not on the genocide of the Jews, but rather on collaboration and resistance during the German occupation," as well as issues of totalitarianism and political repression (Eley, 57). This lack of academic interest in subject matter of the Holocaust was a reason for the book’s lack of popularity in the public arena. Bartov also notes the complex of the "Vichy syndrome" in France and attributes the public’s lack of reception to it. The Vichy Syndrome is a term coined by historian Henry Rousso, which asserts that France and the Fourth and Fifth Republics have not yet come to terms with the somber, cumbersome years of occupation and World War II. For this reason, the French are primarily concerned with the subject matter of totalitarianism and political repression, especially in relation to Soviet crimes as well as the German ones. He concludes, "The Jewish fate is the obstacle to reasserting French national identity," (Bartov, Reception and Perception). Here, Eley draws the parallel to other debates surrounding the thesis on topics of national identity and history versus memory. As a result of these debates, in France Goldhagen’s book did not quite elicit the response it created in the United States and Germany.

The Israeli public and academic reception of Goldhagen’s book is entirely different than in the United States, Germany, and France. Publications in Hebrew of Daniel Goldhagen’s book eventually ceased due to lack of interest and an unenthusiastic crowd. According to Bartov, many Israelis viewed the success of Goldhagen’s monograph as a typical product of American commercialization and the commercialization of the Holocaust. In addition to this negative response, he notes that a dismissive audience was also due to what he called "Holocaust fatigue." (Bartov, Reception and Perception). Bartov discusses that at the time of the publication Israel was saturated with representations and discourse about the Holocaust, which created a syndrome of overexposure. However, Israelis did have some interest in the book. Although most were not concerned with the content of the text, Israelis were mainly interested in its impact abroad. Bartov asserts that Israel did not embrace Goldhagen’s book because it was information they already knew, that it was the Germans who had not come to terms with the truth. Another factor that led to the lack of success in Israel was Goldhagen’s overriding tone in the book, as if he offered the last and "final interpretation" of the Holocaust. Israelis viewed this with negatively "self-righteous indignation." (Bartov, Reception and Perception). Perhaps most importantly, the author argues that the lack of interest in the book was due to the debate it created about, once again, national identity. He emphasizes that the national identity of Jews in Israel can be formed from the Holocaust and the Arab Israeli conflicts. Bartov asserts that the book may not have been as appealing because Israelis are currently primarily concerned with the Palestinian conflict, and thus not as occupied with the past. However, he also notes that the book’s detailed descriptions of dehumanization and brutalization were too similar and familiar to scenes in the current political conflicts with the Arabs.

Ultimately, the reception and popularity of the book in the United States, Germany, France, and Israel varied greatly, although the book was controversial in all the countries. The in-depth analyses in this anthology allow readers to peer into the psychological effects that Goldhagen’s book and the Holocaust had on people internationally. Many debates surfaced regarding conflicts of national identity, ideology, methods of presenting history versus memory, and generational tensions. All of these factors contributed to the overall enthusiastic reception or rejection of Goldhagen’s thesis. In conclusion, whether or not one agrees with or refutes his thesis, Goldhagen broke international boundaries in the originality of his work, by arguing that "ordinary Germans" were not only fully conscious of the Jewish genocide, but willingly engaged in the brutal, inhumane program of genocide. Additionally, Goldhagen blames scholars for not having acknowledged this controversial notion earlier, and he questions the efficiency of academic Holocaust education. Despite the controversy of academic credibility of Goldhagen’s thesis, his book was very provocative and widely discussed within the international arena, creating a phenomenon that has ultimately altered how people recall and understand the Holocaust.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Supplementary Sources

  • Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
    Browning’s book was critical as a contrast to Goldhagen’s thesis. Although Browning agrees Germans were knowledgeable about the Holocaust, he differs on the level of participation the Germans engaged in.
  • Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. NewYork: Vintage Books/Random House, 1997.
    Goldhagen’s book is the prime source of controversy surrounding his thesis on the volunteerism of Germans towards Jewish genocide. His stance was necessary to understand in order to analyze the effect of his thesis on various nations.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/28/06; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133c homepage, 133c Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage