Hitler’s Ghost by Christopher Hitchens

Hitler’s Ghost
Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair
June 1996

Cherry blossoms are bursting over the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial as I ascend the steps of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There is to be a learned seminar today, on the newest interpretation of the Final Solution. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a 36-year-old assistant professor at Harvard, is to defend his thesis in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, a book which has been a spring sensation.

Having immersed myself in this volume for a weekend, I am eager to ask one big question that cries to heaven for an answer. It is this: Who on earth does Goldhagen think he is arguing with? He comes to tell us there was a good deal of state- and church-sponsored anti-Semitism in German culture. He adds that the Nazis made great use of Jew hatred in their propaganda. He goes on to say that many Germans took part in beatings, killings, and roundups not because they were coerced but because they liked the idea. He announces that not many Germans resisted the persecution of their Jewish countrymen.

Excuse me, but I knew this and so did you. Moreover, the sarcastic phrase about “obeying orders” is not even a well-known explanation, only a well-known excuse. All the way through Goldhagen’s presentation, which is one tautology piled on another, I wait to make my point. And then the two big scholars present come to the podium with their comments, and I realize I have been wasting my time.

Sophomoric, meretricious, unoriginal, unhistorical, a product of media hype by Knopf (the book’s publisher), contradictory, repetitive, callow… I’m just giving you the gist of what they said about Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It must have been quite an ordeal for Goldhagen, who looks about 12, to sit through this kind of thing from revered seniors. Professor Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University, for example, is effectively the academic founder of the Yad Vashem Holocaust archives in Jerusalem and the author of at least three of the dozen or so standard works on the subject. Professor Konrad Kwiet is no lightweight, either. He is the scholar-in-residence at the Research Instituite at the Holocaust Museum and the adviser to the government of Australia on war crimes.

I watch Goldhagen being ground between these heavy millstones and two things happen to me. First, I feel a rush of sympathy for the kid. Sixty-three percent of German electors voted against Hitler in the last free election in Weimar, says Bauer witheringly, and there were vicious Jew-baiters in Germany in the early 19th century. So how come, Mr. Clever Young Historian, that one time it ends in blood and another time not? If you don’t know, you shouldn’t talk. This big-time book of yours should have remained a doctoral thesis and maybe those supervisors at Harvard could try harder. (I’m paraphrasing the scholars only slightly.)

The second thing that happens is that I feel a new respect for the Research Institute at the Holocaust museum. It can’t have been easy, this trashing of an attractive and earnest young man. How was he to know that there is more to the Holocaust than meditations on cruelty and the German character, or that he was supposed to have a deep theoretical knowledge of Fascism? Doesn’t almost every Hollywood and pulp outlet make the Final Solution seem like a sort of morality tale? Did not The New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier–whose remarks closed this seminar–once observe mordantly that “there’s no business like Shoah business”?* So, good for the Institute.

There is, of course, another answer to the question I never asked. Goldhagen is involved in an argument with an unseen opponent, and so are all the other experts on the platform, including Christopher Browning, whose book Ordinary Men anticipated Goldhagen by four years. This unseen opponent is David Irving, a British historian with depraved ideas about the whole narrative.

Irving does have a rounded and developed theory of Fascism, which is to say that he has studied it a lot and it’s had a bum rap. He’s even been quoted as calling himself a “mild Fascist” or “a moderate Fascist”–oxymoronic if true. In the week that I went to the Holocaust-museum seminar, Irving was hastily dumped by St. Martin’s Press, which had undertaken to produce his book on the papers of Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, the choreographer for the Nuremberg style, and had then, at the very threshold of publication, taken fright. Book canceled, author disowned, tearful statements from the top brass about how if only they had known…

Encountering Tom Dunne of St. Martin’s that very week, I told him I was going to criticize him in print, and he replied, “If you want a title for the article, call it ‘Profiles in Prudence.'” A good joke from a good man. But at whose expense?

I have thought about this a lot and I feel the need to say, very clearly, that St. Martin’s has disgraced the business of publishing and degraded the practice of debate. David Irving is not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism. But you would never have known this from the way that the controversy was written up.

HITLER’S SPIN ARTIST was the headline on a typical column, by Frank Rich in the New York Times, raising the alarm about the mere idea of Irving’s being published. The Washington Post was not laggard, saying that Irving “routinely refers to the Holocaust as a hoax.” Jonathan Yardley, a cultural critic of some standing, wrote a whole article that positively sighed with satisfaction at the idea that, having neither read nor seen the book, he could now safely counsel others to do likewise. Nary a voice was raised, in American publishing or academe or journalism, to ask if David Irving had anything to contribute as a chronicler.

Things were rather different in my country of birth, which doesn’t even have a First Amendment. More than 120 book sections of English magazines and newspapers have requested copies from Irving’s British publisher, and reviews are pouring in. I might mention Robert Harris, author of Fatherland and Enigma, who wrote in the London Evening Standard on April 1 that “in the words of the military writer John Keegan: ‘No historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore Irving.’ Few contemporary scholars have his depth of knowledge, virtually none has met as many of its leading figures and nobody, surely, has unearthed more original material–a private archive known as the ‘Irving Collection,’ always generously made available to other researchers, which weighs more than half a ton.”

Harris could have added that his own brilliant book Selling Hitler–describing the 1983 forgery of “the Hitler Diaries,” which hoodwinked a large chunk of the British establishment (including historians of the caliber of Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of The Last Days of Hitler)–was made possible in part by Irving’s finding that those nasty papers were indeed a fake. Irving rendered another service by unmasking some spurious documents connecting Churchill and Mussolini. He speaks faultless German. He has, in the most recent case, been the first historian to see some 75,000 pages of diary entries by Joseph Goebbels, held in secrecy in Moscow from 1945 to 1992. His studies of the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship, of the bombing of Dresden, of the campaigns of Rommel and others, are such that you can’t say you know the subject at all unless you have read them. And, incidentally, he has never and not once described the Holocaust as a “hoax.”

I have caught David Irving out, just by my own researches, in one grossly anti-Jewish statement and one wildly paranoid hypothesis and several flagrant contradictions. But I learned a lot in the process of doing so. It’s unimportant to me that Irving is my political polar opposite. If I didn’t read my polar opposites, I’d be even stupider than I am. But what did I get when I went round that Holocaust seminar? Professors Bauer and Kwiet and Browning, asked if they agreed with the St. Martin’s decision, shrank as if I had invited them to a Witches’ Sabbath. None of them would say that Irving should never be published, but all of them said that if it were up to them he would not be.

Deborah Lipstadt, author of the standard text Denying the Holocaust, told The New York Times that one wouldn’t and shouldn’t publish David Duke on race relations, and (varying her pitch a bit) told The Washington Post that one wouldn’t and shouldn’t publish Jeffrey Dahmer on man-boy love. What is this vertiginous nonsense? These are supposedly experienced historians who claim to have looked mass death in the face, without flinching. And they can’t take the idea of a debate with David Irving? Quite apart from the fact that many publishers would have rushed to promote a Jeffrey Dahmer manuscript, what are we afraid of here?

I have now read the exchange of correspondence between Irving and St. Martin’s. For a long time, everything was hunky-dory. The manuscript was read seven times in 15 months (and understandably, since it contained amazing new material). The Military Book Club chose it as a main selection. Sales representatives made ethusiastic noises. And then, after a few hysterical and old-maidish articles in the press (Eek–a Nazi!), Irving is told that his contract is void. He is told this not by the publishers but by members of the press telephoning him for his reaction.

I remember when my friend Aryeh Neier, of the American Civil Liberties Union (whose parents got out of Berlin just in time), made the decision to uphold the right of the American Nazi Party to mount a demonstration in Illinois in 1978. The A.C.L.U. lost a lot of donors and subscribers that time. In a fine book entitled Defending My Enemy, Neier explained soothingly that the law on free expression covers everybody, and thus that in defending it for anybody you defend it for everybody.

After weeks of general acquiescence on the Irving suppression, Steve Wasserman of Times Books was moved to push Neier’s point with his colleagues at Random House. In a contentious meeting, it was agreed they would actually read the book. Someone will no doubt pick up where St. Martin’s left off; until then, one will have to seek David Irving on some ghastly Brownshirt Web site, which will parade its bravery in making the occult facts into revealed truth. Is this what the established experts want?

A little depressed at this last thought, I made a late-night call to Professor Raul Hilberg at the University of Vermont. Professor Hilberg’s book The Destruction of the European Jews was the original text on the Holocaust, published in 1961. He is acknowledged as an ancestor on the matter. He sighed a bit when I mentioned Irving, whom he regards as a slippery customer but with whom he has had correspondence about documents and details. A very good man in footnotes and archives, allowed Hilberg, but you had to suspect his motives. However: “If these people want to speak, let them. It only leads those of us who do research to re-examine what we might have considered as obvious. And that’s useful for us. I have quoted Eichmann references that come from a neo-Nazi publishing house. I am not for taboos and I am not for repression.”

Currently, though, there is a taboo. And who really believes that if it were lifted any honest person would be the loser?

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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