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  • Holocaust und autoritärer Charakter: Amerikanische Studien der vierziger Jahre vor dem Hintergrund der “Goldhagen-Debatte”
  • Lawrence Birken
Holocaust und autoritärer Charakter: Amerikanische Studien der vierziger Jahre vor dem Hintergrund der “Goldhagen-Debatte,” by Martina Parge. Wiesbaden: Deutscher Universitäts Verlag, 1997. 178 pp. DM 42.

It is no secret that Daniel Goldhagen’s “Holocaust book” ripped open more than one scab on the German national psyche. At the very moment when a newly united Germany was regaining its lost preeminence in European affairs, Goldhagen conjured up the ghost of National Socialism to haunt the German conscience. His message was elegantly simple: Germans killed the Jews because they wanted to, and they wanted to because they knew the Jews were devils. Almost immediately, Goldhagen’s book ignited a firestorm, as once staid members of the intelligentsia hurled accusations back and forth like hand grenades. In contrast, Martina Parge is less interested in criticizing Goldhagen than in using his book to reopen the question of whether a specifically German national character made the Holocaust possible.

The first part of Parge’s book briefly reviews Goldhagen’s thesis, finding it not so much wrong as incomplete. While Parge believes that Goldhagen was correct to stress the importance of “exterminationist antisemitism,” she sees his explanation as overly simplistic and fatally “monocausal” (p. 2). This simplicity, which Goldhagen himself seems to cherish, has led to some real problems. In particular, Goldhagen’s refusal to place German antisemitism in its larger socio-economic context made it appear as merely one more national characteristic—like the reputed industriousness of the Japanese or the otherworldliness of the Hindus. But, Parge argues, treating Nazism as a mere expression of German culture creates some “extremely unpleasant consequences on the theoretical level.” In the first place, Goldhagen’s book precludes our seeing any “possible connection between the existing characteristics of modern society and the possibility of Holocaust” outside Germany (p. 21). In the second place, treating Nazism as just one more modern belief system, rather than as a deviation from mature democracy, normalizes the Shoah. In other words, Goldhagen’s refusal to utilize “modern democratic society as a reference point” represented a kind of theoretical nihilism (p. 164). Finally, the Goldhagen thesis is too simplistic to explain the relationship between individual perpetrators and collective institutions under National Socialism. [End Page 145]

Instead, Parge believes, a complete explanation of the Holocaust would have to meet no less than four separate criteria: In the first place, such an explanation would have to recognize the responsibility of the perpetrators. Secondly, it would need to delineate the “social pathology” motivating their behavior. Thirdly, it would have to lay bare the interconnections between that behavior and the larger socio-economic structure of the Third Reich. Finally, a complete explanation of the Holocaust would have to recognize the terrorist character of the Nazi State. From this perspective, Goldhagen’s failure to fulfill any but the first criterion stems from his refusal to deal with the authoritarian character of Nazi culture. In other words, Goldhagen was so committed to portraying the “willing” character of his executioners that he ignored the compulsive character of their society.

To better understand the pathology of that society, Parge devotes the remainder of her book to a reconsideration of early sociological studies focusing on the role of authoritarianism in Nazi Germany. Parge first considers Eric Fromm’s theoretical contribution to Max Horkheimer’s Studien über Autorität und Familie (Paris, 1936), as well as his better known Escape from Freedom (New York, 1941). In these two works, Fromm elaborated his thesis that the development of modern, capitalist society has been accompanied by the increasing isolation of the individual. According to Fromm, individuals have come to fear the very freedom that modernity bestows upon them, making them susceptible to the internalized commands of false communities like Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft. Parge supplements her discussion of Fromm with an analysis of Richard Brichner’s Is Germany Incurable? (Philadelphia, 1943). Brickner argued that German society had long demonstrated a collective paranoia, or, at least, what Richard Hofstadter might have called a “paranoid style,” which exploded into Holocaust. Finally, Parge discusses Bertram Schaffner’s...

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