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Daniel Goldhagen

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Daniel Goldhagen
Goldhagen in Manor house
Goldhagen in Manor house
BornDaniel Jonah Goldhagen
(1959-06-30) June 30, 1959 (age 64)
Boston, Massachusetts
OccupationPolitical scientist, author
EducationHarvard University
SpouseSarah Williams Goldhagen

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (born June 30, 1959)[1] is an American author, and former associate professor of government and social studies at Harvard University. Goldhagen reached international attention and broad criticism as the author of two books about the Holocaust: Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), and A Moral Reckoning (2002). He is also the author of Worse Than War (2009), which examines the phenomenon of genocide, and The Devil That Never Dies (2013), in which he traces a worldwide rise in virulent antisemitism.[2][3]


Daniel Goldhagen was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Erich and Norma Goldhagen. He grew up in nearby Newton.[4] His wife Sarah (née Williams) is an architectural historian, and critic for The New Republic magazine.[5]

Daniel Goldhagen's father is Erich Goldhagen, a retired Harvard professor. Erich is a Holocaust survivor who, with his family, was interned in a Jewish ghetto in Czernowitz (present-day Ukraine).[4][needs update] Daniel credits his father for being a "model of intellectual sobriety and probity".[6] Goldhagen has written that his "understanding of Nazism and of the Holocaust is firmly indebted" to his father's influence.[6] In 1977, Goldhagen entered Harvard, and remained there for some twenty years - first as an undergraduate and graduate student, then as an assistant professor in the Government and Social Studies Department.[7][8]

During early graduate studies, he attended a lecture by Saul Friedländer, in which he had what he describes as a "lightbulb moment": The functionalism versus intentionalism debate did not address the question, "When Hitler ordered the annihilation of the Jews, why did people execute the order?". Goldhagen wanted to investigate who the German men and women who killed the Jews were, and their reasons for killing.[4]

Academic and literary career[edit]

As a graduate student, Goldhagen undertook research in the German archives.[4][9] The thesis of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust proposes that, during the Holocaust, many killers were ordinary Germans, who killed for having been raised in a profoundly antisemitic culture, and thus were acculturated — "ready and willing" — to execute the Nazi government's genocidal plans.

Goldhagen's first notable work was a book review titled "False Witness" published by The New Republic magazine on April 17, 1989. It was one in a series of hostile reviews of the 1988 book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? by an American-Jewish professor of Princeton University born in Luxembourg, Arno J. Mayer.[10] Goldhagen wrote that "Mayer's enormous intellectual error" was in ascribing the cause of the Holocaust to anti-Communism, rather than to antisemitism,[11] and criticized Prof. Mayer's saying that most massacres of Jews in the USSR, during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 were committed by local peoples (see the Lviv pogroms for more historical background), with little Wehrmacht participation.[11] Goldhagen accused him also of misrepresenting the facts about the Wannsee Conference (1942), which was meant for plotting the genocide of European Jews, not (as Mayer said) merely the resettlement of the Jews.[11] Goldhagen further accused Mayer of obscurantism, of suppressing historical fact, and of being an apologist for Nazi Germany, like Ernst Nolte, for attempting to "de-demonize" National Socialism.[11] Also in 1989, historian Lucy Dawidowicz reviewed Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? in Commentary magazine, and praised Goldhagen's "False Witness" review, identifying him as a rising Holocaust historian who formally rebutted "Mayer's falsification" of history.[10][12]

In 2003, Goldhagen resigned from Harvard to focus on writing. His work synthesizes four historical elements, kept distinct for analysis; as presented in the books A Moral Reckoning: the Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (2002) and Worse Than War (2009): (i) description (what happens), (ii) explanation (why it happens), (iii) moral evaluation (judgment), and (iv) prescription (what is to be done?).[13][14] According to Goldhagen, his Holocaust studies address questions about the political, social, and cultural particulars behind other genocides: "Who did the killing?" "What, despite temporal and cultural differences, do mass killings have in common?", which yielded Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, about the global nature of genocide, and averting such crimes against humanity.[15]


Hitler's Willing Executioners[edit]

Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) posits that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were "willing executioners" in the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent "eliminationist antisemitism" in German identity that had developed in the preceding centuries. Goldhagen argued that this form of antisemitism was widespread in Germany, that it was unique to Germany, and that because of it, ordinary Germans willingly killed Jews. Goldhagen asserted that this mentality grew out of medieval attitudes with a religious basis, but was eventually secularized.[16] Goldhagen's book was meant to be a "thick description" in the manner of Clifford Geertz.[17] As such, to prove his thesis Goldhagen focused on the behavior of ordinary Germans who killed Jews, especially the behavior of the men of Order Police (Orpo) Reserve Battalion 101 in occupied Poland in 1942 to argue ordinary Germans possessed by "eliminationist anti-Semitism" chose to willingly murder Jews in cruel and sadistic ways.[18] Scholars such as Yehuda Bauer, Otto Kulka and Israel Gutman among others had asserted before Goldhagen, the primacy of ideology, radical anti-Semitism, and the corollary of an inimitability exclusive to Germany.[19]

The book, which began as a doctoral dissertation, was written largely as a response to Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992).[20] Much of Goldhagen's book was concerned with the same Order Police battalion, but with very different conclusions.[21] On April 8, 1996, Browning and Goldhagen discussed their differences during a symposium hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.[22] Browning's book recognizes the impact of the unending campaign of antisemitic propaganda, but it takes other factors into account, such as fear of breaking ranks, desire for career advancement, a concern not to be viewed as weak, the effect of state bureaucracy,[23] battlefield conditions and peer-bonding.[21][24] Goldhagen does not acknowledge the influence of these variables. Goldhagen's book went on to win the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award in comparative politics and the Democracy Prize of the Journal for German and International Politics.[25] Time magazine reported that it was one of the two most important books of 1996,[26] and The New York Times called it "one of those rare, new works that merit the appellation 'landmark'".[27]

The book sparked controversy in the press and academic circles. Several historians characterized its reception as an extension of the Historikerstreit, the German historiographical debate of the 1980s that sought to explain Nazi history.[28] The book was a "publishing phenomenon",[29] achieving fame in both the United States and Germany despite being criticized by some historians,[30][31][32][33][34] who called it ahistorical and,[35] according to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, "totally wrong about everything" and "worthless".[36][37] Due to its alleged "generalizing hypothesis" about Germans, it has been characterized as anti-German.[38][39][40] The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer claims that "Goldhagen stumbles badly", "Goldhagen's thesis does not work",[41] and charges "... that the anti-German bias of his book, almost a racist bias (however much he may deny it), leads nowhere".[42] The American historian Fritz Stern denounced the book as unscholarly and full of racist Germanophobia.[43] Hilberg summarised the debates, "by the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map".[44]

A Moral Reckoning[edit]

In 2002, Goldhagen published A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, his account of the role of the Catholic Church before, during and after World War II. In the book, Goldhagen acknowledges that individual bishops and priests hid and saved a large number of Jews,[45] but also asserts that others promoted or accepted antisemitism before[46] and during the war,[47] and some played a direct role in the persecution of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.[48]

David Dalin and Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard criticized the book, calling it a "misuse of the Holocaust to advance [an] anti-Catholic agenda", and poor scholarship.[49] Goldhagen noted in an interview with The Atlantic, as well as in the book's introduction, that the title and the first page of the book reveal its purpose as a moral, rather than historical analysis, asserting that he has invited European Church representatives to present their own historical account in discussing morality and reparation.[50]

Worse Than War[edit]

In Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009), Goldhagen described Nazism and the Holocaust as "eliminationist assaults". He worked on the book intermittently for a decade, interviewing atrocity perpetrators and victims in Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Kenya, and the USSR, and politicians, government officers, and private humanitarian organization officers.[51] Goldhagen states that his aim is to help "craft institutions and politics that will save countless lives and also lift the lethal threat under which so many people live". He concludes that eliminationist assaults are preventable because "the world's non-mass-murdering countries are wealthy and powerful, having prodigious military capabilities (and they can band together)", whereas the perpetrator countries "are overwhelmingly poor and weak".[52][53]

The book was cinematically adapted, and the documentary film of Worse Than War was first presented in the U.S. in Aspen, Colorado, on August 6, 2009 – the sixty-fourth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.[54] In Germany, the documentary was first broadcast by the ARD television network October 18, 2009,[55] and was to be nationally broadcast by PBS in 2010.[56] Uğur Ümit Üngör criticized the title of the book, stating "Worse than war? What does that mean? If I write a book about the enormous destruction and deaths of innocent people brought about by war, could I call it Better than Genocide?"[57]

David Rieff, characterizing Goldhagen as a "pro-Israel polemicist and amateur historian", writes that the subtext of what Goldhagen deems "eliminationism" may be his own view of contemporary Islam. Rieff writes that Goldhagen's website states that the author "speaks nationally ... about Political Islam's Offensive, the threat to Israel, Hitler's Willing Executioners, the Globalization of Anti-Semitism, and more".[53] Rieff questions Goldhagen's equating the "culture of death" of Nazism with that of "political Islam", as well as Goldhagen's conclusion that, in order to prevent "eliminationism", the United Nations should be remade into an interventionist entity focusing on "a devoted international push for democratizing more countries".[53] Adam Jones, who praised this book for its fluid style and commendable passion, concludes however, that the book is undermined by a casual approach to basic research, and by the author's tendency to overreach and overstate his case.[58] The British historian David Elstein accused Goldhagen of manipulating his sources to make a false accusation of genocide against the British during the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s in Kenya.[59] Elstein wrote in his view that the chapter on Kenya left Goldhagen open "...to the charge that he is the kind of scholar who is either unaware of the facts or prefers to exclude those which do not fit his thesis".[59]

Personal life[edit]

Goldhagen has been a vegetarian since the age of 10.[60] Since 1999, Goldhagen has been married to Sarah Williams Goldhagen.

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • The Jewish Daily Forward, named to Forward 50, 2002 and 1996
  • Journal for German and International Politics Triennial Democracy Prize, 1997, with laudatio given by Jürgen Habermas.
  • National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist for Hitler's Willing Executioners, 1996
  • Time, named Hitler's Willing Executioners one of two best non-fiction books of the year, 1996
  • American Political Science Association, Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics, 1994
  • Harvard University, Sumner Dissertation Prize, 1993
  • Whiting Fellowship, 1990–1991
  • Fulbright IIE Grant for Dissertation Research, 1988–1989
  • Krupp Foundation Fellowship for Dissertation Research, 1988–1989
  • Center for European Studies Summer Research Grant, 1987
  • Jacob Javits Fellowship 1996–1988, 1989–1990
  • Harvard College, Philo Sherman Bennett Thesis Prize, 1982
  • German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) Fellowship, 1979–1980

Selected works[edit]

  • 1989: "False Witness", The New Republic, April 17, 1989, Volume 200, No. 16, Issue # 3, pp. 39–44
  • 1996: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISBN 978-0-679-44695-8
  • 2002: A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISBN 978-0-375-41434-3
  • 2009: Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault On Humanity, PublicAffairs, New York, ISBN 978-1-58648-769-0
  • 2013: The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism


  1. ^ U.S. Public Records Index Vol 1 & 2 (Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc.), 2010.
  2. ^ Benhorin, Yitzhak (July 31, 2012). "Report: Rise in global anti-Semitism". Ynetnews. Retrieved May 30, 2018.
  3. ^ Goldberg, Jeffrey (October 11, 2013). "Jonah Goldhagen's Devil That Never Dies". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b c d Smith, Dinita (April 1, 1996). "Challenging a View of the Holocaust". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  5. ^ "The New Republic Masthead". Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  6. ^ a b Goldhagen, Daniel (1997). Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust. Alfred A. Knopf.
  7. ^ Ruber, Deborah Bradley (January 9, 1997). "Goldhagen Wins German Prize For Holocaust Book". The Harvard University Gazette. Archived from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  8. ^ "Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Website". Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  9. ^ Carl F. Lankowski, ed. (August 1999). Breakdown, Breakup, Breakthrough: Germany's Difficult Passage To Modernity. Berghahn Books, Incorporated. ISBN 978-1-57181-211-7.
  10. ^ a b Guttenplan, D. D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: Norton, 2001 p. 74. ISBN 0393346056.
  11. ^ a b c d Goldhagen, Daniel. "False Witness," The New Republic, April 17, 1989 pp. 39-43.
  12. ^ Dawidowicz, Lucy, "Perversions of the Holocaust", pp. 56–60, from Commentary, vol. 88, no. 4, October 1989, p. 58.
  13. ^ Goldhagen, Daniel (2002). A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church In The Holocaust And Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-375-41434-3.
  14. ^ Goldhagen, Daniel (October 2009). Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. New York: Public Affairs. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-58648-769-0.
  15. ^ Goldhagen, Daniel (October 2009). Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. New York: Public Affairs. p. 631. ISBN 978-1-58648-769-0.
  16. ^ Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah (1996). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust. Alfred A Knopf, p. 53.
  17. ^ Clendinnean, Inga (1999). Reading the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 117.
  18. ^ Clendinnean, Inga (1999). Reading the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 115–117.
  19. ^ Bauer, Yehuda (January–April 1997). "On Perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Public Discourse". The Jewish Quarterly Review. New Series. 87 (3/4): 345. doi:10.2307/1455190. JSTOR 1455190.
  20. ^ Hilberg, Raul (Summer 1997). "The Goldhagen Phenomenon". Critical Inquiry. 23 (4): 721–722 (721–728). doi:10.1086/448851. JSTOR 1344046. S2CID 161718990.
  21. ^ a b Bauer, Yehuda (2002). Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 107.
  22. ^ "The 'Willing Executioners'/'Ordinary Men' Debate". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, selections from the symposium of April 8, 1996.
  23. ^ Stern, Fritz (November–December 1996). "The Goldhagen Controversy: One Nation, One People, One Theory?". Foreign Affairs. 75 (6): 134–135. doi:10.2307/20047834. JSTOR 20047834.
  24. ^ Browning, Christopher (1992). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 195–201. ISBN 978-0060995065.
  25. ^ Harvard Office of News and Public Affairs (January 9, 1997). "Harvard Gazette". News.harvard.edu. Retrieved August 26, 2012.
  26. ^ "Books: The Best Books of 1996". Time. December 23, 1996. Archived from the original on January 10, 2007.
  27. ^ Bernstein, Richard (March 9, 1997). "Was Slaughter of Jews Embraced by Germans?". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  28. ^ Donat, Helmut (1991). "Auschwitz erst möglich gemacht?": Überlegungen zur jüngsten konservativen Geschichtsbewältigung. Bremen: Umbruch Verlag & Versandantiquariat. ISBN 9783924444396.
  29. ^ Crawshaw, Steve (2004). Easier fatherland. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 136–137. ISBN 978-0-8264-6320-3.
  30. ^ Shatz, Adam. (April 8, 1998) Goldhagen's willing executioners: the attack on a scholarly superstar, and how he fights back Slate. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  31. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship : Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation London : Arnold 2000, pp. 254–256.
  32. ^ "The Past Distorted: The Goldhagen Controversy" in Einstein's German World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 272–288.
  33. ^ Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship : Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation London: Arnold 2000, p. 255.
  34. ^ "The Goldhagen Controversy: Agonising Problems, Scholarly Failure, and the Political Dimension", in German History, vol. 15, 1997, pp. 80–91.
  35. ^ "Ordinary People?" National Review, vol. 48 no. # 12, July 1, 1996, pp. 54–56.
  36. ^ "RAUL HILBERG – IS THERE A NEW ANTI-SEMITISM? A CONVERSATION WITH RAUL HILBERG – LOGOS 6.1–2 WINTER-SPRING 2007". Logosjournal.com. Archived from the original on April 7, 2012. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  37. ^ http://web.ceu.hu/jewishstudies/pdf/01_kwiet.pdf Archived October 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine [bare URL PDF]
  38. ^ Bill Niven, William John Niven. Facing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich. 2004, p. 116
  39. ^ Robert R. Shandley. Unwilling Germans?: the Goldhagen debate. 1998, p. 17
  40. ^ Paul Gottfried. Multiculturalism and the politics of guilt. 2004, p. 94
  41. ^ Bauer 2000, p. 100.
  42. ^ Bauer 2000, p. 108.
  43. ^ Stern, Fritz (1999). "The Goldhagen Controversy: The Past Distorted", in: Einstein's German World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 272–288. ISBN 0-691-05939-X
  44. ^ Hilberg 1997, p. 725.
  45. ^ Goldhagen 2002, pp. 50–51.
  46. ^ Goldhagen 2002, p. 226.
  47. ^ Goldhagen 2002, p. 227.
  48. ^ Goldhagen 2002, p. 60.
  49. ^ "The Usefulness of Daniel Goldhagen" Archived February 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine The Weekly Standard, October 23, 2002
  50. ^ Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. (January 31, 2003) The Guilt of the Church. The Atlantic. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  51. ^ Mike Hale (April 13, 2010). "A Fiery Scholar on the Trail of Genocide and Its Causes". The New York Times. Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  52. ^ Worse than War, p. 658
  53. ^ a b c David Rieff (October 28, 2009). "The Willing Misinterpreter". The National Interest. Archived from the original on November 18, 2018. Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  54. ^ "Worse Than War Screening". Clal. Archived from the original on July 29, 2012. Retrieved October 3, 2009.
  55. ^ "ARD Program Guide for October 18, 2009". Retrieved October 2, 2009.
  56. ^ "PBS International: Worse Than War Documentary". Retrieved October 3, 2009.
  57. ^ "The comparison of genocides: An interview with historian Ugur Ümit Üngör". www.eurozine.com. July 7, 2011. Retrieved December 3, 2020.
  58. ^ Adam Jones' book reviews, Journal of Genocide Research (2010), 12:3–4, pp. 271–278
  59. ^ a b Elstein, David (March 4, 2010). "Daniel Goldhagen and Kenya: recycling fantasy". Open Democracy. Archived from the original on December 15, 2018. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
  60. ^ Frangos, Alex (February 26, 2004). "Carni-Fuhrer". Slate. Archived from the original on October 15, 2018. Retrieved October 26, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eley, Geoff (ed.) The Goldhagen Effect: History, Memory, Nazism—Facing the German Past. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-472-06752-7.
  • Feldkamp, Michael F. Goldhagens unwillige Kirche. Alte und neue Fälschungen über Kirche und Papst während der NS-Herrschaft. München: Olzog-Verlag, 2003. ISBN 978-3-7892-8127-3
  • Finkelstein, Norman & Birn, Ruth Bettina. A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. ISBN 978-0-8050-5871-0
  • Kwiet, Konrad: "‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ and ‘Ordinary Germans’: Some Comments on Goldhagen’s Ideas Archived October 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine". Jewish Studies Yearbook 1 (2000).
  • LaCapra, Dominick. "Perpetrators and Victims: The Goldhagen Debate and Beyond", in LaCapra, D. Writing History, Writing Trauma Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, 114–140.
  • Mommsen, Hans, Podium discussion, Die Deutschen – Ein Volk von Tätern?: Zur historisch-politischen Debatte um das Buch von Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, 'Hitlers willige Vollstrecker', ed. Dieter Dowe (Bonn, 1996), 73. In "Structure and Agency in the Holocaust: Daniel J. Goldhagen and His Critics" by A. D. Moses, History and Theory 37, no. 2 (May 1998): 197.
  • Pohl, Dieter. "Die Holocaust-Forschung und Goldhagens Thesen", Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 45 (1997).
  • Rychlak, Ronald. "Goldhagen vs. Pius XII" First Things (June/July 2002)
  • Shandley, Robert & Riemer, Jeremiah (eds.) Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0-8166-3101-8
  • Stern, Fritz. "The Goldhagen Controversy: The Past Distorted" in Einstein's German World, 272–288. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-691-05939-6
  • Wesley, Frank. The Holocaust and Anti-semitism: the Goldhagen Argument and Its Effects. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1999. ISBN 978-1-57309-235-7
  • The "Willing Executioners/Ordinary Men" Debate: Selections from the Symposium, April 8, 1996, introduced by Michael Berenbaum (Washington, D.C.: USHMM, 2001).

External links[edit]