By Norbert Elias
Columbia University Press -- 494pp -- $35
HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS
Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Knopf -- 622pp -- $30
Like much in the life of the great German-Jewish scholar Norbert Elias, the English translation of his final book was long delayed. Now that it is finally here as The Germans, it proves well worth the seven-year wait.
Elias, who died in 1990 at 93, was admired for his original mind and striking insight into European cultures. But recognition was a long time coming despite his brilliant accomplishments at the Universities of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), Heidelberg, and Frankfurt. Elias' academic career in Germany ended with the Nazi accession to power in 1933, when he fled to Paris. (His mother would perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.) In 1935, he found himself in London with little English and even fewer prospects. There, on a small grant from a Jewish refugee organization, he toiled to complete the work that was to make him famous: The Civilizing Process, published in Switzerland in 1939. In it, he traced the development of civilized manners and personality in Western Europe so innovatively that the study of their impact on the formation and development of states became known as "process sociology," echoing the title of the book.
But his work remained largely unknown until its republication in 1969, when Elias was already over 70. Meanwhile, Elias continued to bloom late. For many years, he made a meager living on the fringes of British academic life, until, only eight years prior to retirement age, he landed a teaching post at the University of Leicester.
For all practical purposes, The Germans is a mirror image of The Civilizing Process: a miscellany of essays, papers, and lectures extracting lessons about the process of decivilization from the German experience. A 100-page chapter, "The Breakdown of Civilization," written at the time of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, forms the backbone of the book. In it, Elias hammers away at his central thesis: The Nazis displayed "tendencies of acting and thinking which also can be found elsewhere."
He observed that many people perceived the Nazis as "a cancerous growth on the body of civilized societies, [whose] deeds were those of people who were more or less mentally ill, rooted in the irrational hatred of Jews by people who were particularly wicked and immoral or perhaps [rooted] in specific German traditions and character traits." On the contrary, he asserted: "Explanations such as these shield people from the painful thought that such things could happen again."
So what's his explanation? He argues that the "exceptionally disturbed," long-term development of Germany was key, especially the romantic idealization of the long-lost glory days when German emperors ruled the Holy Roman Empire. After that, everything was strictly downhill, with foreign armies sweeping across Germany for centuries. Then, the aristocracy's total dominance of public affairs--including unification of the German states through warfare--stunted political awareness right up to the collapse of the Kaiser's Reich in 1918.
Into this vacuum there marched a gifted charlatan, Adolf Hitler, who furiously denied that the widely held dream of regaining the greatness of Charlemagne's empire was lost forever. The pursuit of that goal justified anything, including the elimination of minorities as potential enemies. These developments may be specific to Germany's past--but such nationalistic yearnings are far from unique, he indicates.
Such a dispassionate view of the murder of 6 million Jews may seem heartless, especially from the son of one of the victims. But Elias anticipates and defuses that objection: "Explanations of the same type as cultivated by the Nazis--that something in the `nature' of the Germans, a racial or biological inheritance, was responsible for the course of events--can be discounted as fantasy-constructs."
It's precisely this racial argument, however, that distinguishes Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. He makes the case that the anti-Semitism that moved many thousands of ordinary Germans to slaughter Jews "would have moved millions more had they been appropriately positioned." Extrapolating from the fact that police and other agents of genocide were composed of average Germans, he asserts that in their place, other Germans would also have acted on an ingrained tendency to kill Jews. This is a thesis that can, of course, neither be proved nor disproved.
Goldhagen, 36--about the same age as Elias when he fled from the Nazis--teaches social studies at Harvard University and is the son of a Holocaust survivor. His publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has promoted his book as a breakthrough in Holocaust studies. That approach backfired during a symposium on the book held in April at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, when Konrad Zwiet, senior scholar in residence at the museum's research institute, attacked Goldhagen and dismissed his book as "worthless overhype" and its hypothesis as unproven. That was mild compared to the disdain displayed by Yehuda Bauer, 80, dean of world Holocaust scholars, who lectured Goldhagen by quoting from Proverbs: "Let others laud you, not your own self." Perhaps Goldhagen should reflect on the example of Norbert Elias--and his hard-won reputation.